August 27, 1927
Harlem, New York, US
|Died||May 21, 1990
Ghent, New York
|Occupation||Music business executive|
Morris Levy (August 27, 1927 – May 21, 1990), born Moishe Levy, was an American music industry executive, widely known as the founder and owner of Roulette Records, owner of the Birdland jazz club and Roulette Room. At the peak of his businesses, Levy owned more than 90 companies employing 900 people, including record pressing plants, tape-duplicating plants, a distribution company, a prominent New England chain of 81 record stores (Strawberries), and numerous record labels. He was convicted in 1990 on extortion charges from an FBI investigation into the alleged infiltration of organized crime into the record business — and died after losing his appeal and two months before he was scheduled to report to prison.
Levy, who went by Moishe or Mo within the record industry, was described by Billboard magazine as "one of the record industry's most controversial and flamboyant players" and by Variety as "The Octopus" for having a far-reaching control in every area of the record business disproportionate to the sizes of his companies. Allmusic described him 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.
Early life and career
Levy was born a Sephardic Jew in Harlem and grew up 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 the US 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 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 roll music 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 countersued by Lennon, Capitol, EMI, and Apple for an award of $145,300.
Conviction and death
Beginning in 1984, the FBI targeted Levy in a 3 1⁄2-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 Caporegime in the Genovese crime family).
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).
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."
Music companies, record companies and labels owned by Levy included:
- Adam VIII
- Big Seven Music
- Domino Records
- Gee Records
- Gone Records
- Kama Sutra
- Patricia Music
- Roost Records
- Roulette Records
- Sugar Hill Records
- TK Records
- Tico Records
Levy had lived both in Manhattan at his Park Avenue apartment and at his 1,500-acre farm, Sunnyview Farm 7 miles East of the Hudson River in Columbia County, Ghent, New York a former dairy where he continued to raise cattle, hay and corn before exclusively breeding race horses. Sunnyview Farm remained a horse-breeding farm; later becoming the site for The Big Up Festival.
- Location, Sunnyview Farm
He was married four times, according to Frederic Dannen, author of Hit Men: Power Brokers and Fast Money Inside the Music Business, though Levy himself said in a 1986 interview with the Los Angeles Times, "the only thing I know about organized crime is my five ex-wives." In a 2008 exposé of the music industry, Tell the Truth Until They Bleed, author Josh Alan Friedman said that Levy had sent one of his wives to the hospital after beating her in a telephone booth.
- Levy's first wife was Patricia, after whom he named his company, Patricia Music. They divorced in 1954 in Dade County, Florida.
- Levy married Ruth Rubin (born 1937) on December 24, 1954.
- Walter Winchell reported in his column that Levy planned to marry actress-model Cynthia Brooks on 15 September 1957 aboard his yacht, anchored off Long Island. In 1961, columnist Dorothy Kilgallen reported that Levy dated singer-actress Keely Smith before marrying actress-model, Cynthia Brooks. Brooks had been under contract at 20th Century Fox, appearing in Follow the Sun (1951), Westward Ho, The Women (1952) — and was a former Las Vegas chorus girl (at the El Rancho Vegas). She was previously married to Rudi Maugeri, vocalist with The Crew-Cuts. Brooks was featured in the 1 April 1957 issue of Life (with photographs by Peter Stackpole) when she set up telephone numbers in 26 cities nationwide with a pseudonym, Brandy Lee, with instructions for men to receive four of her photographs for a dollar — drawing as many as 4,000 calls a day, hoping ultimately to raise $100,000 for a mail-order gown business. She reportedly later left show business to open a ski school at Lake Dallas, Texas.
- Levy's had two sons with his last wife, Karen Levy, with whom he was in divorce proceedings at the time of his death.
Levy's brother, Zachariah (Irving), was stabbed and killed in a January 1959 incident when he prevented the prostitute wife of an organized crime loan shark from entering the Birdland club. In Levy's 1986 extortion trial, the FBI said that Levy's brother was killed mistakenly by organized-crime figures attempting to kill Morris Levy.
- Levy's son, Zach, is President and CEO of Shireworks Productions, Inc., which produced The Big Up Festival at Levy's Sunnyview Farm.
- As of 2012, Levy's son Adam, of Rumson, New Jersey, owned a medical marijuana company called Medical Growth Consulting and was set to become the first company to market medical marijuana in New Jersey. The venture's application was refused by the New Jersey Health Department on the basis of Morris Levy's 1988 felony conviction. Adam Levy had been impressed with the positive effect of marijuana on his father's lucidity during his final days with cancer.
Levy served on the board of the Boston Opera Company, was chairman emeritus of the United Jewish Appeal (Music Division) and helped raise millions of dollars for other charities. He was named "Man of the Year" by United Jewish Appeal in 1973, serving on the board of Columbia County Hospital and he chaired fundraisers for the Black Congressional Choir, the Foundling Hospital, and St. Patrick's Cathedral Choir.
The Morris Levy Charitable Foundation was created following his death in 1990.
In popular culture
Levy was played by Paul Mazursky in the 1998 film Why Do Fools Fall in Love, and he has been cited as an inspiration for the HBO television series The Sopranos (1999-2007) character Hesh Rabkin — who made a fortune defrauding mostly R&B performers, underpaying royalties, pressing unauthorized records, and who owned lavish New Jersey horse-racing stables.
Me, The Mob, & The Music
Levy featured prominently in the 2010 autobiography Me, The Mob, and The Music by Tommy James, leader of the 1960s rock band Tommy James and the Shondells. James had not felt comfortable writing the book until all those who were deeply involved with the record company had died. The book reportedly is to be made both into a film and a Broadway play. Martin Scorsese approached James about making a movie of the book shortly after publication.
In the book, James characterized Levy as willing to strong-arm the talent, saying artists signed to Roulette were there to produce money for the company, having their needs met only when it pleased Levy. Asking to be paid meant intimidation; to survive, those under contract to Roulette needed to find a means of generating income that did not involve the record company, such as personally booked tours. While a Roulette artist had great creative control when recording for the company, the lack of payment for those efforts was difficult.
James estimated that Roulette owed him $30–40 million in unpaid royalties. James said Roulette was a front for organized crime, and functioned as a money laundering operation. In the early 1970s, Levy was at the wrong end of a mob war. James had to leave New York for a time to avoid a mob hit, which explained why he recorded an album in Nashville in 1972.
It was only after Roulette Records and Levy's Big Seven Music publishing company were sold (the record company to an EMI and Rhino Records partnership, the music publishing company to Windswept Pacific Music which was later sold to EMI) that James began to receive significant royalty checks from sales of his records.
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- "Record Company Mogul Morris Levy Faced Prison For Conspiracy Conviction". AP News Archive, May. 22, 1990.
- Hit Men: Power Brokers and Fast Money Inside the Music Business, Fredric Dannen. First Vintage Books, 1991.
- Fred Goodman, Morris Levy severing music industry ties, Billboard, 20 December 1986, p.1,71
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- Lennon vs. Levy
- "Jury Hands Up Racketeering Indictment". AP News Archives, Pamela Brownstein, Sep. 23, 1986.
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- "Three Men Convicted In Federal Extortion-Conspiracy Trial". AP News Archives, Mary Helen Gillespie, May. 25, 1988.
- "United States of America, Plaintiff, v. Morris Levy, Howard Fischer, and Dominick Canterino, Defendants". Findacase.com.
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- "The mobster's son and the pot clinic: A feud grows in Jersey". NJ.com, September 30, 2012.
- "Jimmy Merchant and Herman Santiago, Plaintiffs-Appellees-Cross-Appellants, v. Morris Levy, Big Seven Music". Vlex.com.
- "Two Songwriters Win Rights to Hit Song 36 Years After Writing It". AP News Archive, Larry Neumeister, Nov. 18, 1992.
- "Two Songwriters Win Rights to Hit Song 36 Years After Writing It". AP News Archives, Larry Neumeister, Nov. 18, 1992.
- Record Makers and Breakers: Voices of the Independent Rock 'n' Roll Pioneers (Music in American Life), John Broven. University of Illinois Press; January 13, 2010.
- "Across New York, Race Horses Form a Fast Growing Industry". New York Times, RICHARD D. LYONS, June 2, 1982.
- Tell the Truth Until They Bleed: Coming Clean in the Dirty World of Blues and Rock 'n' Roll, by Josh Alan Friedman, Hal Leonard (2008) OCLC 177016524
- Music As Written — New York, Billboard, December 25, 1954, pg. 20, col. 2
- "On Broadway". Boston Daily Herald, September 10, 1957, 2nd to last paragraph.
- Dorothy Kilgallen's Column, Toledo Blade, August 16, 1961
- The Mobster's Son And The Pot Clinic: A Feud Grows in Jersey, Oswego Palladium-Times April 20, 1959, Page 16
- Every Man's Miss Brooks. Life Magazine, 1 April 1957, p. 51.
- "Kentucky New Era, Dorothy Kilgallen". Kentucky New Era, Kilgallen, August 8, 1961.
- "Big Up neighbors express concern over Claverack music festival". Register Star, April 20, 2013.
- "S. Jersey's first medical marijuana facility nears launch date". Philly.com, Jan Hefler, Sunday, April 21, 2013.
- The Pied Pipers of Rock: Radio DJ's of the 50's and 60's, Wes Smith. Iconoclassic Books, 1989.
- "Morris Levy Charitable Foundation Levy Morris & Adam Ttee". 501(c)3 Lookup.
- Joe Hartlaub. "Review of Howling at the Moon by Walter Yetnikoff with David Ritz". Bookreporter.com. Broadway Books. ISBN 978-0-679-73061-3. Retrieved 10 May 2011.
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- on YouTube, videocast, Barnes & Noble, Lincoln Triangle NYC, Feb 22 2010
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- James, Gary. "Tommy James Interview". Classicbands.com. Retrieved 11 December 2010.
- "For Tommy James, the past is the future | 40 Years After | a Chron.com blog". Blogs.chron.com. 2010-07-05. Retrieved 2012-04-13.