Tommy James, 62, never forgets his Niles roots, as evident in his first book.
Tommy James, 62, never forgets his Niles roots, as evident in his first book.

Archived Story

Niles’ Tommy James releases biography Shondells frontman to be honored at state capitol

Published 9:09am Wednesday, April 28, 2010

By AARON MUELLER
Niles Daily Star

Legendary rocker Tommy James is no stranger to success. With more than 100 million records sold, 23 gold singles and nine gold and platinum albums, the Niles native, best known as the frontman for Tommy James and the Shondells, truly has impacted the pop music industry.

But even that success hasn’t fully prepared James for the whirlwind that has hit since his autobiography “Me, the Mob and the Music” was released in February.

“It’s been an incredible response,” James said in a phone interview from New York City. “I’m overwhelmed as a first-time author.”

The book has generated so much excitement that a movie “with an all-star cast” is on the way next year with a Broadway show also in the works.

James said he always knew the impact of song but is now learning what can come from the written word.

“I’m so flipped out that the book has generated this kind of steam,” he said of the book that took him eight years to complete.

The first third of the book chronicles his life as a young musician in Niles with much of the remainder being a tell-all story about his relationship with the “godfather” of the record industry, Morris Levy, and Roulette records.

“He was tied to a Genovese crime family in New York,” James said. “But we learned that incrementally. The essence of the book is this very dark, dangerous relationship with Roulette, while we’re trying to have a career in the pop music business.”

James claims that Levy withheld tens of millions of dollars in royalties from him over the course of his career.

“We got ripped off a lot of money,” he said. “I constantly had to weigh these realities. Do I rock the boat and try to get out of Roulette or stay with the success there?”

Still James credits Levy as a huge factor in his success.

“I can’t really say I’m sorry we were with Roulette,” James said. “They were a functioning record company. We were allowed to become whoever we could be. Every time I go to say something negative about Morris, my conscience bothers me, because without Morris Levy there wouldn’t have been a Tommy James.”

“It was truly a love-hate relationship,” he continued. “We lived this odd couple story, and in the end it ended up in a real war. I was lucky to get out of there in one piece.”

Much of the upcoming movie will focus on that relationship between James and Levy, who passed away in 1990.

“Morris made me a star. Now we’ll make him one,” James said with a laugh.

The book also looks at James’ early days as a 12-year-old performing with his band “The Tornadoes” at various venues in Niles, including his first gig at a school variety show.

“My stomach was in my throat,” James writes about his first performance. “But once we felt the audience responding, we became more relaxed, and by the end of the song, we were actually having fun.”

James also worked at Spin-It Record Shop, where he “learned things that I still use to this day.”

Niles is also where James in 1964 recorded his first hit “Hanky Panky,” which enjoyed great local success but didn’t receive any airplay in big cities in the Midwest like Detroit or Chicago. It was a forgotten song for about two years.

But after a tour ended disappointingly with a closed venue in Janesville, Wis., James came back to Niles and received a phone call from Pittsburgh.

“Hanky Panky” was No. 1 on the charts in the city, sparking his music career on the national level.

“We had slumped back to Niles (after the tour). We were just depressed,” James said. “But that’s how the good Lord works. If that club hadn’t closed, I would never have gotten the ‘Hanky Panky’ call.”

Soon after, every record mogul in New York was going after James. When he arrived, all the companies strangely pulled out.

James later found out Levy had called all the other record companies and essentially said, “back off, this is my record.” He had little choice but to sign on the dotted line with Levy, who promised him “one helluva ride.”

Since James embraced the bright lights of New York City and launched a 40-plus year music career, he hasn’t forgotten his roots.

“I really get excited when we drive through Niles,” he said. “It was a wonderful place to grow up. I still have a home there. I have maintained a lot of friendships.”

James, who turns 63 on Thursday, is still performing to this day, 44 years after his big break – an incredible feat in the fickle pop music industry.

“The fans have been so good and the good Lord,” James said. “I’m just flattered and honored that we’re still doing this … in a business that gives you two to three years, if you’re lucky.  I’ll be performing and see three generations of people in the crowd.”

The Skinny
“Me, the Mob and the Music: One Helluva Ride with Tommy James and the Shondells”
Author: Tommy James and Martin Fitzpatrick
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Inc.
Price: $25 hardcover
Tommy’s Web site:  www.tommyjames.com

Michigan Man
Tommy James will be honored as a “favorite son” by the Michigan Senate on May 25 at the state capitol. He is also looking forward to returning to Niles for a class reunion in August.

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  • MichiganDutchman

    Interesting…“I really get excited when we drive through Niles.” Wonder if he ever stops? Is this the same Tommy James whose response to Ed Sullivan’s comment that “You’re from Niles, Michigan,” responded with, “Yeah…sorry about that.”?

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