Thursday, August 19, 2010

'Hanky Panky' Pt. 2: Married to the Mob

By the time "Hanky Panky" unexpectedly became a huge hit in Pittsburgh in the summer of 1965, a year after it had been recorded, the original Shondells had gone their separate ways. On his own, Tommy James decided to go to New York City with his manager and try to land a major-label deal on the basis of that regional hit, which they felt could go national. So they delivered copies to all the major labels and made appointments to drop by their offices. Roulette Records was unable to see them on the day they made their rounds, but when Tommy got back to his hotel room at the end of the day, there was a message: He was signing with Roulette.

As Tommy later learned, Roulette head Morris Levy liked "Hanky Panky," and his label hadn't had a hit in a while, so he called the heads of the other label and told them to lay off, that he wanted this kid. Now, "Hanky Panky" is a lot of fun, but it hardly signals the arrival of a transformative talent, so I don't get the sense that the other labels were too put off by Levy's request. But they also knew that it wasn't a good idea to get in Morris Levy's way when he wanted something.

You have to understand: Morris Levy wasn't connected to the Mob. Morris Levy was the Mob. In his book Me, the Mob and the Music, Tommy James tells of going to Levy's office the day after he had dropped off his record, and being escorted into a meeting with Levy and his team. Halfway through, a couple of Levy's burly associates showed up and asked if they could brief the boss in private. They stepped into the hallway, but not so far away that Tommy couldn't hear what they were discussing: how the two large dudes had administered a physical admonishment to some schnook out in New Jersey who had been bootlegging Roulette records.

Then Levy returned to the office with the two men and introduced them to his new signing, Tommy James. As Tommy says in his book: "Wonderful, I thought while we all shook hands. What am I supposed to say now? How did your beating go?"

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