The Peculiar Truth about the Pop Star & the Mobster
- Tommy James and the Shondells had several hit records in the 1960s and early 70s, including Crimson and Clover, I Think We’re Alone Now, Mony Mony, Draggin’ the Line, and Crystal Blue Persuasion.
- Their stripped-down easy-listening pop/rock sound made them radio sensations.
- They appeared on an obscure label, Roulette Records.
- When Tommy James, the group’s leader and front man, was 19 years old, he released an indie single that became a surprise hit — Hanky Panky (“My baby does the hanky panky…”).
- After that, every major record label in the business wanted to sign him. Then all offers were mysteriously and instantly rescinded after Morris Levy, owner of Roulette Records, put the word out that he intended to sign the young singer.
- Tommy James didn’t realize who he was teaming up with.
- Levy, a Jewish music producer since the 1950s, had previously operated Birdland, New York City’s famous jazz nightclub.
- He was also in bed with the Genovese organized crime family.
- When his brother Irving was shot and killed, Levy was rumored to have murdered the killer.
- Levy became Tommy James’ producer, manager, and publicist. He ruled with an iron fist.
- Levy paid off disc jockeys to put Tommy James’ music in their rotations, a scheme he perpetrated years earlier in the infamous radio payola scandals of the 1950s.
- He kept Tommy James and the band working slavishly — constant touring plus 8 records released in just 5 years.
- Yet the band members weren’t getting rich like other music stars. Levy barely paid them at all. When he did, it was with paper bags full of cash. Two of the Shondells quit.
- Concert promoters hated working with the thuggish Levy.
- But there was little James could do about it. Levy had close ties to mobsters, and he acted like one. Firing him might have only gotten Tommy beaten up.
- That was believed to be the case for another Morris Levy music client, Jimmy Rodgers. The musician wanted the money Levy owed him. Rodgers was later found beaten to a pulp.
- In 1971, war broke out between organized crime families, and hundreds of gangsters were killed.
- Tommy was warned that gangland rivals would try to murder anyone associated with Levy, especially his number one source of income.
- So James, already paranoid from abusing amphetamines, hid away in Nashville and began distancing himself from Levy. His music career suffered and eventually came to a halt.
- Meanwhile, Levy bankrolled a rap record label that included Grandmaster Flash. He withheld pay from those artists, too.
- In the years that followed, new musicians released covers of Tommy James’ hits. Yet the singer didn’t receive any royalties. Levy kept the money.
- Levy was brought up on charges of racketeering in 1986, and he sold off his record labels. That’s when James received his first royalty payments. He got only a fraction of what he believed he was owed.
- Morris Levy died of cancer in 1990, thereby avoiding ten years in prison.
- Tommy James is still alive and has toured in recent years with a reconstructed version of the Shondells. He released an autobiography in 2010. A compilation of his Roulette Records hits came out in 2021.
- The character Hesh on The Sopranos was supposedly based on Morris Levy.
Dan is the author of over a dozen novels. His latest is Tight Five. He publishes ‘The Peculiar Truth’ every Tuesday.
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