Tommy James and the Shondells turned out hit after hit in the 1960s. But James saw very little of the royalties generated by sales of his records. That money was controlled by crime boss Morris Levy, who signed a teenage James to a deal with his Roulette Records in 1966. The band went on to release two #1 records and a dozen Top 40 singles over the next 5 years.
But Levy was notorious for non-payment of debts including tens of millions of royalties owed to James. James was forced to earn his money through constant touring and profited very little off the sale of his records.
Despite this betrayal, James and Levy maintained a close relationship throughout much of their lives. Levy was excellent at promoting James's music and James enjoyed a great deal of artistic freedom as Roulette's biggest star. James's career also benefited from Levy's strong-arm tactics: He would often bully songwriters into saving their best work for his artists.
Me, the Mob, and the Music: One Helluva Ride with Tommy James and the Shondells is Tommy James's story of life in the spotlight. It contains the usual anecdotes about women and booze and drugs that seem to be part of every rocker's life. But these stories are secondary to his interactions with Roulette and Levy.
The story climaxes in a gang war that sees Levy fleeing the country and James fearing for his life.
One wonders why James continued his relationship with Levy when he was treated so unfairly. Did he feel it was unsafe for him to leave? Was he a victim of Stockholm Syndrome? Did the career advantages of associating with Roulette outweighed the financial disadvantages?
One wonders if the corruption at Roulette was a microcosm of the corruption in the entire music industry in the 1960s; and if that corruption continues today.
One wonders if Tommy James ever received all the royalties he was due.
Despite the unanswered questions, this book was an enjoyable read about an unlikely hitmaker and his adventures with the underbelly of the industry.