The guy was obviously scared out of his wits watching them destroy the duplicating equipment with bats. Most likely, he didn’t know about their MO; that they acted like marauders mainly for show, smashing the stuff to bits–cursing up a storm while they did it.
Moishe could imagine how the guy felt…Even cheap vinyl cutters cost an arm and a leg…Plus, powerlessness is a terrifying thing.
He was and expert on this because he had run away from home when he was thirteen years old. He lived on the streets of New York in the last two years of the Great Depression, in the days of breadlines a mile long and soup kitchen lines even longer.
People starved back then...Well, they didn’t really starve, but they got skinny…At least poor people got that way...Poor people who lose everything always have it worse than rich people who lose everything…He knew this too, from experience, since he had been both.
It got so bad, during the depression, that he rode freight trains, so bad that he walked for miles and miles. It got so bad that he hitchhiked all the way to Florida to escape it…There were groves and groves of orange trees in Florida. Lemon trees grew in people’s yards there…
On the way he ran into some very bad people. He ran into some stand-up people, too. Yes, even some nice people. But mostly he just ran into suckers.
He became meaner. He learned to use his large, meaty fists better. He became more proficient with a knife. And he learned, this, the most important lesson of all: You have to have friends. Without friends, you’re toast.
By the time he was old enough to join the Navy, the country was smack dab in the middle WWII. But he was prepared…
Big Nate, Moishe’s bodyguard, doused the bootleg records with gas. The records were strewn all around the guy’s feet. The guy was tied to a chair. He was crying. Nate struck a wooden kitchen match.
“Whose paying you?” Moishe asked, evenly.
“Nobody!” The guy cried.
“Don’t lie to me.” Moishe said, raising his voice just a little. “Whose equipment is this?”
“Nobody’s paying me!” the guy cried louder. “All the equipment is mine.”
Then he told them how he was new in town. That his baby was sick and in the hospital. That his baby needed an operation.
Moishe nodded to Nate. Nate extinguished the match with his fingertips.
“You’d better not be lying to me,” Moishe warned, jabbing the guy’s chest with his wide, stubby fingers.
Then they untied the guy and hustled him into Nate’s Cadillac. They drove him to the hospital…The guy wasn’t lying…Moishe paid for the baby’s operation.
The first time Tommy James got wind that something might be wrong was early in his relationship with Morris Levy. Very early. It was 1966. He was in New York, promoting his record Hanky Panky, which was selling like hotcakes in his hometown of Pittsburgh. To his pleasant surprise, he got a few nibbles from some of the big record companies immediately.
But the independent label just down the street from the hotel he was staying at, Roulette Records, was less interested. They weren’t rude or anything–it was more of a don’t call us, we’ll call you vibe.
The next morning, when James showed up for his appointments, the same record executives who had been interested the day before, suddenly no longer were. They couldn’t get him out the door fast enough. “You belong to Roulette. You’re Moishe’s boy,” one of them blurted out.
By the time he circled back to Roulette, he had been roundly rejected. Morris Levy was waiting for him. The Brahman bull of a man was all smiles and back slaps. “Welcome to Roulette,” he said. Then he showed James around the offices and introduced him to the family.
Of course James was skeptical, but he wasn’t stupid either. And he was hungry. So he signed a contract with Levy and Roulette.
Thus began Tommy James and the Shondells years long association with the hitman… Well, the press actually labeled him the godfather of the record business, but James thought the former moniker fit him better. That’s because Morris just cared about hits and hits only. Albums were of little consequence to him.
And there was a reason for Levy’s penchant for the single that, at the time, James couldn’t fathom..And Tommy James was a pretty smart operator…
Yes, there was the cutout business that Levy had engineered with his own labels and with K-Tel records, (cutouts were hit compilation albums of old, previously released catalog material) but James got hip to that quick…
See, what Tommy James may have never known–In fact, what few people even know today–is the deal Levy had with International Tape Cartridge Corporation. ITCC they called it. Their CEO, Larry Finley, was at the forefront of the 8-track tape revolution.
That’s right. Clunky, clumsy 8-track tape, of all things, plays a big role in this thing.
In 1966, Ford motor company introduced the 8-track player in the Mustang, the Thunderbird and the Lincoln. The 8-track was an ideal medium for hit single compilations, just what Finley speculated that people wanted to listen to while they were driving. And Morris Levy owned catalogs and catalogs of hits.
Under the agreement, ITCC would supply the 8-track tape cartridges and Levy would supply the hits. By 1967, virtually every car on the streets would have an 8-track tape option…You do the math.
But back to Tommy James…In spite of a shady reputation and all of the even shadier characters that congregated from time to time at Roulette, (characters like Genovese crime family boss, Tommy Eboli and Anthony “Fat Tony” Salerno, who headed the DeCalvacantes, the New Jersey faction of the Genovese family) Tommy actually got along very well with Morris Levy.
That is, until the former would work up the nerve and ask the latter for some of his own money. Morris would get very surly then.
“Cut Tommy a check for ten thousand,” he would yell to his secretary, finally, after exhausting the singer with questions, badgering him with expenditures and stressing him out with thinly veiled threats. “You want royalties, go to England,” was another favorite Moishe saying.
Even more disturbing were the things Tommy James personally witnessed at Roulette. Like the ritual that would happen when Moishe got a call from his music industry friends (the big boys at CBS, Capital, RCA) complaining about record bootleggers:
Morris would call his bodyguard and business partner into his office where there were always baseball bats leaning against the wall. The same wall with the plaque that blasphemously read “Oh Lord, Give me a Bastard with Talent.”
“Let’s go,” Morris would say to Big Nate (the Korean War vet who ran Calla Records, a Roulette subsidiary) and off they’d go with baseball bats in hand. Tommy saw this with his own eyes…
And then there were the stories Tommy heard (some from Levy himself) about what happened to people who crossed him…And to people who badgered him about their royalties… And about the copyrights to their songs…People like Jimmie Rodgers…
No. Not the yodeling, Jimmie Rodgers. The other one. The rockabilly Jimmie Rodgers who did that terrible song Honeycomb…Yes, that Jimmie Rodgers. He got his head caved in by a crooked cop that Morris allegedly hired…Yeah, Jimmie F. Rodgers. He survived but was never the same. Brain damage…
Then there was Lloyd Price’s manager, Harold Logan…Lloyd Price did that song Personality. And he did Stagger Lee…Anyway, Harold Logan was involved with the mob. The scuttlebutt is that he owed Moishe a lot of money…He turned up dead. Shot to death…
And James Sheppard, of Shep and the Limelites…Shep riled up some of the younger artists–especially some of the younger Black artists–at Roulette. He spoke out, warning musicians to stay away…Shep got shot, too…Dead.
But, perhaps most significantly, there was this: Morris was good friends with Allen Klein. They were such good friends that he gave Klein’s son just about the most extravagant bar mitzvah gift anyone had ever heard of…Israeli bonds.
That’s right. Before Allen Klein ripped off The Rolling Stones and broke up The Beatles, he was the former business manager of Sam Cooke…
Guess who ended up with Sam Cooke’s catalog?..
No. Not Morris Levy. He was a small fish compared to Allen Klein. Klein bought the Cooke catalog from Barbara Campbell, Sam’s wife, for a hundred thousand dollars. That was his first huge acquisition.
Anyway, Tommy James knew virtually nothing about these things in 1966 when he was just starting out with Roulette. He had a number one record. (But it was really more of a novelty tune.) Levy was happy but he was pushing James hard on the road, where they toured in a stinky station wagon and in the studio where he pressured James for a quick follow up hit to Hanky Panky.
That’s when whispers, when rumors, began to circulate around Roulette about stuff going on in Los Angeles…About what really happened to Sam Cooke…And Bobby Fuller…
To be continued…