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May 21: A Record Industry Ganef

May 21, 2014
[caption id=“attachment_28544” align=“aligncenter” width=“414”]Levy (right) with Tommy James and the Shondells Levy (right) with Tommy James and the Shondells[/caption] Morris Levy, the owner of Birdland and some ninety different record labels as well as the Strawberries chain of record stores, died on this date in 1990, two months before he was scheduled to begin serving a prison term for an extortion conviction that emerged from an FBI investigation into the role of organized crime in the record business. Levy was notorious for stealing songwriting credits and royalties from his performers to the tune of an estimated $55 million in publishing rights. Among the best-known musicians whom Levy promoted and stole from were Tommy James and the Shondells, Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers (whose “Why Do Fools Fall in Love?” generated $4 million in unpaid royalties for Frankie Lymon), Chuck Berry (Levy claimed songwriting credit for “You Can’t Catch Me” and sued John Lennon for using a fragment of the lyric), Joey Dee and the Starlighters, and jazz greats Sarah Vaughan and Dinah Washington. The “Hesh” character in HBO’s The Sopranos is thought to have been based on Levy’s career as a no-goodnik. Levy nevertheless served on the board of the Boston Opera Company and was named “Man of the Year” by the United Jewish Appeal in 1973. To read an interview with Tommy James about Levy, the mob, and the record industry, click here. “I’ve been on Broadway 47 years. I know some of these [organized crime] characters, and some I like very much ... I knew Cardinal Spellman, too. That don’t make me a Catholic.” -Morris Levy