Originally published on metropolis.co.jp on November 2004It’s Friday night and people are drifting in and out of What the Dickens pub in Ebisu. Suddenly, with a twang of the guitar, the music starts and Jimmy Angel launches into Peggy Sue. Two Japanese girls glance up from their table. “He looks like Elvis,” says one of them. Some of the foreign customers stare at Angel in an amused sort of way, thinking he’s some sort of Elvis look-alike. But before Peggy Sue is finished, they get it. This is a man, whose music is on three labels, with ten gold records to his name and hits such as Teenager in Love. His style is bop, sort of a cross between rockabilly and rhythm and blues. To borrow one of Angel’s favorite phrases: “This cat can sing.”
Having performed in Japan since 1985 (including a 1992 concert at Tokyo Dome), the 69-year-old singer from Memphis is a living icon from an era that was full of icons like Ike, Elvis, Marilyn and James Dean. Everyone worried about the bomb, Sputnik started the space race, the jukebox ruled and girls wore bobby socks. Even now, it’s still hard to believe the ’50s were half a century ago. For most people who weren’t around then, the era is something you see on Happy Days and American Graffiti.
Angel’s journey from Memphis to Tokyo is a fascinating story, an odyssey in which he went from Elvis schoolmate to Yankees shortstop to surrogate son of New York mafia don Joe Colombo. His life was detailed in a book by Kageki Shimoda, Victim of Destiny, and a long-delayed film version is currently being discussed, with Sofia Coppola poised to direct and Jack Nicholson set to play Colombo. Angel’s part hasn’t been decided yet. “Johnny Depp would be fine, or Rob Lowe. I’ll probably make a cameo at the end,” he says. As we talk, Angel flips through old magazine clippings and photos. He finishes many of his sentences with “sir,” something that was drummed into him by gossip columnist Rona Barrett, who was hired by Colombo to handle his press. “She told me, ‘Whatever I write, you have to become. Be a good boy and follow the rules. Always thank an editor, writer or publisher,’” Angel says.
It was not a career path Angel had seen for himself back in the mid-’50s, when he was a student at Humes High. “I never learned to read or write too well at school. All I did was chase chicks and play baseball,” he says. Elvis, he remembers, would walk around school singing an old Hank Williams tune, Your Cheatin’ Heart. In 1956, Angel was signed by the Yankees for their farm team, but in 1961, a tendon injury ended his career. One Saturday afternoon, four talent scouts from New York spotted him in a Memphis record store. As rock ‘n’ roll was expanding across America, the recording companies were looking for young white singers who could be cast in the mold of Elvis and who could sing the fusion of hillbilly and R&B that was hot. They handed Angel $3,000 on the spot, and within hours he had signed a contract and was off to New York, where he came under the influence of Colombo and the wise guys.
In those days, the mob had its tentacles into the music and film industries, with interests in big record companies, particularly MCA. They used to bribe DJs to make sure certain artists in their camp got more airtime, thus boosting their profile and sales. In the early ’90s, former Los Angeles Times reporter William Knoedelseder wrote a scathing expose of the ubiquitous presence of the Mafia in the record industry in his book, Stiffed: A True Story of MCA, the Music Business, and the Mafia.
For Angel, though, all that was another world. To him, Colombo, whom he affectionately calls “Pop,” was like a father. “Pop taught me all the rules, how to live, how to survive. What can I say? He was a great guy.” Angel was given $500 a week, a home and a 6ft 6in, 400lb torpedo by the name of Fat Philly. After nine months of vocal and stage training, Angel appeared on American Bandstand with Ritchie Valens. Colombo booked him on all the popular TV shows of the era and before long he had become the poster boy for the Italian American Civil Rights League (the ones who demanded Francis Ford Coppola remove references to the mafia in The Godfather).
But in June 1971, Angel’s life was turned upside down. “I had just stepped off the stage at a New York rally for the league. Suddenly, Pop was shot right in front of me. This black kid with a fake press pass had got in.” The shooting, which would leave Colombo comatose for nearly seven years, sparked a mafia war. “All hell broke loose,” recalls Angel who spent a night outside Colombo’s hospital room on guard with a pistol. “I nearly plugged Sammy Davis Jr. when he walked in. He was singin’ Candy Man so I’d recognize him.” When TV news reporter Geraldo Rivera showed up at Colombo’s house, Fat Philly picked him up and threatened to dump him headfirst into a garbage can.
Angel’s personal life suffered, too. “I was engaged to a beautiful girl who looked like Linda Carter. The wedding was set, but after the shooting, her father told me: ‘My daughter can’t be involved in this. You’re a target.’ Soon, the Feds showed up. They wanted to know about the Colombos. They were up my rear end for ten years asking the same stupid questions.” To put some distance between himself and the Colombos, Angel handed them a “thank-you” bag containing $375,000 and then set out to try and revive his career in Nashville and other places. “But the response was always ‘We don’t want no mafia brats on our label. The Feds will be on our doorstep. Besides, the ’50s are dead, Jimmy.’”
About that time, fellow Tennessean Pat Boone, who had just returned from a tour of Japan, recommended Angel do the same. “He said, ‘The ’50s are still alive there. They’ll love you,’” Angel says. “I told him I couldn’t speak Japanese. He said: ‘Don’t worry kid, you won’t have to. They’ll get the message. They know the real deal when they hear it.’ Bingo, he was right. Japan saved me.” For a while, the FBI blocked his passport application, but through the intercession of Mary Reeves, widow of country legend Jim, that problem was solved. Angel was told to wait in a parking lot outside the Jim Reeves Museum one day in 1985. A limo pulled up, the window rolled down and a well-known senator handed him his passport. Shortly after, Angel left for Japan for an 18-month stint at the New Latin Quarter in Akasaka.
Nineteen years on, he’s still here and finds audiences for golden oldies in live houses, pubs and clubs in and around Tokyo. “Japan is a paradise, cat, the greatest place on Earth,” Angel says. He thinks the appeal of ’50s music lies in the simplicity of the words. “Plus, the singers influenced everyone. Whoever picks up a guitar now, no matter who they are, it came from Elvis, Buddy Holly, Eddie Cochran. Black artists would have never crossed over to white radio stations until years after they did.”
And then there were Dean, Elvis, Marilyn, Annette Funicello, Jane Mansfield—Angel says he knew them all. He calls Dean the “best actor who ever walked” on Earth. “If he had lived, he would have been awesome. Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt, they just followed the moves.” What about Monroe? “She was a real chick. She really bounced. Joe DiMaggio introduced me to her and we kept in touch. She always wanted to be considered an actress who could be comical or serious. She was getting much better when they found her dead. What really happened? Who knows? I think she got whacked. Most chicks, when they hang out with powerful people, know when to leave the room. Marilyn always sat there. Maybe someone wondered what she knew.”
Speaking of chicks, how about Japanese girls? “Oh man, here girls dress and act like girls. I went back to America recently and the girls looked like they were trying out for a basketball team. You know, I wrote a song called Japanese Girls Are Ichiban,” he gushes, adding that he loves Morning Musume. Did we hear that right? “Yeah, they’re so cute. Girls are the greatest thing God ever made.”
While his musical tastes are rooted in the ’50s, Angel does admire some contemporary artists. “Norah Jones is great. She reminds me of Janis Joplin. But Janis was a loose cannon, while this chick has real feeling and can sing.” However, never mention the Beatles to Angel. “I hate them. Don’t get me wrong. They are great songwriters, but those guys killed the ’50s. I’ll never forgive them for that. I went from making $50,000 a month to $5,000 a month within a year. They had hit after hit and then the British invasion came. My mother was so funny when Harrison died. She told me ‘Son, two down, two to go.’ Now, there is one guy in England I think is really great, and that’s Cliff Richard. He’s still selling records.”
Angel has outlasted most of his contemporaries, which he attributes to good management and “healthy” living. “I drink milk and eat lots of ice cream. I don’t drink alcohol, I don’t smoke and have never taken drugs.” He lives at Tomisato in Chiba, “but I got keys to six apartments, anytime I need a place to hang out,” he says. He usually gets up around 10am, and then it’s off to Starbucks or Denny’s. He sings four or five nights a week at places such as the Bargen at Narita, What the Dickens, Paddy Foley’s and Hard Rock Café in Tokyo. When he’s not singing, he likes to watch movies and old TV series. For exercise, he walks a lot and plays a bit of basketball.
Angel might be 69, but he has no intention of retiring. Tokyo entrepreneurs Rick Roa and Salvatore Salvino have started representing him in Japan. “We believe Jimmy has a lot to say. His life story is a story in itself, but his love of rock ‘n’ roll shows in his talk, and most of all in his singing,” says Roa. There are plans for gigs in Guam, Okinawa, the Philippines and maybe China. “My voice is as strong as Godzilla,” says Angel. “I can’t go out a bum, on my knees like an ex-teen idol. I gotta go out rockin.’”
Angel still sings occasionally in the US, which he visits twice a year. Recently, he lost his mother, a Ziegfeld girl who performed with Al Jolson. Despite his gold records and countless magazine appearances, Angel is anxious about his legacy, which is one reason the planned movie excites him. “Mom’s gone and I’m not married, so the movie gives me something to leave.” When his time comes, what song would he like sung at his funeral? “Can’t Help Falling in Love or Unchained Melody. Don’t know who’ll be around to sing it, though.”