For Hit Maker Tommy James, Life’s Like a Movie

After years of false starts, it appears a film about accomplished musician Tommy James might actually get made.

For Tommy James, life as a young pop star was a mix of hit songs and hit men. He told his story in a 2010 memoir—which is to be the basis of a forthcoming movie.
For Tommy James, life as a young pop star was a mix of hit songs and hit men. He told his story in a 2010 memoir—which is to be the basis of a forthcoming movie.
Photo by Christopher Lane.

There’s a scene early in the anticipated Tommy James movie that was ripped from real life. In it, two men sit in the offices of Roulette Records in 1985 Manhattan listening to a new demo. One man is James, the artist who wrote and performed the song. The other is the notoriously corrupt music producer Morris Levy, Roulette’s founder.

While the men listen, the camera zooms to a sign on the wall that illustrates Levy’s wise-guy sense of humor: “O’, Lord, give me a bastard with talent,” it reads. More zooming reveals a spy camera hidden in the O of the word lord. Then comes a shot of the ceiling, where two FBI microphones have been planted.

“Morris was arrested before the song could come out,” says James more than 30 years later, from behind the mixing board at Taylor-Made Productions in Caldwell, where he is about to play a recording of that long-lost, never-released song, “Distant Thunder.” The arrest scene, and the one where Levy is finally convicted in a Camden courtroom in 1988 on two counts of conspiring to extort, are also part of the movie.

Tentatively, anyway.

James, front man of Tommy James and the Shondells, the 1960s band that pumped out chart-topping psychedelic confections like “Crimson and Clover,” “Mony Mony” and “Crystal Blue Persuasion,” is not sure when the movie version of his 2010 memoir, Me, the Mob, and the Music: One Helluva Ride With Tommy James and the Shondells, will actually be made. Production is moving in what James calls “Hollywood time.” That would be the opposite of hurtling Jersey time, to which he—a (Jersey) resident with his wife, Lynda, since 1973, first in Clifton, now in Cedar Grove—says he can better relate.

But it’s not as if James, 70, bushy haired and still youthful looking thanks partly to what he calls the magic of Clairol, hasn’t had plenty to keep him busy in the meantime. The last few months have been particularly eventful. In May, he was inducted into the New Jersey Hall of Fame by Steven Van Zandt, a longtime fan who introduced him, memorably, as “one of the greatest rock and roll voices of all time.” In June, friends and musical co-conspirators, including Joan Jett, Bobby Rydell (via video) and Gary U.S. Bonds, joined James and the reconfigured Shondells at the PNC Bank Arts Center for a tribute show celebrating his 50 years in the business. And by the end of this year, he will have released Alive, his first studio album in 10 years, recorded at Taylor-Made. A sampling of tracks James played during a recent interview promises a multi-genre mash-up: there’s a remake of the 1970s hit “Draggin’ the Line,” with Van Zandt on guitar and the New York rap artist T.O.N.E.-z sharing vocals; a head bobber of a doo-wop medley for which James enlisted no backup singers; and the aforementioned “Distant Thunder,” a catchy, Jamesian psych-pop jam.

“Let’s put it this way,” says James, who still plays about 30 dates a year. “I’m busier now than I was 40 years ago.”

He’s also in better shape financially and emotionally, as readers of Me, the Mob and the Music might hope. The memoir, written with Martin Fitzpatrick, details James’s rise to fame and his complicated relationship with Levy, who died of cancer in 1990, just before he was due to serve a 10-year prison sentence.

James estimates that, through illegal business practices, the label cheated him of as much as $40 million. At Taylor-Made, he recalled the Mobbed-up man who discovered him as “every bit a thug. No doubt about it.”

“The Genovese crime family used to hang out up there in the Roulette offices with Morris like it was a social club. There were all kinds of shenanigans,” he says. “I’d tiptoe around and try to pretend like I didn’t see it. Like, I’d see someone in Morris’s office, and then a week later I’d see the same guy doing a perp walk out of a warehouse in Jersey wearing handcuffs.”

None of it prevented James from feeling awe and affection for Levy. “If there hadn’t been a Morris Levy, there wouldn’t have been a Tommy James,” he says. “Every time I want to say something nasty about him, I have to stop myself. He was like the abusive father who slapped you around but still sent you to college.” Among Levy’s many kindnesses toward him, he says, was helping him avoid serving in the Vietnam War.

“He was brilliant and one of the most fascinating people I’ve ever met. But he’d still rather steal five grand from you than make it honestly. I don’t know why. He got a kick out of that.”

Moviegoers, of course, get a kick out of a real-life Mob story. Add to the mix a 1960s hit maker whose songs have been covered by artists as varied as Dolly Parton and Prince, and a formula for box-office success seems assured.

But that doesn’t mean the road to getting the film made is any shorter.

The film version of Me, the Mob and the Music has been in development for almost as long as the book has been out. A producer, Barbara De Fina, whose films include Goodfellas, Casino, The Color of Money and The Grifters, has been attached to the film since 2012.

“Tommy had already been talking to some other people who wanted to make a movie by the time we got in touch with him,” says De Fina, an Edgewater native, whose ex-husband is director Martin Scorsese. But she convinced him she was the right person to take the lead.

“When I read the book, the writing was so visual that I could sort of see the movie,” she says.

She quickly brought in a screenwriter, Matthew Stone, whose credits include Intolerable Cruelty and Soul Men.

But other key components, like the director and the casting agent, are still up in the air.

“Everybody has a schedule, everybody has an ego, and everybody is a separate negotiation, so it’s amazing anything gets done,” says James. But “it’s incredible to watch this thing come together. It’s a hell of an education.” And if and when it’s finally distributed, James will get a co-producing credit, which he says he doesn’t deserve but appreciates. He may also play a bit part in the movie.

“I could be a bartender or something,” he says. “But I’m way too old to be relevant as Tommy James.” (De Fina says only the early part of James’s career, between the ages of 19 and 24, will be portrayed.) He has thoughts about who should play him, but he largely keeps those to himself. “That’s for the grownups to decide. They know what they’re doing.”

Behind the mixing board at Taylor-Made, with a lava lamp and the guitarist Jonathan Ashe of Mount Laurel, a longtime bandmate, by his side, James clearly still knows what he’s doing musically. Alive, despite its hodgepodge of sounds, may be among the best records he’s ever made, he says. Which is a bold statement, coming from an artist who has sold more than 100 million singles and albums worldwide.

But he’s long been a believer that fortune favors the daring. And the perpetually immature.

“A million little miracles happened all over the place for me to be where I am today,” he says. “All this juvenile rock ’n’ roll behavior has kept me young, and given me a chance to keep up my childishness. I’m not turning in my rock ’n’ roll card until I have to.”

Tammy La Gorce is a frequent contributor to New Jersey Monthly.

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