Generally Eclectic Review

Reviews of book on music - all sorts. Feel free to share your comments, criticisms, and replies with my readers!

Location: Fredonia, New York, United States

Feel free to contact me at mason2042 at gmail dot com

Thursday, June 28, 2012

“Fort Worth’s Rock and Roll Roots” by Mark A. Nobles (Arcadia)

This small book literally takes a look at one of the less-heralded popular-music scenes in urban Texas during the 1960’s. “Fort Worth’s Rock and Roll Roots” is, like most of the attractively packaged and always informative local-history books issued by Arcadia Publishing, a pictorial history with background text wehich results in some pretty interesting and instructive perusing.

“Fort Worth’s Rock and Roll Roots” is an examination of the rock scene which emerged in “Cowtown” in the mid-to-late 1960’s, in the wake of the British Invasion and the burgeoning youth culture it engendered. It attempts to look at this phenomenon primarily from two, by no means mutually exclusive perspectives - those of the musicians and the fans (many of whom would go on to become musicians). We also get to glimpse inside a few key venues and look at some fascinating ephemeral material culture as well.

I find the title of the book to be a little ambiguous. Surely, the emergence of bands such as ThElite, the Novas (not to be confused with the Minneapolis band of the same era who recorded the cult classic “The Crusher”, or with the Oregon band of the same name and timeframe), the Excels, the Barons (whose guitarist, John Nitzinger, would become one of the more prominent alumni of the Fort Worth scene, with major-label solo albums in the 1970’s, plus recordings with Carl Palmer and Alice Cooper), Larry and the Blue Notes, to name a few of the best-known local combos, was a flowering of the Fort Worth scene, rather than the “roots” of it. The true roots of rock’n’roll in Fort Worth - as the book freely acknowledges - included Western Swing pioneers such as Milton Brown and his Musical Brownies, local blues and country bands, r&b singer-guitarist Ray Sharpe (still active over a half-century after his national hit “Linda Lu”) and the briefly-famous Bruce Channel, whose “Hey Baby”, with harmonica player Delbert McClinton, was an acknowledged influence on the Beatles. Oddly, the roots chapter - which is quite nicely done - comes at the end of the book, not in the chronologically-expected beginning.

This quibble aside, the book is a fascinating glimpse at an enthusiastically youthful music scene which in some ways was very typical of similar scenes throughout America in the fast-moving pre-psychedelic mid-1960’s. The names and details would, of course, be different from place to place, but the attitudes, the hair, the clothes, the school hops and a-go-gos (we’d just call them “teen dances” in my northern hometown), the t.v. dance parties, and the great bulk of other elements chronicled here were much the same in many small towns and cities alike. It was an era when bands could experiment with original material and personal styles in public, when local bands were embraced by local media, when fan clubs were not just for teen idols, when bands could play for all ages in different settings (even bars and nightclubs if they were careful), when touring was difficult, but putting together sound and light equipment was easy. So much of what is outlined here will be familiar in principle to those of us who were teenagers in the mid-60’s, yet so much of it represents a bygone era, it might well astound readers too young to remember this more informal time.

The photographs which dominate the book tell the story at least as well as words could. Many of the pictures were supplied by the band members themselves. Many musicians and other participants likewise share reminiscences, though I can’t but think there’s a full-length textual book waiting to be written, more stories to be recounted. One hopes that will come eventually. Indeed, now that so many figures from rock’n’roll’s past have been writing autobiographies, the historical as well as anecdotal documentation of local scenes in many more cities would seem to be the next fertile ground for music-book publishers to begin covering.

I hope Arcadia will continue to make available local-scene pictorial histories similar to this one. While the primary audience for this offering will no doubt be nostalgic 60’s rockers living in Fort Worth, I’m entirely convinced that both historians and fans from anywhere will find much to identify with and enjoy in this book.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

“Revival: A Folk Music Novel” by Scott Alarik (Peter E. Randall)

This review breaks new ground for this particular blog - I have never reviewed a novel before, and didn’t expect I ever would. Indeed, it has been many, many years since I’ve so much as READ a novel. But Scott Alarik is an old friend of mine, albeit someone I haven’t seen for close on to 30 years, so I’m very pleased to have had the opportunity to peruse this book.

Scott Alarik came out of Minnesota during the 1970’s as a singer-songwriter with a deep, sensitive voice and songs to match. After moving to Boston in the 1980’s, he became a folk-music journalist, writing about one of the most active, most vigorous folk-music scenes in the country with the same levels of awareness and discernment he brought to lyric-writing. Now, he brings his writing skills and knowledge to a novel based in that same Boston-area folk scene, not merely to tell us a story, but also to make cogent observations about the worlds of traditional and contemporary folk music, and the ways these related genres nourish each other.

On the surface, this would appear to be a love story. Nathan Warren is an aging singer-songwriter whose once-bright future stalled, spiraling him into a rut in which he manages to survive by hosting an open-mike, overseeing a jam session, and teaching guitar to students who possess very little potential to ever match his skills. His efforts in these roles are appreciated and highly respected, yet they represent a much lower level of success than was originally predicted for him. But then, a much younger, more modern-styled singer-songwriter named Kit Palmer enters his life through the open-mike, and the two become lovers as well as collaborators. Much of the storyline revolves around their burgeoning relationship, as well as Nathan’s attempts to point Kit toward a musical direction and career path best suited for her talents.

At first it seems as if Alarik might be offering us a roman a clef. In the opening segments, set largely at the open-mike, I was entirely convinced that I knew exactly who Nathan Warren was supposed to be in real life. Then I realized that in many ways Nathan Warren must stand for any number of open-mike hosts whose dreams of a bigger platform for their talents never emerged the way they’d hoped it would. Other characters likewise have inexact or composite parallels in the real world, including a local folk-music critic named Ferguson, whose role in the folk community seems very much akin to what I suppose Alarik’s own role to be in Boston. It is no doubt always a mistake to think that authors are incorporating themselves into their own novels in exact replica. But I’m probably safe in saying that Scott Alarik is in some measure writing about what he knows in the delineation of the Ferguson character, as well as others in the book. I suppose there are people who will read this book with the primary purpose of seeing who else they think can identify, But they would only be shortchanging themselves by doing so, as there is far more at work here than a mere reproduction of particular people at a particular locale, in a particular time.

In the long run, it doesn’t matter who the characters may or may not be modeled after, or whether they are composites of people the author knows. The more one reads, the more Nathan, Kit, and several of the other characters become newly-created individuals, not merely “types”. And the deeper one gets into the reading of this book, it starts to become clear that this is not merely a love story about a middle-aged has-been-who-never-was and his beautiful young lover on the way up. Indeed, it is not really about the people - it is about the music. Nathan instills in Kit an increasing love for the traditions which lie at the foundation of folk music as practiced in the 21st century, traditions which Alarik is careful to discuss openly with the reader. Likewise, Kit teaches Nathan some of the contemporary realities of up-to-date songwriting styles - Alarik inserts adaptations of real songs by Dar Williams and Antje Duvekot (fully credited in an appendix) to stand-in as songs written by a young female writer of considerable talent - while at the same time, she incorporating elements of the traditions she learns from him. Nathan performs traditional songs at his open-mike, while welcoming new songs by newer writers,. He guest-lectures on traditional folk-music at Harvard, and eventually teaches a folk-music-history class at a local folk venue. Alarik gets to draw from his own considerable knowledge of folk traditions, in the service of revealing some of the ways in which older and newer styles of folk music draw from each other. One can read these insertions as adjuncts to the love story, or one can interpret the love story as a means by which the author may express eternal truths about the way folk-music progresses, by always renewing itself while retaining kernels of the old realities, which never really become old, after all.

Thus, the title “Revival”, a book about a cultural idiom - and about characters - perennially in the process of renewal. This is not merely a novel set in the world of folk music, it is ABOUT folk music. Thus, the subtitle, “A Folk Music Novel”, is entirely appropriate. I would think anyone who cares deeply about folk music, its past, present, and future, will find much pleasure and much to ponder while reading this book. I recommended it highly.

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Tuesday, April 10, 2012

“WIXY 1260: Pixies, Six-Packs, and Supermen” by Mike Olszewski and Richard Berg, with Carlo Wolff (Black Squirrel)

Those of you of a certain age - in this particular case, those who came to maturity in the 1960’s - will remember how IMPORTANT radio was to us. It was our lifeline, our entree into the popular music which we felt represented our ideals and way of life, our connection to what people around us were considering to be new and hip and worthy of our era. Yes, there were local scenes in the 1960’s, but there also was, or so we thought, a consensus developing as to what was good and what wasn’t., even though it was never really the case that “everybody” agreed. We thought we all listened to the same songs (not really) on the same stations (of course not), and hung on every word spoken by the same DJ’s (though we can barely remember half their names now).

No, we never were that much in lockstep, even if we tended to feel that way at the time. Perhaps because radio has lost so much of its magic in this digital age, thanks to the Internet, iTunes, iPad, downloads,, many of us who were around when radio DID possess true magic - from the 1920’s into at least the 1980’s, perhaps 90’s - may have developed a tendency to romanticize its importance. I, on the other hand, KNOW how significant radio was in my life. Approaching my mid-60‘s, I still do a show on a college-radio station, still review books about radio, still keep in touch with like-minded friends, and in fact do just about everything except listen to radio. Because radio’s no fun anymore.

Along come the authors of this little book (144 pages) to remind us much fun radio used to be. WIXY was a small AM radio station in a big city (Cleveland), which successfully took on the clear-channel giants and long-established on-air favorites, quickly building itself into a major player in a major market, only to stumble awkwardly when the music changed and a new medium (FM radio) caused drastic alterations in America’s listening habits. Founded by three young men who loved radio and were eager to please their audience, WIXY appealed to the masses through a combination of the hottest Top 40 music going during the mid-60’s, popular on-air personalities, and wild, attention-grabbing promotions.

“WIXY 1260” - the cryptic subtitle will only mean something to people who remember the station and its on-air branding - traces the swift rise of a locally-driven format which could appeal to an across-the-board pop-music audience which had not yet splintered into subcategories and warring factions, those by-products of the dreaded out-of-town consultants minutely studying target demographics. The comings and goings of the station’s personnel are tracked - this was not an era in which it paid to become TOO attached to a particular jock, aside from certain superstars who would stay with a station seemingly forever - as are dealings with sponsors and visiting performers. But what many (including myself) may find most memorable are the detailed descriptions of the station’s promotional stunts and gimmicks, many of which were elaborate to the point of seeming preposterous in retrospect. And considering some of the headaches that came the station’s way as a result of a few of these promotions, they doubtless seemed preposterous at the time as well. But they worked, helping to increase the station’s audience many times over.

Yet, while the station rose to the #1 position in the ratings uncommonly quickly, its fall from grace dragged on far longer than it probably should have. The original owners saw the writing on the wall - the rise of FM as a listening alternative with superior sound quality, the introduction of the FM band to car radios, the split of the audience into “progressive FM” vs. “easy-listening”/”adult-contemporary/AOR” formats, the growth of the LP over the 45-RPM single - and managed to sell the station without losing their shirts. The new corporate owners struggled to succeed until the ignominious end. Success stories are always more pleasant to read than tales of woe, but one can often learn a lot from stories of failure as well. Thus, I wish the authors’ analysis of the station’s demise were as carefully detailed as their examination of the station’s success. The book is divided so that each chapter covers a particular year. Once we reach the 1970’s, the chapters become much shorter, the story less detailed.

But the first half of the book tells the success story in such a way that it made me wish this were a station I would have been able to listen to. Living in Western New York, I could hear WIXY’s top competitor, WKYC, loud and clear after sundown, weather conditions permitting, but WIXY itself was too low-powered to reach this far east. I would surmise that this book would have its greatest appeal to people who fondly remember hearing WIXY during its 1967-68 heyday. But since there were smaller, well-loved stations such as WIXY in many other parts of the US, I have a feeling that anyone who loved radio during the era will find much to identify with here. (I suppose this is where I should insert my memories of WNIA in Cheektowaga, NY, as format-free a Top 40 station as one could hope to find in the mid-60’s, but that’s really a story for another day.)

Recommended more to fans of radio-nostalgia than to people looking for music-nostalgia. But a nice little book, nevertheless. Black Squirrel Books is an imprint of Kent State University Press.

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Thursday, March 15, 2012

“The Definition of Bounce: Between Ups and Downs In New Orleans” by 10th Ward Buck (New Mouth From the Dirty South)

Let me state right from the outset that I’m not really the right person to make comments on this book. The demographic is totally skewed - I’m a senior-citizen college prof from Western New York, and bounce music is made for a much younger resident of New Orleans. But, as someone who teaches a course in the History of American Popular Music, I like to learn as much as I can about new musical styles, regardless of what audience they’re intended for, particularly when they come from such a wellspring of important American genres as New Orleans.

Having said that, I can’t really say my knowledge of bounce music is now complete. Indeed, it still feels very limited after perusing this volume. Author 10th Ward Buck, himself a prominent bounce performer responsible for the original “Drop and Gimme 50”, is not a musicologist, and therefore doesn’t really “define” bounce, regardless of the book’s title. But he does tell us a lot about the music, if sometimes rather indirectly. It is not a branch of hip-hop; it has however been subjected to alteration by artists who incorporate rap with bounce; it should be performed rapidly, and so on. Thus, we have descriptive phrases and critiques (as well as titles one can look up on Youtube, which I have) rather than detailed analysis. There is, though, an invaluable timeline of “significant occurrences” in the development and disemination of bounce music, from the 1980’s to 2010, which historians will find quite useful.

Most of all, Buck gives us a solid feel for the CONTEXT of the music, which in years to come will be invaluable for researchers who will be able to hear the music as preserved on disc and videos, but will welcome the opportunity to place it within a particular scene in a particular time in a particular place. The context is supplied partially by Buck’s informal text (which has all the earmarks of being transcribed from taped interviews or reminiscences), but even more so by the photographs, to which considerably more space is devoted overall than to words. We see page after page of Buck and his friends, fans, and neighbors, dancing, partying, hanging out, etc. While this does get somewhat repetitious after a while, one is left with the impression that this visual document of the “bounce scene” is where the REAL story of the music lies.

So, while I may not be part of the target market for the book, I’m entirely positive that such a market is out there. I’m sure the right audience will get considerably more out of this book than I did. If it sounds like something that would be just right for you, it most likely is!

New Mouth From The Dirty South is an imprint of the New Orleans indie Garrett County Press,

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Wednesday, March 14, 2012

“Thomas Jefferson and Music” by Helen Cripe (Thomas Jefferson Foundation)

It goes without saying that Thomas Jefferson is one of the most heralded figures in American history. It’s not simply that he played one of the most crucial roles in establishing the principles on which the United States was founded. It’s not just that he became our third President, and was responsible for expanding our country’s borders tremendously via the Louisiana Purchase. Those things would be accomplishment enough for any one man. But it’s the whole “Renaissance Man” aspect of his life that catches the fancy of many people. We don’t witness that phenomenon much anymore, in an era when the great bulk of us have become specialists, which makes a politician, document writer, farming innovator, architect, inventor - well, you get the idea - who was also one of the most significant of all Founding Fathers such an attractive personality. To be sure, his relationships with people he held in bondage raised a few eyebrows a few years ago, though he didn’t really do anything that was considered grossly untoward in his day. Even so, every side in our national debates wants to claim him, to tell us that they are the ones who are carrying on his spirit. Fact of the matter is, we ALL are in one way or another. (Do I seem too much like a Fan?)

Given Jefferson’s involvement in so many facets of life, no one should be surprised that he also took a strong interest in music. And although he may not have been a major figure, and failed to become noteworthy as, say, composer or performer, he was still at the forefront of activity in the early days of the United States as a supporter, someone who was quick to catch on to the innovations of others and the artistic happenings of the day. This was the era when American composers such as Carr and Hewitt were taking the new land’s first musical baby steps (aside from psalm writers) in hopes of eventually establishing an identity apart from that of the former mother country. Jefferson supported them. It was the era when the long-established harpsichord was starting to feel the heat of competition from the pianoforte, which was just becoming a reliable instrument and a worthwhile alternative. Jefferson owned both. It was an era when other new instruments (such as Benjamin Franklin’s glass armonica; speaking of Renaissance Men!) and refinements of older ones (including a harpsichord attachment called the celestina) attempted to establish a foothold in the minds of the musical public, with fleeting success or none at all. Jefferson checked them out. It was an era of change in classical music, as the Classical Period began to give way to the Romantic Era. Jefferson went to the concerts. It was an era when classical and folk music had yet to appeal to audiences totally removed from each other. Jefferson the violinist/fiddler played both. It was an era when “popular music” in the modern sense of the term had not begun to develop to any great extent, as there was not yet enough of an urban middle class to make it profitable. But there WAS a theatrical style somewhere between light opera and our musical theater called the “ballad opera”. Jefferson attended the performances AND bought the scores.

All this activity is documented in “Thomas Jefferson and Music”, a small, yet detailed volume originally published in 1979, and now reissued in a revised edition. We see Jefferson the music lover, the amateur musician, the instrument and sheet music purchaser, the concert-goer, the guiding spirit behind his family’s musical interests, the technically-minded tinkerer who was interested in tuning keyboard instruments he himself had no facility for playing, the correspondent with musical inventors (including Franklin). In other words, if it has anything to do with music, and Thomas Jefferson is involved, it’s in this book. In the process, Helen Cripe has given us a fascinating glimpse into the musical life of America during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, when Americans were finally able to take the time to develop a fervent interest in the musical arts. The book reads easily, as Cripe never allows herself to get too bogged down in minutiae. A knowledge of the classical music scene in Europe will be helpful, but you can learn much without it.

The main body of the text is 82 pages long. There follows another 70+ pages of appendices (lists of sheet-music owned by Jefferson, so far as was documented; plus a list of the concerts he attended while in France, so far as we know), notes, resources, index. As I type this, the book is available through Amazon for under $12, so if you only need the overview, and the documentation does not interest you, it won’t break your bank, or your library’s bank

The book has been published by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, formerly distributed by the University of North Carolina Press. However, distribution is now handled by the University of Virginia Press.

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Thursday, January 19, 2012

“Blowing Zen: Finding An Authentic Life” by Ray Brooks (Sentient Publications)

I first came across the term “blowing zen” when I began teaching the Music of the World course at SUNY Fredonia. The textbook I used that semester referred to “Suizen” (in English, “blowing Zen”) as a Japanese meditation practice, in which a person playing the shakuhachi bamboo flute (now just as often made of harder woods, and even plastic) uses breath control techniques specific to that instrument as a means to attain enlightenment, a profound level of self-realization. This stayed with me, first off because I love the sounds the shakuhachi is capable of making, but also because it represented a function of music-making that I’d never considered before.

I should at this point make clear that, despite some youthful flirtation with the concepts of Zen Buddhism, I have never seriously pursued an interest in Zen, and am thus unqualified to critique the book from that particular perspective. My primary interest in this book, then. is the shakuhachi, a flute with an uncommon range of timbres and pitches, achieved by a skillful manipulation of the notched mouthpiece, the player’s breath and head movements, and partial holing techniques. It is an instrument long associated with the komuso, known as “monks of nothingness and emptiness”, itinerant Japanese monks who survived by playing the shakuhachi both for spiritual sustenance and for begging. as street musicians who wore beehive-shaped headgear that covered their faces, the better to deny the ego.

Ray Brooks is an English-born musician now resident in British Columbia who has achieved considerable mastery of the shakuhachi, well beyond the noodlings one too often encounters from Westerners dabbling in a non-Western musical idiom. “Blowing Zen” (first published in 2000, and now revised and expanded) begins by looking at how Brooks discovered the instrument, virtually by accident, while living and working as an English teacher in Japan. It goes on to trace the fascinating path he took not simply to learn the instrument as a casual means of personal entertainment, but to achieve spiritual goals and self-discipline, while studying on a high level with two of the very finest shakuhachi masters/teachers (sensei) of our modern era, the late Katsuya Yokoyama and the still-active Akikazu Nakamura. Brooks’ musical and spiritual journey also led him to witness and to participate in aspects of Japanese culture and the Japanese worldview closed to most Westerners.

Playing the shakuhacki is a very exacting art, with a great deal of tradition behind the learning process, requiring strict attention, scrupulous adherence to the dictates of the sensei, and considerable self-restraint. It is fascinating to read about the arduous beginners’ process of blowing one note over and over before progressing to the next note, a commitment American music students would be too impatient to put up with for very long. Later, students must learn a composition thoroughly before being given the opportunity to begin work on another piece.

The shakuhachi is in some ways an endangered tradition in modern-day Japan, with its highly Westernized culture - albeit a Westernization that clashes oddly with a worldview that treasures orderliness and subordination to one’s work to degrees rarely encountered in the West - that threatens to turn traditional, classical Japanese culture into museum-piece status. Long hours of practice and relative solitude (even when practicing in public places, as Brooks very often did), required to play the shakuhachi with any sort of true understanding, require a regimen which the fast pace of Japanese life and devotion to one’s employer rendersincreasingly difficult to live by. The description of Brooks’ shugyo, a self-imposed “marathon” in which he headed up a chilly mountainside every day to practice his instrument for hours at a time for sixty consecutive days is a testament to his determination to do whatever was needed to devote himself fully to his chosen musical and spiritual paths. (Fortunately, he had the moral and financial support of his wife during what must have been a trying time for her.)

Brooks’ story is peppered with a number of interesting characters, in many senses of that word. We not only get to meet his sensei, but also his translator (a necessary adjunct, though the flutist managed to learn a fair amount of Japanese; there is a useful glossary in the back of the book which I found myself consulting a number of times), people he met while practicing at temples and riding trains (he often went great distances for lessons and practice sessions), fellow-Westerner street musicians and vendors he befriended, Tibetan Buddhist monks he met in trips to India (there are occasional flashbacks to earlier experiences) and so on. The tales of these encounters are very much a bonus, giving Japan and its people a substantial subsidiary role in his story.

One doesn’t need a great knowledge of Zen to learn quite a lot from this enchanting book. One doesn’t even have to know much about Japanese music theory or performance practices; Brooks supplies whatever basic musical/cultural knowledge you may need to understand his story. Not only will an interest in faraway places and their customs suffice as a starting point, simple intellectual curiosity will be amply rewarded. The book works on many different levels, so that no matter what your particular reason may be for picking it up, it will be a satisfying experience. Very definitely recommended.

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Wednesday, December 28, 2011

“Me, The Mob, and the Music” by Tommy James with Martin Fitzpatrick (Scribner) /”High Strung” by Mike Rabon (Aberdeen Bay)

Two memoirs by 60’s rock’n’roll stars, both of which offer inside glimpses of how a record industry that was rotten to its core cajoled the young performers we loved to sell their souls and forced them to pay an enormous price in exchange for their few years of glory. To be certain, we all knew that the music business was full of shysters, but here are the gory details direct from the pens of two of the survivors. At the risk of sounding cynical - before you start feeling too sorry for record companies who are losing their stranglehold on our entertainment dollars in this era of copyright infringement via illegal downloads, it might pay you to see what really goes on, or at least did in the Golden Era when fortunes were made by everyone except the voices you heard on the records you bought.

Tommy James’ reminiscences are far from the usual dry recitation of names, dates, and facts. No, Tommy has a story to tell and it’s a pretty harrowing one. He opens with an ingratiating recounting of childhood memories, slanted toward those parts of his childhood that are relevant to his later career choice. We see young Tommy Jackson growing up in Niles, Michigan (not Pittsburgh as has been reported from time to time, though Pittsburgh does figure heavily into a significant portion of his story). He works in a record store as a young teenager, where he hears all the latest hits and gets a feel for what the youthful public wants to hear. He starts playing guitars in bar bands while still well below the drinking age. He loves the attention, the girls, the process of putting a cover band and a sound together.

He becomes part of a regional scene where cover bands gleefully steal show-stopping favorite songs from other cover bands (who didn’t write them in the first place). When one of those bands, the Rivieras, hits the bigtime with “California Sun”, Tommy Jackson wants to be next to grab the brass ring. A first attempt, with a band called Tom and the Tornadoes, had (deservedly) gone nowhere, But with a new band, the Shondells, he records a simple, yet irresistible tune called “Hanky Panky”, which had been a B-side for the Raindrops (songwriters extraordinaire Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich). It doesn’t do much at first, but suddenly takes off big - but only in Pittsburgh. The rest of the Shondells don’t seem ready to tour on behalf of the record, so young Mr. Jackson (still a teenager) makes a round of personal appearances in PA, with such a degree of success that a local DJ takes him to New York to hunt for a record deal.

If this were a typical rock’n’roll tale of woe, it might well end after this brief burst of regional fame. But ”Hanky Panky”’ catches the ear of Roulette Records boss Morris Levy. (Some of you probably already know where this is going, since Mr. Levy has long-since amassed a, shall we say, “reputation” as a wheeler-dealer virtually devoid of scruples.) Roulette had been a successful record company in the 1950’s, the home of Jimmie “Honeycomb” Rodgers, Buddy Knox, Jimmy Bowen, the Playmates, et. al. Its various subsidiaries were a dominant force in doo-wop. But by the mid-60s, Roulette had become mostly a home to jazz and (also on a subsidiary) Latin music, with no pop-chart stars. But when Morris Levy heard “Hanky Panky”, he heard cash registers ringing. He convinces other record companies that this new young singer, re-named Tommy James for reasons that are unclear, was HIS artist. No one in the record industry dared buck Morris Levy.

What happens from this point on is a story best told by Tommy James himself. It’s a tale of deception on a grand scale, incorporating thievery, bribery, tax evasion, organized crime (Levy was intimately tied in with the Genovese family, THE New York Mob family in its heyday), drugs, violence and threats of violence, murder, whatever other forms of vice you might name, it’s here. One is tempted to add “involuntary servitude” to that list, in that Tommy James had no idea what level of criminal activity Morris Levy was exposing him to when the wide-eyed youth innocently signed his life over to Roulette Records. But no one put a gun to his head to sign on the dotted line (though they may as well have).Even so, for all intents and purposes, Levy virtually treated him almost like a slave. While James was selling millions of records, bringing tens of millions of dollars into Morris Levy’s personal bank account, James saw none of the royalties due him. Yet he continued to work for Levy, partly out of fear, to be sure, but also because all those hit records were allowing him and the Shondells to play ever more lucrative live gigs, from which he could indeed make some very decent money.

This really should have been a very special time for Tommy James. He was on national t.v., touring to places most musicians only dream about seeing, accumulating a stash of gold records (which Morris Levy kept for himself), hob-nobbing with the likes of Ed Sullivan (who, not surprisingly, bungled his name on-air; turns out Ed drank during his show) and Vice-President Hubert Humphrey - it all sounds so ideal. But the reality was constant exploitation, mind-altering pills, and the necessity to always watch one’s back in case a goodfella was behind a partition intending to gun him down. The smiling face on the album covers masked a total mess of a talented young man, caught up in a web of fraud and treachery with seemingly no way out. But those few opportunities which might have presented an opportunity to leave it behind were ignored. Tommy James was not simply addicted to uppers, fame, women, and guns, he was addicted to Morris Levy.

There are times when it seems Tommy James is making Morris Levy the primary focus of the book, not Tommy James. But since this is an eye-witness account which doesn’t simply confirm all the rumors which have circulated around Levy for decades, it expands upon them and then some, this is not necessarily a bad thing. James strikes me as being brutally honest about both himself and Levy, and is not afraid to point fingers and name names, even when significant Mobsters are involved. One can only guess that he waited to tell his story until enough people had died to render it safe. The result is a real page-turner of a true-crime story as well as an expose of record business excess at what I can only hope was its worst. And when Tommy recounts the events of his final confrontation and break-up with Morris Levy, the writing reaches such a feverish pitch that one reads as fast as one can to match the pace of the story, then has to go back and read it over more carefully to savor every detail.

The full title of the book is “Me, The Mob, and the Music: One Helluva Ride With Tommy James and the Shondells.” One helluva ride, indeed, and one helluva book. Perhaps not as many will line up at bookstore counters to read this as they did for the recent books by Keith Richards or Steven Tyler, but this would be the book I would recommend if you’re only going to be reading one rock’n ‘roll memoir.

There are times when Mike Rabon’s memoir is even more harrowing than Tommy James, though not quite for the same reasons. But Rabon and his compadres in the fondly-remembered 60’s garage band, the Five Americans, also experienced the seamier side of the record business, albeit not on the same scale of a Morris Levy. (I’m sure it seemed just as seamy to Rabon and friends while they were living through their nightmare, of course.) But it’s the brutal honesty with which Rabon describes the horrifying life that he lived for several years following the demise of the band that makes it stand out from the rock-memoir pack.

The Five Americans were an Oklahoma band working out of Dallas when they managed to amass five hit records during 1966-67. Considering that conditions under which they had to work, it’s almost surprising that they had any hits at all, much less a #3 smash in “Western Union” and a bona-fide garage-psych classic with their first hit, “I See The Light”. Rabon takes us through his growing-up years, which were pretty normal, and his brief tenure at Southeastern State College, in Durant, OK, where a band called the Mutineers first got together. The Mutineers decide to drop out of school and head to Dallas, where they assumed they could find more club/bar dates and perhaps even make enough money to eat on a regular basis. They promptly began to starve, surviving by means of shoplifting foodstuffs. So it seemed like quite the break when they attracted the attention of Jon Abnor, Jr., A&R director of a small Dallas label called Abnak. (Abnor later became a one-hit wonder as one-half of the duo Jon and Robin, though Javonne “Robin” Braga was the only one of the pair who could actually sing.)

This was where the Mutineers’ troubles really begin. Abnak head, wealthy insurance executive John Abdnor, Sr. (his ne’er-do-well son slightly changed the spelling of the family name) may not have been a mob-connected gangster on the same level of criminality as Morris Levy, but he was a shyster with a capital “S”. He was just as eager to keep all his talent’s earnings for himself as Levy, but he did so with a sniff of legality. (Abdnor did, however, also serve time for tax evasion.) Abdnor depended on the business naivete of five teenaged musicians who were so excited to “sign here” that they did so without comprehending, or even reading, the contract they foolishly inked their names to, making Abdnor their manager, recording boss, and essentially, mortal-soul owner. No matter how much the newly-christened Five Americans (a name they hated; it was, of course, bestowed on them by Abdnor) earned in royalties and live performances, Abdnor absconded with all of it, even the concert fees. However, he did give the band a place to stay, and left them a small monthly stipend to live on as an advance against future royaltes. Of course, they were never given a reckoning to show how much they actually earned, with the result that Abdnor kept them in perpetual indenture till the day the band broke up, and beyond in Rabon’s case.

The entire Five Americans/Abdnor saga makes for fascinating reading, but the truly traumatic parts of the book relate the story of Rabon’s post-stardom descent into a maelstrom of poverty, mind- and body-destroying drug addiction, brutal maltreatment, injuries from accidents, thoughts of suicide, even a failed attempt at becoming a drug dealer, all recounted with excruciating detail that is both hard to read, yet hard to put down. The book alternates chapters - musical career one chapter, addiction the next, music after that, more about addiction, and so on. This structure may seem less than ideal to a chronologically-minded historian like myself, but I shudder to think if the entire last half of the book had been devoted to his post-music troubles. Fortunately, in the end, Rabon is rescued from certain (and very literal) oblivion, returns to college, and works his way into a settled and satisfying life as a teacher, husband, and father. His medical woes were not yet over, but he has managed to survive once again.

There are some factual difficulties with Rabon’s biographical details. He claims to have been inspired by Elvis Presley’s “Heartbreak Hotel” and “Hound Dog” in 1953, and that they were released on the Sun label. Both of these songs were recorded for RCA Victor, in 1956. Perhaps he was confusing them with “That’s All Right, Mama” or another Sun release, but even these were not yet recorded till 1954. He also refers to “I See The Light” as being the Five Americans’ second release, but Wikipedia (not always the most reliable source, admittedly; see lists it as the third. Wikipedia also lists five unsuccessful releases between “Evol - Not Love” and “Western Union”, which Rabon does not acknowledge. Of course, it would have been just like John Abdnor, Sr. to release material without telling his artists, or perhaps Rabon simply didn’t feel they merited attention. There are a number of small typos, which seem to be plaguing small-press books these days, but they do not interfere with one’s understanding of the text.

Both of these books are essential reading if you wish to get a better grasp of what the record business was like in the 60’s, or just like to read fascinating autobiographies by once-major stars. Tommy James still has a healthy career as a touring performer, Mike Rabon is doing equally well in his life, but both have dramatically intense stories to tell. (I hear rumors that Mitch Ryder’s forthcoming book will top them all. Hard to see how, but I’d love to see it!)

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