By the time Tommy James found out he was married to the mob, he was way more than the wedding singer.
He was being groomed for big fat checks to help finance the Genovese crime family — the guys of “The Godfather,” “Goodfellas” and “The Sopranos” fame.
Lucky for James and his gang, The Shondells, they survived a divorce without being fitted for concrete shoes and singing for the fishes. They continue to reunite for projects, like a Christmas album in 2008, but James has been touring and playing with a different group of Shondells for about 30 years.
They will be rocking the Riverside Casino Event Center on Saturday night (2/16), with all the hits Boomers remember from the ’60 and ’70s heyday, like “Hanky Panky,” “Crimson and Clover,” “Crystal Blue Persuasion” and the perennial dance club hit, “Mony Mony.” (Another retro star, Bobby Goldsboro of “Honey” fame, hits the Event Center stage at 5 p.m. Sunday.)
- Tommy James & The Shondells
- Where: Riverside Casino Event Center
- When: 9 p.m. Saturday (2/16)
- Tickets: $29 to $49 at the Casino Gift Shop or Riversidecasinoandresort.com
- Artist’s website: Tommyjames.com
Most of James’ fame grew from his early spin on Roulette Records, during which music industry godfather Morris Levy called the shots.
“We were very fortunate to get out of this in one piece,” James, 65, says by phone from his home in north Jersey, just outside New York City. “We left Roulette in the middle ’70s, and we’d been there for almost 10 years.
“It was like an ugly father situation. On one hand, doing business with them was a horror, but on other hand, we were given the keys to candy store and allowed to morph into whatever we could become. I was allowed to produce the band, we wrote our own songs. Really, we were in charge of our own career. That would have never happened at another label,” he says.
“We’d had a ‘yes’ from Columbia and RCA and all the majors, because ‘Hanky Panky’ had already exploded out of Pittsburgh. But at Roulette, they actually needed us,” he says.
“But there was this dark side (at Roulette), that you just weren’t going to make any mechanical royalties, you weren’t going to get paid — you were going to basically have to toe the line and keep your mouth shut.”
Those tumultuous years were far more green than lean for James, an only child who was born in Dayton, Ohio, but grew up in Niles, Mich.
“We were, of course, making money from touring and other things, and when we left Roulette, everything changed,” James says, including a stint hiding out in Nashville.
“There was a point where we certainly did (go underground). A gang war had broken out in New York City and Morris was on the wrong side. It was a very scary time,” James says. “Morris left for Spain and got out of town, and he left all of us at Roulette kinda holding the bag. I was told by my attorney that it would be a real smart move if I left town. If they couldn’t get Morris, they were quite likely going after what was making Morris money, and that was me.
“I said, ‘Oh, that’s just terrific — I’m on the lam now.’ So I went to Nashville. I worked with Elvis’ guys — (drummer) D.J. Fontana and (guitarist) Scotty Moore — and we did an album together. We made use of the time, but that was a very scary moment.”
That whole story plays out in James’ 2011 autobiography, “Me, the Mob, and the Music: One Helluva Ride with Tommy James & The Shondells.” The book has drawn rave reviews from the likes of Rolling Stone, which last August deemed it one of “the 25 greatest rock memoirs of all time.”
It’s also headed for the silver screen, in development with Barbara De Fina, who produced “Good Fellas,” “Hugo,” “Casino” and “Cape Fear.” James is working closely with the production, and may even have a cameo role as someone in the background, like a bartender.
“I’m getting a hell of an education,” he says. With so many negotiations every step of the way, he says “it’s a wonder any movie ever gets made.”
Life has been a wild ride for the James, who switched from ukulele to acoustic guitar at age 9, after seeing Elvis on TV in 1956. A year later, he begged his mom for an electric guitar, taught himself to play and had his first professional gig at age 12. That spiraled into a career yielding 23 gold singles and 110 million records, with his songs covered by more than 300 artists.
He’s been married 41 years to his wife, Linda, and has a son who’s a design engineer in Atlanta.
A “simple guy” at heart who enjoys spending time at home with his wife, James still loves getting out there, connecting with his fans, and is looking forward to his return trip to Iowa.
“I’ve played there so many times over the years, on the Interstate 80 tour,” he says with a laugh.
“Being a working act is the centerpiece of everything else you do. It really is,” he says. “You must plug into the crowd, with the fans. You have to do that — it’s just so terribly important for everybody. Being a working act is at the heart of who you are, if you’re in the rock ‘n’ roll business. Plus the fact that I love to perform.
“There’s this relationship between artists and fans that is, I suppose, as close to a religious experience as you can have in this business. It is really a wonderful relationship, especially now — the audience is like an extended family when you’ve been in industry as long as I have. The energy that comes from the fans is really amazing.”