The Hit Man
By Jonathan Karp | Summer 2016
Godfather of the Music Business: Morris Levy
by Richard Carlin
University Press of Mississippi, 304 pp., $35
"The ability to wheel and deal are such essential elements of success” in the music industry, wrote the editors of Billboard magazine in November 1988, with Morris Levy in mind, that “the thin line between unscrupulous and criminal behavior is often obscure and hard to pinpoint.” Wherever that line lay, Levy often crossed it. The owner-operator of the world-famous New York jazz club Birdland during the 1950s, the head of the indie label Roulette Records throughout the sixties and seventies, the creator of the retail record store chain Strawberries during the 1980s, and the object of countless lawsuits for copyright infringement and royalty theft during most of his career, Levy was a lifelong associate (or more accurately, employee) of the Mafia, specifically, the Genovese crime family. Only his death of stomach cancer in 1990 at the age of 63 spared him from a 10-year prison sentence for violent extortion.
Left: Logo of Birdland, established 1949, New York City. Right: LP cover of Tommy James and the Shondells’ “Hanky Panky,” produced by Roulette Records, 1966.
Pop music historian Richard Carlin comes not exactly to praise Morris Levy but at least to set the record straight. He aims to rediscover the character in the caricature. Scrupulously even-handed, Carlin eschews the sensational in favor of sober business history, meticulously detailing key aspects of Levy’s 40-year career in a business where, curiously in Carlin’s telling, Levy occupied a position both at the center and on the margins. Carlin reveals that Levy, who is usually dismissed as just a colorful parasite, was a nightclub owner committed to racial integration (of both customers and staff), an innovator in the early promotion of rock and roll concerts (partnering with legendary Cleveland disc jockey Alan Freed), an ambitious label owner who once aspired to elevate his company Roulette Records to the status of a major label, and a genuine pioneer of discount music marketing, including his virtual invention of the “golden oldie” compilation. While acknowledging that Levy had ties to mobsters from the beginning—his start in the business was as a teenage flunky in the nightclubs’ Mob-run coat-check racket—Carlin suggests that Levy remained a semi-legitimate businessman until the middle-late 1960s, when Roulette’s fortunes as a hit factory declined. It was at this point that such lifelong cronies as Genovese family boss Thomas “Tommy Ryan” Eboli and New Jersey mobster Gaetano “Tommy” Vastola virtually moved into the company’s premises, on occasion even commandeering Levy’s office for discreet high-level meetings.
Yet Carlin’s stick-to-business read of Levy’s life constricts the book’s focus almost too tightly. The author tells us that Levy was a notorious womanizer, but we learn next to nothing of his five marriages and three children, although Carlin appears to have interviewed Levy’s son Adam, who became his father’s confidant and inherited many of his many legal entanglements. Levy’s Jewishness is similarly neglected. It is of course never disguised, which would have been absurd. The music business of Levy’s day (and to an extent even today) was a Jewish niche industry; almost everyone Levy worked with who wasn’t an artist or a Mafioso was a Jew. Co-religionists and Italians alike referred to Morris as Moishe. That the Ashkenazi pronunciation was employed and that Levy himself made frequent use of Yiddish, despite the fact that he was the son of Turkish-born Sephardi immigrants, underscores the peculiar ethnic character of the music business subculture. In his 2010 memoir, Me, the Mob, and the Music, the non-Jewish Midwesterner Tommy James, who, with his group the Shondells, would become Roulette’s most successful hitmaker of the 1960s era, described his introduction to the business as one meeting after another with Jewish moguls: talent agent Chuck Rubin; head of the Kama Sutra label, Artie Ripp; Ron Alexenburg, boss of Epic Records; George Goldner, the pioneering producer of Latin mambo recordings; and Jerry Wexler, co-head of Atlantic Records. By the time James finally made his way to Morris Levy’s cavernous Broadway office, Levy’s promotional director, Red Schwartz, had tipped off his boss to the hit record potential of James’s song “Hanky Panky.” As James later found out, Levy had sent a message to all of these competitors to lay off. “This is my fucking record!” he told them. “Leave it alone.”