HBO’s “Vinyl”’s Portrayal of a Corrupt Music Business Is Nothing New

The hit HBO series Vinyl shines a light on the corruption in the music business, embodied by label head Richie Finestra. But shady dealings—including getting artists to sign onerous long-term deals; bootlegging your own product; and insisting on taking a cut on publishing and songwriting credits—all are time-worn practices in the business, dating back decades before Richie was born. While the character of Finestra is an amalgam of several different managers and label owners, his mentor—the sleazy operator Maury Gold of Rondelay Records—is very much based on a single person who was the master manipulator in the world of New York’s pop labels: Morris Levy.

Levy took all the bad practices of the music industry one step further than anyone imagined—or dared. Beginning as a teenage hustler working in New York’s mob-run nightclubs, when he was 19 years old Levy was tapped to manage a new nightclub, Birdland, which became famous for a sensational new musical style, bebop. Birdland was the first integrated nightclub on Broadway and attracted major stars ranging from Marlon Brando to literary bright lights like Norman Mailer, but also underworld figures, pimps, and drug dealers. The club was an enormous success through the ‘50s, although towards the end of the decade things began to unravel. First, Levy’s brother Irving was fatally stabbed by a shady underworld figure; some thought that the true target was Levy himself and that his brother was killed by mistake. Then Miles Davis was beaten by cops outside the club when he escorted a white woman to a taxi. The club’s days were numbered.

During the mid-‘50s, Levy watched the rise of rock and roll and doowop with envy. He dreamed of creating his own record label. He began arranging national tours for his Birdland acts, hiring local deejays to host the shows, gaining their allegiance. One deejay who particularly impressed him was Cleveland’s Alan Freed; Levy brought Freed to New York and became the duo staged several highly successful stage shows. In addition, he convinced Freed to join him in founding a new record label: Roulette Records.   Another partner was George Goldner, who had recently scored a major hit on his Gee label with a fresh new group, Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers. Soon, both Goldner and Freed were pushed out of the label, while a shady new investor—Dominic Ciaffone known as “Swats Mulligan,” a well-known mobster with ties to the Electrical Union—was brought in.

When a young Richie Finestra brings his act, bluesman Lester Grimes, to Maury Gold, he learns a few important lessons about the business. Gold advises him that “Musicians ain’t your friends, they’re products.” This was Levy’s attitude towards his many acts; he didn’t believe in “artist development” as much as artist exploitation. A typical Roulette contract paid artists a royalty of about 2-3 cents per record, but only after all recording, promotional, and other costs were recouped. Even major hit makers like Jimmie Rodgers—who scored with hits like “Honey Comb” and “Kisses Sweeter than Wine”—remained in debt to Levy for decades. Further, Levy insisted that his acts record songs that he owned or—if they wrote their own material—he claimed publishing rights and often added his name as “coauthor” of a song. Years later, when Levy was quizzed under oath about how he “wrote” these hit songs, he quipped: “I would be misleading you if I said I wrote songs like…Chopin.”   When bluesman Grimes is forced to record a trite pop number, “The Cha Cha Twist” as “Little Jimmy Little,” this recalls Levy’s own exploitation of the Twist craze when he had venerable rock legend Bill Haley record “Caravan Twist” based on the Duke Ellington hit.

An industry dinner honoring Maury Gold attended by Finestra recreates one of the most notorious incidents in music business lore. While he was often slow to pay royalties, Levy was a generous philanthropist, particularly raising money for the United Jewish Appeal. In 1973, he was honored at a major dinner by the UJA. The evening’s MC was Joe Smith, then the head of Elektra Records. Smith lambasted Levy and his cronies for their shoddy business practices, ending his remarks by noting ironically “either tonight I’m a hit or tomorrow I get hit.”

Maury Gold’s partner Corrado Galasso is modeled on several mobsters who partnered with Levy over the years. Most notable was “Sonny” Vastola, a beefy goon who began his career helping Levy manage Alan Freed. Vastola was Swats Mulligan’s second cousin; Swats bragged that “this kid could tear a human being apart with his hands.” Vastola operated a slew of businesses from artist management companies to carpet dealers to video rental shops, all as fronts for his various activities. In the 1980s, Vastola cut Levy into a particularly rich deal he was working with MCA Records to remainder over 4 million records. The resulting sale led to the trial and convictions of both Levy and Vastola for extortion. Ironically, Levy died of cancer before serving any prison time, but by this time his style of wheeling and dealing had given away to a new level of corporate greed. The old days of a single strong man dominating artists’ lives was over, giving way to a new kind of slavery to lawyers, accountants, and media “professionals.”

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