On the basis of his memorable singles of the late 1960s — records like “I Think We’re Alone Now,” “Mony Mony” and “Crimson and Clover” — Tommy James still tours today. But in concert, where he mines a nostalgic crowd’s desire to relive the good times associated with those hits, he doesn’t get to tell the story of how remarkably strange and extraordinary those times were for him.
James became the cash cow for legendary mob-connected Roulette Records head Morris Levy and a confidante of Vice President Hubert Humphrey during the latter’s 1968 bid for the presidency. Now, given the chance to put those recollections in an autobiography, he provides some enjoyable, provocative reading for anyone interested in the pop culture and politics of the 1960s. At times, it’s like a Rock version of Goodfellas.
As his independently released “Hanky Panky” was breaking in Pittsburgh in 1966, the 19-year-old James came from his home in Niles, Mich. (with advisers) to seek a larger label to make it a national hit. Every record company he visited was eager to make a deal. Until, that is, Roulette expressed interest — then they all backed down. So James became the last real Pop star signed to Roulette — a powerhouse in the 1950s and early 1960s with acts like Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers, Joey Dee and the Starliters and Jimmy Rodgers. Whether it was because he was loved or feared, the late Levy was close with all the other New York indie record companies. (He was also the model for the “Hesh” character on The Sopranos.)
James was in a position to see and get to know the heavy-duty mobsters who kept Levy company. He was also in a position to have dangerous arguments with the volatile Levy about why Roulette never paid him. James’ background information on Levy’s history isn’t particularly detailed or deeply reported. In fact, the whole book’s prose is serviceable rather than elegant, since James has a lot of territory to cover in just 225 pages.
But his accounts of things he claims to have witnessed firsthand — or that affected him personally — contain bombshells galore. Grade: B