Music and the Mob

I'm looking forward to Clint Eastwood's new flic, Jersey Boys, based on the Broadway play of the same name. It's about an era and music I grew up with. Brooklyn in the 1950s and early '60s was all about Doo-Wop music and I have fond memories of burying my Realtone AM transistor radio under a pillow to lull myself to sleep listening to the sweet harmonies of groups like the Tokens and Mystics. Who knew back then that this music was served up to the public via the considerable efforts of a Runyonesque assortment of Jewish and Italian mobsters. The Jersey Boys -- a/k/a "Four Seasons" -- had their Gyp DeCarlo, a honcho with the New Jersey based DeCavalcante mob, who played a behind-the-scenes role in helping straighten out Tommy de Vito's loan sharking problems. But Gyp was only a cog in a larger gangster driven machine that put what we now know as Rock and Roll on everyone's map and it wasn't love of the musical genre that fueled this effort. Frankly, most mobsters couldn't give a wit about the tunes: their interest, plain and simple, was in fattening their already fat wallets with more dead presidents (a/k/a hard currency).

It's a little known story, not short on irony, about organized crime's contributions to the burgeoning Civil Rights movement of the 1950s by taking what was a segregated rhythm and blues musical style, then termed "race music," played only for the consumption of African American audiences, and making it palatable and popular with young white kids. It also gave wide exposure to a few pioneering integrated groups -- Johnny Maestro and the Crests and the Del Vikings among them -- that found a common denominator in singing group harmonies.

However, you really can't tell the story of how the mob created the music without mentioning one name in particular: Morris "Moishe" Levy. Often called the Godfather of Rock and Roll, Moishe was a mobbed-up record executive who owned a network of record labels, pressing plants, record stores and above all, musical groups -- everybody from Frankie Lymon and Count Basie to Joe Williams and Aaron Neville. And when I say "own," I mean copyrights, publishing; everything and anything that could make him a buck. He was a force to be reckoned with until his death in 1990 when it seemed that many of his colleagues breathed a sigh of relief although there are still those who'll shudder at the mere mention of his name and perhaps look over their shoulder to make sure his big meaty fist isn't poised to break bone and shred flesh. On occasion his threatening persona has returned to haunt some high-profile figures, most recently Al Sharpton was alleged to have used a bugged suitcase to record conversations that implicated Moishe and his Genovese family partners-in-crime in a number of unsavory pursuits. On the big screen Moishe was portrayed by Paul Mazursky in the 1998 feature film, Why Do Fools Fall in Love and he morphed into Herman "Hesh" Rabkin, friend and advisor to Tony Soprano, on the long running HBO series.

My first run-in with Moishe, together with my business partner, Steven Fischler, was during the completion of a 1983 PBS documentary, I Promise to Remember: Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, produced by our company, Pacific Street Films. It chronicled the rise and fall of Frankie Lymon, a young street kid with a sweet adolescent voice who recorded the enduring hit Why Do Fools Fall in Love? for Moishe's Roulette Records label. The trajectory of Frankie's career followed a not unfamiliar rags-to-riches-to-rags-to-drug overdose trajectory with all the usual high drama; tension and jealousy that tore rifts between the group members and high-living Bacchanalia that sent ill-prepared teenagers into a seductive and self-destructive world. But it was the Moishe's financial machinations that focused a lens on industry practices that were pretty ubiquitous. While young singers like Frankie went to Moishe with stars in their eyes, Moishe only saw dollar signs. In exchange for a recording "contract" he'd dole out a few bucks and that pretty much was the end of negotiations. Royalties? Good luck. Copyrights? Moishe owned those. Have a problem with that? Go tell it to a judge and just to demonstrate his confidence in the legal system he created a record label craftily named EMUS (hold it up to a mirror).

After the PBS broadcast of the Frankie Lymon documentary, we had a notion to try and spin-off a feature film. After all it was a great story with great characters: chief among them was Moishe himself. To secure his cooperation we engaged our old NYU film instructor, Marty Scorsese, who penned a letter of introduction. Scorsese -- a Do-Wopp aficionado himself -- had been a recipient of Moishe's largesse , getting the rights to several songs for his student feature film Who's That Knocking?. Scorsese tentatively attached himself to the project as director allowing us to secure a development deal with UK-based Zenith Productions.

Thus began a surreal journey into the world of music and the mob, with the opening scene played out in a large Central Park West apartment with Moishe and a long-time colleague, Gaetano "Corky" Vastola, (a/k/a the "Galoot"), in attendance. No sooner had we walked in the door than the duo began spinning stories about the various groups they controlled with no effort made to censor details, and that included how certain singers were taken for "rides" in the country to discuss ending behaviors they deemed deleterious to their business endeavors. On another occasion we were invited to watch Moishe hold court at his huge estate in Goshen, New York -- Sunnyview Farm -- famous for the plaque on the front door that read "A sunny place for shady characters." In attendance were Father Louis Gigante, brother of Genovese crime boss, Vinnie the "Chin," and Tommy Mottola, future head of Sony Music Entertainment. Moishe, sporting his usual 5 o'clock shadow and dressed down in dirty T-shirt and sweatpants listened to a pitch seeking his cooperation in doing a biopic on the priest's life (we found out later, he declined).

There was one final meeting with Moishe at his Roulette Records office at 1790 Broadway. We were accompanied by two film industry executives eager to meet with our new "partner" and Moishe played the role well, waxing poetic about Rock N' Roll Story, the proposed title of the movie. Our deal with Moishe was similar to the one he struck with George Lucas for American Graffiti. For a relatively modest up-front fee we would get the tunes we needed and he'd get sole rights to release the soundtrack album. In addition, he had final say to how he was portrayed in the film. With warm handshakes all around, we exited the office and as we did two very white-bread-looking suits crossed our paths, eying us suspiciously. They disappeared into Moishe's office. We found out later they were FBI agents.

We never saw the Rock and Roll's godfather again nor did the Rock N' Roll Story ever make it to the big screen, disappearing into Hollywood's black hole otherwise known as "turnaround." As it turned out, the law finally caught up with Moishe and he was indicted on a variety of federal charges but never saw the inside of the hoosegow. Cancer made sure of that. He died in 1990, a few years after we signed our deal.

Jersey Boys has pried open Pandora's box revealing a bit of the mob's considerable influence over the development of Rock and Roll and the upcoming HBO series on the '70s musical scene, with the involvement of Scorsese and Mick Jagger, should create further interest. We're also weighing in with a documentary exploring this bit of lost history and Morris Levy, in all his glory and/or infamy, will play a prominent role.


Joel Sucher is a writer/filmmaker with Pacific Street Films. He's been a contributing blogger and writer for a variety of publications including American Banker, The Huffington Post and In These Times. As mentioned, Pacific Street Films is working on a documentary series, Music and the Mob.