In the pioneering days of the record industry, perhaps no one was as revered as publisher/label owner Morris Levy. In a 1957 article, Variety dubbed him the "Octopus" of the music industry because he had an outstretched hand in nearly every area of the growing business. Decades later, another writer dubbed him "The Godfather," a nickname reflecting both his power in the industry (a supposed net worth of $75 million by the early '80s) and his reputed mob ties. The founder of Roulette Records and onetime proprietor of New York City's famous Birdland nightclub, as well as a notorious crook who swindled artists out of their owed royalties, Levy represents everything adventurous and underhanded about the infancy of rock & roll.
Born in Harlem in 1927, Levy's father and older brother died of pneumonia when the boy was just four months old. Quitting school at the age of 13 (after an incident where he assaulted his 75-year-old homeroom teacher) Levy grew up on the streets, developing the kind of tough, cutthroat worldview that would later make him a wealthy man in the music industry. During his teens, he ran away to Florida and eventually landed a job as a darkroom boy developing pictures of the customers who frequented the clubs. After a brief stint in the Navy, more nightclub jobs followed, and Levy persuaded his old bosses (speculated to be mobsters) to purchase a place in the Latin Quarter of New York called Topsy's Chicken Roost and allow Morris to run it. Soon Levy was at the forefront of the bop movement, booking jazz musicians such as Dexter Gordon and Charlie Parker into the Cock Lounge, an adjoining nightclub he had opened. When an opportunity arose for Levy to go out on his own, he did so by opening Birdland, one of the most legendary clubs of the jazz era.
It was at Birdland that Levy began his phenomenal rise to the top of the music industry. The start came innocently enough, as Levy was approached by a representative for ASCAP and told he must pay the publishing company a monthly stipend for the privilege of booking live music. Thinking it was a shakedown, Levy consulted his lawyer who confirmed that the ASCAP representative was legitimate in collecting money on behalf of songwriters and their publishers under an act of Congress. Realizing an unbelievable business opportunity, Levy formed a publishing company, Patricia Music, and acquired the rights to songs first performed in his clubs, like the jazz standard "Lullaby of Birdland."
With both Birdland and his publishing company doing well, Levy formed Roulette Records in 1956. Originally intended as a rock & roll label, Roulette also recorded Birdland acts such as Count Basie and Joe Williams. Soon Levy's label absorbed other independents, such as the Gone and End labels. And at one point, after befriending disc jockey Alan Freed, Levy actually owned the phrase "rock & roll," collecting money from the use of the term that Freed had coined. It was around this time that Levy also began the unsavory practice of forcing his name onto the songwriting credits of his acts' releases, allowing him to collect even more money from the publishing.
By the '60s and '70s, Levy's vast publishing empire was such that it even affected the Beatles. When their Abbey Road album contained a composition, "Come Together," that sounded remarkably similar to a Chuck Berry song whose rights Levy owned, the publishing mogul sued Lennon for infringement. In exchange for dropping the charges, Lennon agreed to record an oldies album using three of Levy's copyrights, among others. When Lennon stalled, Levy, never one to lose out on a dollar, stole the unfinished tapes and released them as a TV mail-order album entitled Roots.
At his peak, Levy owned several record labels, a vast publishing empire, and a chain of record stores worth $30 million alone. But when the music industry went corporate in the '70s and '80s, Morris Levy found himself the last of a dying breed. The hustlers and hoodlums that he had done business with were being replaced with young, legitimate execs such as David Geffen. Giving up many of the small independent labels he controlled, Levy eventually sold his largest label, Roulette, as well as his publishing rights for more than $55 million. In 1986, Levy's mob ties eventually caught up to him as he was exposed on national TV as a conspirator with the mob in the extortion of a small-time music wholesaler named John Lamonte. Sentenced to ten years in jail, Levy died while awaiting appeal, marking the official end to the swashbuckling days of the music industry.