Hit Men

[Do you remember the character “Hesh” from The Sopranos? I think his character was based on this guy. Why is this story so universal? The exploitee is always poor and talented. The exploiter is always smart and greedy. Are there any exceptions? The only one I can think of is Muhammad Ali (born Cassius Clay, who was fronted financially by a small syndicate of backers who–to my limited knowledge–encouraged and nurtured him professionally while protecting him from the numerous sharks known to inhabit the world of professional boxing. Any others? SB SM]

Today’s selection — from Hit Men: Power Brokers and Fast Money Inside the Music Business by Fredric Dannen. The rock and roll industry was deeply impacted by crooked publishers and by the mob:

“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 1938 — 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. 

“Morris Levy started Roulette in 1956, after a decade in night clubs (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* 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.

“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 to 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’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. He 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.” 

author: Fredric Dannen 
title: Hit Men: Power Brokers and Fast Money Inside the Music Business 
publisher: Anchor 
page(s): 31-33

2 thoughts on “Hit Men

  1. Very interesting novel about early music biz -song stealing and exploitation,and much more = Symphony of Secrets by Brendan Slocumb 2023

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