His name is synonymous with some of the biggest pop and garage rock hits of the 1960s. Some were admittedly sticky sweet. All were classics.
Tommy James & the Shondells sold more than 100 million records with hits such as "I Think We're Alone," "Hanky Panky" and "Mony Mony." Other monster singles -- 23 went gold -- included "Crimson and Clover," "Sweet Cherry Wine" and "Crystal Blue Persuasion."
Few knew that, behind the scenes, James' New York-based record label, Roulette Records, was a front for the Vito Genovese crime family.
James has written that story in "Me, the Mob, and the Music: One Helluva Ride With Tommy James and the Shondells" (Scrivner, $25) with Martin Fitzpatrick. Collectors Choice Music (www.ccmusic.com) has begun reissuing the individual albums, too.
"With the mob stuff, I was very uncomfortable talking about this for years," said James, 63. "This is a story that I've wanted to tell for a very long time. But I really couldn't."
When "the last of the Roulette regulars passed on," he was ready to sing. There are plans for a feature film and a Broadway musical based on the book.
"Roulette was ground zero for all this stuff, and the truth is that none of the fans knew what Roulette really was," he said.
To federal investigators, mobster Tommy Eboli, a New York crime boss who was gunned down in the '70s, was a shadowy figure at Roulette. But to the teenage singer, he was a nice guy.
"He actually was pretty friendly," James said of Eboli, who was the acting boss of the Genovese family. "I never had any trouble with him. I didn't realize who he was. It took several years to piece this all together."
Fame first came to James in 1966 with "Hanky Panky," a hit he called an "only in America story."
Originally the B-side of "That Boy John" (about President Kennedy) by the girl group the Raindrops, "Hanky Panky" dropped out of sight after Kennedy was assassinated in 1963. But like "Louie Louie," garage bands played it.
James had seen its effect on teens, and he recorded it in 1964.
"I heard 'Hanky Panky,' and I saw what it did to the audience," he said. "It was just one of those garage band-Top 40-party rock songs that put everybody on the dance floor without hearing the record. I said, 'That's it. We're doing that song.'"
A small label, Snap Records, released it. But it would take two years for a bootlegged version to become a hit in Pittsburgh. It was the summer of 1966.
James put together a bar band and headed for New York. He made the rounds at all the major record labels, stopping last at Roulette Records. The label was run by tough guy Morris Levy, who had a reputation for muscling competitors.
"The next day, we start getting calls back from the other labels saying, 'Listen, we gotta pass,'" James said.
Jerry Wexler, the legendary producer and an executive at Atlantic Records, told James that Levy had threatened them.
"Apparently, we were going to be on Roulette," James said. "Here we are trying to have a career in pop music as this very dark and sinister and really dangerous story is going on behind us. We were very lucky to make it out of there in one piece."
James is open about his past drug use.
"When you do an autobiography, you've got to tell on yourself," he said. "The bottom line is: If your story is going to have any meaning, it's got to be real. I just felt that now is the time."
There are great stories -- about being intimidated by Eric Burdon of the Animals, Hubert Humphrey's liner notes and the Shondells predating the God rock movement of the early '70s.
"There was a spiritual component to the music," James said. "'Crystal Blue' was about becoming a Christian. The whole group became Christians right in that time period. Very definitely, 'Sweet Cherry Wine,' and songs like that were very much about what we were going through at the time."
James admits to being conflicted about bashing Levy. He learned his craft at Roulette.
"Every time I go and say something really nasty about Morris Levy, I feel guilty, because if it hadn't been for Morris Levy, there wouldn't have been a Tommy James," he said. "Honestly, I have a lot of kind feelings about Morris. Doing business with him was a disaster. But Morris Levy got me out of the draft in 1969. He probably saved my life. ... What a boring book it would have been without Morris Levy."