TOMMY JAMES – “ME, THE MOB, AND THE MUSIC: ONE HELLUVA RIDE WITH TOMMY JAMES & THE SHONDELLS”
Interviewed 22 February 2010
BA – What made you write this book?
TJ – Basically this book was in the works for almost 10 years. Martin Fitzpatrick and I started out writing an autobiography that was to be about music, which we were going to call ‘Crimson & Clover’, but we soon realized that we weren’t telling the whole story. It had to be the Roulette Records story. The book was incomplete without that part of the story, but it was not in our best interests to tell the whole story at the time because most of the Roulette people were still alive. I was just uncomfortable about it. A few years went by and the remaining Roulette regulars passed away in December 2005. We felt it was time that we finished the book and felt okay about doing it then. So, we did it and told the whole story and got a deal immediately through Simon & Schuster, which we were surprised about because they do more literary works and very few pop culture kinds of projects. We were very honored and flattered when they took the book. Now it’s going be a movie and a Broadway play. So, we are very happy, feeling lucky and also very blessed.
BA – I heard The Martin Scorsese might be doing it.
TJ – We are talking right now with three different directors and he is one of them. He actually contacted us first and we are going to make an announcement over the next few weeks on the film project.
BA – Martin Fitzpatrick is not only your co-writer of the book but also your road manager.
TJ – He wears many hats for us, and also does merchandising for us
BA – It must have been weird not getting paid for a lot of things back then.
TJ – Roulette was the best and the worst of all worlds. It was great from a creative standpoint because they left us alone and let us be whatever we could become, but getting paid was very difficult. I don’t have a lot of regrets and a lot of anger or bitterness because we were able to make a great deal of it back over the years. But it is true that getting paid was like taking a bone from a rottweiler.
BA – A lot of people thought that you were born in Niles, Michigan when in fact you were born in Ohio.
TJ – That’s true, I was born in Dayton, Ohio and moved to South Bend, Indiana and then to Niles, Michigan. My dad was in the hotel business so we moved around a lot.
BA – How did you find the transition when you moved to New York in the
1960’s and that whole period coming here?
TJ – It was a culture shock because I was a kid from the Midwest, graduated from high school and all of a sudden within a year lived in the middle of New York. So, I consider myself the first year a spectator. I felt like I was in a movie in New York. I said in the book that I never
felt so important and insignificant at the same time.
BA – What was it like playing music in and being part of the 1960’s scene? Was that a groovy time?
TJ – The 1960’s were the best time ever to make it because all the ducks were in a row. All the planets were lined up. Radio and television and the record business were all on the same page and were not competing with each other much. They were all looking to break the next big act. Of course, 60 million baby boomer kids with money in their pockets fueled everything and radio was so much bigger and covered so much more ground then than it does today. The Average Top 20 hit from that period sold more records than 10 #1 records combined today. Really, the rules have changed. I consider that period of time the very best to have made it in because of the amazing numbers of people back then.
BA – Also, the music was very positive back then.
TJ – Absolutely, anything could happen that you could think of.
BA – What was it like being away from your family and having this other life in New York?
TJ – You end up spreading yourself very thin when doing this business. One of my great regrets is that I wasn’t able to be more of a family man as so much of my life was was devoted to self promotion and making music. On one hand you get to stay a kid a long time but on the other hand you really do miss those important years with your family. But, you can be at only one place at a time.
BA – Tell us what it was like traveling on those package tours. Was it fun, tiring or both?
TJ – I basically stopped the really serious touring back in 1968 .We had done the big one night tours with 40 dates back to back and I was so tired having to live like that it’s as if I became a zombie. I decided from that point on we would do one-nighters or two nights a week was all I wanted to do. In the end it worked out well because I was able to save my voice. I can’t imagine doing the touring that like Rod Stewart does. I don’t know how they do it; they would find me under a bridge or somewhere out in the field. I couldn’t live like that.
BA -What was it like working in a record store in that period?
TJ – I got a great education working in a little record store in Niles. Things that I use to this day I like learning to read the trade papers I learned back then. It was called the Spin-It Record shop.
BA – Anything about Morris Levy that you want to add?
TJ – Morris Levy ended up being the star of our book. He was one of the most dynamic people I have ever met. It was a real love/hate relationship, kind of like an abusive father I guess. I learned more being at Roulette than any place in the world.
BA – Final thoughts?
TJ – I just want to say thank you to the fans for 44 years of fun and music. This is a business that maybe gives you two or three years if you are lucky, and we have had it for four decades. Thanks to the fans and the good Lord!