The ‘Hanky Panky’ That Went On at a Legendary Record Label
How Cedar Grove resident and rock legend Tommy James sold millions of records … and lost millions of dollars at Roulette Records.
When I was a little girl I’d spend hours playing records on the turntable.
One of my favorite songs was “Crystal Blue Persuasion” by Tommy James and the Shondells. The peaceful song comforted me as I watched the famous, mesmerizing orange and tangerine colored Roulette record label spin around and around as the tune played. Sometimes I’d put little plastic farm animals on the record label and watch them spin around. A picture of innocence, right?
But little did I (or James’s millions of fans) know that very label was run by the mob and cheated James out of at least 30 million dollars! Morris Levy, known as “the Godfather of the music business,” had James under his thumb throughout the heyday of Tommy James and the Shondells.
James, a long-time resident of Cedar Grove, shares the “dangerous and tumultuous” story in his new autobiography “Me, the Mob and the Music,” co-written with Martin Fitzpatrick. He also shared some juicy tidbits with me in a recent interview.
“I don’t know why the good Lord decided to bless me with these people,” James said. “When I look at the situation I have mixed feelings. On one hand doing business was a disaster, if you pushed too hard you could end up dead.”
James shared the story of Jimmie Rodgers, a young star with the Roulette Label in the 1950s, known for his hit “Honeycomb.” Rodgers had a payment dispute with Roulette and was mysteriously beaten unconscious in 1967 on an L.A. freeway. Rodgers was beaten so badly he had to have three brain surgeries. Doctors reconstructed his skull with a 20-inch plate.
During an argument with Levy over unpaid royalties of his own, James asked him, “What are you going to do? Beat my brains out like you did to Jimmie Rodgers?”
When Tommy James and the Shondells hit big time with “Hanky Panky”, so many of the big record labels were interested, but one by one they pulled out. The reason? Levy called all the other record companies telling them to “back off.”
“He intimidated everybody,” James said.
Even though the relationship with Levy was disastrous from a creative standpoint, Roulette gave the Shondells everything, according to James.
“If we went with a corporate label, we would have been a one hit wonder, lost in the numbers … that’s the last time they would have heard from us," he said. "At Roulette they needed us very badly to make records, and put a creative team together. If it wasn’t for Morris Levy, there wouldn’t be a Tommy James.”
As the leader of the Shondells, James sold more than 100 million records and had been awarded 23 gold singles and nine gold and platinum albums. His songs were used in television and film and have been covered by Joan Jett, Billy Idol, Prince, Tiffany, Tom Jones and R.E.M. – to name a few – and James said he’s very flattered and very honored about all the different versions.
Originally titled, “Crimson and Clover,” this book has been in the making for eight years. It was written a third of the way when James realized he’d be cheating himself and his fans if he didn’t tell the entire story. “I was very uncomfortable [writing the book] back then,” James said. “Some of these guys were walking around ‘til 2005”
James said he was very flattered that the book was picked up by Simon & Schuster. And as soon as the book came out, calls for movies rights poured in. “I didn’t know you could create that much havoc with a book,” James said. “It’s so much more complicated than anything I’ve ever done before. It’s therapeutic.”
The movie will take a couple of years to complete, but there will be a musical out first. “I don’t know who’s going to play Tommy James,” James said. “I’m too old.”
The Nederlander Family and Jeff Davis, known for “Rock of Ages” on Broadway, have their hands in the pot for the musical. “It’s going to be a wonderful production,” said James, who will be a technical advisor.
When I asked James what it was like to still be in his sixties and still in the music business, he said, “I had the same job since I was twelve-years-old. It’s like being a sixty-year-old paper boy. This is a business that gives you two or three years. We’ve been doing it 40-plus. Rock ‘n’ roll keeps you a kid for a long time.”
A paperback version of “Me, the Mob and the Music” comes out February 12.
Tommy James is performing at the Scottish Rite Auditorium in Collingswood on Saturday, Jan. 29. For more information go to: https://www.tommyjames.com/
Contact Mary Anne Christiano at: MaryAnneChristiano@Gmail.com