Me, The Mob and The Music is more than just a typical artist’s autobiography. At the core of this spellbinding story is the tenuous relationship between Tommy James and Roulette Records owner Morris Levy. In addition to being a label head, Levy was also a heavily connected mobster who would use fear and violence to get ahead in the industry. James’ astronomical success would seem to be every aspiring musician’s dream, but the reality was far more sinister. Although not destitute, Levy prevented James from ever collecting the money he’d generated from a string of hits (including staples “I Think We’re Alone Now”, “Mony Mony” and “Hanky Panky”) rivaled only by The Beatles. It only takes a few chapters before you feel genuine sympathy for Tommy James, who spent most of his prime writing, recording and anything else that would make money for his label; leading him down the inevitable rock’n’roll path of excess – in this case, pills and booze. The situation finally came to a head in the early-1970s when Levy fled to Spain during a mob war, leaving his mob rivals no other option but to go after the source of Levy’s wealth: Tommy James. James split for Nashville and quit Roulette Records soon after. All said and done, Levy had deprived James of an estimated $30-$40,000,000 during their time together. The last of the big-time players at the label passed away in 2005, leaving James free to tell the story without the fear of retaliation. The book, co-written by James and Martin Fitzpatrick, is a compulsively good read that begs for a film adaptation (one is in development, along with a stage adaptation). The writing is straightforward and very easy to digest. My only complaint is that it isn’t longer (and that The Standells are mistakenly listed as being from Boston).
By the end of the 1960s even bubblegum bands were diving head-first into psychedelia, and hit-makers Tommy James & The Shondells (“I Saw Her Standing There” “Mony Mony”) were as eager to experiment as anyone else. Perhaps the results of that experimentation (collected here from the Crimson And Clover and Cellophane Symphony albums – both from 1969) aren’t as mind-blowing as Hendrix, Floyd and other psychedelic pioneers but it’s a nice mix of bubblegum pop and psychedelic sounds. Crimson and Clover is the better album of the two, with a few timeless classics that still sound great today (“Crimson And Clover”, “Crystal Blue Persuasion”), and a few other songs that could just as easily have been hits. “Kathleen McArthur” is a slice of pretty baroque pop that The Zombies or Simon and Garfunkel might have put out. “Do Something To Me”, “Smokey Roads” and “Sugar on Sunday” are bubblegum rock, but the light-hearted nature of the songs doesn’t take away from the solid song-craft and sharp production, done by James himself. Elsewhere, the band gets edgier than you’d expect on the Love-esque “I’m Alive”, garage-rocker “Breakaway”, and the Sgt. Pepper-influenced fuzz-psych number “I Am A Tangerine”.
With a #1 hit single on their hands (“Crimson and Clover”), the band were rushed back into the studio to record a follow-up album. Cellophane Symphony, released just nine months later, sounds rushed, and suffers for it, with the band simultaneously trying to capitalize on Crimson and Clover (the same studio effects resurface several times) while also trying to capture the peace-and-love vibe of the moment (especially on the subtle protest song “Sweet Cherry Wine”). There’s some good material like “Changes” and “I Know Who I Am”, but too many songs have aged poorly like the music-hall number “Papa Rolled His Own”, the maudlin affectations of “The Love Of A Woman”, and the annoyingly hokey “On Behalf Of The Entire Staff and Management”.