Book Review: Me, the Mob, and the Music by Tommy James
As some of you may have gathered from the number of blogs I have posted lately I am on vacation at the moment, which means that I get to catch up on two of my favorite things: music and reading. Even better is when the two intersect. (As a side note, I probably will not be online at all next week as I will be having a great time in Florida; and yes of course I will be taking some of my favorite music with me and even another book I may review here eventually once I finish it: a novel I found in a used book store on the subject of the Apostle Paul written by the one and only Johnny Cash. I know novels aren’t usually reviewed here, but I figured for this particular author I may make an exception. And speaking of Cash, I guess you could say that “I’m goin’ down to Florida to get some sand in my shoes,” although that song dates back to well before Cash’s version in 1965.) But what was I saying before I got a little weird, a little of subject, and way ahead of myself? I guess maybe what I should do is stop rambling on and on about my personal life and tell you instead why I chose to read a book by what many consider a second or even third-rate sixties pop star and whether or not you should do the same.
First, though, many people believe the latter part of the 1960s to be the greatest period in American music. But I must respectfully disagree. The whole decade was the greatest, not just the post-British Invasion years. In the early part of the decade we had guys like Ricky Nelson, Roy Orbison, and Del Shannon were keeping the spirit of rock and roll alive. Sam Cooke, the Drifters, and countless others were creating some of the best R&B records of all time while things were still just getting underway at Motown. The Beach Boys, Jan & Dean, and Dick Dale summed up the entire southern California culture in pop records clocking in at less than three minutes. In country music, Merle Haggard and Buck Owens popularized the “Bakersfield sound”. Phil Ochs Ochs, Joan Baez, and Bob Dylan (to name just a few) created some absolutely essential folk albums. And Phil Spector was revolutionizing the entire industry. Then when the Beatles came that opened up the doors for everybody and we had great acts as diverse as the Kinks, Led Zeppelin, the Flying Burrito Brothers, the Doors, Captain Beefheart, the Grateful Dead, the Jimi Hendrix Experience, CCR. I could go on forever, but it would be pointless. You all know what I’m talking about. Not to mention that the King managed to reclaim his throne in the last two years of the decade. And in the midst of all of this, one of the most popular acts was Tommy James & the Shondells.
Now I know what you are all thinking: can there possibly be any value in the music of a man who complains in his memoirs that the producers who invented “bubblegum pop” ripped off his sound? Let alone any value in said memoirs? Well, I’ll try to answer that for you.
The book begins with his birth in Dayton, Ohio in 1947 and quickly moves to his first memories of music when he had control of a barroom jukebox in a hotel his parents managed. After seeing Elvis on The Ed Sullivan Show he got his first guitar and appeared on a local TV talent show, getting the second prize. Upon moving to Niles, Michigan as a teenager he formed his first band and began playing around bars throughout the area. A few years later, when James is 16 an incarnation of that band records a tune called “Hanky Panky” and the rest is history. Or so you think.
It wasn’t exactly an overnight success. James, 18, continued working at his hometown record store and touring in various bands. The Shondells had broken up and he now had a wife and child to take care of. In the meantime, the record had made its way into a Pittsburgh bargain bin where a local DJ found it and played it at a dance. And now the rest is history.
The rest of the book details life on the road and in the studio, James’ penchant for pills and guns, his time palling around with Presidential candidate Hubert Humphrey at over 50 campaign stops, and his refusal to play at a New York “pig farm” in 1969. James doesn’t always paint himself in a positive light. He readily admits to destroying his first two marriages and, perhaps worse in a musical sense, admits that on at least two occasions he “stole” songs that had been written for others to record. He admits to all of this and more and at one time even says that at that period of his life he was a “raging asshole”. All in all, it’s your typical rock star autobiography, but what is that about the mob in the title?
James’ first record deal came in 1966 from Roulette Records, an independent label ran my Morris Levy, known as the “Godfather of rock and roll”. In the book James tells of various encounters with Levy and his “associates”, including when James had to take cover in Nashville for six months to avoid being the target of an assassination (while there he recorded an album with some of Nashville’s best musicians). These stories are the most interesting parts of the book, but there are far too few of them. (Levy was eventually convicted of extortion charges in the late ’80s).
Would I recommend this book? Not for everybody or even most people. In addition to being, apart from a few pages, a rather typical rock star memoir it is also rather poorly written with paragraphs that seem to go on forever. But I understand that James does not write books for a living, so he can be forgiven for that especially since he does manage a nice conversational tone throughout. Many people aren’t going to find much here that interests them, but assuming you are as big as ’60s music aficionado as I am it may be worth your time.
Which brings us to the music. The Shondells were definitely singles artists in every sense. With the exceptions of Cellophane Symphony and My Head, My Bed and My Red Guitar James never created anything near a great album. And yes, I suppose most of the hit singles were just pop songs when it comes right down to it. But back then some of the best acts were mostly singles artists (Elvis Presley comes to mind) and even pop was good most of the time and therefore, he does not belong in the same conversation as pop stars like Miley Cyrus or Lady Gaga. You may dismiss his music as the forerunner of bubblegum or otherwise put it down, but I’m guessing that if you heard one of his tunes on the radio (as you still do occasionally) you would probably sing along to it and maybe even get it stuck in your head for most of the day. And those who think he didn’t create music much more significant than the Partridge Family obviously hasn’t heard the album version of “Crimson and Clover”, which I would rank as one of the best of that or any other decade.
As it states in the book, he was equally respected by the “teenybopper” crowd and the hippies which was a feat very few could pull off. He may not be one of the greatest artists of the decade, but he did record some great songs and for that his music deserves to live on.
Crimson And Clover (album version) by Tommy James & the Shondells