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 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Five_Americans#Singles) 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!)
Labels: 60's rock, Five Americans, Morris Levy, rrecord industry expose, Tommy James