Some years ago, I had the pleasure of meeting Juggy Gayles, the Moses of promotion men. In the 1930s, Juggy was a song-plugger for the likes of Irving Berlin and Sammy Cahn. “The idea,” he told me, “was to get your song played on the radio. With seven plugs, seven good shots, you could make a hit song.”
Juggy was the man who plugged “God Bless America,” the man who broke “White Christmas"--the biggest-selling record of all time. In a career that spanned half a century, he worked with Glenn Miller, Sinatra (who tried to kill himself in Juggy’s apartment), Led Zeppelin, the Eagles. “Back in the swing days, we never paid the bandleaders. Some of those mickey mouse bandleaders, we’d slip ‘em 10 bucks to play a chorus, because we needed a quick plug. But I couldn’t go to Benny Goodman and pay him. Just couldn’t do that sort of shit.” But by the 1950s, “payola was all over the place.” As Juggy saw it: “Booze, bribes and broads. That was rock ‘n’ roll.”
Music has always been a dirty racket. Louis Armstrong’s career began under the aegis of the Matranga family, which had taken control of New Orleans after that city’s Mafia war of 1890. At Chez Morgan, the New York speak-easy he named for her, Lucky Luciano kept torch singer Helen Morgan as his bird in a gilded cage. Meyer Lansky ran the Emby Distributing Co., which controlled every Wurlitzer jukebox in the New York area, a nickel-in-the-slot empire he divided among the henchmen of Luciano, Joe Adonis, Longie Zwillman and others.
Nor were the Mafiosi the only dirty players in a long and corrupt process that enriched culture and criminality alike. Folklorists, such as John A. Lomax, and black entrepreneurs, such as J. Mayo Williams, regularly usurped copyrights to the compositions of unsophisticated recording artists (themselves more often rooted in plagiarism than originality)--a practice carried on by producers, managers, label-owners and others well into the Modern Age.
Not much changes except the faces and figures. Months ago, a veteran producer told me that, while he could still turn a country record into a hit with 50 grand (“spread around in the right places"--and he wasn’t talking about advertising), a pop hit nowadays could cost at least twice as much.
The dark underbelly, the inferno beneath the genial soundtrack of candy land, is a realm that remains largely unknown and unexplored. Twenty years ago, in his book “The Beauties and the Beast: The Mob in Show Business,” Hank Messick presented an ill-researched and ill-written hodgepodge of hearsay, inaccuracies and rumors. Seven years later came Ronald L. Morris’s “Wait Until Dark: Jazz and the Underworld, 1880-1940.” Bearing an intriguing title and the gravity of a university-press imprint, it looked promising but was in fact a slight and shoddy book that delivered nothing. (Morris, who seemed to know little about either jazz or the underworld, failed, for example, to connect Henry Matranga to the New Orleans underworld, but mentioned him only as being Italian and therefore, it was implied, guilty of something or other.)
Fredric Dannen’s 1990 “Hit Men” is surely the best and best known of books dealing with crime in the music industry. Yet, in providing an interesting look at the sub-rosa cabals and conflicts of modern-day record-company executives, its tone is too often one of innocence and wide-eyed wonder, and we are led through familiar, well-worn territory as if through a garden of revelations. (“The Genovese crime family,” we are told, “has a bloody history.”) For me, the photograph of executive-with-a-past Frank Dileo and Michael Jackson (page VII of the Vintage edition) surpasses the text in eloquence and alone is worth the price of the book.
“Hit Men” deals primarily with events of the ‘70s and ‘80s. John A. Jackson’s “Big Beat Heat” of 1991 is concerned with the rock ‘n’ roll boom of the ‘50s that culminated in the payola scandals and federal hearings of 1959-60. Jackson’s research, for the most part, is thorough and impressive (through an endeavor that involved a special vote by the House Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce, he gained access to Alan Freed’s long-suppressed 1960 testimony before the House Committee on Legislative Oversight), and he approaches his subject with intelligence and underlying passion. The weakness of this capably written, well-documented and enlightening work lies in the fact that Jackson, a record-collector and educator, is far less familiar with the criminal than with the cultural aspects of rock ‘n’ roll.
William Knoedelseder’s “Stiffed,” the newest addition to a meager literature, is ambitiously subtitled “A True Story of MCA, the Music Business, and the Mafia.” While the early years of the Music Corp. of America surely hold darker tales, Knoedelseder has chosen to tell the story of MCA’s recent involvement in the cut-outs racket, the common practice whereby remaindered records become a currency of shady commerce.
A friend of mine, who managed an MCA act during the period recounted here, told me of his first meeting with the MCA executive who is one of the central characters in “Stiffed.” “You know how it is in this business,” the executive said. “It’s done on mirrors,"--an allusion not only to cocaine, the coin of the realm, but also to the shifting illusions of devious accounting and disguised deals. This sort of morsel is more evocative and telling, and cuts more piercingly to the quick, than the bulk of “Stiffed,” which, in the end, emerges as little more than an overblown story of everyday larceny.
For its Mafia window dressing, “Stiffed,” like “Hit Men” and “Big Beat Heat,” conjures the shade of Morris Levy, the legendary figure whose ties to the Genovese family lay at the heart of rock ‘n’ roll’s marriage to the Mafia. Levy, the industry’s lender of last resort, made his fortune draining the blood, figuratively and perhaps literally, from a succession of rock ‘n’ roll acts that began in the early 1950s and did not end until his death in 1991.
Since it is Levy on whom these books rely for their darkest effects, it is regrettable that none of them delves beyond the common knowledge concerning him. An investigative agency in New York holds extensive files on Levy; but it appears that neither Dannen, Jackson, nor Knoedelseder knows of this repository. Dannen, I have been told, had access to Aaron Schecter, Levy’s longtime account, who likely knows more about Levy’s dealings than anyone else; yet, inexplicably, Dannen did not seek Schecter’s guidance in “Hit Men.” And nowhere has there been an investigation into Levy’s suspected murder of James Sheppard, lead singer of the Heartbeats and Shep & the Limelights.
It is the tale of Levy that should be told in full; for that is the story to which all these books would serve merely as lengthy footnotes.
For now, the secret history of the music business, in all its vile infamy and wild glory, remains to be written.