BY DAVID HINCKLEY
Many artists struggle to succeed in popular music. For Tommy James, sometimes it’s been more like surviving a street fight.
James, who makes his latest visit to The Theatre at Westbury on March 14, spent much of the 1960s turning out indelible hits like “Hanky Panky,” “Crimson and Clover,” “I Think We’re Alone Now,” “Mony Mony,” “Mirage,” “Crystal Blue Persuasion” and “Sweet Cherry Wine.
Meanwhile, his boss – Morris Levy of Roulette Records – was redirecting millions of dollars from James’s royalties to the Genovese crime family.
In retrospect, James has a remarkably philosophical view of all this.
“We weren’t starving,” he says. “We had money coming from other sources. Our concert tours, the songwriting publishing from BMI. But it became clear that our mechanical royalties [record sales] from Roulette just weren’t going to happen.”
“Our accountant figured we lost between $30 and $40 million between 1966 and 1979. After Morris sold the label, we got some of it back. Not all of it. At a certain point, you just have to accept it.”
James recounts this story in detail in his 2010 autobiography, “Me, the Mob and the Music.” The story should be getting wider exposure soon, as things are rolling for a movie adaptation with Kathleen Marshall directing and Matthew Stone writing the screenplay.
Casting is also underway, says James, though he’s not saying yet who plays him – or equally intriguing, let’s face it, who will play Morris Levy.
Through all this, James forged a remarkably durable career. He has sold an estimated 110 million records worldwide, with 32 Billboard chart hits and dozens of gold and platinum awards. People who think they have heard “Hanky Panky” a million times might be right: In 2013, BMI presented James with five “Million-Air” certificates.
If the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame hasn’t come knocking yet, fellow musicians know James well. His songs have been sung by artists from Bruce Springsteen and Carlos Santana to Kelly Clarkson, R.E.M., Cher, and Prince.
In November 1987, Tiffany’s remake of “I Think We’re Alone Now” was No. 1 for two weeks. It was replaced by Billy Idol’s remake of “Mony Mony.”
And oh yes, “Hanky Panky” is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
James recorded “Hanky Panky” in 1963. It was a modest local hit in his native Michigan. Three years later, Pittsburgh musical outlaws discovered it and bootlegged it, which is when the fun began.
“It exploded,” James recalls, and after Levy signed him to Roulette – that’s another story – suddenly he was an 18-year-old kid with a national hit record.
That’s not a unique story in rock ‘n’ roll, and for many artists, that’s also where the story ends.
“It’s easy to be a one-hit-wonder,” James said. “This is a very competitive business, every man for himself, and you’re under constant pressure to produce the next hit. I do a ‘60s show on satellite radio now and I’m amazed at how many great records from that era never got heard because there just wasn’t room for them on the charts or on AM radio.”
James defied those odds – thanks in part, ironically, to Morris Levy.
“The big labels want to control your music,” James said. “Levy let us do our thing. So I had to learn everything about how to make a record. I had to put together my own production team – and luckily I got a good one with guys like Bo Gentry and Ritchie Cordell.
“If I’d signed to a major label, I could easily have been a one-hit-wonder myself.”
James also got a platinum-level tip from the great writer Doc Pomus.
“We were at a dinner,” James said, “and he told me, ‘What you have to remember is we don’t write songs. We write records.’”
A light bulb went on. “That hit me right between the eyes,” James said, who reflexively ticks off some of the basic tricks: keep it to 2-3 minutes, 60 beats per minute. Start with a little instrumental intro the DJ can talk over.
Oh yeah, and keep hitting the hook. Listeners don’t have to love “Mony Mony,” “Hanky Panky” or “Crimson and Clover” to come away with the title running through their heads.
“The hook is the bellringer of the record,” James said. “The earworm.”
James also managed the deceptively tricky feat of a mid-career changeup, when the pop music biz shifted in 1968 from a focus on singles to a focus on albums.
“Everything changed after ‘Sgt. Pepper,’” says James. “We took three months off in the fall of 1968 to work with the Hubert Humphrey campaign. When we left, it was a singles business. When we came back, it was albums.”
Fortunately, James was already working on “Crimson and Clover,” a very different record “that opened the door for us into the album market and FM radio.”
When fans heard the wavering sound of “Crimson and Clover,” James says, “They thought their radios were broken.”
Actually, he says, “We got the idea while we were recording to run the vocals through the tremolo,” an effect so striking that the session will be re-staged for the movie.
James’s career hasn’t all been lucky breaks. But at 72, he says he likes where it’s led him.
“At 15, or 18, I had no idea I’d be doing this for the rest of my life,” he says. “I’m amazed that people still want to hear ‘Hanky Panky.’ “
The touring “gets a little harder every year,” he admits. “But connecting with the fans as a working act is where you get your strength. As long as I’m healthy and people want to hear it, I’ll keep doing it.”
It’s a nice bonus, he adds, that Westbury “is one of our favorite places to play. The energy is great, and it’s one of the last theaters in the round.”
And in the end, maybe it wasn’t even an entirely bad thing to have worked for Morris Levy.
“I was young and stupid,” he says with a laugh. “If I’d had all that money then, I probably would have killed myself.”
[Tommy James and the Shondells, the Grassroots and the Buckinghams. Westbury Music Fair, 960 Brush Hollow Road, Westbury, March 14 at 8 p.m. Tickets $39.50-$99.50. Phone 833-383-4887. www.thetheatreatwestbury.com.]