Editor’s note: This is the second part of a two-part article about a recent interview the Daily News conducted with legendary rock musician Tommy James. James spoke with the Daily News in anticipation of his band’s big show in Columbus this Saturday for Our Hospice of South Central Indiana. Tommy James and the Shondells take the stage at 8:55 p.m., Aug. 31, at Mill Race Park, Columbus. The concert is free of charge, with opening act Groove Essential taking the stage at 7 p.m. For more information, call 812-314-8053.
COLUMBUS — Tommy James and the Shondells will take the stage Saturday night at Mill Race Park for the free, annual Our Hospice of South Central Indiana Concert, bringing with them a playlist that stretches back almost 50 years.
Of course, they cannot possibly play all those songs in the roughly one-hour-and-ten minute set, but James nonetheless anticipates “a fun night.”
“We’ll try to do as many of the hits as we can and maybe something from the movie,” the 66-year-old James told the Daily News. “I love coming back to Indiana; it’s my old stomping ground. I’m a mid-west kid.”
The movie of which the front-man spoke is the currently-in-development big-screen adaptation of his self-written, 2011 autobiography “Me, the Mob and the Music.”
The reference to “the Mob” in the title isn’t symbolic. The band’s first label, Roulette Records – the company with whom they created most of their hits – was a front for the Genovese Crime Family in New York City.
According to James, two-thirds of the book details the band’s tumultuous relationship with Roulette and its owner, Morris Levy.
“The Essence of the book,” James said, “is about us trying to have a career in Rock in Roll with this dark story going on behind us that we really couldn’t talk about.”
He continued, “My collaborator on the book, Martin Fitzpatrick, and I at first were calling it ‘Crimson and Clover.’ We got about one-third of the way through and realized that if we didn’t tell the Roulette story, we were cheating ourselves and everyone else.”
At the time of that insight, however, James wasn’t comfortable writing openly about the shady dealings at Roulette, as many of the main players “were still walking around.”
“In 2006,” James said, “the last of the Roulette regulars – the mob-connected guys – passed away. It took us another three years to finish the book. As soon as the book came out, we started getting calls for the movie and Broadway rights.”
Legendary Hollywood producer Barbara De Fina has expressed interest in producing the film; the project is currently searching for the right screenwriter, with Universal set to distribute.
James and his band not only survived 15 years at Roulette, but in many ways, also thrived. In fact, James credited the skills he learned at Roulette and the creative freedom afforded him there with allowing him to sustain such a long career in the music business.
“I learned and developed all these skills at Roulette that I still use in my career to this day,” he said.
He also credited his decades-long success to his relationship with fans.
“I thank the good Lord and the fans for my career longevity,” he said. “It’s been an amazing ride.”
The internet allows artists to reach a global audience like never before, he added. “What I love about the technology now, is that it allows you to stay connected with fans. We’re going to start our own YouTube Channel in January, which will allow us to maintain regular communications with the fans.”
Such close interaction allows James to remain vital with his audience, a cornerstone of his approach. “It’s your audience that follows you through all the ups and downs and phases,” he said. “They make it real no matter what adventure you walk into. Our fans are almost like extended family.”
James has seen the industry progress through numerous technologies and eras. “I see the music business from a historical perspective more than anything else,” he said. “Studio equipment, for example, has changed so drastically that, I don’t think it would even be recognized by people in the ‘60s as recording equipment.”
“The technology on the stage has drastically improved, too,” he added. “There are so many more things we can do onstage now. Radio has drastically altered, too; it’s all done on the internet now.”
Long-play albums and 45s were the order of the day when James started out. Those were mostly phased beginning in the ‘80s by CDs, which are themselves becoming obsolete with the explosion of internet downloading. “The record business is being replaced by the internet,” James said.
Tommy James and the Shondells have maintained an exhaustive tour and recording schedule throughout their career, too, taking a break only twice since first signing with Roulette in 1966.
And despite all the upheaval in the business over the years, for James, one thing has remained constant. “The music and excitement at concerts hasn’t changed,” he said. “Concert crowds generally don’t change.”
At least one thing about the crowds HAS changed over the years, though – over the decades. “I look out over our crowds now,” James said, “and I see, literally, three generations of fans.”
The sheer number of artists who have done cover versions of James’ music attests to his band’s cross-generational appeal. According to James, there have been more than 300 cover versions of his songs, with a diverse range of musicians offering unique interpretations of his playbook, including Billy Idol, Tiffany, R.E.M., Prince, Dolly Parton, Tom Jones, Cher, the Boston Pops and many others.
Doubtless, come 8:55 p.m., Saturday, at Mill Race Park, Columbus, there will be numerous others offering up their own cover versions as they groove and sing along to the nearly fifty-year soundtrack of Tommy James and the Shondells.
Contact: Rob Cox 812-663-3111 x7011