Once Aryan Skynet Goes Live It Doesn't Matter Who Pulled The Switch
Some remember the days of doo wop and girl groups as a time of innocence in popular music; but, as Nick Tosches conveys in his book Save the Last Dance for Satan, a roving account of the gangsterish goings-on behind the scenes of the early days of rock and roll that draws upon the reminiscences of musicians and promotion men, the record industry thrived amid a decidedly unwholesome and distinctly Jewish-mafioso environment. “Everybody was trying to shake down everybody,” Tosches writes. “Among the Jews who ran the music business, it was treachery without end within the temple.”1
Sometimes even performers of hit records like the Jaynetts’ 1963 Tuff Records single “Sally, Go ‘Round the Roses” were lucky to get paid for their work. Artie Butler, who did most of the instrumentation for the song, recalls that Tuff head “Abner Spector [no relation to Phil] and I did not see eye to eye on paying people for their work, so we never worked together again.”
Artie remembers that Abner “hated” the recording when he first played it for him. “He was really angry. He felt that I wasted his money. I disagreed with him. I played the record for Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. They loved it and offered to buy it and reimburse him for all of his expenses. When I went back to him and told him that Leiber and Stoller loved it, he had second thoughts about it.”2
Spector, despite his distaste for the song, eventually secured an authorship credit, but cheated the actual musicians out of their share of the return:
Not only did the three girls who recorded “Sally, Go ‘Round the Roses” receive no credit for their achievement. They also got none of the gelt brought in by their hit recording, either. The album liner notes credited to Abner were correct in describing the big “payoff” for the Jaynetts coming “at ‘Playback Time’ when, in those memorable moments, they first saw the delighted looks on the faces of the musicians and heard their sincere and hearty applause.” Quite a payoff indeed, especially as there were no musicians present [since the vocal and instrumental tracks were recorded in separate sessions]. Abner, the producer and label-owner who wasn’t there either, may have figured that money could only demean a payoff so grand and downright otherworldly as this.3
Another figure typical of the music scene of the time was the “genius” Moishe Levy, the Roulette Records owner whose rise Nick Tosches recounts as follows:
[…] the Bronx was where Moishe Levy grew up. He went by the name of Morris, but those who knew him called him Moe when they didn’t call him Moishe. He was in his early twenties when he took over Birdland, the celebrated jazz nightclub, named for Charlie “Bird” Parker, that opened in 1949 on Fifty-second Street at Broadway. Even then there was a mythology about the man who called himself Morris Levy. He had won control of the joint in a card game, it was said – drawing three sevens, playing one on one against the owner – though many swear that Levy never gambled except for an occasional game of craps. He had started out as a kid flipping hamburgers at the Turf, which, like Jack Dempsey’s, faced Broadway from the street level of the Brill Building. He had then become a photo developer of pictures taken of patrons by nightclub camera girls. Then he operated coat-check concessions in clubs throughout town. Then, mysteriously, he owned clubs: not only Birdland and its sister club, Birdland of Miami, but the Royal Roost, Bop City, the Downbeat, the Embers, and the Round Table were all, at one time or another, said, known, or rumored to have been Levy’s joints.4
Tosches further recounts a group of acquaintances’ memories of Levy:
Not only was he a genius, says one who knew him, in way of epitaph, but “he was one hell of a sharp dresser, too.”
But what of Morris Levy’s genius? In a group, as at that big round back-room table, the old-timers are wary, evasive in answering.
“He could spot a winner,” says one.
“The ‘essence of his genius’?” smiles another, wryly using the phrase I had offered. “Robbing everybody.”
“He never gambled.”
“He took over underdogs.”
“Morris hated to give up money. Money was his god, and he was devout in his religion.”
“What was that I was saying? ‘This is my grocery store. I do all the robbin’ here.’”
“If you sold a million records, he’d say you sold a hundred thousand. Moe was pretty sharp with that. That was his thing.”5
Levy, Tosches reveals, was the man who “controlled” Alan Freed, the disc jockey who popularized “Rock and Roll” as a label for the category of wild music being marketed for the new teenage market during the 1950s and gave it “his Judaeo-Christian benediction”6.
“That was the secret of Moishe’s success,” I was told. “He controlled Freed.” And, in those pay-for-play days, Freed, whose plays were the biggest, got the biggest pay. “Every record company that was in business selling R&B had a deal with Alan Freed. Atlantic, King, Federal, all of them. And they all had to come up with the money. That’s the way it was. Freed made money. Morris made money.”
In a group, these are the things that are said, and in all of what is said there is truth. These men know what they are talking about, and there seems to be no special fondness for Levy among them.
There are a lot of stories from the Birdland days. It was Irving Levy, Moishe’s brother, that managed the joint.
“He was a sweetheart, Irving. I was there the night he was killed. He had a hooker there, didn’t want her there, and he chased her out. Her husband caused a big commotion, stabbed Irving, killed him. So then it was like open season. All the jukebox guys used to hang in the Birdland mostly. And everybody’s out for the husband. You never seen more people getting shot left and right, everybody thinking they’ve got the guy.”
“He loved broads,” one says of Morris, who would marry and divorce several times.
But what of all the tales of Levy’s being deeper into the Mob than the rest of them?
But alone, some speak differently. One takes me aside, his arm around me, whispering though we are in earshot of no one.
“Let me tell you,” he says. His hushed words are delivered slowly and surely: “Morris simply could not have done what he did alone.”7
Tosches relates a number of other engaging anecdotes about the business of what he characterizes as the silver age of rock and roll (following the golden age of the black R&B of the forties) which, assuming they have strong stomachs, are probably worth reading for those with an interest in the subject; but, for the purpose of bringing the present post to an appropriate close, Tosches’s summaries of the demises of Freed and Levy will probably be sufficient.
Alan Freed, broken by the ensuing scandals of the lengthy payola hearings, died impoverished and disgraced […]. As for Levy, he was charged in 1986 on counts of criminal collusion and conspiracy with several alleged mafiosi, and was convicted in 1988. Following the failure of an appeal, he was scheduled to report to federal prison when, in the spring of 1990, age sixty-two, he died at the manor house of his estate, a thirteen hundred acre horse farm in Ghent, New York.8