Arts & Entertainment, Featured

From Memphis to the Mob: The Incredible Journey of a Burbank Teen Idol

Jimmy Angel Talks with Terry Miller.

The following is an authentic story about a man named James Oliver Tyler, better known as Jimmy Angel, teen idol.

There are 8 million stories in the “Naked City.” Some of them are attention-grabbing, some gripping and some will simply knock your socks off. However, the story you are about to read will prove beyond any shadow-of-a-doubt that Jimmy Angel’s life story is far and away the most compelling you’ve ever heard or read.

A long-time friend and colleague, Jerry Brown, told me about this extraordinary chap’s story that, honestly, I didn’t believe initially — that is until I met Jimmy Angel. You’ll see why as you read on.

Angel has been all over the world performing and recording 50s and 60s rock music. But when you find out he’s a mere 85 years young and see him on stage, you’ll do a double/triple take. This hep cat moves and gyrates with those decades his junior. Combine this with his rather remarkable, albeit dry, sense of humor and you’ve got some kind of wonderful. 

Angel was a teen idol in the 1950s who had big gold hit records like “Teenager in Love?” under his belt. Angel’s personality and stage comportment were managed to nudge this musician into music’s limelight and get noticed.  Angel has been featured on the cover of thousands of magazines worldwide during his acclaimed career. Complete with the pompadour hairstyle, black Elvis-style shirts you’d not be mistaken to think you may have travelled back in time to see the legendary Elvis.

A young Jimmy Angel. | Photo courtesy of Jimmy Angel

The story of Angel’s life is tailor made for an epic film. Oh, there was one? We’ll get to that later.

Angel became a protégé of Joe Colombo, a Profaci family enforcers who rose from the ranks to become head of that crime organization in 1962.

“Joe Colombo ‘adopted’ me in 1960, and he took care of me,” Angel said. “Without the Colombos, I would have been washing dishes somewhere. I could not read or write — they saved me. And they made me a teen idol. I can never repay them for what they did for me.  Never.”

In his late teens, Angel played pro baseball on the New York Yankees farm team, but an injury put that to an abrupt end.

Everything changed when Joe Simonetti, a New York talent representative who handled Louis Prima, was out scouting for the next Elvis. It didn’t take long for Simonetti to see the potential in Angel.

“When [Simonetti] found me, I really didn’t want to be a singer. I really wasn’t a singer,” Angel said. “I had my mom to take care of. I wanted to play baseball, and my arm was shot, so there were really no other jobs for me. We all went back to the projects learning how to sing to all the records and then he gave my mom $5,000. Next thing I knew, we were in New York where I made my first record and away we went.”

The larger-than-life character that is Angel now lives in Burbank and recently released an epic CD called “Love Fever” with the celebrated singer’s musicians —Jason Guitierrez on guitar, Sal “Papa Sal” Guitarez on bass and Jon Biggs, a.k.a. “Juan Grande,” on the drums. Angels calls these guys his “Three LA Cats,” his own “Booker T and the MGs.” The CD is a great treat and promising cure for my COVID-19 blues.

Jason Gutierrez and Jimmy Angel in studio. | Photo courtesy of Jimmy Angel

“It’s all about teamwork, your bandmates are all equal partners too,” Jimmy says referring to Gutierrez.

We sat down with Angel and his band on Thursday, Feb. 25, for a Zoom meeting I’ll never forget.

From Elvis, and the birth of rock n roll to assassination attempts, and the New York “mob heartthrob,” created by the once-mob- dominated record industry, Angel’s career was set to outshine Elvis’. And then bang, 50 years ago this year his “godfather,” Joe Colombo, was shot. Colombo was shot three times by Jerome A. Johnson, once in the head, at the second Italian Unity Day rally in Columbus Circle sponsored by the Italian-American Civil Rights League, which Colombo created in 1970. Johnson was immediately killed by Colombo’s bodyguards. Colombo was paralyzed from the shooting. On May 22, 1978, Colombo died of cardiac arrest.

It was the night a pair of mob gunmen stuck a shotgun to his neck that, Angel says, he truly earned his name.

“I’m singing at the Peppermint Lounge on 45th Street [NYC],” the 85-year-old Angel said. “I just got through singing at like two o’clock in the morning. I walked out — all of a sudden these two guys show up and put a shotgun right at my throat. He says, ‘Give our regards to Joe, Jimmy.” The Joe in question was Colombo, head of one of the five crime families of New York City, whose attempted assassination had kicked off a war with the rival Gallo family.

“He pulled the trigger — and it jammed. I swear to God, it jammed,” said Angel. “He looked at me and says, ‘You must be an Angel, kid.’”

In the spring of 1971, Paramount Pictures started filming “The Godfather” with the assistance of Colombo and the Italian-American Civil Rights League. Due to its subject matter, the film originally faced great opposition from Italian Americans. However, after producer Albert Ruddy met with Colombo and agreed to excise the terms “Mafia” and “Cosa Nostra” from the film, the League cooperated fully. The rest is cinematic history.

Angel says that he’s truly blessed thanks to his mob connection and credits Colombo unequivocally for his success and very being.

Angel, who had 38 singles, found himself fleeing to Japan over 30 years ago thanks to the kindness of strangers, friends and Nashville notables which included Mr. Show Biz, Pat Boone, and Mary Reeves, wife of music legend Jim Reeves. Angel was told he needed to escape the persistent FBI questions about the mob and Colombo. He kept telling the agents who were hounding him that he knew nothing but the FBI persisted in hounding Angel but never found cause to arrest the teen idol.

Boone, and an old teddy bear named Lucky, lifted Angel to new heights he’d only dreamed about. But Boone is credited for getting Angel to Japan. He became a superstar there — under the watchful and courteous guise of Japanese mobsters. “They run the music biz, just like N.Y.,” he says.

Jimmy Angel contract signing with Pat Boone on Sept. 30, 2020 in Los Angeles. | Photo courtesy of Jimmy Angel

Angel had a huge following and was very popular at all his gigs in Japan. The massive earthquake in 2011 helped bring him back to reality the hard way and eventually back to the U.S. After becoming a well-respected entertainer who regularly appeared at Tokyo Disneyland and halftime during ballgames at the Tokyo Dome Stadium, it was time for yet another direction.

We asked Angel, who recently underwent surgeries for some life-threatening illnesses, what his secret to success is: “I’m blessed, I have never smoked or had a drink. Things always come in threes: good breaks, bad breaks and heartbreaks.”

When asked what music he likes to listen to or is inspired by, without missing a beat Angel said, “AC/DC.”

His extended family (la familia) includes a host of characters, the musicians he performs with and his real-life mom who was a Ziegfeld Follies showgirl, Ginger Tyler.

Take a look at Angel’s many accomplishments in these You Tube videos:

There is also a documentary, “Jimmy’s Story” from AVM Films, you gotta see it.

March 11, 2021

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Terry Miller


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