March 22, 2010

Crystal Blue Conversation: Jersey Boy Tommy James Tells His Story, Part One

March 22nd, 2010

By Pamela Singer, Jersey Boys Blog Special Correspondent

Picture this, friends. I’m walking in a state of anticipation and excitement through Kennedy’s Restaurant on Manhattan’s 57th Street with Charles Alexander (friend and Four Seasons aficionado) en route to interview Tommy James. Yes, THE Tommy James, of Tommy James and the Shondells. Suddenly, “I Think We’re Alone Now” (Tommy’s original 1967 version, not one of the many covers done over the years) starts playing on the restaurant’s sound system. I turn to Charles and say, “IT’S A SIGN!!“ Sure enough, the evening took off from there. I had the pleasure of talking with this music legend about his incredible 40-plus-year career, his fantastic new autobiography Me, the Mob, and the Music, his long friendship with Frankie Valli, and of course his thoughts on JERSEY BOYS. Along for the ride, besides Charles, were Tommy’s genial co-author, Martin Fitzpatrick, and his long time manager, Carol Ross-Durborow.

Tommy is a warm, engaging, articulate man—a born storyteller—and boy, what stories he has to tell. After 40-plus years in the music business, Tommy remains remarkably unjaded, refreshingly down to earth and impressively humble. Here is Part One of my interview:

Pamela Singer: Thank you for taking the time to sit down for this interview today. It’s a real thrill for me and will be a thrill for all of our Jersey Boys Blog readers as well. I understand you’re an official Jersey Boy now yourself.

Tommy James: Yes, I’ve lived there for some time.

PS: Welcome to our JERSEY BOYS family! Let’s start with the most obvious question. Have you seen the show?!

TJ: I have. We all have. It was one of the best times I’ve ever had in my life. The place was packed, and the audience had a ball. Frankie is a great friend of mine.

PS: There’s been a strong connection between you and Frankie for a long time now.

TJ: We’ve been friends forever. I met him in 1966. On the night he developed the hearing problem on the airplane and went deaf in one ear, I was with him at the Rooster Tail in Detroit, where we were both playing. That was1967.

PS: JERSEY BOYS fans know that place well! It’s where “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You” really took off.

TJ: That’s true, and what a monster hit that was. I was playing the rock room upstairs, and Frankie was playing the dinner theater downstairs. We all went out after the show to see the last gig of the Kings of Trio at the Fox Theatre. Frankie’s a great guy. We’ve worked together dozens of times.

PS: I remember seeing you together as part of Richard Nader’s Rock and Roll Revival shows in the ’70s. Those were great concerts.

TJ: Yes. Don Ciccone, who played with Frankie and the Four Seasons, ended up as my bass player during the 1980s. Donny sang on “Who Loves You” and “Oh What A Night” for the Four Seasons.

PS: Any specific Frankie Valli stories or memories?

TJ: Well, once he got out of jail, his life perked up!! (laughter). That’s right. The weekend he spent in jail. As soon as they let him out, he really changed. (more laughter). All I can say is that I love Frankie and have such respect for the guy. He’s a real survivor and an inspiration. God bless him. We should all look so good.

Carol: One of the reasons we went to see JERSEY BOYS is that Tommy’s story will be coming to Broadway, and we wanted to see how the concept was staged, etc.

TJ: We’ve already met with one of JERSEY BOYS producers, who’s also going to be involved in our show. Up until recently, this kind of story would be very taboo on Broadway. JERSEY BOYS was the icebreaker here. We were very fortunate to be positioned so we could move right into that. There will be a movie developed at the same time. When they hit the streets, I’m not sure which will come first.

PS: There’s an unofficial rumor going around that Martin Scorsese will be directing the movie.

TJ: We don’t know yet.

PS: Whom do you see playing you?

TJ: The one being seriously eyeballed is Val Kilmer. He’s a friend, very musical, and a real talent. We will be deeply involved in all the casting—all the Roulette [Records] people, and especially Morris Levy [the late former head of Roulette Records]. This will be an interesting cast, because all of these Roulette people were fascinating

PS: Congratulations on the book. It’s a great story, and one many people will be surprised to learn about, I think.

TJ: I’ve been carrying this story around a long time and was really uncomfortable talking about it. When we first started the book, we were going to write a music book called Crimson and Clover. We got halfway finished and realized we were only telling part of the story. It didn’t make sense without the Roulette story. What it boiled down to was a dark and sinister, dangerous side of having all these hits. It was this mixed bag of feelings: on the one side, elation for our incredible success at Roulette and selling over 100 million records and, at the same time, we were walking on eggshells around this other reality that the fans didn’t know about. Only a few other people in the music business knew about this.

PS: And a lot of them are dead now.

TJ: Yes. Roulette’s Morris Levy was connected to the Mob. I would meet all these guys in the office and then read about them in the news. Frankly, there were several times that I felt that my life was in danger. The last of the heavy-duty Mob boys died in December ’05, and that was gigantic. It was roughly 10 years ago that I put pen to paper and started the book. It was very therapeutic, and kind of scary. The entire point to this book is the mixed feelings. Roulette was like a dysfunctional family with an abusive father.

PS: You and Morris Levy seemed to have a classic love/hate relationship.

TJ: Yes, we were like the ultimate odd couple. I miss him [Levy died in 1990], but I know if he were here, it would be bad. It would not be good. I know all of the bad stuff would have continued, not making my royalties and all. I do miss him though. He was more fun than any 10 guys I hung out with. Anything could happen when you were with Morris. It was exciting. He had a little sign behind his desk in needlepoint that said “Oh, Lord, give me a bastard with talent.” When the FBI was investigating him [in 1985], the “o” in Lord was the camera they set up. Of all the words! [Levy was arrested in 1986.]

PS: People will be really surprised to read that you didn’t get any royalties. You had 24 gold records and 9 platinum albums, and still weren’t being paid royalties from Roulette. Levy even kept your gold records!

TJ: Yes. What we didn’t get paid for were royalties from the sales, the mechanicals.

PS: Can you explain what record royalties are?

TJ: Sure. Record royalties are directly from over-the-counter sales of the records. They’re called mechanical on the writing side, which is also a big deal. There were certain things we were getting and certain things we weren’t. There were mechanical royalties from the over-the-counter, which we weren’t getting. We were getting residuals, which are the airplay, from BMI [Broadcast Music, Inc., a licensing company], as well as our touring monies, which weren’t affected by Roulette. If we had been destitute, I probably wouldn’t be so lighthearted about this. Still, we were missing between 30 and 40 million dollars, according to our accountant, and I was carrying a lot of deep anger in me for a long time. To be perfectly honest, a lot of this disappeared when I went out to the Betty Ford Center in 1986. After I stopped drinking and got off chemicals, a lot of those demons left. Up until that time, I was really a dark character. I wasn’t beating people up, but I was very dark and could snap easily.

PS: The book is very honest and unflinching. I give you a lot of credit. You write about being arrested, cheating on many relationships, being drunk and high. These are very difficult things to say, and then still come out as an admirable person that people can relate to.

TJ: It’s difficult tattling on yourself.

Martin: It’s a hard thing to write. As the book progressed, there isn’t just one thing happening. Five things are happening at once. We couldn’t just leave Morris’s shadow. There were the records, the success, kids, marriage, the next wife, then back to Morris. I thought the best way to do that was to compress it. The chapters got progressively shorter, and the reader’s head is spinning by the end. This creates a great effect.

TJ: It’s a great plan, and it made for a lot of self editing too. I had to be in New York for Chapter Two! (laughter)

Charles: Do you credit Morris Levy for making you a star?

TJ: Yes. I have such a mixed bag of feelings, because everything is so schizophrenic with this. If it wasn’t for Morris, there wouldn’t be a Tommy James, at least not the one we know. We would have had “Hanky Panky” [recorded prior to Roulette], but things could have ended right there. Roulette needed us. They were tied to the Mob, but also a functioning record company. They hadn’t had a hit in three years, so they really needed hits, not just one, but consistent hits. Morris had such a bad reputation that people weren’t going to him for new records. I don’t know if Roulette would have been around much longer. The bottom line is that we were treated well and created well. We were allowed to spend a lot of money in the studio. What the hell, we weren’t getting paid for it anyway! (laughter) We were left alone and allowed to morph into whatever we could be. I got an education at Roulette I couldn’t get anywhere else about the functioning of a record company—how you get from point A to point B. You write the song, produce the record, do the marketing right on into the sales. We took part in the album cover design, radio promotion, retail sales. We were involved in every aspect.

To Be Continued…


  1. GREAT interview Pam! I’m so proud of you and your interviewing abilities. Wow, Tommy’s quite the informant! So much I never knew. Looking forward to the next part of the interview. Again, super job!

    Comment by Gary — March 22, 2010 @ 10:30 am

  2. If JB OBC Tony winner Hoff teamed up with Vegas Frankie Travis for a showcase of Tommy James and the Shondells tunes, would they call it “Christian and Cloer?” But seriously, folks…

    “Crystal Blue Persuasion” is one of the greatest rock’n'roll records of all time, and “I Think We’re Alone Now” is way up there too. But “The Best of TJ and the S’s” is full of lesser known gems that, though not hits, comprise a perfect, joyous time capsule of the feel of their era. Worth a listen for any fan of ’60′s R&R.

    Great job so far Pam; eagerly awaiting parts II thru XXVIII. Oh wait, that would be for a Howard Tucker interview. For you Pam, let’s just say for whatever is to follow!

    Comment by stubbleyou — March 22, 2010 @ 3:52 pm

  3. Well, there’s more of a Michigan connection than just the Roostertail. “Hanky Panky”, written by Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich, was recorded in the studios of WNIL Niles, Michigan, way over by South Bend, IN and closer to Chicago, IL than Detroit. It was recorded two years before it became a hit.

    Comment by Ted Hammond — March 22, 2010 @ 4:44 pm

  4. Wow, Pam. Your great interview gave me the impetus to read the book, which I could not put down. Similar to the Four Seasons’ actual story coming out so many years later, I would guess that many of us older baby boomers who know his music so well had no idea about Tommy’s history. I also knew little about Morris Levy other than he was one of the original owners of the NY club “Birdland”, where I’ve seen several of our JB guys in Jim Caruso’s Monday night productions.

    I think you called it right with Tommy’s love/hate relationship with Morris and Roulette. As I think back as a pre-teen to seeing Roulette spin on my turntable over and over with “The Gypsy Cried” and “Easier Said than Done”, and I almost can’t believe what I just read.

    Tommy gives us such a great inside look into the music business in the 1960′s, and you’re right, Pam, it’s unflinching, and you’ve given us a great window of his story above. I still wonder how Tommy thinks Morris was more “fun” than any 10 guys he hung out with…he’s obviously never met Stubbleyou!!

    You’re a great interviewer, Pam. Ever think of taking Oprah’s slot next year? I hear it may pay slightly better than the Jersey Boys Blog!

    Comment by Howard — March 22, 2010 @ 11:19 pm

  5. Wow, this interview is just so fascinating, Pam. I am definitely going to read Tommy’s book. I, too, am a big fan of Tommy James and The Shondells. Their music had a distinctive and unique sound even in the midst of all the prolific creativity coming out of the 60′s groups. Looking forward to the next installment.

    Comment by Linda — March 23, 2010 @ 4:04 am

  6. as many of you may know , don ciccone was in tommys
    group for quite a few years after he left frankie
    dont know if he still performs with tommy

    Comment by john rish — March 23, 2010 @ 6:24 am

  7. Great interview — looking forward to the rest. I saw Tommy James a few years ago in Chicago, along with the Grassroots and The Buckinghams. Tommy closed the show and was awesome. He came out into the audience, and ‘the crowd went wild’! Just picked up the book today and can’t wait to read it. Thanks, Pam!

    Comment by Rose — March 23, 2010 @ 7:06 pm

  8. Great interview, Pam! I think you have a new career : )) xo

    Comment by Jody Cardillo — March 25, 2010 @ 3:05 pm

  9. Thanks to everyone for all the nice comments. I really appreciate them. Tommy was a pleaure to interview, with fascinating stories to tell. Look for Part Two of the interview in the next week.


    Comment by Pamela — March 26, 2010 @ 8:01 am


    Comment by JIM PETRECCA — February 13, 2012 @ 11:35 pm

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