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Lawyers, guns and money

Almost all the independent recording firms that channeled creative energy were gangsterish in their behavior, if not directly owned and operated by the mob

You guessed it. The title refers to a classic by Warren Zevon. Send lawyers, guns and money is the appeal (to his dad) of a gringo rich kid in trouble somewhere south of the border. The phrase also brings to mind a glorious/infamous epoch of the pop recording business.

Glorious, indeed. The explosion of rock and roll had dynamited the tyranny of the "majors." And infamous: almost all the independent recording firms that channeled that creative energy were gangsterish in their behavior, if not directly owned and operated by the mob.

The mafia always liked the world of entertainment, which synergized with its rackets of prostitution, drugs and betting. The pop business functioned largely with undeclared money and served for the laundering thereof. It generated big profits too, if your talent hunters had flair.

In The Sopranos we see Hesh Rabkin, a retired man with a weakness for black beauties, who breeds race horses in New Jersey. Being Jewish he can never be part of the family but Tony appreciates his encyclopedic knowledge. Rabkin, we are told, got rich with a record company in which he regularly added his name to that of the song's author.

The mafia always liked the world of entertainment, which synergized
with its rackets of prostitution,
drugs and betting

Rabkin is a facsimile of Moishe Morris Levy (1927-2007). Born in Harlem, he knew how to deal with African-Americans. Perhaps he did not understand be-bop, but he did understand that this craze had an audience. He ran dance halls that became legendary, such as the Birdland.

It was in Birdland that he discovered the rich vein of publishing. A representative of ASCAP, the performance-rights organization, showed up demanding payment for the use of their songs. For Levy, a whole landscape was lit up by a lightning flash: "You mean every time a song is played, your company gets so much..."

He lost no time in setting up his own company, and persuaded many black creators to sign over their compositions to him. In 1956 he became the visible head of a firm that sought to mine the bonanza of rock and roll: millions of teenagers with money to spend on frenetic singers and doo wop groups.

The name, Roulette Records, deserves an explanation. One of the partners was George Goldner, a promoter of great energy and flair, whose weakness was compulsive gambling. To cover debts, Goldner sold off his labels, which ended up in Roulette. Levy couldn't tell a rumba from a samba, but he acquired recordings by the likes of Tito Puente, Count Basie and Sarah Vaughan.

The most desired consumers were the adolescents. Roulette purchased finished recordings, and masters, and signed fresh talent, after the usual trial. It famously exploited the craze of the twist. Recent compilations such as Woo-hoo: the Roulette Story (One Day Music) show the sort of bullseyes that Levy scored, ranging from Franki Lymon to Jimmie Rodgers.

One of the advantages of signing with Roulette was that the gran capo admitted his vast ignorance, and gave total freedom to artists, arrangers, producers. The drawback: he wasn't good at paying you. Tommy James, soloist for the Shondells, says in his biography that Roulette robbed them of $30 million in royalties. But you didn't argue with an associate of the Genovese family.

Levy was ferocious in defense of his interests. In the fight over the author's rights to the immortal Why do fools fall in love, even the judge laughed when he attempted to explain exactly what his contribution had been. He was good at intimidation: he persuaded John Lennon to let him do mail-order sales of an LP, claiming that he had plagiarized verses by Chuck Berry in Come Together.

Don't expect a comforting moral at the end. They sentenced him to ten years for extortion but he appealed. He never saw the inside of a federal prison: he was free when a cancer ended his life.

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