Many years ago I was in contact with Albert Goldman, the celebrity biographer. During one conversation in the early 90s, he said he was between projects. I suggested that he do a biography of Morris Levy and he replied that he had considered it but “Nobody will talk”.
With GODFATHER OF THE MUSIC BUSINESS: Morris Levy by Richard Carlin (University Press of Mississippi, 2016) we have, at last, the book that couldn’t be written. The work is thorough and well researched. It is also even-handed in that Levy’s accomplishments are well delineated in addition to his associations and scams. Carlin makes it very clear that Levy’s reputation rested on the fact that his word was his bond.
Levy came up as a teen aged hat-check concessionaire in a number of New York nightclubs in the immediate post-WWII era. By 1949, at the age of twenty-two, he was the co-owner of Birdland, the famed “Jazz Corner of the World”, on Broadway just north of 52d Street. We learn some things we didn’t know: the club was NOT named for Charlie Parker and Levy’s brother, Irving, who was murdered at the club, was not the subject of a mob hit. While this is an example of solid investigative work by Carlin, the section is marred by the misidentification of Pee Wee Marquette in two separate photos.
By the mid-1950s, Birdland had its own radio show, began a touring show in the image of JATP and opened a second club in Miami. Within a short period of time, Levy opened two more nightclubs: The Roundtable and The Embers. He began a long career in music publishing with his first copyright, “Lullaby of Birdland”.
Levy also took over management of Alan Freed, the disc jockey who introduced rock ‘n’ roll to the world. He helped launch the series of Freed concerts at various New York theaters which became enormously successful. He got Freed a national radio show The Camel Rock ‘n’ Roll Dance Party, complete with a sponsor! After a couple of aborted attempts, he entered the record business with Roulette Records in 1957. For the first few years, Roulette was a powerhouse in jazz (Count Basie, Maynard Ferguson, Sarah Vaughan) and pop (Buddy Knox, Jimmy Bowen, Jimmy Rodgers). When Birdland closed in 1964, Levy lost interest in jazz and concentrated on his record business.
With Roulette, we see the more active involvement of the Mob, in this case the Genovese family. Carlin is very good at identifying who the characters were but he should have made the distinction that these guys were in no way involved with the operation of the label. Roulette continued to have success in the 60s with Joey Dee and Tommy James but Levy also developed a chain of retail record stores, Strawberries, and was involved in the cut-out business with PROMO records a firm that sold manufacturers deletions and overstock. One area that Carlin missed was the counterfeiting of LPs that was endemic in the late ‘70s.
Because of his associations and “tough guy” stance, Levy was pursued by law enforcement for most of his professional career. In the mid-1980s, they finally got him. There is a heavily detailed discussion of his legal difficulties which led to his 1988 conviction. In the wake of that, Levy began to divest himself of most of his businesses. He also developed colon cancer and passed away in 1990.
Carlin has done an exceptional job in telling the Levy story. Highly recommended.
The fourth volume in the Hal Leonard Jazz Biography series is JERU’S JOURNEY by Sanford Josephson. There have been several previous books on Mulligan and this one has some strengths and weaknesses. Josephson is clearly more interested in Mulligan’s composing and arranging than his work as a blowing soloist. There is no mention of his playing on sessions for Roost and New Jazz in 1949, dates that took place during the same period that the Birth of the Cool sessions were being recorded. His playing on records by Kai Winding, Dave Lambert and Chubby Jackson were likely the first time people were aware of Mulligan as Mulligan.
Considering their celebrity, the Miles Davis and Concert Jazz Band albums rightfully have most of the space but it would have been nice to have a mention of his Prestige Quintet album and the album co-led with Ben Webster. There is a valuable discussion of the quartet with Art Farmer, one of Mulligan’s favorite groups, but I missed not having more about the sextet with Zoot.
There is plenty on Judy Holiday and a little on Sandy Dennis but the most important woman in Mulligan’s life was Contessa Franca Rota. They first met in 1974 and were married in 1982. She was the indispensable navigator of Mulligan’s last years. This late period is the best part of the book.
On balance, this is an above average job. There are photos, an index and an album discography. Another twenty pages to cover those topics left out would have made this a better book. BTW, Josephson in two spots suggests that Mulligan is the first soloist on Billie Holliday’s “Fine And Mellow” from The Sound of Jazz. Has he ever seen it?
CAFÉ SOCIETY: The Wrong Place for The Right People by Barney Josephson and Terry Trilling-Josephson (University of Illinois Press, 2009) is accurately titled. The story of the two fabled New York City nightspots is told in Barney’s words edited by his wife. Café Society Downtown was opened December 1938 and its Uptown sibling twenty-two months later. The entertainment policy was that of a revue: band, singer, comedian, etc. Among the major performers in the early years were Albert Ammons-Pete Johnson-Meade Lux Lewis, Big Joe Turner, Frankie Newton and Billie Holiday. It was at Café Society where Holiday first performed “Strange Fruit” and there is a considerable amount of discussion of this song and how it developed. Other stars that were developed through Café Society appearances included Jack Gilford, Hazel Scott, Zero Mostel, Josh White and the Golden Gate Quartet.
Josephson was not a music man and relied on the suggestions of John Hammond. He shared Hammond’s left-of-center political leanings. Audience integration was the policy at Café Society from day one at a time when this was not the case in most New York clubs. By most accounts Josephson was a good businessman, a respected boss and a successful entrepreneur.
Cafe Society Uptown, always a slightly more upscale place, folded in December 1947. Josephson was savaged by the gossip columnists. His business counted on mentions in the press for publicity but the very writers who loved his clubs turned on him when his brother Leon, an avowed Communist, was brought to trial for Contempt of Congress. Downtown held on for another eighteen months.
In 1951, he returned to the business with The Cookery. Initially three different locations none of which had entertainment, the location at University and Eighth Street proved to be the most popular and by 1955, Josephson had coordinated all his activities there. In 1970, Mary Lou Williams talked him into starting an entertainment policy and Josephson was back in the nightclub business again. Helen Humes, Susannah McCorkle and the incomparable Alberta Hunter are among the singers associated with The Cookery. The Cookery closed in 1984 and Josephson died in 1988. His was a life well-lived and this book is a story well told. Photos and an index. Recommended.
I”VE BEEN OUT THERE by Grady Gaines with Rod Evans (Texas A&M University Press, 2015) is a slim volume devoted to the life of Gaines (1934-), a Texas tenor player in the R&B field. Gaines was best known as the leader of the Texas Upsetters, the band that played for Little Richard in his halcyon years and later backed Sam Cooke. Along the way we meet men such as Calvin Owens, Clarence Holiman, Joe Tex and many others with whom Gaines was associated. His brother Roy, a splendid guitarist, is still active. Tall and handsome, Gaines was constantly pursued by women of all shapes and sizes.
Houston was his base of activity and we note that players such as Illinois Jacquet and Arnett Cobb were held in the highest esteem by Gaines and his cohorts. We also learn much about the R&B circuit and the travails of being a bandleader. Gaines made few recordings under his own name but those done for the Black Top label in the 1980s are excellent examples of his abilities.
Readers with an interest in the R&B business will enjoy this. Lots of photos and an index.
We do not get serviced with review copies all that frequently so we often spend our own money on books that look as though they would appeal to the membership. Generally, we are pretty good at finding interesting items but sometimes we come across clunkers.
The most annoying purchase in quite a while was SUMDUMHONKY by Lloyd Price. Price had an interesting, hit-making, career from the early 1950s when he hit with “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” through the mid-1960s. He led a great big band in the 1960s, one virtually forgotten today. He managed to hold on to his money.
Most of this is just rant against white people. His music, after the early years, is not discussed. His ignorance of music history is in full flower and he is the hero, the only one, of all his stories. NOT RECOMMENDED.
FINDING SON HOUSE: One Searcher’s Story by Richard Shade Gardner is a pamphlet-length work devoted to the great Mississippi born blues man. The title is misleading in the sense that the discovery of House by Dick Waterman and company had been accomplished in 1964. This is about the author’s discovery of House many years later. As such it tells us less about House and more about the author, not a good idea. There are a few photos but to demonstrate where the author is coming from consider that the selected discography, quite good, is joined by title listings from two Rolling Stones album and another two from The Beatles.