Richard Carlin Talks Morris Levy: “From Bebop to Rap, His Career Had Longevity”
Here’s Why You Should Read Richard Carlin’s Book on Morris Levy
Article and interview ©Jake Katel
Morris Levy was a complicated, mobbed up, pioneering nightclub boss, indie label head, music publisher, and record store chain owner who after about 40 years of ruling the mean streets of jazz, doo wop, and R&B in NYC got caught up in an FBI racketeering case and died before serving time in prison.
Levy was a close associate of Henry Stone’s going all the way back to the days when both of them were kids serving time in nearby institutions for troubled youths.
Richard Carlin’s new biography of Levy, Godfather of The Music Business, sheds light on the shadowy figure behind so many of the hits that boom through our musical consciousness even today.
In its index, the book includes a research citation for the collaborative book between Jake Katel and Henry Stone called The Stone Cold Truth on Payola In The Music Biz (available on Amazon). Carlin has written over twenty books on music, with subjects ranging from jazz, to folk, country, and even Scottish Dance. Here’s what he had to say about Bronx record men, focusing on the outrageous, and the link between Sam&Dave and Miami Bass.
First of all congratulations on over 20 books of music history!
How did you first hear about Morris Levy?
Well I think a lot of people were first introduced to him through the pioneering work of Frederick Dannen’s book Hit Men and his previous article in Rolling Stone Magazine. That was an eye opener for a lot of people about Morris Levy’s role in the industry. There were stories floating around about Morris Levy but Hit Men was the first book of its kind about the independent record business. A second book, William Knoedelseder’s Stiffed highlighted Levy’s ill-conceived final deal with “Corky” Vastola that led to the downfall of both men.
I had written about Folkways and Moses Asch and he represented the opposite end of the spectrum from Morris Levy. He truly wasn’t motivated by money. He was motivated by documenting all of the world’s sounds.
So I got interested in Jewish record producers out of the Bronx. Guys like Hy Weiss, George Goldner, Henry Stone. The original idea was to write about the group. Why did they arise? How did they get into the industry? Most Jews couldn’t get hired by the major firms like RCA and Columbia. They tended to come up through the jukeboxes and nightclubs, and that whole coterie kind of interests me.
I came to focus on Levy, the most outrageous person of the group because he highlights so much, and takes the generally bad practices of the industry to the extreme. And because his career spanned major musical styles from bebop to rap, his career trajectory, and the fact that very few people had that longevity was also of interest to me.
What inspired you to write this book?
These guys had a code of ethics, and in their defense they were the only people who recognized value in this music. When Levy bought copyrights for $1,000, the artists were thrilled at the time and nobody thought they would have value beyond that. People felt cheated in retrospect, but again these were the deals that they made. However, Morris could talk out of many sides of his mouth, and it was hard for artists to effectively collect royalties from him and a lot of money was skimmed off and disappeared.
What was the most surprising thing you learned about him?
I was surprised he ran among the first integrated clubs on Broadway and that he wrote into all his tour contracts that the venues had to be integrated. When he opened the Miami Birdland, he published a photo of a white doorman holding the door for Errol Garner and his wife. Those were good things I learned. A lot of the more skeevy things…I think that in the perspective of how people operated, he took a lot of the bad practices to their illogical extremes. And in that way he wasn’t always the best actor, but there were a lot of mitigating factors. Once he got bankrolled by the mob, how much freedom did he really have? I think the FBI wiretaps show he really didn’t have much freedom; and he was constrained in what he could do particularly under the influence of Vincent Gigante. In fact, there were wiretaps of Vincent Gigante saying, “We’re gonna murder the Jew if he doesn’t do what we want.”
Levy wasn’t a stupid person, but he had to borrow money, and that was the classic way for the Mob to infiltrate a business. Morris may have been more willing and eager than some to bring mobsters into the business. He never denied that he had partnerships with Gigante and his common-law wife who was on Levy’s payroll. It is what it is.
How did you become aware of Henry Stone?
I had run across Henry Stone’s name before, and looking into Levy it comes up. The question for me was how did this group of first generation immigrant families from Eastern Europe, this coterie, how did they end up in the music business, and what kind of trajectories did their lives take? I think the thing about Henry Stone is the fact that he was so key in so many musical styles and he bridged a lot of the musical eras. He also played so many people off each other and worked with so many different labels. No Henry Stone, no Sam&Dave or Miami Bass. And that’s very important. Whereas Morris Levy was involved with Count Basie, but he didn’t care about artists as artists or musical styles. Henry Stone loved Sam&Dave whereas Morris Levy barely knew who they were.
Be sure to check out Richard Carlin’s website for more info, and his Morris Levy Godfather Of The Music Business Facebook page to connect with the author. Shop for the book on Amazon or via the University Press of Mississippi website.