Pop music has a lot of prob­lems today but the biggest and worst may be its utter pre­dictabil­i­ty.  Modern pop is just anoth­er cor­po­rate shell-game.  The show­biz con­glom­er­ates choose the stars, groom them and con­trol all phas­es of their careers and pub­lic­i­ty.  Even when scan­dals occur, the man­age­ment of the­se moments rolls out a yawn-induc­ing, thor­ough­ly pre­med­i­tat­ed fash­ion.  The end result is pop-cul­tur­al pablum that sel­dom con­nects on any vis­cer­al lev­el because it has been pre-pack­aged and micro-man­aged with­in an inch of its life — and the pop-tarts spew­ing it out are even less inter­est­ing.

However, there was a time when the pop mar­ket­place was as wide-open and unpre­dictable as the Wild West.  Anyone will­ing to try hard enough could score a hit — and if they land­ed the right breaks, they could get a whole career out of it.  This was pos­si­ble because the music busi­ness had not yet become a cor­po­rate enter­prise — and as a result, many shady oper­a­tors were able to ply their nefar­i­ous trade while scor­ing a bundle off the country’s music-lov­ing teen pop­u­lace.

The career of Tommy James rep­re­sents an inter­est­ing  con­ver­gence of the­se two aspects of pre-cor­po­rate pop.  He rose from mid­west­ern obscu­ri­ty to pro­duce a string of AM-radio ever­greens that made him one of the most suc­cess­ful pop stars of his time: “I Think We’re Alone Now,” “Mony Mony” and “Crimson & Clover” are just three of the biggest.  He was also the major act for Roulette Records, an infa­mous­ly mobbed-up label run by the most noto­ri­ous of crooked record men, Morris Levy.

James tells the sto­ry of his career and rela­tion­ship with Levy in Me, The Mob & The Music and it’s a tale that any retro-pop maven will want to dive into.  With co-writer Martin Fitzpatrick, he chron­i­cles his career in a breezy, col­or­ful style that makes the pages flip by with ease.  His dues-pay­ing days fol­low a clas­sic pro­gres­sion: a child­hood obses­sion with music leads to the for­ma­tion of high-school groups that lead into a semi-pro region­al career.  It’s the kind of sce­nar­io famil­iar to any­one who’s ever read a garage band his­to­ry in Ugly Things mag­a­zine but it has a time­less charm that will fas­ci­nate any­one inter­est­ed in the forces that dri­ve a would-be pop star — and James and Fitzpatrick tell it in a heart­felt, engag­ing style.

Things get more inter­est­ing when James’ obscure region­al sin­gle “Hanky Panky” becomes a break­out hit in Pittsburgh and the record com­pa­nies get inter­est­ed.  This is where Levy comes into play, scar­ing off the major com­pa­nies so he can take the record.  James signs with him and enters into an agree­ment that becomes a dou­ble-edged sword.  With Roulette, he got 24–7 atten­tion from a gift­ed staff that pushed his records relent­less­ly and gave him the room to devel­op his mate­ri­al the way he saw fit.  At the same time, Levy nev­er paid him a cent of the amaz­ing roy­alties he racked up and treat­ed him like an inden­tured ser­vant, to boot.  James copes with the unfair­ness (and occa­sion­al dan­ger) of this sit­u­a­tion via booze and pills as things build towards a show­down with his cor­rupt, Machiavellian men­tor.

Simply put, Me, The Mob & The Music deliv­ers every­thing a music fan wants from a book like this.  James lays out the sto­ry behind the cre­ation of each of his pop clas­sics and dish­es out eye-open­ing tales of life as a pop star, includ­ing a sad encoun­ter with child­hood idol Buddy Rich and his unlike­ly friend­ship with Vice-President Hubert Humphrey (which includes him giv­ing Humphrey an upper one night so he can pull an all-nighter to write a speech!).  He also goes into the sneaky prac­tices that Levy uti­lized to make tons of off-the-ledger mon­ey and spins a few scary sto­ries about James’ brush­es with Levy’s mob­ster pals (a sto­ry about a Christmas par­ty at a night­club packed with Levy’s mob­ster bud­dies is like a scene from Goodfellas).

It’s also worth not­ing that Me, The Mob & The Music is a hon­est, well-writ­ten book.  James is crit­i­cal about his pro­fes­sion­al and per­son­al mis­takes, nev­er mak­ing excus­es for his own role in his music-biz trou­bles or his roman­tic prob­lems.  He and Fitzpatrick cap­ture the tale in a spare style that lays on detail where nec­es­sary but oth­er­wise main­tains a snap­py pace.  As a result, it packs a lot of mate­ri­al into its 225 pages.

Word has it that James is devel­op­ing this book for big-screen and Broadway musi­cal treat­ments.  He’s def­i­nite­ly got the mate­ri­al to make either treat­ment work and Me, The Mob & The Music is a tale worth explor­ing for any­one inter­est in pop music’s Wild West days.