First of all, I must issue a disclaimer of sorts, I worked for Morris Levy in the 1980’s as an executive when he owned the 81-store Strawberries record chain in the Greater Boston area. He was a very demanding guy to work for, but he always spoke from experience and treated me very well.
Morris Levy was described by a prominent record executive as “a notorious crook who swindled artists out of their owed royalties.” Levy was widely known for falsely taking writing credit in order to receive royalties — enriching himself at the expense of many of his signed artists, especially his black R&B artists.
The Mob ran the record biz. During the height of America’s nightclub abundance, the ruthless owner of New York’s Birdland and Peppermint Lounge was one of the most powerful men in the scene. Morris Levy used his clubs to promote the acts on his record label and he used his record label to exploit his clubs.
As television became common in the early nineteen fifties, the majority of radio programming moved to the visual terrain. The scramble to fill radio’s dead air gave birth to the disc jockey and the pop music hustle. Morris Levy ensured that his label, Roulette Records, was there to fill the void. Radio became pop music’s round-the-clock infomercial, dictating which tracks would sell in record stores. Morris Levy was a master at ensuring his artists got airplay. That mastery involved a faculty of full-time thugs and their impressive collection of bedraggled baseball bats.
Joey Dee and The Starlighters were one of Levy’s most profitable acts. “I’d get in the limo with George Goldner, an employee,” says Joey. “He’d drive. It would be a couple of ladies of the evening, hookers, in the back of the limo and we’d drive to these towns. They’d meet with the deejays, give them an envelope with cash in it, allow them their way with the girls in the car, and then go on to the next town. And the next town. And the next town. Our records were played. God forbid they took the money and didn’t play the records. That’s when the baseball bats came out… and worse.”
Between 1960 and 1966 the biggest fad going in the LP world was comedy records. Labels big or small, comedians hopelessly funny or just downright hopeless, pressed albums. Levy thought nothing of giving a disc jockey an envelope full of cash and yet, he denied his recording artists the same courtesy. Major acts like Buddy Knox or Jimmie Rodgers found themselves nearly broke while their names were at the top of the charts. The Roulette comedians didn’t fare any better. Unlike the musicians that signed a slanted contract, Roulette’s comedians had no contract at all. Many had their act recorded clandestinely – and released to the market without permission. Any other record label would have faced a major lawsuit. Roulette Records was different. You got a problem with us? That’s fine. Soon you’re gonna have a problem with your legs.
In 1996, a court found Levy’s estate posthumously liable for $4 million in a case initiated by Herman Santiago and Jimmy Merchant of The Teenagers , authors of the song “Why Do Fools Fall in Love”. who successfully sued Levy for unpaid songwriting royalties.During the trial, the two testified they had received just $1,000 for the 1956 hit, which had sold more than 3 million copies. Santiago testified that Levy told him “Don’t come down here anymore or I’ll have to kill you or hurt you.”
Levy was born a Sephardic Jew in Harlem and grew up as a Runyonesque figure in New York City — after his father and older brother died of pneumonia when Levy was four months old. He quit school at the age of 13 and ran away to Florida, where he worked as a photographer in and around nightclubs, later joining theUS Navy.
Levy later persuaded the owners of the nightclub where he worked to buy a club in New York, subsequently managing the club as the Cock Lounge. It became successful, attracting musicians such as Charlie Parker and Dexter Gordon, and allowed Levy to set up another club, Birdland, in 1949.
When at Birdland, he was approached by a representative of ASCAP, seeking payment on behalf of songwriters for booking live music. Levy quickly appreciated the great potential profits that could accrue from owning music copyrights. He then formed a publishing company, Patricia Music (named after his first wife), for which he acquired the rights to songs performed in his clubs. In 1956, he founded Roulette Records with George Goldner, initially to release rock and rollmusic but also diversifying into jazz.At one point he claimed the rights to the phrase “rock and roll” itself, which became widely employed after its use by Levy’s friend, Alan Freed, and was known to add his name as songwriter to the credits of many artists who recorded on his label.
In June, 1975, Levy and Nathan McCalla (a vice president of Roulette Records) were indicted for assaulting off-duty police officer Charles Heinz, causing Heinz to lose an eye. The case was later dismissed and all records were sealed. McCalla was subsequently murdered in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
In the mid-1970s Levy filed a much-publicized lawsuit against John Lennon for appropriating a line from the Chuck Berry song, “You Can’t Catch Me” (for which Levy owned the publishing rights) in The Beatles’ song “Come Together.” Lennon ultimately settled with Levy by agreeing to record three songs from Levy’s publishing catalog during the sessions for his 1975 LP Rock ‘n’ Roll, co-produced with Phil Spector. After complications, due to Spector’s erratic behavior, and attempts at a second agreement failed, Levy used demo recordings by Lennon to produce and release a mail-order album titled “Roots”. Levy successfully sued Lennon and was awarded $6,795, but was counter sued by Lennon, Capitol, EMI, and Apple for an award of $145,300.
Beginning in 1984, the FBI targeted Levy in a 31⁄2-year investigation into the alleged infiltration of organized crime into the record business. The case against Levy involved the extortion of Darby, Pennsylvania record wholesaler, John LaMonte. LaMonte had agreed to purchase records valued at $1.25 million from Levy in a 1984 deal, and when LaMonte subsequently refused to pay the full price, claiming that the best titles had been removed from the 60-truckload delivery, Levy reportedly arranged to extort the money — Lamonte was subsequently assaulted, receiving a fractured eye socket.
Levy’s arrest in September 1986 at the Boston Ritz Carlton Hotel was televised nationally. Earlier that year, near the end of the investigation, Levy sold Roulette Records and his publishing rights (reported variously, for $22–$55 million).
During their investigation, the FBI suspected that Levy had used the Roulette room as a front for Vincent Gigante, allegedly the boss of the Genovese crime family— and that Levy had ties to organized crime for twenty years. Much of the trial evidence came from covertly recorded conversations taken from wiretaps and listening devices planted in the phones and business offices of Levy and Gaetano Vastola. Levy had a sign behind his desk that read, “O Lord! Give me a Bastard with talent” where the FBI had inserted a microphone inside the letter ‘O’ of ‘Lord. Two holes were also drilled in the ceiling for cameras.
Levy was convicted in December 1988 by a Federal jury in Camden, New Jersey of two counts of conspiring to extort. Also convicted were Howard Fisher (Roulette’s controller) and Dominick Canterino (a Caporegimein the Genovese crime family).
Morris Levy, speaking on his association with alleged mob figures: I’ve been on Broadway 47 years. I know some of these characters, and some I like very much … I knew Cardinal Spellman, too. That don’t make me a Catholic.
See Video: Interview, Morris Levy on the Today Show, September 1986
Levy vehemently denied the charges. At his sentencing hearing, Levy’s attorneys cited his extensive philanthropic work, while FBI agents testified that Levy had also been a major supplier of heroin for convicted Philadelphia drug dealer Roland Bartlett. In 1988 Levy was sentenced to ten years in prison and fined $200,000, subsequently appealing his conviction. Canterino was sentenced to 12 years in prison. Lamonte entered the federal witness protection program.
During his appeal, Levy remained free bail on bail, which was secured with his upstate New York estate, Sunnyview Farm. In October 1989, shortly before his death, his conviction was upheld by the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in Philadelphia. Also in 1989, as the principal shareholder of BeckZack Corp., which owned all 81 of the Strawberries record stores, Levy sold the chain.
In January 1990, Levy unsuccessfully petitioned to have his sentence eliminated because of his failing health. Instead he was granted a 90-day stay and was scheduled to report to jail on July 16.He died on May 20, 1990, before he could report to jail, in Ghent, New York— of colon or liver cancer (reported variously).