Generally Eclectic Review

Reviews of book on music - all sorts. Feel free to share your comments, criticisms, and replies with my readers!

Location: Fredonia, New York, United States

Feel free to contact me at mason2042 at gmail dot com

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

“Me, The Mob, and the Music” by Tommy James with Martin Fitzpatrick (Scribner) /”High Strung” by Mike Rabon (Aberdeen Bay)

Two memoirs by 60’s rock’n’roll stars, both of which offer inside glimpses of how a record industry that was rotten to its core cajoled the young performers we loved to sell their souls and forced them to pay an enormous price in exchange for their few years of glory. To be certain, we all knew that the music business was full of shysters, but here are the gory details direct from the pens of two of the survivors. At the risk of sounding cynical - before you start feeling too sorry for record companies who are losing their stranglehold on our entertainment dollars in this era of copyright infringement via illegal downloads, it might pay you to see what really goes on, or at least did in the Golden Era when fortunes were made by everyone except the voices you heard on the records you bought.

Tommy James’ reminiscences are far from the usual dry recitation of names, dates, and facts. No, Tommy has a story to tell and it’s a pretty harrowing one. He opens with an ingratiating recounting of childhood memories, slanted toward those parts of his childhood that are relevant to his later career choice. We see young Tommy Jackson growing up in Niles, Michigan (not Pittsburgh as has been reported from time to time, though Pittsburgh does figure heavily into a significant portion of his story). He works in a record store as a young teenager, where he hears all the latest hits and gets a feel for what the youthful public wants to hear. He starts playing guitars in bar bands while still well below the drinking age. He loves the attention, the girls, the process of putting a cover band and a sound together.

He becomes part of a regional scene where cover bands gleefully steal show-stopping favorite songs from other cover bands (who didn’t write them in the first place). When one of those bands, the Rivieras, hits the bigtime with “California Sun”, Tommy Jackson wants to be next to grab the brass ring. A first attempt, with a band called Tom and the Tornadoes, had (deservedly) gone nowhere, But with a new band, the Shondells, he records a simple, yet irresistible tune called “Hanky Panky”, which had been a B-side for the Raindrops (songwriters extraordinaire Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich). It doesn’t do much at first, but suddenly takes off big - but only in Pittsburgh. The rest of the Shondells don’t seem ready to tour on behalf of the record, so young Mr. Jackson (still a teenager) makes a round of personal appearances in PA, with such a degree of success that a local DJ takes him to New York to hunt for a record deal.

If this were a typical rock’n’roll tale of woe, it might well end after this brief burst of regional fame. But ”Hanky Panky”’ catches the ear of Roulette Records boss Morris Levy. (Some of you probably already know where this is going, since Mr. Levy has long-since amassed a, shall we say, “reputation” as a wheeler-dealer virtually devoid of scruples.) Roulette had been a successful record company in the 1950’s, the home of Jimmie “Honeycomb” Rodgers, Buddy Knox, Jimmy Bowen, the Playmates, et. al. Its various subsidiaries were a dominant force in doo-wop. But by the mid-60s, Roulette had become mostly a home to jazz and (also on a subsidiary) Latin music, with no pop-chart stars. But when Morris Levy heard “Hanky Panky”, he heard cash registers ringing. He convinces other record companies that this new young singer, re-named Tommy James for reasons that are unclear, was HIS artist. No one in the record industry dared buck Morris Levy.

What happens from this point on is a story best told by Tommy James himself. It’s a tale of deception on a grand scale, incorporating thievery, bribery, tax evasion, organized crime (Levy was intimately tied in with the Genovese family, THE New York Mob family in its heyday), drugs, violence and threats of violence, murder, whatever other forms of vice you might name, it’s here. One is tempted to add “involuntary servitude” to that list, in that Tommy James had no idea what level of criminal activity Morris Levy was exposing him to when the wide-eyed youth innocently signed his life over to Roulette Records. But no one put a gun to his head to sign on the dotted line (though they may as well have).Even so, for all intents and purposes, Levy virtually treated him almost like a slave. While James was selling millions of records, bringing tens of millions of dollars into Morris Levy’s personal bank account, James saw none of the royalties due him. Yet he continued to work for Levy, partly out of fear, to be sure, but also because all those hit records were allowing him and the Shondells to play ever more lucrative live gigs, from which he could indeed make some very decent money.

This really should have been a very special time for Tommy James. He was on national t.v., touring to places most musicians only dream about seeing, accumulating a stash of gold records (which Morris Levy kept for himself), hob-nobbing with the likes of Ed Sullivan (who, not surprisingly, bungled his name on-air; turns out Ed drank during his show) and Vice-President Hubert Humphrey - it all sounds so ideal. But the reality was constant exploitation, mind-altering pills, and the necessity to always watch one’s back in case a goodfella was behind a partition intending to gun him down. The smiling face on the album covers masked a total mess of a talented young man, caught up in a web of fraud and treachery with seemingly no way out. But those few opportunities which might have presented an opportunity to leave it behind were ignored. Tommy James was not simply addicted to uppers, fame, women, and guns, he was addicted to Morris Levy.

There are times when it seems Tommy James is making Morris Levy the primary focus of the book, not Tommy James. But since this is an eye-witness account which doesn’t simply confirm all the rumors which have circulated around Levy for decades, it expands upon them and then some, this is not necessarily a bad thing. James strikes me as being brutally honest about both himself and Levy, and is not afraid to point fingers and name names, even when significant Mobsters are involved. One can only guess that he waited to tell his story until enough people had died to render it safe. The result is a real page-turner of a true-crime story as well as an expose of record business excess at what I can only hope was its worst. And when Tommy recounts the events of his final confrontation and break-up with Morris Levy, the writing reaches such a feverish pitch that one reads as fast as one can to match the pace of the story, then has to go back and read it over more carefully to savor every detail.

The full title of the book is “Me, The Mob, and the Music: One Helluva Ride With Tommy James and the Shondells.” One helluva ride, indeed, and one helluva book. Perhaps not as many will line up at bookstore counters to read this as they did for the recent books by Keith Richards or Steven Tyler, but this would be the book I would recommend if you’re only going to be reading one rock’n ‘roll memoir.

There are times when Mike Rabon’s memoir is even more harrowing than Tommy James, though not quite for the same reasons. But Rabon and his compadres in the fondly-remembered 60’s garage band, the Five Americans, also experienced the seamier side of the record business, albeit not on the same scale of a Morris Levy. (I’m sure it seemed just as seamy to Rabon and friends while they were living through their nightmare, of course.) But it’s the brutal honesty with which Rabon describes the horrifying life that he lived for several years following the demise of the band that makes it stand out from the rock-memoir pack.

The Five Americans were an Oklahoma band working out of Dallas when they managed to amass five hit records during 1966-67. Considering that conditions under which they had to work, it’s almost surprising that they had any hits at all, much less a #3 smash in “Western Union” and a bona-fide garage-psych classic with their first hit, “I See The Light”. Rabon takes us through his growing-up years, which were pretty normal, and his brief tenure at Southeastern State College, in Durant, OK, where a band called the Mutineers first got together. The Mutineers decide to drop out of school and head to Dallas, where they assumed they could find more club/bar dates and perhaps even make enough money to eat on a regular basis. They promptly began to starve, surviving by means of shoplifting foodstuffs. So it seemed like quite the break when they attracted the attention of Jon Abnor, Jr., A&R director of a small Dallas label called Abnak. (Abnor later became a one-hit wonder as one-half of the duo Jon and Robin, though Javonne “Robin” Braga was the only one of the pair who could actually sing.)

This was where the Mutineers’ troubles really begin. Abnak head, wealthy insurance executive John Abdnor, Sr. (his ne’er-do-well son slightly changed the spelling of the family name) may not have been a mob-connected gangster on the same level of criminality as Morris Levy, but he was a shyster with a capital “S”. He was just as eager to keep all his talent’s earnings for himself as Levy, but he did so with a sniff of legality. (Abdnor did, however, also serve time for tax evasion.) Abdnor depended on the business naivete of five teenaged musicians who were so excited to “sign here” that they did so without comprehending, or even reading, the contract they foolishly inked their names to, making Abdnor their manager, recording boss, and essentially, mortal-soul owner. No matter how much the newly-christened Five Americans (a name they hated; it was, of course, bestowed on them by Abdnor) earned in royalties and live performances, Abdnor absconded with all of it, even the concert fees. However, he did give the band a place to stay, and left them a small monthly stipend to live on as an advance against future royaltes. Of course, they were never given a reckoning to show how much they actually earned, with the result that Abdnor kept them in perpetual indenture till the day the band broke up, and beyond in Rabon’s case.

The entire Five Americans/Abdnor saga makes for fascinating reading, but the truly traumatic parts of the book relate the story of Rabon’s post-stardom descent into a maelstrom of poverty, mind- and body-destroying drug addiction, brutal maltreatment, injuries from accidents, thoughts of suicide, even a failed attempt at becoming a drug dealer, all recounted with excruciating detail that is both hard to read, yet hard to put down. The book alternates chapters - musical career one chapter, addiction the next, music after that, more about addiction, and so on. This structure may seem less than ideal to a chronologically-minded historian like myself, but I shudder to think if the entire last half of the book had been devoted to his post-music troubles. Fortunately, in the end, Rabon is rescued from certain (and very literal) oblivion, returns to college, and works his way into a settled and satisfying life as a teacher, husband, and father. His medical woes were not yet over, but he has managed to survive once again.

There are some factual difficulties with Rabon’s biographical details. He claims to have been inspired by Elvis Presley’s “Heartbreak Hotel” and “Hound Dog” in 1953, and that they were released on the Sun label. Both of these songs were recorded for RCA Victor, in 1956. Perhaps he was confusing them with “That’s All Right, Mama” or another Sun release, but even these were not yet recorded till 1954. He also refers to “I See The Light” as being the Five Americans’ second release, but Wikipedia (not always the most reliable source, admittedly; see lists it as the third. Wikipedia also lists five unsuccessful releases between “Evol - Not Love” and “Western Union”, which Rabon does not acknowledge. Of course, it would have been just like John Abdnor, Sr. to release material without telling his artists, or perhaps Rabon simply didn’t feel they merited attention. There are a number of small typos, which seem to be plaguing small-press books these days, but they do not interfere with one’s understanding of the text.

Both of these books are essential reading if you wish to get a better grasp of what the record business was like in the 60’s, or just like to read fascinating autobiographies by once-major stars. Tommy James still has a healthy career as a touring performer, Mike Rabon is doing equally well in his life, but both have dramatically intense stories to tell. (I hear rumors that Mitch Ryder’s forthcoming book will top them all. Hard to see how, but I’d love to see it!)

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Friday, December 23, 2011

“1950’s Radio In Color: The Lost Photographs Of Deejay Tommy Edwards” by Christopher Kennedy (Kent State University Press)

I should mention right off the bat that the Tommy Edwards whose photographs of rock’n’roll, r&b, adult pop, and jazz artists are presented here is NOT the singer Tommy Edwards whose “It’s All In The Game” was a #1 hit in 1958. The Tommy Edwards under consideration here was a very popular and influential disc jockey in Cleveland during that same period, who later became known nationally for running a record store that advertised in the music magazines of the 60’s.

One of the reasons Cleveland established such a vaunted reputation as an influential music town in the 1950’s (which subsequently made it such a natural location for the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame, even long after its musical significance had dwindled) was the power of its disc jockeys to choose the “right” tunes to make into hits, their willingness to take chances on new sounds and small labels, and their ability to create tastes not just among their local listeners but among other members of the deejay fraternity throughout large chunks of the US. Keep in mind that this was a long-ago time when individual deejays were free to pick the music they played on the air, and were not bound to the dictates of Music/Program Directors, out-of-town consultants, tight playlists, prepackaged formats, automation and satellite broadcasting. The local DJ was king, and Cleveland spawned a number of Kings, from the daddy of them all, Allan Freed to local superstars such as Bill Randle and Tommy Edwards.

But Tommy Edwards didn’t simply spin records on-air. As with so many other DJ’s of the era, he played host to a number of young hopefuls who would arrive at radio stations hoping to be interviewed live on the air and get their record played on a major outlet. As with so many other DJ’s, he also hosted record hops, which might feature brief appearances by young hopefuls as well. Beyond that, however, Tommy Edwards had a hobby - photography. Thus, when artists showed up at the studio, he would take color photographs of most of them, then show many of these photos in slide-show format at the record hops he hosted, and mail copies of a few of then out to fans who paid a small fee to receive them. In doing so, he unwittingly documented the Cleveland radio comings and goings of a large number recording artists of the mid-to-late 50’s - big stars, total unknowns, and unknowns who - every so often - would eventually develop into stars.

These photographs disappeared from sight until quite recently, until rediscovered by Christopher Kennedy. Likewise, Kennedy managed to locate copies of Edwards’ hastily assembled newsletter, read mostly by people in the radio industry, in which the energetic DJ shared many of his thoughts, plugged the records he liked, discussed a number of shows and club dates occurring in Cleveland - all in brief, pithy sentences shoved together with little rhyme or reason. What Kennedy has done is reproduce dozens upon dozens of these marvelous pictures, nearly all unseen for decades - rockabillies, ballad singers, aspiring teen idols, actors attempting to exploit their fame by releasing records, and so on - one per page, then supplement it with an extremely readable text that’s every bit as valuable as the pictures.

Kennedy’s text is generally written as if he composing it at the time the pictures were being taken, though there are occasions when he is not averse to allowing himself the wisdom of hindsight, and will let us in on what became of these artists in the ensuing years. He will often insert relevant quotes from Edwards’ newsletter, in a bold typeface, so we don’t confuse it with Kennedy’s own contributions. In yet another typeface, he then shares (whenever possible; sadly, many artists have passed away in the intervening half-century since they were photographed) the thoughts and memories of many of the artists as they look back on their experiences in recent years (mostly 2008-2009).

So what have here is a multi-level pop-music-history package here - the photos, quotes from Edwards, text by Kennedy, modern-day quotes by the artists, all well-organized, beautifully printed, and logically edited. There are more lesser-known artists than major names here (though there ARE many of them also), as there have always, throughout pop music history, been more people who didn’t make it than there have been major names. It is both entertaining and invaluable to see them, learn about their small triumphs and greater failures, and hear what they have to say when looking back on their lives. Their photos are sometimes posed, but more often candid. Much can be learned by studying the subjects’ expressions, demeanor, even their wardrobe and jewelry. It seems clear that most of the artists liked Tommy Edwards as a result of their brief encounter. Perhaps more significantly, it is clear that Mr. Edwards liked and genuinely respected the great majority of the artists as well.

Sadly, Tommy Edwards. who consistently claimed he had nothing at all do with payola and refused to accept it at every opportunity, was nonetheless caught up in the wake of the pay-for-play scandals. The era of the local DJ who could choose his own music came to a close, when it was deemed somehow safer for consultants to choose what people would hear, and the Top 40 format came into existence, with pretty much the same music being played pretty much everywhere. Edwards was unable to find a job in radio, so went into the retail end of the record business. Now, thirty years after his death, we have this visually beautiful and historically invaluable coffee-table book to remember him and his era by. This one’s a gem.

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Monday, December 05, 2011

“The Sight Of Silence: John Cage’s Complete Watercolors” by Ray Kass (distrib. by University of Virginia Press)

John Cage’s contributions to the musical life of the 20th-century were game-changing. What may less known to the public at large are his efforts in such fields as mycology, print-making, poetry/literature, and painting. Truth is, in a couple of these areas, he was essentially a dilettante, but this book/DVD gives us a chance to see and assess his attempts at applying his chance compositional techniques to the art of watercolor painting.

Cage was first invited to participate in painting workshops at Mountain Lake, Virginia in 1983. He was already in his 70’s, and had no need to break new artistic ground. But his enthusiasm for discovering and experiencing new (to him) things led to what was a fascinating new toy for Cage. Needless to say, his paintings were no more representational or carefully calculated than his music was. The I Ching, which served as the basis for assembling musical scores without the interference of artistic intention, once again was used to substitute for pre-conceived creative decisions. At least this was his original concert, though aesthetic decisions occasionally forced their way into the process.

Cage’s subjects were river rocks. No, he did not paint portraits of rocks. Rather, rocks of various sizes and shapes were selected, placed on paper (the specific paper chosen by reference to a randomly-generated number list) in a position dictated by the I Ching, after which Cage selected a brush with reference to his I Ching random-number list, dipped it in a color of paint chosen by reference to the I Ching list, etc. He then painted around the rock, so we are left with outlines of rocks, which were then painted over using a randomly selected wash. In all, 125 paintings were completed in roughly this manner over a period of seven years. Many are aesthetically striking, while others communicate nothing to the viewer (at least to this viewer). But Cage wasn’t concerned with how the viewer would react to these works, pro or con. It was the process that was most significant to him.

The book covers this process in quite a bit of detail, but not so painstakingly that it becomes tedious. Cage’s fascination with this “new toy” is readily communicated by the accompanying DVD, which is essential to any understanding of this intriguing experiment. The films make visual sense of many points that may be a bit difficult to fully comprehend through simply reading the text and viewing the still photos that are generously sprinkled throughout the book. It’s intriguing to see Cage apply the very compositional techniques he brought to his musical scores to an entirely different, fully visual medium, whether one finds them ultimately satisfying or not. Even so, the longer the project carried on the more Cage began to make decisions based on personal preference rather than leaving every single aspect to chance.

Of course, the “main event”, the reason for this book’s existence, is the watercolors themselves. Many of them are reproduced small-scale, several to a page, but in most cases such a view will suffice. The colors tend to be earth-toned rather than brightly colored, but this seems to blend well with the genesis of the project as a collection of rocks culled from a riverbank. The book’s author/assembler, Ray Kass, was the instigator of this art project, and was involved during every step of the operation. Thus, his text may be readily accepted as the definitive retelling of the events described herein.

The accompanying DVD not only illustrates the artistic process, there is a also performance of an early Cage work for prepared piano and percussion, a couple literary readings, and a stimulating question-and-answer session with the artist. In all, a satisfying document, which allows us a glimpse into “another side” of John Cage from the one we’re used to reading about.

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