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"An entertaining collection of anecdotes about an uproariously unsavory subculture of egomaniacs, sybarites, goniffs, and music lovers... Mr. Dannen has a knack for the telling quote and a healthy appetite for the juicy story."
—ROBERT CHRISTGAU, THE NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW
"Anyone with more than a passing interest in the inner workings of the [music] industry will be enthralled by the juicy tales [Dannen] has to tell." —THE NEW YORK TIMES
"A knowing and unsentimental glimpse into the inner workings of the music business... Dannen got the inside story, and he got it right."
—LOS ANGELES TIMES BOOK REVIEW
“A sobering, blunt and unusually well-observed depiction of the sometimes sordid inner working of the music business.”
Almost since its inception, Jazz has had a long association with the criminal underworld and its vices.
Bars, Gin Joints, Speakeasies, private parties, hotel and casino lounges - wherever “live” Jazz was performed, all were potentially rife for some form of gangland activity.
Not surprisingly then, when Jazz made its way into the recording studio, the record business, and the world of music publishing, organized crime did, too.
While “Hit records,” per se, are fairly rare in the Jazz lexicon, the substrata and substructures connected with the record and music publishing business that author Fredric Dannen describes in the following “Lullaby of Gangland” chapter were also very commonplace in many phases of the Jazz World in general.
Copiously researched and documented, Fredric Dannen’s Hit Men [New York: Vintage, 1991] is a highly controversial portrait of the pop music industry in all its wild, ruthless glory: the insatiable greed and ambition; the enormous egos; the fierce struggles for profits and power; the vendettas, rivalries, shakedowns, and payoffs. Chronicling the evolution of America's largest music labels from the Tin Pan Alley days to the present day, Fredric Dannen examines in depth the often venal, sometimes illegal dealings among the assorted hustlers and kingpins who rule over this multi-billion-dollar business.
Lullaby of Gangland - Part 1
“Rock historians tend to romanticize the pioneers of the rock and roll industry. It is true that the three large labels of the fifties —RCA Victor, Decca, and Columbia, which CBS had bought in 1958—were slow to recognize the new music. So were the publishers of Tin Pan Alley. It took independent businessmen like Leonard Chess of Chess Records in Chicago to put Chuck Berry on vinyl, and Syd Nathan of King Records in Cincinnati to record James Brown.
The pioneers deserve praise for their foresight but little for their integrity. Many of them were crooks. Their victims were usually poor blacks, the inventors of rock and roll, though whites did not fare much better. It was a common trick to pay off a black artist with a Cadillac worth a fraction of what he was owed. Special mention is due Herman Lubinsky, owner of Savoy Records in Newark, who recorded a star lineup of jazz, gospel, and rhythm and blues artists and paid scarcely a dime in royalties.
The modern record industry, which derives half its revenues from rock, worships its early founders. It has already begun to induct men such as disc jockey and concert promoter Alan Freed into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. When veteran record men wax nostalgic about the fifties, they often speak of the great "characters" who populated the business. Morris Levy, the founder of Roulette Records, said proudly, "We were all characters in those days." The term is probably shorthand for "Damon Runyon character." It signifies a Broadway street hustler: tough, shrewd, flashy, disreputable. Levy denied this last attribute, but Levy was a man who spent his life denying things.
In the dominion of characters, Levy was king. He loomed larger than most of the other pioneers, and as each of them fell by the wayside, he remained a potent institution and a vibrant reminder of where the industry had come from. In 1957 Variety dubbed Levy the "Octopus" of the music industry, so far-reaching were his tentacles. Three decades later, another newsman called him the "Godfather" of the American music business. His power had not diminished.
Morris Levy started Roulette in 1956. after a decade in nightclubs (he owned the world-famous Birdland). Roulette was one of several independent record companies that put out rock and roll. It featured Frankie Lymon, Buddy Knox, Jackie and the Starlights. As rock became the rage, the big labels discovered that the independents were bumping them off the singles charts. So they opened their checkbooks and bought the rock musicians' contracts or acquired the independents outright. In 1955 RCA Victor paid Sun Records $35,000 [plus a $5K signing bonus] for Elvis Presley. By the end of the decade most of the independents were gone; the founders had cashed in their chips. Atlantic Records in New York remained a going concern but in 1967 became part of Warner-Seven Arts (later Warner Communications). Levy kept Roulette. It continued to grow and absorb other independent labels and music publishers and even a large chain of record stores.
Morris's power came from copyrights. He understood early in the game that a hit song is an annuity, earning money year after year for its lucky owner. His very first publishing copyright was the jazz standard "Lullaby of Birdland," which he commissioned for his nightclub. Every time a high school marching band played "The Yellow Rose of Texas" at the Rose Bowl, Morris got paid, because he owned that copyright, too. "It's always pennies—nickels, pennies," Morris once said of his song catalog. "But it accumulates into nice money. It works for itself. It never talks back to you."
Nice money, indeed. By the eighties, Morris Levy was worth no less than $75 million. A major share of his wealth came from his music publishing empire, Big Seven, which had thirty thousand copyrights. Sunnyview, his two-thousand-acre horse farm along the Hudson River in Columbia County, New York, was valued at $15 million. In the seventies, he took over a small chain of bankrupt record stores, which he renamed Strawberries. A decade later he turned down a $30 million bid for the chain. Not bad for a man who was tossed out of elementary school for assaulting a teacher.
Much harder to quantify was another source of Morris Levy's wealth and power: a lifelong association with the Mafia. A Sephardic Jew (or "Turk," in his words) from the poorest section of the Bronx, Morris was never a member, but he did business with several crime families. The Genovese family of New York cast the longest shadow over his career. Morris always disavowed mob involvement; when the subject of his well-known gangster friends came up, he was fond of pointing to a framed portrait of himself with Cardinal Spellman, remarking: 'That don't make me a Catholic. "
Morris endured over a quarter-century of government "harassment," as he called it, but seemed immune from prosecution, even after a policeman lost an eye to him in a 1975 brawl, and after two business associates were murdered, apparently by the mob. (His brother Zachariah, better known as Irving, was murdered as well, in January 1959. He was stabbed to death at Birdland by a collector for mob loan sharks after ordering the man's prostitute wife from the club. Despite legend, it was not a gangland hit.) Morris's string ran out at long last in 1988, when he was convicted along with a Genovese underboss on extortion charges, fie died of cancer two years later, at sixty-two.
Morris's gangster ties were never a secret to the record business. To say that few held it against him is an understatement. The industry, which knew him as Moishe, revered him. He was chairman emeritus of the music division of the United Jewish Appeal and a key fund-raiser for other music charities. His philanthropy was not the only reason, or even the main reason, the business embraced him. It went much deeper. Morris reverberated with the industry's street mythos. He looked like Big Jule in Guys and Dolls—large, stocky, with an enormous neck and huge, hamlike hands. His voice sounded like sandpaper in the glottis.
In another trade besides vinyl, a man like Morris Levy might have been a pariah. The record business has never shrunk from the mob. At the end of World War II, the industry's best customers were jukebox operators, and many of them were mafiosi. Since the Depression, the Mafia has played a key role in artist management and booking (especially of black performers), pressing, and independent distribution.
In the record business, to be close to dangerous men like Levy is to take on some of their attributes and accrue some of their avoirdupois. It confers far more status than, for example, an MBA, which is perhaps even a liability.
Walter Yetnikoff found this out early in his career. According to Morris, "One of Walter's first assignments at CBS as a young kid was to collect $400,000 off me. He collected it. See, that was the beginning of his rise at CBS." Walter grew fond of Morris and spent time at Levy's farm. Yetnikoff invested money in Malinowski, an improbably named Irish racehorse that Morris owned and stabled there. (Morris also sold shares in horses to rock stars Billy Joel, Daryl Hall, and their managers.) At the end of a long, abusive day, haggling on the phone with lawyers and managers, Walter would call Moishe and unload his troubles. One time Morris demanded three dollars for "psychiatric consultation"; Walter sent a check, which Levy framed and hung. Morris believed that Walter was the last of the great characters, a member of his dying breed. "Walter could be a throwback," he said.
"Throwback" was the wrong word. Walter, after all, was only six years Morris's junior. It is well to remember how young the American record industry is and how rapidly it has grown up. In 1955 the industry's total sales were about $277 million. Revenues have increased over 2000 percent, and today's key record executives and lawyers and managers are not even a generation removed from the founders. Nor are they much different.
On a day in early 1987, Roulette Records' offices on the eighteenth floor of 1790 Broadway could have been mistaken for those of a rundown CPA firm, had it not been for the gold albums and rock posters on the walls. Facing Morris Levy's cluttered desk was an old upright piano. A sign on the wall proclaimed, O LORD, GIVE ME A BASTARD WITH TALENT! Just above it was a hole drilled by federal agents, who had snuck into Levy's office in the middle of the night and planted an omnidirectional microphone. The ceiling had two holes, each for a hidden video camera. Morris was in good spirits, considering that the previous September he had been nabbed by two FBI agents in a Boston hotel room and indicted for extortion. Never a sharp dresser, Morris was arrayed in blue jeans and an old polo shirt and had several days' worth of stubble. He leaned across the desk and began to tell his story.
"One of my first jobs in a nightclub was at the Ubangi Club. That was in '45 or '44. I was just sixteen years old. I was a checkroom boy. Then I became a darkroom boy. The camera girls would go around clubs taking flash photos. You were in a room in the back of the club, and you got the negatives, and you developed 'em and had 'em ready in fifteen minutes for the customers. Before that there, I was a dishwasher and a short-order cook. I worked in a restaurant called Toby's on the corner of Fifty-second and Broadway. The kids from the checkroom at the Ubangi used to come up for coffee, and they're the ones who told me about it. So I tried the checkroom and the darkroom, one led to the other, which is sort of the way your whole life goes,
"I became good at the darkroom. I advanced with the people I worked for and became a head guy, setting up darkrooms around the country. We had the rights to a lot of clubs. In Atlantic City, there was Babette's, the Dude Ranch, the Chateau Renault. In Philadelphia, there was the Walton Roof, the Rathskeller, Frank Colombo's. In Newark, it was the Hourglass; in Miami, there was places like the 600 Club, the Frolics Club, the 5 O'Clock Club. New York itself had two hundred nightclubs, probably. You could go out any night of the week and see any one of a hundred stage shows or dance bands. It was a different world.
"When I was seventeen, I joined the navy. I was away for a year. I got out in '45 and went back into darkroom work. I tried my own concession, in Atlantic City, and went broke.
"Then an opportunity came up. There was a guy out of Boston who opened up a big place called Topsy's Chicken Roost on Broadway, under the Latin Quarter. And he wanted out. So I got my old bosses to buy the club off him with no money down, and for that I got a small piece of the club and a big piece of the checkroom. We were a chicken restaurant. We served as much as a thousand chicken dinners a night, for $1.29. And we opened up a little lounge there called the Cock Lounge. Billy Taylor played there, Sylvia Sims, and other acts like that. It was a groovy little spot.
"In the beginning of '48, Symphony Sid and Monte Kay came down about running a bebop concert. We put the bebop in on a Monday night, there was a line up the block. We had Dexter Gordon or Charlie Parker or Miles Davis. They did two nights a week, and then it grew to three nights a week, then six and seven nights a week. That's where Billy Eckstine got started. It was really fabulous. We became the Royal Roost, the first bebop club in the city.
"Then the three partners decided to move to a much bigger place. They moved to the old Zanzibar, which seated like twelve hundred people, and opened up Bop City. And when they moved over, they forgot about me. I felt I got screwed. I stayed with the Royal Roost, I tried to run it, but it ran into the ground.
"About three months later, Monte Kay came to me about opening up competition for Bop City. We opened Birdland at Fifty-second and Broadway on December 15, 1949. But we found out that Bop City was so powerful, we couldn't get an act unless they didn't want it. Harry Belafonte worked Birdland for like a hundred a week. But we had great difficulties booking the club.
"We finally came up with a Machiavellian move against Bop City. Every time we reached for an act, they would get it. So we went to the big booking agents and said, You've got a band we want: Amos Milburn and his Chicken Shackers. Which really don't belong in a jazz joint. We picked another band that played tobacco barn dances. And they said, We'll get back to you. And being that we tried to book those two bands, they grabbed 'em and put 'em into Bop City. We got ahold of Charlie Parker. So we sort of stunk out their place and got tremendous goodwill at our place. From that point on, we drove Bop City into the ground. Everybody wanted to work Birdland."
Morris next discovered publishing. "I was in my club one night', and a guy comes in from ASCAP [the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers, a performing-rights agency] and said he wanted money every month. I thought it was a racket guy trying to shake me down. I wanted to throw him out. And then he came back again and said he's going to sue. I said. Get the fuck outta here. I went to my lawyer and I says, What is this guy? He keeps coming down, he wants money. My lawyer says, He's entitled to it. By act of Congress, you have to pay to play music. I said, Everybody in the world's gotta pay? That's a hell of a business. I'm gonna open up a publishing company!"
Morris called it Patricia Music, after his first wife. (He would marry and divorce four more times and father three sons.) Patricia Music's first copyright was "Lullaby of Birdland." "I went to George Shearing, I says. Write me a theme and record it. It's probably one of the most recorded pieces in the world.
"And during that period, I opened up other nightclubs and restaurants, like the Embers, the Round Table, the Down Beat, the Blue Note, Birdland in Florida. ..."
Colorful as it is, Morris's account of his early days in nightclubs omits some details. He failed to mention the wiseguys who were his silent partners. He did not explain where the money came from to open Birdland, though he said Morris Gurlak, a hatcheck concessionaire who had employed him and his brother, Irving, donated a few thousand dollars. Some years after Birdland opened, New York police investigators put together a dossier on Levy. They believed that Morris and Irving took over Birdland from mobster Joseph "Joe the Wop" Cataldo. When Levy and Morris Gurlak opened the Round Table Restaurant, a steakhouse on Fiftieth Street, in 1958, police sources identified some of the other partners. One was Frank Carbo, the so-called "underworld commissioner of boxing," a convicted killer with ties to Murder Incorporated. Another was John "Johnny Bathbeach" Oddo, a caporegime, or captain, in the Colombo family.
Morris's ties to Mafia figures can be traced back at least to when he was fourteen and a hatcheck boy at the Greenwich Village Inn. There he won the favor of Tommy Eboli, future head of the Genovese family and a future partner in records. As a club and restaurant owner. Morris is thought to have fronted for Genovese soldier Dominic Ciaffone, also known as Swats Mulligan. Swats had a nephew, Gaetano Vastola, who went by several nicknames: "Corky," "the Big Guy," "the Galoot," Morris did business with Vastola for thirty years; the Big Guy was convicted in 1989 as an accomplice to the same crime that brought Levy a jail sentence. Swats was proud of his nephew; a federal wiretap once caught him bragging, "This kid could tear a human being apart with his hands."
The Genovese family, which became central to Morris's life, is one of the five large Mafia families of New York, the others being the Gambino, the Lucchese, the Bonanno. and the Colombo. The Genovese faction makes money the old-fashioned way: illegal gambling, loan-sharking, drugs, prostitution. It also has a grip on legitimate enterprises like garbage collection, the New Jersey waterfront. Teamsters locals and other unions, and the Fulton Fish Market in lower Manhattan. The concrete industry in New-York is under Genovese domination.
The family has a bloody history. Law enforcers trace its roots to the Castellammarese War of 1930, which raged between forces headed by Salvatore Maranzano and Joe "the Boss" Masseria. The war ended in 1931 when Joe the Boss was lured to a Coney Island restaurant by one of his own lieutenants, Charles "Lucky" Luciano, and shot dead. This left Maranzano the capo di tutti capi, or boss of bosses—but not for long. A few months later, four men posing as police officers walked into Maranzano's Park Avenue office, shot him, and slit his throat. The assassins had been sent by Lucky Luciano, who thereby seized command of what was then called the Luciano family. When Lucky went to jail in 1936, his underboss, Vito Genovese, took over. The family has since borne his name. Genovese soon fled to Italy to escape prosecution, and Frank Costello assumed control. When Genovese returned to New York in 1945, he began plotting to depose Costello.
A decade later, Costello was allowed to step down, a rare privilege in the Mafia, which has perhaps the world's worst retirement program. It was a reward for his observance of the mob's sacred omerta, or code of silence. Costello had refused to identify the man who tried to kill him. On May 2, 1957, Costello entered the lobby of his Central Park West apartment building when a gunman called his name. As he turned around, a bullet grazed his skull. He was discharged from Roosevelt Hospital a short time later, very much alive. The gunman's identity was no secret. He was Vincent "the Chin" Gigante, a former club boxer and Genovese soldier on the make. Chin was indicted for the murder attempt, but Costello cleared him.
Genovese regained control of the family, only to die of heart failure in federal prison in 1969. The reins passed to Tommy Eboli, who, among other dubious achievements, was Gigante's boxing manager. Around that time, according to police files, Morris Levy sold Eboli a half share in Promo Records, a New Jersey company, for $100,000, and placed him on the payroll at a salary of $1,000 a week. Promo Records specialized in cutouts: old, unsold albums dumped wholesale by record companies into the hands of discount merchandisers. The mob has long liked cutouts because they can be counterfeited easily: You buy a thousand and press several thousand more yourself. Promo was never charged with any crime, but Eboli and Morris kept complaining of government harassment. Customs agents stopped them both in 1971 as they returned from a vacation in Naples. Eboli insisted he was a legitimate businessman. A year later, he was mowed down by gunfire in Brooklyn.
Morris saw nothing untoward in his having run a business with Tommy Eboli. "Yeah, so?" he said. "Here's a guy that wanted to do something legit. He treated it legit. We were investigated every three weeks, we never had a bad record in the place, because if we did, we would have gone to jail together. So? So what?"
Vincent Gigante, the man who allegedly bungled the hit on Frank Costello, was a year younger than Morris Levy. He and Morris were boyhood friends in the Bronx. The FBI saw Gigante as the key mob figure in Morris's background, the man to whom he owed the most allegiance. Just before
Morris was indicted in 1986, the FBI supposedly warned him that Gigante might have him killed out of fear that he would become a government witness —precisely what the feds wanted Morris to do, to no avail.
Gigante stood about six feet tall and, at the time of the Costello hit, weighed close to three hundred pounds. He listed his occupation as tailor. In 1959 he was convicted of heroin trafficking and did five years. This was his last term in jail. After serving his sentence, he rose up the family ranks to caporegime, operating out of a social club on Sullivan Street in New York's Greenwich Village. By the eighties, he was underboss to family head Anthony "Fat Tony" Salerno, a man Morris once described as a "close friend." Unfortunately for Salerno, the FBI had grown sophisticated in the use of room bugs and long-range microphones. Salerno was convicted of being a member of the mob's ruling commission and began serving a hundred-year sentence in 1986. This left Vincent “The Chin” Gigante in charge of the Genovese family.
By 1986 Gigante was one of the few Mafia dons not in prison or under indictment. Lawmen expressed admiration for his craftiness. It seemed Gigante had found the ideal defense: insanity. The boss of one of the nation's most powerful crime families walked around Sullivan Street in bathrobe and slippers. He regularly checked into a mental hospital. When FBI agents served him with a subpoena in his mother's apartment, he retreated into the shower with an umbrella.
But at 2:00 or 3:00 A.M. most days, the Genovese boss became a different man. He would shed his baggy trousers and rumpled windbreaker for finer clothes. His trusted aide, Dominick "Baldy Dom" Canterino, would drive him to a four-story brownstone on East Seventy-seventh Street, the home of The Chin's mistress, Olympia Esposito, and their three illegitimate children. When the neo-Federal brownstone was declared a landmark in 1982, it belonged to Morris Levy, who had bought it for $525,000. He sold the building to Olympia Esposito the following year for a reported $16,000.
"George Goldner," Morris said, tasting the name. Goldner! One of the greatest A&R men in the history of rock and roll. It is impossible to imagine New York rhythm and blues without him. He discovered and produced Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, Little Anthony and the Imperials, the Flamingos, the Cleftones, the Chantels. . . .
Goldner formed his first label, Tico, in 1948, to record Latin and mambo music, and hit it big with Tito Puente. In 1954, on his Rama label, he recorded "Gee!," a song by the Crows that was one of the first R&B hits to cross over to the white pop charts. He gratefully named his third label Gee, and promptly put out Frankie Lymon's "Why Do Fools Fall in Love?" On subsequent labels, Goldner introduced the Four Seasons and made some of the earliest recordings of the Isley Brothers. In 1964 Goldner formed Red Bird Records with producers Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, and had hits with the Shangri-Las and the Dixie Cups. He kept starting new labels for a reason. A compulsive gambler, he was forever selling his old labels to Morris Levy for desperately needed cash.
"He liked horses," Morris said. "He always needed money. Any degenerate gambler needs money all the time. It's like being a junkie, isn't it? It's a shame, because George knew music and knew what could be a hit. But if he was worried about the fifth race at Delaware and working the record at the same time, he had a problem. George was a character, and a victim of himself."
Morris met Goldner after inducing Tito Puente, who played at Birdland, to switch from Tico Records to RCA Victor. Levy produced some records for RCA in the fifties. "George came to see me. I never met him before. He says, You took away my number one act, you really hurt my label. I said, Jesus, George, I didn't realize it, I'm sorry. Because I really didn't do it to hurt the man. He says, Well, maybe you can help me. . . ."
Goldner had a plan, and it concerned the Crows' new song, "Gee!" Morris had been putting the jazz acts that played Birdland into package tours and sending them on the road. In so doing, he had set up what he called "the best payola system in the United States." He explained, "Whenever our jazz concerts played a city, I would hire a couple of disc jockeys in the town to emcee the show. They got money for that, which was legitimate. George had this new record by the Crows, and he says, You know a lot of the black jockeys in America. So I helped him get his record played. He says. Let's become partners. With me making the records, and you getting 'em played, we'll do a hell of a business. So we did. And that was the beginning of Gee Records."
One year later, in 1956, Morris created Roulette. It was launched as a rock and roll label but also recorded Birdland stars such as Count Basie and Joe Williams. "I formed Roulette," Morris said, "because George kept telling me I didn't know nothing about the record business, and it aggravated me. And I says. Okay, now I'm gonna form a record company that I'm gonna run. The first records on Roulette were by Buddy Knox and Jimmy Bowen. They hit number one and number eleven within five weeks. [The songs were "Party Doll" and "I'm Sticking with You," respectively.] George got disillusioned and we bought him out." So Roulette picked up Frankie Lymon, the Valentines, the Harptones, the Crows. Goldner came back in the mid-sixties and sold Morris his subsequent labels, Gone and End. Roulette now had the Chantels, the Flamingos, the Imperials.
Around this time, another man central to the history of rock and roll entered Morris Levy's life. His name was Alan Freed. He was a trombone player from Salem, Ohio, who worked as a disc jockey, first in New Castle, Pennsylvania, then Youngstown and Akron. He had a drinking problem and a penchant for trouble. In Akron, Freed left one station for another before his contract expired and was legally barred from broadcasting in the city for a year. He moved to Cleveland and settled at WJW in 1951.
In the early fifties, pop radio was dominated by crooners like Perry Como and Andy Williams. It dawned on Alan Freed that America's youth was disenfranchised by this music because it was hard to dance to. As legend has it, he dropped by a Cleveland record store and became a convert to rhythm and blues. Freed bombarded his growing white audience with the first R&B it had ever heard—LaVern Baker, Red Prysock, Big Al Sears. Freed howled while the records played, beat time on a telephone book, and provided a rapid, raspy commentary: "Anybody who says rock and roll is a passing fad ... has rocks in his head, Dad!" He was so popular that in 1954, WINS in New York acquired Freed and his program, "The Moondog Show."
Freed was promptly sued by a blind New York street musician, Louis "Moondog" Hardin, for infringing his name. Hardin won an injunction, and Freed sulkily agreed to retitle his show. Freed went to P. J. Moriarty's, a Broadway restaurant, and sat down with some of the people who had welcomed him to New York: song-plugger Juggy Gayles, manager Jack Hooke, Morris Levy. "Alan was having a few drinks and bemoaning the fact that he had to come up with a new name," Morris recalled. "To be honest with you, I couldn't say if Alan said it or somebody else said it. But somebody said 'rock and roll.' Everybody just went. Yeah. Rock and roll." The WINS program became "Alan Freed's Rock and Roll Show," and a musical form acquired a name.
Freed set up shop in the Brill Building on Broadway. He had begun to host rock and roll concerts, a lucrative endeavor, and who was better at booking concert halls than Morris? "At that time, I used to take the Birdland stars on the road," Morris said. "So he came to me, Alan, and says, I want you to be my manager.*[* More likely, according to people who knew Freed, Morris encouraged the DJ's original manager, Lew Platt, to make himself scarce].
I said, My deal is fifty-fifty. He says fine. About five days later, the manager of WINS says, Moishe, we have a problem. Alan Freed's been in town a week now, and he's already given away a hundred and twenty percent of himself! He had a lot of talent, but he was also a little nuts."
Morris remained Freed's manager nevertheless. "The first show I did with Alan Freed was two nights at the St. Nicholas Arena. Which I think at that time held seven, eight thousand people. He made four announcements, six weeks before the dance, and $38,000 came in the mail. I says, Oh my God. This is crazy. Well, it was two of the biggest dances ever held. The ceiling was actually dripping from the moisture. It was raining inside the St. Nicholas Arena. I'm not exaggerating."
Encouraged, Morris booked the Brooklyn Paramount, a large movie house with a stage. Under the standard arrangement, the Paramount kept half the proceeds over $50,000 but guaranteed $15,000 for the promoters. Morris had other ideas. He waived the guarantee in return for an escalating percentage of the box office that would reach 90 percent at the $60,000 mark. No Paramount show had ever grossed near that amount, so the terms were granted.
"Alan stopped talking to me, because people had steamed him up that I sold him down the river by not taking a guarantee. As a matter of fact, one big agent bet me a case of Chivas that we're gonna get killed. Well, we opened up the first day, and there's lines in the streets, and the pressure's so great at the door that we start to cut out the movie. Alan and I pass each other in the hallway. I says, How's it goin', Alan? He makes a face. I says. Hey, Alan, let me ask you a question. You wanna sell your end now for twenty thousand? He says, What do you mean? We're making money? I says, Alan. And I told him what we're gonna make for the week. And he started talking to me again."
When Morris formed Roulette Records, he gave Freed 25 percent of the stock. Freed promptly sold his shares to "some wiseguys from around town," Morris said, bending his nose with his index finger to signify that the men were hoods. Who were they? "That's none of your business. And I got hold of Alan, and I said, Gimme back my fucking stock. Here's your contract with the shows, but we're not partners no more."
The payola scandal of 1960 destroyed Freed's life. He was indicted on May 19, along with seven others, and charged with taking bribes to play records. Freed admitted he accepted a total of $2,500, but said the money was a token of gratitude and did not affect airplay. He forgot to mention that the Chess brothers of Chicago let him stick his name on Chuck Berry's first hit, "Maybellene," and that he stood to gain by playing it often. Freed paid a small fine, but his career was over. By 1965 he had drunk himself to death.
"Bullshit charges," said Morris, reflecting on the scandal. "Freed got indicted because Freed stuck himself out in front. I had stopped talking to Freed because we'd had an argument for a few months. But when he got in trouble, he did call me. And I told him, I'll help you. But do me a favor. Go home and don't talk to nobody. And before the day was over, I was walking down the street, and the New York Post was sitting on the stand, and there's this big interview with Alan Freed. He had already talked to Earl Wilson, the columnist. And I called and said, What the fuck did you do? Did you see the size of the type? The type was the same size when World War II ended."
Payola was not illegal, in fact, until after the scandal. Commercial bribery was a crime in New York, though, and that statute proved Freed's undoing. The government tried to nail Roulette on the same charges but had no luck.
"Oh, yeah, they tried to break my balls with everything," Morris said. "They put their special agents in New York, they harassed the shit out of me. The government came in and seized our books. I went before the grand jury, and they were hot, because on my books there was a loan to Alan Freed of $20,000. And the D.A. wanted to show it was for payola.
"Now, Alan had once come to me, he wanted $20,000 that he needed for taxes. And I gave it to him from Roulette, it was no big deal. And at the end of the year, I said to my comptroller. Take that off the books, we're never going to get it back anyway. And then Alan and I had an argument in February. So I said to my comptroller, Put it back on the books, fuck him, I'm going to make him pay it. Then, about four months later, I said, Ah, take it off, fuck him. And it's really on the general ledger just like that, about five times, on and off and on and off.
"So the D.A. makes a statement, see, this shows you how payola works, this $20,000. So he's questioning me. And I says no, it's not payola. I got mad, I got glad, I got mad, I got glad. He says no, it's because he played your record. I said, Not so. He played my records anyway. So when he got all through, he starts to make a speech. This will show the people of the grand jury what kind of money and how rampant it is. So he said, You're excused. And I says to him, I got something to say. He said, You're excused. So one of the jurors said. Let him talk. So what is it? I said, You know, we just had a laugh here about $20,000—which was a lot of money then—and we just had some fun. But you didn't take into account that Alan and I are partners in the rock and roll shows, and we make $250,000 a year each on that. So me giving him twenty or him giving me twenty is really no big deal. Well, he got so mad he said, You . . . can . . . leave . . . now!"
The government tried to get Morris to sign a consent decree, admitting he had done wrong in giving payola. He refused. "People said I was an idiot, and I had plenty of grief because of that," Levy said. "But I liked myself better for not signing it."
To be continued in Part 2.