Tiger Lily Records: The wild story of the tax scam label run by the notorious Morris Levy (Part II)
Recently, Dangerous Minds shined a light on the shady Tiger Lily Records, the tax shelter label owned and operated by the infamous Morris Levy. We explained that the albums released by the company were meant to lose money, resulting in higher tax breaks for investors. We also told readers about some of the musicians who willingly signed deals with the label. Part two of our Tiger Lily exposé will focus on the artists who were wholly unaware—for decades—that an album of their material was released by the company. In each instance, just a few known copies of each LP are known to exist. Why so few? Well, that’s one of the mysteries surrounding the label, but it’s believed Levy shipped the majority of the Tiger Lily stock to the local landfill.
In record collecting circles, one of the biggest stories in recent years was the eBay listing for one of the rarest and coveted of all the Tiger Lily LPs. The 2014 auction of the album, credited to a little-known group by the name of Stonewall, ended with the winning bid of $14,100 (no, that’s not a typo). Incidentally, the seller found the record at a Goodwill store in New Hampshire; the purchase price there was $1.
Stonewall were a heavy rock quartet from New York City. The band members were Bruce Rapp (lead vocals/harmonica), Bob Dimonte (guitar), Ray Dieneman (bass), and Anthony Assalti (drums). Assalti recently did an in-depth interview with the magazine, It’s Psychedelic Baby, in which many of the unknowns surrounding the band were revealed. As Assalti tells it, in 1972, Stonewall were put in touch with Jimmy Goldstein, the proprietor of a Manhattan recording studio. Goldstein offered the group free studio time, if they’d be willing to record after normal business hours. Before the evening sessions, the Stonewall guys would smoke a ton of hashish, then show up to the studio, where they’d smoke even more with Goldstein. Then, with Goldstein on keyboards, they’d start recording.
Stonewall and Goldstein would jam for hours, then use the best sections as the basis for songs. After half a year of experimenting and recording, Goldstein and the band’s manager took hold of the tapes, telling the group they would shop them around to prospective record companies. Eventually, Goldstein told them there were no takers. The band would soldier on for a period before breaking up.
Years later, after Assalti had relocated to Florida and started a family, he received a phone call from a European collector who had questions about the Stonewall album—which Assalti hadn’t known existed. He was stunned. “It’s kind of sad,” Assalti confessed during the magazine interview last year. “We were four young guys that were ripped off and never got the recognition I believe we deserved.”
Jimmy Goldstein is credited as the copyright holder of the tapes—a strong indicator he was Tiger Lily’s source. The Stonewall LP came out in 1976, the only year the label issued records.
So, what does a $14,000 record sound like?
Like the rest of the album, “Try & See It Through” finds the band balancing the heavy blues rock of Led Zeppelin with the heavy metal riffage of Black Sabbath. Goldstein’s organ is featured prominently in the mix, so there’s an added Deep Purple element, too. Rapp’s raw vocal comes off like a cross between Robert Plant’s guiding light for Zep, Terry Reid, and the raspy singer from Black Oak Arkansas, Jim Dandy. The highpoint of “Try & See It Through” is when Dimonte steps up and throws down an eye-popping guitar solo.
Unsurprisingly, the Stonewall album has been bootlegged many times. An exact reproduction of the LP can currently be had by way of Amazon.
Assalti is now a grandfather. He doesn’t play the drums much anymore, telling It’s Psychedelic Baby, “Seems like most of the bands around here rather save the money and use a drum machine.”
An odd footnote to the story: After Stonewall disbanded, Assalti became the drummer for Tommy James and the Shondells. James, if you’ll recall from part one, also had his own Morris Levy stories.
Austin, Texas band Too Smooth formed in 1973. The original lineup of this southern rock outfit consisted of Jeff Clark, (lead vocals/guitar), Brian Wooten (lead guitar), Danny Swinney (bass), and Tom Holden (lead vocals/drums). The guys lived together on a farm just outside of the city, which is where they honed their craft. Too Smooth soon developed a following and went on to become one of the most popular groups in the area. They opened for a number of touring acts, including Roxy Music, Judas Priest, the Kinks, and Aerosmith—regularly blowing the headliners off the stage. They were frequently top of the bill at beloved Austin venue, Armadillo World Headquarters.
In 1974, Too Smooth signed with Just Sunshine Records. The label was owned by Michael Lang, one of the promoters of the Woodstock festival. The band recorded what was to be their debut album at the Record Plant in Sausalito, California. They were in the studio finalizing the record when their manager received a phone call—Just Sunshine was being sold. The new owners were ABC/Dunhill Records, who decided to drop the group. “When we learned of the Just Sunshine meltdown/acquisition, we were obviously crushed,” Jeff Clark told me when I contacted him in 2014. “ABC/Dunhill didn’t know us from Adam, so we were supposedly cut in the transition.”
Too Smooth, though disappointed, were undeterred. The following year, they bounced back with a 45 on Buddah Records, which received some positive, advance attention in Billboard. But just as the single was about to ship, they were informed of yet another corporate takeover, rendering the record—and their Buddah deal—dead in the water.
Not much time passed before Mercury Records, after witnessing an explosive concert in front of 1,300 raving fans at the Armadillo, offered Too Smooth a verbal contract. But, yet again, the arrangement fell apart. By 1978, lineup changes began to alter the group. In 1980, they released another 7-inch—this one via the record label started by Armadillo World Headquarters—but a year later, Too Smooth were finished.
When I emailed Jeff Clark to ask him about Too Smooth’s LP on Tiger Lily I sent him a YouTube link to one of their songs, which included an image of the album cover, and another link, this one to a completed auction listing. This was the first time he’d seen evidence that the label had released a Too Smooth record, though he’d been asked about it previously. “Oddly enough, I had someone question me a few years ago, if we had an album on Tiger Lily,” Clark replied. “Of course, I said ‘No.’”
After hearing the song on YouTube and seeing the LP’s track listing, Clark was able to determine that the album consists of recordings from their sessions at the Record Plant. There’s obviously a lot of talent pressed into the grooves of their Tiger Lily record, making it hard not to wonder what might have been, had Just Sunshine not ceased to be. One of the best tunes is the funky, Clark-penned “Long Hair Drug Band” (titled simply “Drug Band” on the Tiger Lily LP). The video embedded below is the same one I sent to Clark in 2014.
Like many artists who come to discover a tax scam album of their material exists, Clark has mixed feelings. While he was angry “to learn of our music being STOLEN from us,” he also has the Zen-like belief that “things happen for a reason.”
As is often the case with tax shelter albums, there’s little in the way of clues as to who provided Tiger Lily with the Too Smooth tapes.
Beginning in 1988, Too Smooth has periodically reunited. In 2007 The Texas Music Café, a PBS program, filmed two performances for a Too Smooth documentary. The doc has been released on DVD, and you can watch it in its entirety here. It’s a fantastic look at the history of the band and their faithful Austin fans.
Too Smooth archival material started appearing in 2011. Still is a two-disc set of tracks from the 1970s, featuring songs from the Just Sunshine sessions. Live and Kickin’ is split between ‘70s live recordings and those taped during their 2007 reunion for the PBS cameras. Listen to tracks from both releases via YouTube. Unreleased material has been uploaded to their SoundCloud page.
In 2012, Jeff Clark’s debut solo disc, Just Visiting, was released. His Too Smooth bandmates appear throughout the album.
Clark recently connected with a Too Smooth fan in Italy, who got into the band after hearing their Tiger Lily LP.
Jeff Clark and his Flying V, on stage at the Armadillo.
Unfortunately, Jeff Clark and Tom Holden have developed health problems that make playing more difficult, “however; don’t ever count out another Too Smooth reunion,” says Clark.
Here’s Too Smooth tearing it up on Austin TV in 1977:
Dan Chapman and Dennis Wilkinson met in 1965. Chapman had just moved to Granada Hills, California.“I was fourteen and had zero friends,” Chapman told me in an email. One day, he was in the family rumpus room tapping out a beat on his new drum kit, when he noticed someone standing outside. “I was a little stunned to see a shadowy figure through the frosted slats of the full-length window. It was Dennis.”
Chapman and Wilkinson became fast friends, and before long, they’d be writing songs together. Chapman’s father owned a reel-to-reel machine, so they were able to record their material. The first song they captured on tape is called “Till the End”. It’s a tune that’s so Beatle-esque it could be mistaken for a Fab Four outtake (honestly, this one came up in my iTunes recently, and my initial thought was that it was a Beatles demo I’d forgotten about). Pretty impressive for a couple of fourteen-year-old novice songwriters. Soon they’d start their first band, Just Us Four.
Dan Chapman, bottom left; Dennis Wilkinson, top left.
The group morphed into the Vanilla Rain, and the band gigged frequently in Hollywood. They received some press coverage, including national attention in Teenmagazine and Tiger Beat.
The Vanilla Rain disbanded in 1969, with Chapman and Wilkinson going their separate ways for a spell. Wilkinson eventually met a producer named John McCauley, whom he’d introduce to Chapman. It was then that Wilkinson and Chapman decided to renew their partnership. After writing some new tunes, they played them for McCauley, who was impressed. Around 1970, McCauley got them into a Los Angeles studio. It was a state of the art facility, modestly named.
Dennis Wilkinson and Dan Chapman. 1970. Photo by John McCauley.
The Recording Studio was co-owned by a businessman named Joe Long. It’s possible some sort of deal was worked out with Long, who had his own production company, though neither Chapman nor Wilkinson can definitively recall. Wilkinson told me he does remember Long telling them he thought they could be a “teen sensation.” As Long felt so strongly about the duo, it seems likely he signed them to a contract. Regardless, Chapman and Wilkinson did go about laying down tracks. In addition to singing, they played all of the instruments.
Jim Hobson built the studio from the ground up and was another one of the owners. At the time, he was also a member of the country rock act, Morning. He engineered some of the Chapman/Wilkinson sessions and was impressed by the duo. “They weren’t imitating whatever the big group or song of the day was and that’s something I really appreciated.”
One night, Chapman and Wilkinson dropped acid. It was Chapman’s first trip, and when his parents found out they were so upset that they made him promise he’d never have anything to do with Wilkinson ever again. The young Chapman, still in his teens and under the sway of his parents, agreed.
Meanwhile, there was a lot of funny business going on at the Recording Studio, and by 1971, Jim Hobson was fed up. He severed all ties with Joe Long and got as far away from the place as he could.
In August 2012, a record collector in Switzerland reached out to Wilkinson via Facebook. The collector wanted to know if he was the same Dennis Wilkinson involved with a certain set of tracks recorded in the 1970s. “I saw these songs on an obscure vinyl album on Tiger Lily Records,” he added. The LP, titled Made from Plate, was credited to the group Onion. Wilkinson didn’t come across the message until the following May, but after he read it, he immediately phoned Chapman with the news. Chapman then contacted Jim Hobson, which is the first time he’d heard about Tiger Lily.
Three of the tracks on Made from Plate were taken from the sessions Chapman and Wilkinson recorded at the Recording Studio. Chapman handles the lead vocal on the first of the duo’s tunes to appear on the record, “My My My My.” Drawing inspiration from mid-period Beatles, its super-catchy chorus will be stuck in your head for days (it’s happened to me).
Wilkinson takes the lead on the remaining two numbers, “Believe Me” and “When Something’s Wrong,” which are solid slices of singer-songwriter pop. The harmonies on the latter are gorgeous, sounding like they were plucked from Abbey Road.
The musicians that play on the remaining five songs on Made from Plate have yet to be identified. It’s possible these tracks were taken from three different recordings sessions—maybe more.
A couple of years after Chapman told him about Made from Plate, Jim Hobson was surprised to learn that Hoblong, the publishing company he shared with Joe Long—which had been dissolved years before—appeared amongst the album’s credits.
Joe Long has ties to a number of tax shelter records, including the Richard Goldman album on Baby Grand Records. By my count, there are seven known Tiger Lily releases with connections to Long. One of those albums is a self-titled release by the band Dakota. “Hoblong” is printed on the labels, and Joe Long is given production credit on the back cover. I sent MP3s of the record to Jim Hobson, and though he no longer remembers specifics, he’s convinced his piano work can be heard on the song that’s identified as both “Dakota Jam”, track #3 on the label, and “Dakota Jim,” track #8 on the back cover (getting the credits right wasn’t a big concern for Tiger Lily).
Writer/collector and “tax scam records” expert, Aaron Milenski, sent digital files of the Made from Plate tracks to Chapman. Upon hearing the songs for the first time in over 40 years, he was immediately transported back to the time and place they were recorded. Though Chapman was confused and angered that others profited from his music, he was also excited to learn about the album (as was Wilkinson). For Chapman, it offered some closure on a period of his life that had long passed. He considers the chance to revisit the songs of his youth a gift.
In the early ‘90s, Chapman and Wilkinson teamed up once again to write songs and have been at it ever since. A few of those collaborations can be heard here.
Dan Chapman is now a successful designer, and creates poster art for Hollywood films.
Dennis Wilkinson has been dealing with health issues as of late. A few months after we spoke in November 2017, he was hospitalized. He’s still recovering, but told Chapman he’s anxious to record new music.
Roulette Records artist Tommy James, center, signs a management agreement with Leonard Stogel, left. Morris Levy, President of Roulette, right. 1966.
It’s unclear why Morris Levy closed the door on Tiger Lily after a single year. The Tax Reform Act of 1976 tightened tax shelter rules, so that might’ve played a role. Though that didn’t stop other, perhaps more brazen operators from continuing the practice. Fraudulent tax shelter enterprises offering investments in master recordings flourished in the wake of Tiger Lily and would be a thorn in the IRS’s side for years to come. The era of “tax scam records” was just beginning.
In 1988, Levy and two associates were found guilty of conspiring to commit extortion. The case stemmed from a deal, which went south, to buy millions of cut-out LPs and cassettes from MCA Records, and the subsequent shakedown of John LaMonte, a record wholesaler (Lamonte suffered head injuries during a 1985 visit from mobster and part owner of Roulette, Gaetano “Corky” Vastola). The FBI claimed Levy had been involved with organized crime for twenty years, and that Roulette acted as a front for the Genovese crime family. Levy was sentenced to ten years in prison and fined $200,000.
The case was on appeal when Levy sold Strawberries, his record store chain. He then parted with Roulette, which included his entire catalogue of labels, as well as his music publishing company. Levy reportedly pocketed over $40,000,000 on the Strawberries sale alone.
During this period, Levy was suffering from heart disease and cancer. When Rhino Records was negotiating to buy Roulette, Richard Foos, the co-owner of Rhino, found the man to be intimidating, despite his various illnesses. “He was physically imposing still,” Foos told Levy biographer, Richard Carlin. “I was surprised how young he looked. And he talked like…he had the Don Corleone type voice.”
Morris Levy, the “Godfather of the music business,” died on May 21st, 1990. He was 62.
We’ll leave you with a couple of TV clips from September 1986. The first is Morris Levy’s appearance on the Today show, following his federal indictment. Over the course of the interview, Levy consistently denies the charges, which he says are “ludicrous.” The second segment is a Boston news report covering Levy’s arrest.
The video is out of sync and has other issues, yet it’s somehow fitting that the clips are in such a state of disarray.
Previously on Dangerous Minds:
What’s Up Tiger Lily?: The wild story of the tax scam record label run by the notorious Morris Levy
‘Tax Scam Records’: Artist discovers albums of his songs were released by shadowy companies in 1977
‘Almost Famous’: Artist discovers his music was released by shady record companies in 1977 (Part II)