Rock ’n’ Roll Story Is Finally Told

 

Tom White for The New York Times

THE ’60S LIVE ON Tommy James, who released “Me, the Mob and the Music” this year, in the rehearsal room of his home in Cedar Grove, N.J.

By TAMMY LA GORCE    NY Times  11/19/10

CEDAR GROVE, N.J.
Tom White for The New York Times

A working 1940s Wurlitzer Music clock.

Tom White for The New York Times     A neon rock ‘n’ roll sign in Mr. James’s home.

WHEN Tommy James brought together the two incarnations of his backup band for a party to celebrate the release of his book this year, he said he felt a little like William Shatner’s long-lived, series-spanning “Star Trek” character.

“You have these two generations of Shondells,” said Mr. James, 63, whose 1960s hits include “Mony Mony, “Crimson and Clover” and “Crystal Blue Persuasion.”

“And there we all were, me and both bands, up onstage,” he said. “I felt like Capt. Kirk.”

The book, “Me, the Mob and the Music: One Helluva Ride With Tommy James and the Shondells” (Scribner), written with Martin Fitzpatrick, came out in February. And the party in Manhattan, besides bringing together the two bands — one from Pittsburgh, with whom Mr. James recorded a string of Top 10 hits, and the current group, from New Jersey and New York — attracted friends and music-business colleagues whose names are sprinkled throughout it.

The partygoers did not know it at the time, but they had more than a book to celebrate.

“Me, the Mob and the Music” has not been a best seller, even though its sales have been “very consistent,” said Brant Rumble, Mr. James’s editor at Scribner.

But the book has resonated enough with a couple of influential readers to lead to plans for a movie and a theatrical production.

“I am amazed; I’ve been dumbfounded,” said Mr. James, who lives in a sprawling single-story home here, where he lives with his wife, Lynda.

Mr. James said he set out to write his autobiography in 2002 without detailing the corruption of Morris Levy, one of the founders of Roulette Records. (That company is no longer in business.) Mr. Levy was eventually convicted of extortion in 1988. One-third of the way through the original manuscript, though, Mr. James stopped writing.

He estimated he was cheated out of millions of dollars at Roulette, and said he decided, “If we don’t tell the Roulette story, we’ll be cheating everyone.”

“But I was uncomfortable telling it at the time,” he added, “because some of the key people were still walking around. By 2006, a few people had died. I felt we could pick it up again.”

Though Mr. James’s allegations against Mr. Levy in the book include ties to organized crime and physical intimidation in addition to swindling, he calls their relationship “complicated.”

“My set of feelings about Morris and Roulette are very complex, so the writing of the book has been therapeutic for me,” he said in an interview at his home last summer. On the walls were framed gold records; for background music, he chose an oldies station, WCBS-FM. “It’s like coming from a dysfunctional family where the father is abusive, yet he still put clothes on your back and sent you off to college,” Mr. James said.

When Mr. Levy died, “it left a vacuum in my mind and my heart,” he said. “I missed the guy despite everything.”

The human element was what first struck Barry Rosen, an executive producer at Triangle Entertainment in Aventura, Fla., when he read the book in galleys. “I fell in love instantly,” he said.

Not only does the book have “the feel of a great music story,” Mr. Rosen said, “but it also has this fascinating look at the business.”

He bought the film rights to the book with a partner, Mary Gleason of San Jose, Calif.; the two plan to produce a film that might be released as early as 2012.

But Mr. Rosen said a Broadway musical of “Me, the Mob and the Music” was more likely to open first. Along with Robert Nederlander Jr., president and chief executive of Nederlander Worldwide Entertainment, Mr. Rosen is at work hiring writers and directors for a theatrical production.

Mr. Nederlander said, “We’re a long way off,” but added: “It’s just a great story. When you combine the story with his music, the possibilities for the stage pop right out at you.”

Mr. James is reluctant to express hopes about who might play him. “We’ve been throwing a lot of names around,” he said, “and I don’t want to upset the apple cart.”

For the part of Mr. Levy onstage, though, “my favorite would be Chazz Palminteri,” he said. “He’s the spitting image of Morris, and he’s from the Bronx. Not many people could bring the intensity of Morris, but he could.

“I didn’t know you could create this much commotion with a book,” Mr. James added. “But I’m thrilled. It’s really a great honor just to be able to think about all this.”

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