January 22, 2021
He made hits such as I Think We’re Alone Now and Mony Mony, but a gangster label boss kept up to $40m of his royalties. As his complete Roulette recordings are rereleased, why no hard feelings?
‘Crime doesnt pay!’ Tommy James, the 100m-selling pop star robbed by the mob
‘I hope you’re ready, kid, because you’re about to go on one hell of a ride,” Morris Levy, the boss of Roulette Records, told Tommy James as the teenager signed a contract with the label. It was 1966 and James, 19, a small-town boy with the fastest-selling hit single in Pittsburgh’s history, had arrived in Manhattan the previous morning to find every label wanted to sign him. The next day, all offers were retracted – except Roulette’s. Levy – a notorious gangster whose label had prospered in the early 50s with Frankie Lymon and Count Basie – was referred to without irony as the Godfather and, when he put the word out that James was his, no record executive dared to cross him.
Thus James, now 73, stepped on to what he calls “a ride”. With his backing band, the Shondells, he scored 23 US chart singles, plus nine gold or platinum albums – selling 100m records – including much-covered pop classics such as I Think We’re Alone Now and Crimson and Clover. For these, he received a pittance.
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