Michael Thevis

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Dubbed "The Scarface of Porn" at the peak of his tabloid notoriety, gangster Michael Thevis was also the mastermind behind GRC, the Atlanta-based label best known for Sammy Johns' 1975 blockbuster "Chevy…
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Dubbed "The Scarface of Porn" at the peak of his tabloid notoriety, gangster Michael Thevis was also the mastermind behind GRC, the Atlanta-based label best known for Sammy Johns' 1975 blockbuster "Chevy Van." Born in Raleigh, NC, in 1932 and raised by his Greek Orthdox grandparents, Thevis later studied engineering at Georgia Tech University before dropping out in 1950 to operate an Atlanta newsstand. Little is known of his life during the decade to follow -- he married, fathered three children, and struggled to make ends meet while continuing to run the newsstand. While balancing the books, Thevis discovered that Playboy accounted for only ten percent of his total sales, but the magazine was almost the sole reason he turned any profit. From there, he began selling other pornographic titles, and in 1967 founded the black-market imprint Pendulum Press, publishing his own hardcore books and magazines. Among them were the novels Raped in the Grass and Bye, Bye Broadie, credited to the pseudonymous Donna D. Dildo, later revealed as the pen name of Ed Wood, Jr., the cult filmmaker behind such low-budget landmarks as Plan 9 from Outer Space and Glen or Glenda. Pendulum magazines like Lezo and Young Beavers were also steady sellers on the underground circuit, and as the enterprise grew, Thevis partnered with mobster and fellow pornographer Kenny "The Jap" Hanna, whose underworld connections fueled Pendulum's growth into hardcore bondage, rape, bestiality, and even child pornography.

Hanna ultimately introduced Thevis to Roger Dean Underhill, a low-ranking foot soldier in New York City's notorious Gambino crime family. Together Thevis and Underhill founded the corporations Automatic Enterprises and Cinematics to manufacture and distribute peep show machines to bars and sex shops across the U.S., and as profits accelerated Thevis became one of the Gambinos' most valued and influential associates, even attending family summits alongside "made" members. With the growth of Automatic Enterprises and Cinematics Thevis nevertheless ran afoul of Urban Industries founder Nat Bailen, who first developed peep booths in the early '60s as a means to exhibit kiddie cartoons. Bailen publicly assailed Thevis for transforming his brainchild into a vehicle to peddle smut. When the Urban Industries manufacturing site burned to the ground in April 1970, investigators concluded the fire was an act of arson. After Hanna was found murdered that November, Thevis emerged as a prime suspect. The subsequent FBI investigation determined he was by this time responsible for roughly 40 percent of the legal and black-market pornography distributed across the U.S., controlling more than 400 adult bookstores and X-rated movie theaters and generating an annual income in excess of $100 million. Thevis responded to news of the federal investigation by establishing a handful of legitimate businesses as fronts for his illicit pursuits, founding the music distribution firm General Recording Corp. and its attendant record labels GRC, Aware, and Hotlanta.

Regardless of Thevis' motivations for entering the music industry, GRC and its Sound Pit Studio on Atlanta's Simpson Street proved a dominant force in the thriving local R&B scene of the early '70s, yielding a series of minor hits like Ripple's "Dance Lady Dance," Dorothy Norwood's "Let Your Feet Down Easy," and the Rhodes Kids' "I Need Your Lovin'." Even more notable was Hotlanta, which issued material by soul cult favorites like Loleatta Holloway, Frederick Knight, King Hannibal, and Sam Dees. (The British reissue label Kent later compiled a pair of Hotlanta retrospectives, Good Guys Don't Always Win and Full Time Groovers.) Other notable GRC releases include Pale, Pale Moon, the lone solo album by Atlanta coffeehouse folkie Mike Greene -- years later, under the name C. Michael Greene, he would serve as president of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, the organization that administers the Grammy Awards. GRC nevertheless scored its biggest hit via country singer/songwriter Sammy Johns, whose libidinous "Chevy Van" sold three million copies in 1975. By that time Thevis' empire was in free fall. In 1973, Underhill was arrested during a routine traffic stop that yielded a cache of stolen guns, and the FBI offered him leniency in exchange for information on Thevis. Underhill revealed in a sworn affidavit that Thevis had ordered the fire that destroyed Urban Industries, and admitted his culpability in Thevis' executions of Hanna and Cinematics employee James Mayes, who was killed for the crime of seeking a pay raise.

In 1976 Thevis was sentenced to eight years and six months in prison for conspiracy to commit arson and distribution of obscene materials; in addition, he was ordered to pay $650,000 to Nat Bailen, Urban Industries' staff, and its insurance company. Underwood personally testified during the trial. Prior to entering prison, Thevis and attorney Joel Katz (today one of the nation's most powerful entertainment lawyers) administered the sale of GRC to Thevis' secretary Laverne Bowden; at present, the label's copyrights are presumably owned by Atlanta publishing firm Ginn Music Group, although the rights remain in dispute. While incarcerated, Thevis learned his wife, Velda, was filing for divorce. Even worse, the IRS was now collaborating with the FBI on a fraud investigation, and in 1977 he was indicted in Florida on various charges under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act. Thevis made national headlines by escaping from prison in 1978, immediately earning a spot on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list. Though the target of a manhunt, he quickly tracked down Underhill, killing him and associate Isaac Galanti with a shotgun. Police apprehended Thevis soon after. While awaiting trial in Florida, he reportedly bragged of the killings to his fellow inmates, and his cellmate repeated the information to authorities. In 1980 Thevis was convicted on murder charges, receiving a sentence of 28 years to life; denied parole in 1999, as of this writing he remains confined in Oak Park Heights Correctional Facility, a sprawling underground penitentiary outside of Minneapolis.