Back in February 2010, famous pop singer Tommy James published an explosive book about his years at Roulette Records, which turned out to be a front business for some figures in organized crime. ME, THE MOB AND THE MUSIC was a gripping autobiography by James, about how innocent musicians like himself might have been defrauded by as much as $40 million in royalties by the record company that was founded by convicted organized crime figure Morris Levy.
Levy gave artists a great deal of creative control while working for Roulette, but artists simply were not paid according to the book by James. Artists were pretty much on their own to search for income, such as doing concert gigs, while under the pressure and control of Roulette to produce profits for the company.
Tommy James started his musical career back in 1958 and eventually his pop band, Tommy James And The Shondells got signed to Roulette Records. And, although the group was immensely talented, and produced many huge hits for the record label, the band just never saw any real income from the record label while being subjected to great pressures to produce more product for the company to market.
In 1988, Morris Levy was sentenced to 10 years in prison and a $200,000 fine for his role in an extortion case where a record distributor customer was forced by buy 4 million cutout records in 1984 from the MCA catalog that were mostly junk as the best titles had been skimmed for the huge lot of records. The client was then beaten up by some mob figure associated with the Genovese crime family when he declined to pay for this order of mostly junk merchandise. Levy was portrayed in court by the prosecution as a heroin dealer tool for the world of organized crime. In this case, Levy’s co-defendant was one of the most powerful figures in the Genovese crime family, Dominick Canterino.
Levy’s lawyer tried to contend in court that this was a legitimate business transaction to a record distributor, however the extortion and and assault of the owner of the record distribution business seemed to be pretty damning evidence.
Levy even found himself as a target in a mob war at one point, where artists like Tommy James were forced to flee New York and to seek relative safety in Nashville to avoid becoming a mob hit victim for by some organized crime rivals of Levy murdering his artists to send him a message. Thankfully, when EMI and Rhino Records later purchased the old Roulette Records catalog of recordings, Tommy James finally saw some payment come his way from this honest record brand. But, by then, the popularity of Tommy James has long since passed away, where his solo recordings sold poorly after his 1971 hit, “Draggin’ The Line”. A 1993 double cd release, DISCOGRAPHY: DEALS & DEMOS, includes many songs that were shopped as demos but never purchased by a huge mainstream record label. As late as 2006, Tommy James released an album, HOLD THE FIRE. But, it was another poor seller. Roulette had taken the best years of this artist’s life and had not paid him.
The life of Tommy James wasn’t entirely perfect either. He got so involved in drug use himself during the psychedelic rock era, that he once technically died onstage from a drug overdose according to one story. And his own drug use and other problems led him to decline from an invitation to play Woodstock back in 1969. But, the story of a talented musician who struggled with low pay because of becoming a pawn of organized crime was compelling enough of a story that Martin Scorsese actually approached Tommy James considering work on a script for a movie based on this incredible story of organized crime and the record business.
The movie likely won’t be produced as three years have now passed since Scorsese firsr approached James with interest to do the film. But, it’s a story of a great “what if”. Could this have been a great film like THE GODFATHER that just was never made? You only have to wonder?