Blasts from the past? … sort of!
My first holiday gift to/from myself this year was a new book – Godfather of the Music Business: Morris Levy, written by Richard Carlin*. It’s a biography of one of the more notorious guys in the business of yore based in NYC after WW II. Good books have already been written so far on other contemporaries such as the Chess brothers in Chicago; Ahmet Ertegun, or Joe Davis in NYC; a.o., (who are all in some ways appealing people) with tomes on The Bihari brothers in L.A. or Herman Lubinsky in Newark, NJ as yet unwritten.
Levy was a colorful (as they say), and an often unappealing and devious figure, one who had “naturally occurring” mob friends and connections due to his upbringing. This was in Depression-era Brooklyn, when so many on the lower rungs of the socio-economic ladder came to each other’s aid in one form or another as all attempted to survive by whatever means necessary. He was a child of his times and his neighborhood – the mob ruled!
The record business as it progressed after the war had something of the “wild west” about it, with many metaphorical gunslingers (and a few who really were that) and other biz rustlers trying to mine the new pop music mother-lodes to their benefit. One aspect that contributed to their rise was the major labels (Columbia, Victor, Decca) and their distributors having no idea how to serve vernacular audiences… blacks among them… or whether to even bother. The invention and proliferation of the tape recorder was one of the key technological events that led to this explosive growth after the war. One could essentially set up a simple recording “studio” almost anywhere, (garage, back room, basement, even a chicken coop!), and Bob’s your uncle – you’re in business! Many of the participants hadn’t a clue as to what they were doing (most of them, maybe?), others had some idea, and there were even a rare few who actually liked the music and the people who made it. (see O&S #87) It was vaguely reminiscent of the legendary monkeys and typewriters effect! And then there was the world of the new independent distributors, who took on the many new indie labels – there were often incestuous relations between the independent labels and distributors… kind of like Abbot & Costello’s “Who’s on First” sketch!!
Levy was not a music lover per se – he was only interested in the income that could be made from the records and the performers for his small initial investment. It was an industry to him like any other, with a product coming out one end for the public to purchase. He was a salesman. Unlike some in his situation, like the Chesses or Biharis, Morris Levy did not attempt to build anyone’s career over time but his own. He just recorded (or bought from others) material and that was generally as far as he went – early promotion and then nothing. That is why there are so many one-hit wonders on the aptly named Roulette Records!
To Morris Levy, music was simply a commodity to be mined and sold as it came to him (often unrefined), not something to be nourished: the word “art” never crossed his mind. On the positive side, he was not a racist, but an equal-opportunity exploiter of struggling musicians regardless of race, creed, or color! A man of his word (but not of his contracts), he managed to last a very long time in a cut-throat business! In reading the book, he comes across as volatile and occasionally fair according to his personal standards… those of the street. And I tend to believe after reading this book, that he was chased for decades by the Feds and they finally set him up and nailed before he died. By the way, it is a good read!
While I never had direct dealings with him, I was a fringe player in one of Levy’s law-suits against John Lennon – suits were his go-to response to any apparent slight! One day a phone call to my home in Ulster County came from Lennon’s lawyer asking for my assistance – I believe that they got my number from Atlantic Records, for whom I had recently done some work (O&S # 15). It seems that Chuck Berry (via his copyright holder Morris Levy) was suing Lennon for breach of copyright: I was told it was over four bars of music in common with “You Can’t Catch Me” (Berry) and “Come Together” (Lennon). They wanted to tap into my expertise in black music history for pre-Chuck precedents. I successfully found them in some Lomax field recordings from the mid-30s that had examples of the same musical phraseology. Four bars! (Nothing wholesale like George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord”.)
I was then later told that the matter was to be settled out-of-court and I would not be needed to testify; yet another typically unpaid consultancy! The lawyer told me that Lennon had agreed to record three of Chuck’s songs on his planned album of oldies, and that Berry would get the copyrights to a couple of Yoko Ono songs in exchange. (I can’t make this stuff up, folks… not enough imagination!!!) Reading the book, I find that Morris Levy sued Lennon again later for not recording all his promised copyright tunes on that oldies album and won (sort of) – read pp. 171-178, Chapter 8; “Remainders: 1969 – 1974” for the whole strange story. Angels on the head of a pin stuff… it boggles one’s mind!
In another missed close encounter example, I never had direct contact with any of the Chess brothers, either, but I did meet Ralph Bass at their studios in Chicago one time while traveling with Mike Rowe. We had a great time listening to unissued Chess stuff and talking with Ralph about music of the past – he cared. A well-spent and educational afternoon! Another time, I was successful in “bribing” Ahmet Ertegun so I could produce six lovely sets of blues re-issue material from the Atlantic vaults. (see O&S #15) He was a music lover.
Finally, because I was based in northern NJ at my parents’ house at that time, it seemed logical to attempt to contact and interview Herman Lubinsky, owner and head of Newark’s Savoy Records – it was relatively close to Montclair, NJ. When I arrived and was admitted into his office, I found that he was a stone racist who hated ALL the black artists he recorded over the decades as well as their music – he made no attempt to hide his feelings from me.
According to Herman, all “niggers” were nothing but drunken, drug addicted sex fiends and that included the black gospel acts he was living off of at the time. Tarheel Slim told me of a time when Herman pulled a gun (and firing into the ceilin), on Thermon Ruth, the leader of many a notable “quartet” or two (both secular and sacred) when Ruth brought up the subject of royalties. After my own unpleasant experience, I can believe that story is accurate. I found Lubinsky to be a horrid little man with no manners or couth, who waved his racism in my face. He made Morris Levy seem the pinnacle of subtlety and good taste!
I was attempting to meet with Lubinsky on behalf of BLUES UNLIMITED, then a mimeo’d journal from the (then) UK. Needless to say, there were no salaried positions with this labor of love! Herman demanded he be paid an undetermined sum before he’d talk with me – no amount of explanation of the reality of the situation on my part would sway his position. A wasted trip, but I hadn’t given up yet, masochist that I can be. The downside was that I went back to Savoy another time with Mike Rowe to find that he was not there even although we’d called ahead. The upside was that we instead met with Fred Mendelsohn (Regal Records, DeLuxe Records, Herald Records, a.o.), who was then Savoy’s main A&R man for black gospel material. Fred LOVED the black musics he worked with over time as well as the musicians – he was, unlike his boss, an all around lovely man**. We had a great time talking with Mendelsohn, who told us much about the record business in NJ and the NY area during the 40s. Then he pulled out a reel of Blind Willie McTell stuff from a session he’d recorded for Regal ca. ’49, and played it for us! WOW. Willie and Curley!! Heaven!!!
Later, most of Fred’s Regal blues material (a.o.) was sold to Arnie Caplin (Biograph Records), but that particular McTell reel came up missing in the initial hand-over! Apparently it was mis-filed or something, and that explains the odd initial mismatched McTell/Memphis Minnie LP of Regal material that first came out from Biograph at the time. The “lost” reel was eventually re-located after I hipped Arnie to the fact of its existence. Further down the line there was a second Biograph LP of Regal blues material including that “lost” McTell tape that was released later on. All the McTell/Weaver stuff is on CD these days, so no harm done in the long run… great stuff!
There you have it – my mild exposure to some of the early (notorious?) giants in the record business, the wheelers and dealers of their day***. I really was merely a shy, music-loving WASP guy from northern NJ! I was, nonetheless, able to meet some really nice people who liked the music and were wiling to speak with me. And then there were also a couple of real ass-holes of various type, depth, and intensity! Probably a representative sample of the biz of those days, though, and a great example of how not to be in many cases!
PETER B. LOWRY Sydney, 2017
* University Press of Mississippi (2016) Jackson, MS. (The author is the brother of Bob Carlin, claw-hammer banjo player par excellence and author.)
** Among the releases he was responsible for recording (and selling) for Savoy were the wonderful albums of the very old-time, nay archaic, singing preacher, Rev. C.J. Johnson from Atlanta. They knocked Alan Lomax off his chair when I played some for him one time.
*** For more information, read Record Makers and Breakers: Voices of the Independent Rock ‘n’ Roll Pioneers, written by John Broven. University of Illinois Press (2010) Urbana and Chicago.