Talk about a Cinderella story. At 17 years old, Tommy James of Michigan was a high-school senior, already married with a baby, working in a record store, and failing miserably to get his band, The Shondells, off the ground after a recording a single.
Two years later, a Pittsburgh club promoter finds a copy of that 45 in a cutout bin and begins spinning the tune - an infectious but throwaway ditty called "Hanky Panky."
And voila - 80,000 bootleg copies are sold in the region, and James (who has to find new Shondells) quickly becomes a national pop superstar who eventually moves more than 100 million records with a string of hits ("I Think We're Alone Now," "Mony, Mony," "Crimson and Clover," "Crystal Blue Persuasion").
Later, of course, two of those numbers are big all over again when covered by Billy Idol and Tiffany - in the same year!
In this slim memoir, James mostly tells tales of his '60s heyday. The "mob" in the title isn't referring to the hordes of screaming teenage girls he often plays before, but Morris Levy, the head of Roulette Records and notorious "godfather" of the record industry with very close ties to the Genovese crime family.
A fascinating story in his own right, the profane Levy would go to any lengths to protect his artists and business interests, (of which Tommy James was both), wielding either a contract or a baseball bat. But he was a greedy sonofabitch. At one point, Levy lists his son as a song's cowriter in order to get a bigger share of the publishing royalties. The fact that the younger Levy was in kindergarten at the time, however, doesn't seem to phase anyone.
Levy also often conveniently forgets to pay his employees. By the early '70s, James figures that Levy owed more than $40 million to him in unpaid royalties and salary. And when the Genovese and Gambino crime families go to war, a lot of bent-nose types hanging around Roulette end up dead or disappeared - and Tommy James is looking over his shoulder, anticipating a hit that has nothing to do with rankings in Billboard
It's difficult to feel sorry for Tommy James, though. For while he knows he's being taken advantage of, he remains a remarkably passive observer to his own life and career, and can never bring himself to confront Levy until way later (years earlier, when some of the original Shondells complain about not being paid, James simply fires them). His pattern of finding a woman, marrying her, cheating on her, marrying the mistress and repeating doesn't do his rep any favors, either.
As the '60s turned to the '70s and music got heavier, James didn't make the transition, and was often lost in a maelstrom of booze, pills and pot. Offered a chance to play Woodstock, James' managers turn it down. They tell him "Who wants to play a pig farm in upstate New York?"
James eventually becomes a born-again Christian, and today continues to release records and play shows. And while Me, the Mob, and the Music
is hardly the most compelling or insightful classic rock memoir of recent years, it's a breezy read for fans of Tommy James, '60s pop-rock and Jewish gangsters.
Scribner, 240 pp. $25.