James, Tommy, and Martin Fitzpatrick. Me, the Mob, and the Music: One Helluva Ride with Tommy James and the Shondells. New York: Scribner, 2010.
Okay, you rightly want to know, what does Tommy James, of Tommy James and the Shondells, for pity’s sake, have to do with Jackie Wilson?
The answer is “Nothing at all and a whole lot.”
The “nothing at all” refers to music, but the “whole lot” James and Wilson had in common makes this book worth reading for any Jackie Wilson fan. James explains in detail how managers, record companies, and the mob operated in the last century to exploit, entrap, and control young recording stars.
James’s memoir, penned with Martin Fitzpatrick, begins with a Prologue focused on the death of Morris Levy. One has the unmistakable impression that Morris Levy had to die before James could tell his story. That’s a chilling realization about a subject as good timey as popular music. What’s chillier, however, is realizing that the publication date for book is twenty years after Morris Levy’s death.
Morris Levy. So who was Morris Levy? The name sounds familiar, but you can’t quite recall why you know it, right? Well, among other things, Morris Levy is (or was) Frankie Lymon’s manager, the guy who made all the money that Lymon and the other “Teenagers” never saw, the guy that got the fortune made from the umpteen recordings of “Why Do Fools Fall in Love?”
Morris Levy gave Alan Freed his start. And his finish, as he let Alan take the fall in the Payola scandals.
Morris Levy was associated with Joey Dee and the Starlighters, the Cleftones, the Hullaballoos, and Lou Christie. Morris Levy founded Roulette Records, a label that for many years had a single act, Tommy James, and various Shondells who came and left.
Morris Levy pioneered getting filthy rich off the creative efforts of others, particularly through highjacking songwriting credits and through owning the publishing rights to music. Most of all, Levy was THE music industry big shot:
It was not for nothing that Morris Levy was called the Godfather of the music business. People from all over the industry called him or came to him to sort out problems. If somebody from Atlantic Records or Kama Sutra found out their records were being bootlegged, they called Morris. It seemed like once a month Morris would grab Nate McCalla and a few baseball bats and take off for somewhere in New Jersey or upstate New York.
As James further relates, Levy handled more than the muscle. He negotiated the deals that moved artists from company to company or took songs from one artist in order to give them to another. Every deal he “negotiated,” of course, put someone in debt or more deeply in debt to the Godfather of the Music Industry.
Similarities to Tarnopol and Brunswick. Look at Roulette and Levy, and you begin to understand Brunswick and Tarnopol. Look at the white middle class high school graduate Tommy James struggling to get paid and trying understand what is happening to him, then imagine what the Black Jackie Wilson, possessed of an eighth grade education and a legacy of poverty and in the business ten years earlier, must have endured.
Tommy’s management and record company and Jackie’s management and record company have lots in common, including things like connections with mobster Gaetano “Tommy” Vastola (aka Sonny Vastola, aka Corky Vastola), adversarial relationships with the IRS, and criminal indictments.
[Before I go any farther, let me point out that you can find items on the Web that attempt to exonerate Tarnopol and his associates, even one with a letter from Carl Davis. You may want to compare the letter with what Davis says about Nat Tarnopol in his own memoir, The Man Behind the Music: The Legendary Carl Davis, which was published a little over a year ago. The comparison with the letter will leave you scratching your head.]
What happened to Jackie Wilson? Frankly, it is a waste of time trying to prove what happened to Jackie Wilson. Any evidence was long ago destroyed, and Jackie was incapacitated before he could testify in the case against Tarnopol and Brunswick. Jackie has now been dead a quarter of a century, and his story has been actively suppressed for so many years that it will probably never be told, although as recently as two months ago songwriter Al Kasha was attempting to sell a script. [See the comments on the YouTube video “Jackie Wilson 20/20 Interview, Pt. 1.” The 20/20 segment, by the way, touches on some of the same conditions James covers while applying them directly to Jackie Wilson.]
What Jackie Wilson fans can do is learn about the practices prevalent in the recording industry in the Fifties, Sixties, and Seventies in order to understand conditions that most likely shaped Jackie Wilson’s short, pain-filled life.
So let’s get back to Tommy James and Morris Levy.
Back to the James book. This well-written book is a quick read. It is also surprisingly full of fun and the funny, although sometimes the funny is less humorous on reflection, such as the time Tommy was campaigning for then-Presidential candidate Hubert Humphrey, who commented about needing to stay up late to write a speech. James sympathized and handed the senator some Black Beauties.
Jackie Wilson also made campaign appearances for Humphrey. I do hope Jackie was never wasted to the point of handing drugs to a Presidential candidate.
James and his co-writer are capable of packing a big payload into a small phrase, such as when they reference “California Sun” as being “written by that great songwriting team Henry Glover and Morris Levy.” Levy, of course, like Nat Tarnopol, had no musical talent whatever but took the royalties for songwriting again and again. While his son was in kindergarten, Levy put the boy’s name on records as songwriter. Nat Tarnopol’s son, Paul, would ultimately be listed as having written “Doggin’ Around,” even though he wasn’t yet born when Jackie’s recording of Alonzo Tucker’s phenomenal blues became a hit.
Getting paid and paying sidemen. As we learned from Ruth Brown’s memoir, artists did not get much of an accounting of the money their records earned, but they were frequently reminded of the costs they, the artists, incurred for their management and the recording company.
Tommy James needed to beg for money to take his band on the road to promote the records, and every time he asked for the “advance” he needed for payroll, gasoline, hotel bills and the like, he was made to wait and come back and beg again. When Levy finally did have checks cut, the ritual included a recounting of how recording studio costs were overwhelming poor Morris:
If I got the advance, I’d usually walk out feeling grateful for having money in my pocket . . . until I realized how much the son of a bitch really owed me. In the beginning I actually fell for the line he would always spew about studio costs. “You’re spendin’ a fuckin’ fortune in the studio.” “You’re putting me in the fuckin’ poorhouse.” Right, you don’t sell twenty million albums and singles in eighteen months and still lose money for the record company, especially when Morris got all the publishing rights.
The failure to pay band members, songwriters, and other creative types exacerbated problems. At one point on the road, the band got to the promoter before James, taking all the income from the gig, and James had to fire several band members. Another important associate, a songwriter and arranger, left because he was never paid a cent. Ultimately, James becomes the focus of the frustrations felt by others:
It wasn’t just me, everybody connected with the Shondells was trapped in Morris’s demented financial black hole. And yet, in a way, the whole Roulette debacle started to become my responsibility. Everyone would come to me because they were too afraid to confront Morris. I was becoming the shop steward for most of our team—the band, photographers, publicity people, art designers, sometimes even the studio. The joke about “the quietest place on the planet” being accounts payable at Roulette was no longer very funny.
Psychological effects. James states that Levy took “an almost demonic glee” in making him beg and that Levy had a “pathological need for money, especially other people’s money.” James explains that stopping Levy was impossible:
All the lawyers I hired were either bought off or scared off. Everything in my life and my career was tied up in this guy. And it was slowly taking its effect on the Shondells [the band] and Ronnie [James’s wife] because it was slowly taking an effect on me. I was becoming a stranger to myself. I didn’t realize the extent of it at the time, but Morris was infecting me somehow. His rages were slowly becoming my rages. It didn’t happen overnight, it was more insidious than that. It crept up inside me and I was helping feed that beast with all the drugs and booze.
The pattern James describes is all too common among recording artists. It’s commendable that he takes the responsibility for “feeding the beast” by ingesting the drugs and alcohol; however, we should ask ourselves why entertainers find those outlets so readily available and why managers do nothing to discourage substance abuse in their clients. I mean, it’s not as though Morris Levy, for example, hadn’t seen the problems drugs caused for other artists, such as, oh, Frankie Lymon?
Well, James says that Levy did warn him against drug abuse: that solitary warning occurred on the night Frankie Lymon died. Curiously, James tries hard to see Levy as genuinely caring about him. I don’t think readers can say that James was unfair to Levy. If anything, some of the assessments are generous.
How Levy operated. The book contains details of how Levy stalled and stumped the IRS investigators that dogged him for years: “Morris was so contemptuous of them that he actually gave them their own office” where they could go over whatever set of books Levy’s minions provided on a given day. Several sets, apparently holding competing realities, were always on hand.
Levy’s approach to handling bootleggers (a guy with a baseball bat) and his equally ruthless approach to troublemakers, such as people asking to be paid or having the nerve to walk out on Levy (these just don’t work in the business anymore) are documented, as well as Levy’s own lavish lifestyle. Even more important is the account of how Levy undermined his artists’ royalties by pirating material he owned himself.
But enough. The book is simply a “must read” for those who want to understand how Tommy James, Jackie Wilson, and too many others were treated . . . and mistreated.