Book Reviews

Richard Carlin – Godfather of the Music Business: Morris Levy

(University Press of Mississippi, part of the American Made Music Series)

51yhwnjvs4lBirdland. Basie. Blakey. A body floating in Jamaica Bay… Alan Freed. The Families Gambino. Columbo. Lucchese. Ciaffone. Vinny “The Chin.” Payola. Sarah Vaughn. Tommy James. Frankie Lymon. John Lennon… Yes, all these names– and more– triangulate and collide in this colorful account of that sinister svengali, Morris Levy. A Bronx hustler the music business will never see the likes of again.

…Which is fortunate in most ways, but sadly unfortunate in others. Because very often the characters behind the scenes offer as much, if not more, color and panache to an industry as those whose names we all know, or think we know. And if anything is in dire need of genuine flair, it’s the bland, painfully homogeneous musical era we now inhabit.

“You want royalties?” Levy, then president of Roulette Records, asked of Buddy Knox, after “Party Doll” topped the charts in ’57. “Go to Europe,” he admonished him. Sure he was a tight-fisted bully, who would just as soon have someone’s face busted (as Doc Pomus once witnessed while waiting to play Levy some new songs) than pay an artist anything remotely close to what they were owed, but where would this music be without him? I’m in no way condoning or glossing over his thuggish, surly, octopus reach into every aspect of what became the music industry (publishing, performance, copyright, etc.), but his street wise instinct and, yes, flat out greed, made much of what our music collections consist of, possible. Carlin’s concise narrative successfully arcs Levy’s rags to riches rise (he started as a tip-pocketing hat check clerk) with the social upheavals following WWII, the immigrant saga of New York and the bursting youth movement that exploded into rock ‘n’ roll.

– Mike Jurkovic

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