There’s a tale in the Hip-Hop world that tells of a night in the early 1990s when rap mogul Suge Knight dragged rapper Vanilla Ice to a 15th-story hotel balcony and dangled him by his ankles. He threatened to make Ice crack on the pavement below unless Vanilla agreed to sign over his royalties to the hit “Ice Ice Baby.” Although Mr. Ice denied his legs were ever strong-armed, Suge’s intimidation methods convinced him to hand over 25% of the rights to the record. The extortion, violence, and fear used by Suge and his Death Row Record label made him more of a Jimmy Conway (Goodfellas) than a Jimmy Iovine. But the 6 foot 4, 300-pound Compton, CA native wasn’t the first gangster to dip his beak in the record industry.
By the late ’50s, Doo-Wop and Rock and Roll were taking music by storm and the mob recognized the opportunities for profit. Already possessing a solid foothold in the music industry through extortion in the jukebox business, and relationships with prominent artists, gangsters began shifting their focus to management and the record industry. Bob Gaudio of the Four Seasons remembers that the Jersey Boys were “leaned on by a mob faction from Brooklyn” who demanded payouts when the group decided to change management. New Jersey DeCavalcante Family capo, Angelo “Gyp” DeCarlo (famously pardoned by President Nixon in 1972), settled the management situation between the two sides. In turn, he remained influential in the group’s progress and the music industry until his death 10 months after his presidential pardon.
Joe Scandore, connected to the Genovese Family, managed and promoted the careers of legendary comedians Don Rickles and Totie Fields plus the celebrated girl group, The Crystals. In 1961, Joe didn’t appreciate how producer Phil Spector was treating the girls. Lead singer Delores “La La” Brooks recalled that Scandore had phoned Phil “trying to tell him that The Crystals have to have a record out.” When Phil ignored his requests, Scandore swiftly flew an associate from New York to Los Angeles who “ran Phil around the fucking desk,” and assured Spector if he didn’t put a record out, he would “kill his mother and break his arms.”
Besides running Phil ragged, mobsters were known to run record companies. Sonny Franzese, the underboss of the Columbo Crime Family, was an influential silent partner in Buddah Records which released a number of hits by the Lemon Pipers, the Shangri-Las, and the Isley Brothers. When Roulette Records owner Morris Levy tried shaking the label down for royalties to the Shangri-Las’ hit “Walking in the Sand,” Buddah founder Art Kass and manager Neil Bogart, (who later started Casablanca Records), went to Franzese for help. Franzese got Levy out of the label’s crosshairs and provided Morris more time to ponder how to make more ill-gotten gains with his Genovese associates. Those included bosses Tommy Eboli and Vincent “The Chin” Gigante. Levy, who was known as the “Godfather of the music business,” even owned the rights to the phrase “Rock and Roll” and had no qualms about using his fists, once beating up a cop so badly that he lost his eye.
Levy also almost gave John Lennon a beating—in court. In another one of his “threaten-and-settle scams,” Levy claimed John infringed the copyright on Chuck Berry’s, “You Can’t Catch Me” (the publishing rights owned by Levy) in the Beatles’ song “Come Together.” Lennon settled out of court and agreed to record three of Levy’s copy-rights for his upcoming Rock & Roll album.
In his typical swindling fashion, Levy released a rough mix of the songs on a not-authorized-by-John album called Roots. The angered Beatle countersued, took the stand, and was awarded over $400,000 in damages in August 1976. It was a minor comeuppance for a con who regularly added his name to the songwriting credits of his artists and short-changed his artists on royalties.
After only paying $1,000 to the five-boy group, The Teenagers for their 1956 hit, “Why do Fools Fall in Love,” (which sold more than three million copies) Levy threatened to kill Herman Santiago when Herman inquired about his royalties 20 years later.
Tommy James claims in his book Me, the Mob and the Music, that singer Jimmie Rodgers sustained a traumatic head injury at the hands of three corrupt LAPD cops because he asked Levy one too many times for a fair royalty check.
But just like any “goodfella,” Levy’s cons and mob ties were eventually exposed when he was indicted on extortion charges as a co-conspirator with the Genovese/DeCavalcante families. In 1990, two months before he was to begin his 10-year prison sentence, he died of cancer.
During the prime of Roulette Records, however, Levy became the key financial backer for the rap music label Sugar Hill Records. In 1979, the label released the legendary rap single, “Rapper’s Delight.” A decade later, Suge Knight formed his own music publishing company looking to capitalize on what was now an international genre, and utilizing the same tactics as Levy.
Following the Vanilla Ice incident, Suge used lead pipes and baseball bats to threaten music manager Jerry Heller and legendary gangsta’ rapper Eazy-E in order to terminate the contracts of Dr. Dre, The D.O.C., and Michel’le. Suge’s gangster tactics prevailed and along with Dre and The D.O.C, Suge founded Death Row Records in 1991. Over the next five years, he ran the label in a John Gotti-like fashion, violently suppressing anybody who stood in his way with the help of his MOB Piru/Blood associates. From pistol-whipping and stripping rappers George and Lynwood Stanley after they used a studio telephone without permission, to forcing a member of the rival Bad Boy Record Label to drink urine for not giving up information on P. Diddy, Suge’s “mafioso” tactics made him a feared man in the industry. But like Levy, Suge’s gangster ways eventually caught up to him. After multiple prison bids, lawsuits, and a trail of violence connected to his label, Death Row Records fell apart, along with the last gangster (to our knowledge) to dominate the record industry.
– Sam Daponte
Photo: Tommy James and the Shondells (PR)