Originally published December 6, 2014 at The Los Angeles Beat
In our city fact and fiction blend seamlessly. Really what is the difference between legend, myth and the hard facts of reality? Like beauty, it is often in the eye of the beholder. In Los Angeles we know this too well, for we have mastered the art of self-creation. The story I am about to tell may very well sound like the tallest of tales. Some may choose to fact check, but I instead choose to believe. I warmly introduce to you Jimmy Angel, a man that only Hollywood could create; a man of 1,000 stories…
Jimmy Angel is a mythic character. Born in Memphis the same year as our mighty king, Elvis Presley, they attended Humes High School together and were neighbors. According to his impressive bio, upon leaving high school he played professional baseball with the Yankees, became a rock-n-roll teen idol with ten gold records to his name, was adopted by a well-known mobster, became a “made man”, was chased by the FBI because of his mob connections and finally escaped to Japan for 30 years where he sold out their biggest stadiums. Now 79-years old, performing an incredible, yet surreal, act as a lounge singer and signed to Pat Boone’s Gold Label, he tells his fascinating life story with charisma and conviction. It is far better than most of the screenplays gathering dust while hoping to get green lighted.
“Me and Elvis had the worst grades ever. All I did was chase chicks and play baseball. Elvis walked around with his guitar. I signed with the NY Yankees in 1953 and Elvis went looking for a record company. We got outta there. He found Sam Phillips and I got hurt about 3 1/2 or 4 years later playing ball…”
In 1957, after a short baseball career, Jimmy- then known as James Oliver Tyler- sustained a career ending injury while playing shortstop for the NY Yankees. After heading back to Memphis he realized he had a problem- few job prospects given his injuries and the fact that he couldn’t read or write too well. To bide his time one Sunday afternoon he found himself hanging out girl-watching in Cuoghi’s Popular Music, a record store that Elvis was known to frequent. He was approached by the owner himself.
“Joe Cuoghi came over to me and says, ‘Hey Jimmy, I got some fat cats from New York City who want to talk to you. I was telling them about your problem.’ So here comes these guys and they said, ‘Hey Kid, you look like Elvis and Ricky Nelson. You want to be a singer?’ I said, ‘I can’t sing man. I play baseball.’ They said, ‘We don’t care about that. Among us we own ten record companies. We can make you sound any way we want to’.”
After being given a hefty cash advance, Jimmy was moved to New York City where he was given a $500 a week salary and instructed to sing along with popular records to learn phrasing. Eight months later, after being molded into a teen idol and signed to mob boss Joe Colombo’s Laurie label, home of Dion, The Chiffons and Gerry and the Pacemakers, Jimmy found himself singing on American Bandstand. He apparently was there to debut the song Teenager in Love before label-mate Dion recorded it. Today Jimmy reports that he’s been in 35,000 teen and movie magazines since 1957, partly due to strings pulled by illustrious gossip-queen Rona Barrett who wanted to garner favor with the mob.
Meanwhile, Joe Colombo, head of one of the Five Families, the infamous Italian crime syndicate that The Godfather was based upon, took Jimmy under his wing, moved him into his Bensonhurst, Brooklyn house and adopted him as a son. “For 18 years of my life no one said ‘no’ to me for food, clothing, Broadway plays, restaurants, movies…” Though only half Italian, Jimmy, through Colombo’s doing, became a poster boy for the Italian Civil Rights League and was “made” in the mob in 1960. Colombo was critically shot in 1971, starting the biggest mafia war in NY history, the Gallos against the Colombos, and became paralyzed for the final seven years of his life. Jimmy was by Colombo’s side during the shooting, causing him to become not only a target of the mob himself, but also on the radar of the FBI, who stalked and harassed him for years after the mob boss’ death.
By 1985, Jimmy had tired of the FBI spotlight and at Pat Boone’s suggestion relocated to Tokyo, Japan for 30 years. “I told Pat I can’t speak Japanese. Pat says, ‘You don’t have to Jimmy. You look like Elvis, you got gold records, you’re a teen idol and you played with the NY Yankees. In Japan that’s the only thing they know. They love baseball, they love rock-n-roll and they love the mob’.”
“The Japanese saved me… I sold out Tokyo Dome eight times. Bigger than Dodger Stadium. That’s 56,000 people. They kept me alive til the 9.5 earthquake and the biggest tidal waves you ever seen in your life. I was in every magazine, newspaper. They wrote a book on me there called “Victim of Destiny”. It sold 3 1/2 million copies. You can get it on Ebay. It was written by the number one writer in Tokyo, the only Japanese Pulitzer Prize winner…”
Jimmy returned to the United States after Japan’s 2011 earthquake. He performs on alternating Saturday nights in the wonderfully 1946 vintage cocktail lounge at the Smoke House restaurant in Burbank. His act is slick, yet heartfelt; his stage banter bizarre in the most positive way, and the backing band, The Jason Gutierrez Trio, holds down a tight ship. You can perfectly imagine Jimmy in a scene from David Lynch’s Blue Velvet and it all begins to make the most perfect sense. Currently Jimmy is working on recording new songs while a documentary, Jimmy Angel: Mob Star is being finished. Make sure to catch him play live while you still can. You won’t be sorry.
“What I want to do now is leave footprints. I’m 79-years old. I haven’t got no wife, no kids. I have a teddy bear named Lucky. He’s been my best friend for 55 some years. And that’s it. This is my last hurrah.”
The Smoke House: 4420 Lakeside Drive, Burbank, 91505; (818) 845-3731.