I found myself wondering this the other day at the Free Library of Philadelphia, during its Free Library Festival weekend. I was there to talk about 1000 Recordings, and also to interview Tommy James, the ‘60s rocker who gave the world “Crimson and Clover” and a bunch of other hits, about Me, The Mob and The Music (Simon and Schuster), an account of James’ “helluva ride” in the 1960s and early ‘70s he co-wrote with Martin Fitzpatrick.
Of course it’s already possible to download “Hanky Panky” while reading James’ recollections about his first hit. My thought was for something more proprietary: James does a vivid imitation of music kingpin Morris Levy in his midtown Manhattan office, intimidating competitors and verbally abusing artists and songwriters. Something along the lines of “Click here for a thirty second clip of Levy threatening to destroy a songwriter’s career….”
I’ve never heard Levy’s voice, but there’s plenty of industry folklore around his story – he started out running the souvenir photo concession at a few New York nightclubs (including the jazz mecca Birdland), then went on to own the clubs and run several labels, all while holding down a spot in the upper echelon of the Genovese crime family. Applying mob tactics to the music business, Levy became a larger than life figure, pioneering the pirating of singles and albums as cutouts while refusing to pay artists and songwriters the royalties they earned. (James summerized Levy’s approach this way: “Morris Levy sold music by the pound.”)
James had an inevitably complex relationship with Levy – after all, he was a teenager when the notorious businessman gave him his first national break. The book chronicles how James came to understand Levy’s personality and the machinations of Roulette, one unsavory confrontation at a time. In the interview, James veered into a teensy bit of Sopranos-speak, but more often used a grave, impatient tone to conjure Levy holding court. It was more than great Q&A entertainment: For a few minutes there, what you heard was the sound of a dark, little-glimpsed sliver of the music business coming to life.