Monday, June 14, 2010

Tommy James: A Great Read, A Wild Ride

Since the beginning of recorded music, record companies have been cheating their artists out of royalties, none have been so blatant as Morris Levy owner of Roulette Records. Tommy James was the biggest selling artist on Roulette. He had 23 gold singles and nine gold and platinum records. He never saw a dime until Rhino Records reissued his catalog years later. Tommy to this day says there would be no Tommy James (real last name Jackson) without Morris. He was a tireless promoter who left Tommy to his own creative devices to make the records he wanted to make. No creative interference = no royalties. As an outsider looking in, it seems like Tommy's success stemmed from the way business was done at Roulette. Tommy mentions that he dealt directly with Morris and the label staff was very small. Things got done immediately. He didn't have days of meetings and decisions by committee which may have watered down his creative juices and delayed recordings. He let him record with the players he wanted and write with the writers he wanted. He would of course make sure that he got a piece, if not all of the publishing.

Morris was tied in with the Genovese crime family and it's the underlying, hushed reason why Morris got what he wanted, including Tommy James signed to his label, keeping the publishing when it wasn't his and never paying royalties. Morris is a main character in Tommy James' candid biography Me, The Mob and The Music. It covers his life in the music business and was written with Martin Fitzpatrick. The tales of Morris alone are worth the read. He started off by running concessions and coat checks at famous NY clubs and then transformed that into buying the clubs. He owned Birdland.

For me, the little facts that pop up here and there were of great interest.

- Whitey Ford (yes the Yankee HOF pitcher) was a co-owner of a recording studio called Broadway Sound that had one of the first Moog synthesizes, which James uses.

-The first band Linda Eastman McCartney photographed was TJ and The Shondells

-A Flamenco guitar can be found on Crystal Blue Persuasion

-Hubert Humphrey wrote the liner notes for the Crimson and Clover album. (I still have the single, but did not buy the album. It turns out that I was not alone in thinking the lyrics were Christmas is Over. The single was released in November. The timing was there.)

-Crimson and Clover had to be released in it's rough mix version. The story is classic.

-Hanky Panky, James' first single was found by a DJ in Pittsburgh who proceeded to burn his own copies and release it after it started getting local airplay. He sold 80,000 copies on his own label without James' blessing.

-Trade magazines such as Cash Box and Billboard all reported sales and airplay differently. Before Soundscan, a label could manipulate the charts to some extent.

-Shelly Winters was a drunk

James seemed to be ok with Morris guiding his career. He hated that he had to grovel to get money to pay his musicians, but there was a level of safety in knowing Morris would take care of everything. Morris would send him off with a $10,000 check after some office visits. Tommy does not shy away from his drug and infidelity problems (married at 17 with a son on the way-early in the book we lose track of these two, only to hear about his divorce or infrequent visits).

There are some details about the recordings of the records, but it would have been great to dig deep. In one sentence he mentions the teen magazine promotions. I would love to hear the details. Were those real? Teen Beat, etc would have cover headlines "Win a Date With Tommy James", "Your night with Davey Jones". I always wondered if anyone won those contests and if so, what happened. If James was ingesting prescription pills at the rates he writes about, I imagine it would be hard to recollect a lot of what when on. Many people are credited with helping him remember his stories.

Me, The Mob and The Music is a quick, interesting read. You don't have to be a Tommy James fan to enjoy this book. The stories will pull you in. It's already been optioned for a film.

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