The Ballad of Jimmy Angel
Elvis, The Mob and Me: The Ballad of ‘Teen Idol’ Jimmy Angel
By Bob Mehr
Reading time 23 Minutes
The fourth and final time the Gallo crime family tried to kill Jimmy Angel
The fourth and final time the Gallo crime family tried to kill Jimmy Angel was maybe his greatest escape.
“It was outside the Peppermint Lounge on 45th street in New York City. I walked out of the club at two o’clock in the morning after doing my show. Two guys came up behind me and put a shotgun right there,” says Angel, pointing to the back of his head. “They pulled the trigger…but it jammed. After that, they slapped me in the face and said, ‘We’ll see you next time, kid.’”
That was in 1971, at the height of a mob war that was consuming the New York underworld. It’s now 2018, and Jimmy Angel sits back in a booth at a Mexican restaurant in Burbank, California telling the story of his fated escape, of another lucky break in a life filled with lucky breaks.
With his piercing blue eyes, dyed-black eyebrows and outrageous rockabilly quiff, the singer is a sight to behold”, an 83-year-old “teen idol.” Since returning to the U.S. a few years ago after spending three decades in the Far East, he’s become a cult sensation around Los Angeles. He’s built a reputation as a Lynchian lounge act, wowing audiences with his undiminished gifts as a singer and showman. He is an unapologetic throwback to the era of chrome and sharkskin. “I’m a ‘50s cat,” he’ll say. “Just an old rocker, still trying to make it in this world.”
Angel comes pre-packaged with a heavy bit of mythmaking. His ties to the mob, specifically notorious Colombo family don Joe Colombo, are noted high up in his press bio, as is his association with his onetime Memphis neighbor and high school classmate, Elvis Presley.
When it comes to Angel it’s hard to know how much of that backstory is gospel truth, what’s been mildly embellished, and what is pure fiction. He’s an atomic name dropper, “good friends” with nearly every show business legend of the last 60 years, and his journey is filled with the sort of miraculous twists that beggar belief.
“Buddy,” he intones darkly, “I’ve done a lot, and seen a helluva lot more.”
He says this while flipping through a collection of old press clippings chronicling his seven decades in show business. Some of the pieces are laminated, others yellowing and tattered.
“I got every newspaper and magazine I ever appeared in. [Famous gossip columnist] Rona Barrett once told me to always keep the originals. She said, ‘Jimmy if you live long enough – and I doubt it, with your friends -- but if you do live long enough, you’re gonna meet younger people someday. They’re gonna want to know about you, and all you gotta do is show them your clips, and they’ll get it.’”
Angel’s paper trail tells only part of the story of how a good-looking Memphis kid went from baseball prospect to mob-funded singing star, became a pawn in a Mafia war, evolved into an Elvis torchbearer, and ended up an exile in Japan. Now Angel is in the middle of what he calls the “big finish,” as he tries to write the final lines in the ballad of his life.
It’s a summer Saturday night in Burbank
It’s a summer Saturday night in Burbank, and in the back room of the Smoke House Restaurant the band is finishing up another song. As the music ends, the bellowing from the crowd begins.
“Jimmy Angel! Jimmy Angel! What a show!”
Angel’s eclectic tribe – an odd mix of young hipsters and veneer-wearing 60 somethings -- has gathered again to watch him perform, as they do several times a month. Backed by a three-piece band, Angel delivers high energy sets of rock and roll originals (nostalgia trips with titles like “Elvis and Marilyn” and “Teenage Rebel”) and classic oldies, from Little Richard to the Rolling Stones. He only pauses to take sips from a tall cold glass of milk, which he says keeps his throat strong. “I never smoked or did drugs. I lived clean,” he says. “That’s why I can still do what I do now at my age.”
He was born James Oliver Tyler in 1935, the only son of a former Ziegfeld Girl from Virginia. His mother raised him alone after his father died in World War II. Working as a waitress in Memphis, and struggling financially, she moved them into the city’s Lauderdale Courts housing project, home to another would-be singer named Elvis Presley. Unlike his music-loving neighbor, Angel had no time for tunes. “When I was growing up I cared about baseball and girls and that was about it,” he says. “I didn’t care nothin’ about music.”
For Angel the way up and out of penury was a not with a mic, but a bat. “I was the first [high school] freshman in the South to hit .500 and became part of the varsity team,” says Angel of a baseball career that started at his and Elvis’ alma mater, Humes High. “The Yankees, the Red Sox, both Chicago teams, all came looking at me. I signed with the Yankees. Went to the minor leagues, Johnsonville, Tennessee to start… then to the Syracuse Chiefs and Nashville Sounds.”
After three years in the minors, Angel claims he made it to the big leagues with the Yanks, albeit briefly, before fate changed the course of his life. “I got hurt in Fenway Park. We were playing a doubleheader and there was a rain delay. Jimmy Piersall hit a ground ball between third and short. I went behind third, my right foot hit the outfield grass and I did the splits the same time I threw to first – messed up my arm and my leg for good. The doctors asked me: ‘Do you know how to do anything else, kid? Cause it’s goodbye baseball.’ That’s when I went back to Memphis.”
With his playing career abruptly cut short, Angel struggled to imagine any kind of viable future. “See, I never studied in school,” he says. “My reading and writing ain’t too good. My mom was helping me look in the newspaper for jobs. But wasn’t too many jobs for a guy who couldn’t read or write and had a hurt arm and a hurt leg.”
Bumming around Memphis, Angel would hang out at the nearby Poplar Tunes record store, a Memphis institution owned by well-connected businessman and Hi Records label founder Joe Coughi. Angel wasn’t there to peruse the racks however—not the record racks anyway.
“There was a girl there name Bonnie Manell – first girl in Memphis not to wear a bra. She was in the store walking back and forth and I’d be in there watching her. One Sunday I was hanging around and Joe Coughi came over to me. He knew me a little bit. He said, ‘Kid, I got some fat cats in from New York City. I been telling them about your problem.’ Here come these guys: it was Ted Simonetti, Hugo and Luigi Creatore, George David Weiss, and Fred Fioto.”
The cabal of Mob-tied record men – songwriters, producers, label owners and talent managers – was in town on business, hunting for fresh talent, looking for the next rock and roll teen idol.
“They said, ‘Hey kid, you look like Elvis and Ricky Nelson. Wanna be a singer?’ I said ‘I can’t sing.’ ‘We don’t care. We own ten record companies between us, we can make you sound any way we want. We hear you need a job.’ My ears perked up: ‘What do I gotta do?’ ‘Just do what you’re told and we’ll take care of the rest.’”
“So they went back to the projects and saw my mom, pulled $5000 out of their pockets, gave it to her. Said they’re gonna take me back to New York and make me a teen idol. My mom says, ‘Like that Presley boy? Oh lord.’ My mom took me in the kitchen. ‘Jimmy, you sure you wanna do this? These look like Al Capone’s boys.’ I told her, ‘I need a job, mom. We need the money.’ I did it for my mom, really. That’s when I told them, ‘Okay, let’s go.”
The newly re-christened Jimmy Angel arrived in New York City
The newly re-christened Jimmy Angel arrived in New York City ready to start his musical career. The only problem was he’d never sung a note or stepped on a stage before.
“They stuck me in an apartment building, on 8th Avenue and 57th Street, and put me in training for months,” Angel recalls. “They had me singing along to Elvis Presley records, Buddy Holly records, and some Gene Vincent, just to learn phrasing. Ted Simonetti, he was known as Ted Eddy, he became my manager, he supervised me.”
Angel’s powerful benefactors gave him the advantage over other fledgling singers. Early on he was “adopted” by Joe Colombo, a Profaci family enforcer who would rise in the ranks to eventually become its boss. For Angel, Colombo – whom he affectionately calls “Pops” -- was a friend and father figure, supporting him as he learned his new trade.
“Pretty quickly I figured out that if you don’t get the audience in the first two songs you’re not going to get them all night. So that’s what I started doing – I learned to go right for the throat,” he says. In the process of learning to become a singer and performer, something strange happened to Angel. “I started to care about music. I started to love it.”
Angel worked steadily in the early 1960s, entertaining at clubs like the Copacabana, and picking up slots on Alan Freed concert packages and Dick Clark-sponsored caravans. On the road, he learned the tricks of the trade from the best in the business. “James Brown told me if you ever go hoarse, you should drink Listerine,” says Angel. “He said if you do that your voice will be clear as a bell for 30 minutes. James Brown showed me how to slide on stage, too.”
Like most American acts, Angel suffered in the wake of the British Invasion in 1964. “After the Beatles showed up, I went from being a headliner, a teen idol, to opening for Herman’s Hermits, the Dave Clark Five, the Kinks. Those guys came like a wave. Back then, the record business moved fast. You had to sell records or get in the press if you wanted to survive.”
For the puckishly handsome Angel, the latter was no problem. “I been in every teen magazine all over the world. That was from the get-go, ‘cause of the way I photographed. I’ve been in Datebook, 16, Teen Beat -- been in over 200 magazines. Back then kids didn’t have computers – all they did was read them teen mags.”
Over the years, Angel would develop into an electrifying live performer, a skinny mini-James Brown dancing his way across the stage. The only surviving footage of Angel from the era – a color television broadcast called Showcase ‘68 – is proof of his potency.
Angel’s magnetism never quite translated on wax however. He had a journeyman’s career as a recording artist, knocking around various labels (Majestic, De-Lite, Avco/Embassy, Laurie) recording some songs that felt like hits, but turned out to be misses more often than not. “My deal was I got $500 a week, whether I sold five records or five million,” says Angel. “[The Colombos], said they’d take care of me and that’s what they did.”
With his earnings, Angel brought his mom out to California in the ‘60s, buying her a home in Van Nuys. “Because of the Colombos and how they treated me, I was able to buy my mom’s house in cash. She had it until 2002 -- that’s when she died, in my arms.”
Even now, long after his underworld patrons have passed on, Angel expresses an unshakable fealty to the Colombos. “Buddy, if those guys hadn’t found me, I probably woulda ended up a dishwasher in Memphis. The Colombo family made me a star. I could never thank them enough. They gave me a job, gave me something to do, gave me someone to be. What I gave them back was 100 percent loyalty.”
Still, Angel recalls the time an editor at Billboard took him out to lunch. “He said ‘Jimmy, you’re like Robert Johnson -- you sold your soul. Instead selling it to the devil you sold it to Joe Colombo and the Colombo family,” he says, suddenly going quiet. “But I wouldn’t say that. I wouldn’t say that.”
Throughout the ‘60s and into the ‘70s
Throughout the ‘60s and into the ‘70s, Jimmy Angel lived a relatively gilded life. “For years no one ever said ‘no’ to me for food, money, girls, whatever I wanted,” he says. “That is until June 28, 1971 -- that’s when Pops got shot in Columbus Circle.”
Joe Colombo — Angel’s patron, and godfather of the Colombo crime family — was gunned down in public just before the start of Italian American Unity Day festivities. Colombo survived the assassination attempt but was seriously wounded. Blame was cast on Colombo’s mob rival “Crazy” Joe Gallo and his gang. “After that, everything changed,” says Angel. “Not slowly, but like they flipped a switch. Suddenly here came the feds, and the biggest Mafia war in New York history, the Gallos versus the Colombos.”
Angel found himself in a precarious position, as his personal ties to Colombo were suddenly a life-threatening liability. Angel had a become a kind of mascot for the family, serving as the public face of Colombo’s Mafia-whitewashing Italian American Civil Rights League. “I was part Italian, so Pops made me the poster boy for that,” says Angel. “That made me a pretty good target for the Gallos and the feds.”
Angel says he survived a few close calls during what became known as the Second Family War. Then came the night he stepped outside the Peppermint Lounge. He figured his fate was sealed when the barrel of a sawed off pushed up against his neck. “I felt that shotgun and heard them say ‘Jimmy, give our regards to Joe.’” That was followed by the sweet sound of the gun jamming. “After that is when the Colombo family sent me to upstate New York,” says Angel.
There, Angel became the paralyzed Colombo’s personal caretaker for the next several years. “All I did was give Pop sponge baths and looked after him. He could only move was his little finger and his left eye. He got shot in ‘71 and died in ‘78.”
Even after Colombo’s death, Angel remained the subject of intense government scrutiny. “The feds were all over me,” he says. To escape the heat in New York Angel moved to Nashville in 1981, where he found another benefactor in the form of Mary Reeves, the widow of country singer Jim Reeves.
“She put me in the Jim Reeves Museum, that’s where I lived for five years. I put her down as half writer on all my songs, out of respect,” says Angel. “While I was living there, [record producer/music publisher] Buddy Killeen put me in the Stock-Yard Restaurant to sing and do shows. I started making records again.” (A collection of Angel’s Nashville recordings – produced by Music City legend Owen Bradley -- was reissued in 2009 on Pat Boone’s Gold label.)
By this point, Elvis Presley had died, and Angel became determined to burnish his legend. “Elvis has been a part of my whole life,” he says. “[Elvis collaborator] Otis Blackwell started producing me. And I cut a song in 1981 called ‘Let’s Give the King a Rest.’ I wrote that ‘cause I felt the [press] was trying to crucify him and his memory.”
Angel worked the angles in Nashville for a few years, then he got the notion to go back east – this time, all the way to Japan. “That was on Pat Boone’s advice,” says Angel. “He said I should go to Tokyo. Pat said ‘You look like Elvis and you played baseball. People in Japan know Elvis, oldies and baseball. They’re going to love you’ – and he was right.”
In 1985, Angel started over in Tokyo, at first playing a showroom as a warm-up act to a Filipino easy listening singer. One night the headliner called in sick and Angel got his shot. “I walked up and sang “Well, well, well -- it’s one for the money, two for the show, three to get ready, now go cat go… then I slid across the stage. The audience went ballistic. It was goodbye Filipino singer, hello Jimmy Angel.”
The Japanese adopted Angel, making him a small star. He would serve as entertainment during games at the Tokyo Dome and play a string of shows at Tokyo’s Disneyland. Angel’s life became the subject of a full-length biography and he had a small role in Get Up!, a 2003 Japanese comedy about a James Brown-obsessed gangster. “That country saved my life – gave me a job, kept me alive,” he says.
Angel lived happily in Japan for twenty-five years, “then a 9.1 earthquake ended all that,” he says. The massive 2011 quake unsettled the country and Angel’s place in it. “Business in Japan was done, especially for Gaijins, foreigners, like me,” says Angel. “I figured I’d come back home, back to the United States and start all over again.”
The night is wearing on at the Smoke House
The night is wearing on at the Smoke House, and the crowd is thinning out, but Jimmy Angel shows no signs of tiring. A rapid volley of songs ends with Angel’s signature version of the Stones “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” to close the second set of the night.
As the applause rises, a voice from the crowd repeats the now familiar refrain: “Jimmy Angel! What a shoooooow!”
When he first came back to the States in 2012, Angel’s professional rebirth seemed a decided longshot. He landed in Los Angeles with little in the way of money or prospects. Writer and Southern California roots music promoter Johnny Whiteside managed to get a him a band and a gig at a Mexican restaurant in Burbank called Viva Rancho Cantina. Angel took the opportunity to rebuild his career from there, dazzling unsuspecting audiences with his tireless stage show. Word began to spread and Angel soon found himself juggling nightclub residences and even recording again.
These days, Angel’s team is led by Marti Townsend. Easily spotted at his gigs wearing a ten-gallon hat, cowgirl boots and jangling spurs, Townsend is a professional notary, who helps book shows and takes care of the talent. “She’s the lady that looks after me,” says Angel. Also providing support is guitarist and bandleader Jason Gutierrez, who’s produced Angel’s forthcoming album, Love Fever.
These days Angel has enough work to carry two bands, the Gutierrez-led combo and another featuring SoCal roots rock legends Pete Anderson and Skip Edwards. Asked how he’s managed to attract such big-name talents, Angel shoots back: “Maybe they want to play with someone who’s the real deal.”
It’s well past midnight in Burbank, but there’s still one more set to go. Grabbing another glass of milk and touching up his pompadour, Angel is eager to get back on the Smoke House stage and do it all over again.
“I’m no rocket scientist, man,” he says, mopping his brow. “Since them guys found me in a record store all those years ago, this is all I know how to do. I just walk on stage and go right at ‘em.”
Bob Mehr is the author of the New York Times bestseller Trouble Boys: The True Story of the Replacements. He lives in Memphis, Tennessee.
Special thanks to Marti Townsend, Viva Rancho Cantina, The Smoke House Restaurant and Andrew Sandoval.