born on 27/8/1927 in New York City, NY, United States
died on 21/5/1990 in Ghent, NY, United States
Morris Levy (born Moishe Levy, August 27, 1927 – May 21, 1990) was an American music industry executive, best known as the founder and owner of Roulette Records. He was described by Billboard magazine as "one of the record industry's most controversial and flamboyant players," and by Allmusic as "a notorious crook who swindled artists out of their owed royalties".
Life and career
He was born in Harlem, and grew up largely on the streets of New York City after his father and older brother died when he was a child. He quit school at the age of 13 and ran away to Florida, where he worked as a photographer in and around nightclubs as well as having a spell in the US Navy. He then persuaded his nightclub bosses - speculated to be mobsters - to buy a club in New York, and proceeded to run it as the Cock Lounge. It became successful, attracting musicians such as Charlie Parker and Dexter Gordon, and allowed Levy to set up another club, Birdland, in 1949.
When at Birdland, he was approached by a representative of ASCAP, seeking payment on behalf of songwriters for his being allowed to book live music. Levy quickly came to appreciate the great potential profits that could accrue from owning music copyrights. He then formed a publishing company, Patricia Music, for which he acquired the rights to songs performed in his clubs. In 1956, he founded Roulette Records with George Goldner, initially to release rock and roll music but also diversifying into jazz. At one point he claimed the rights to the phrase "rock and roll" itself, which had become widely used after its use by Levy's friend, Alan Freed, and was also known to add his name as songwriter to the credits of many of the artists recorded on his label. In 1957, Variety described him as the "Octopus" of the music industry, because of his reach and tenacity within the business.
In the mid-1970s Levy filed a much-publicized lawsuit against John Lennon for appropriating a line from the Chuck Berry song, "You Can't Catch Me" (for which Levy owned the publishing rights) in The Beatles' song "Come Together." Lennon ultimately settled with Levy by agreeing to record three songs from Levy's publishing catalog during the sessions for his 1975 LP Rock 'n' Roll, co-produced with Phil Spector. After complications, due to Spector, and attempts at a second agreement failed, Levy used demo recordings of Lennon to produce and release a mail-order album titled "Roots". Levy successfully sued Lennon with an award of $6,795, but was countersued by Lennon, Capitol, EMI, and Apple for an award of $145,300.
Levy sold Roulette Records and his publishing rights in 1986 for a reported $22 million. The same year, he was convicted by a Federal jury in Camden, New Jersey, as a conspirator in the extortion of a music wholesaler, and was sentenced to a ten-year jail sentence. He died of liver cancer at the age of 62 while awaiting an appeal.
In popular culture
Levy is frequently cited as one of the possible inspirations for The Sopranos character, Hesh Rabkin.
- Cynthia Brooks, ex wife
- 1.0 1.1 Fred Goodman, Morris Levy severing music industry ties, Billboard, 20 December 1986, p.1,71
- 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 Biography by Steve Kurutz at Allmusic.com
- Lennon vs. Levy
- Morris Levy Is Dead; Power in Recording And Club Owner, 62, New York Times, 23 May 1990
- Joe Hartlaub. Review of Howling at the Moon by Walter Yetnikoff with David Ritz. Bookreporter.com. Broadway Books. Retrieved on 10 May 2011.
- The Story of Morris Levy's Rat Fink Room
- John Broven, Record makers and breakers: voices of the independent rock 'n' roll pioneers, University of Illinois Press, 2009