A short look at the long relationship between the underworld and music world in the years before hip hop
7 min ago
During the Prohibition era, from 1920 to 1933 when alcohol sales were banded in the United States, the “speakeasy” was a code word for locations where illegal booze was available for purchase often accompanied by music, dancing, other recreation drugs and sex, both consensual and mercenary. Often the purveyors of the booze, known as bootleggers, were recent immigrant groups who were locked out mainstream American businesses. While that thirteen year experiment in behavior control failed as government policy, it had the unintended consequence of cementing a marriage of the criminal underworld and the music industry.
After alcohol sales became legal again nightclubs became ways to launder dirty money, base various illegal operations, and use as legitimate business fronts for its owners. In essence, the roots of the modern entertainment business, and its intimate relationship with the underworld, go back to America’s first failed war on drugs. Despite the wishes of that era’s Christian Right the appetite for alcohol grew more feverish with Prohibition as bottles of whiskey, rum etc were brought down from Canada, up from Mexico, and made at home made stills nationwide.
Prohibition criminalized thousands of Americans who drank illegally, became part of this bootlegging economy, or were law enforcement officers who took bribes. There’s a huge percentage of Americans who have, and always will, like to get high. How they get high evolves with time, but that desire to escape reality is part of our national character. You can make certain substances illegal or legal. You can arrest sellers large and small. You can close borders and pass draconian laws to criminalize selling. But, unless Americans stop getting high in large numbers, any war on drugs is just an excuse for sanctimonious speechifying and broad hypocrisy. The United States is a nation of addicts and has been so at least since the 1900s.
The original soundtrack for this booze crazed country was “hot jazz” and swing provided by Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Jimmy Lunceford, Count Basie and other giants. Though people affiliated with the white underworld often managed booking agencies for black talent, organized crime’s main focus was on prestigious, segregated venues. The majority of black performers, especially those who played the blues and rawer sounds of black music, worked the network of segregated venues originally known as TOBA (aka tough on black asses), which later evolved into the chitlin’ circuit. Any entry into the American showbiz mainstream post-Prohibition meant dealing with the larger forces in organized crime.
Chicago is crucial part of this story. The criminal empire of Al Capone ruled the Windy City in the 1920s through profits generated from bootlegging. During this same decade Chicago was deemed a northern promised land for hundreds of thousands in the Great Migration, swelling the city’s South Side, which became known as Bronzeville, with Southerners fleeing the south. These new Northerners traded in share cropping for work in Chicago’s stockyards and brought with them a strong work ethic, high hopes, and a vibrant musical culture.
Somewhere in this mix was the black gangsters, men and women, who were both exploited and exploiters, enforcers of the status quo and an economic engines for the community. In the segregated America of the 20th century black gangsters operated several roles: gate keepers for white power, both criminal and political; independent businessmen using hustles to build their own dreams; undercover financiers of black businesses (or straight up loan sharks) and the civil rights movement.
In music these folks were essential figures in the journey of black music as managers, label owners and club owners. Sometimes they were heroic in that they provided opportunity where otherwise none would have existed. Sometimes they were villains who exploited black performers as profoundly as a white mobster. Many of them spoke the language of black nationalism, urging black ownership (be it of our music or our rackets), while wedded to capitalism’s strengths and weaknesses. I think it’s important to see black gangsters in the social context of racist America. In a segregated world where employment opportunities — especially opportunities to build wealth — were limited to the black bourgeois, life outside the lines attracted those unwilling to settle for crumbs.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF R&B GANGSTER’S
The Underworld/Music world nexus took many forms throughout the decades, so much so that it constitutes a parallel narrative to the black music’s commercial evolution. Following the lives of different figures creates a narrative of exploitation, innovation, murder and opportunity that spans a century. Not all these men were gangsters. Some were more hustlers or con men. Others were just gangster affiliated. Some abused music makers and likely went straight to hell. Others accumulated power, cultivated relationships and elevated generations in the process. In this column we’ll look at three men who reflect the nature of R&B Gangsterism.
While Suge Knight has become symbolic of the ’90s of the gangsta hip hop mogul, I’d suggest the original R&B musical gangster was a black Jew from Houston named Don Robey. As a record man Robey would be eclipsed by Berry Gordy’s crossover success at Motown in the ’60s, but the legend of the multifaceted musical empire he built in the ’40s and ’50s lingers with old heads. He recorded gospel, blues, rhythm & blues, and rock & roll, opened a booking agency that flourished throughout the South, and ran a music publishing company that featured scores of copyrights with his name on it (though he probably wrote none of them.) Unlike Knight, who lost Death Row Records and has languished in prison for much of the 21st century, Robey died only after selling all his assets for millions in 1973.
Hip hop generation fans of Texas music will tell you the most important business figure to emerge from Houston’s notorious Fifth Ward is J Prince, the founder of Rap-A-Lot records home to the Geto Boys and Scarface. But the original Fifth Ward OG was born in Houston in 1903 of a white Jewish mother and a black father, and was known to brag, “I can outsmart you and beat your ass!” Colorful stories about Robey abound. Singer Roy Head said, “(Robey) could spit and hit a spittoon from eight feet away without getting anything on the floor.” Little Richard, who’s earliest recordings were on Robey’s Duke label, said Robey “wore great big diamonds on his hand and he was always chewing this big cigar, cussin’ at me ’round the end of it.”
After a big night at his club the Bronze Peacock, Robey reputedly stuffed the night’s take in burlap sacks, grabbed a 12-gauge shotgun and drove downtown to the bank. Hopping out of his ride, weapon over one shoulder and money bags over the other, Robey walked in to make his deposit. The late Dave Clark, one of the first promotion men to bring records to radio stations, worked for Robey and idolized him. “He was one of the greatest black record manufacturers who ever lived,” Clark told me. “A lot of black companies went out of business. A lot of label presidents ended up poor. Don Robey ended his life a very rich man.”
As a young man Robey gravitated towards gambling, becoming proficient at poker and dice. During the Great Depression he opened a few local venues and made his entry into the music business by booking local bands before bringing nationally known ensembles led by Jimmy Lunceford, Earl Hines, Duke Ellington and others to H-town. With Houston as his base, Robey build a network of relationships with similar underworld/music world figures in Texas (Port Arthur, San Antonio) and Louisiana (Baton Rouge, Shreveport) that would eventually evolve into a booking agency. Not only was he building a rep as a music man, but as a bad ass. He and a partner named Morris Merritt had opened a spot called the Harlem Grill. The two men had a dispute and, on a Houston street, Robey cold cocked Merritt, knocking him to the ground and ending their business relationship.
As World War II was ending in 1945, Robey opened the centerpiece of his empire — a Fifth Ward nightclub he called the Bronze Peacock. Blues historian Roger Wood wrote in his book, Down in Houston: Bayou City Blues, that the club was “arguably the most sophisticated African American owned and operated nightclub in the south during the 1940s and 1950s. It hired only the most prestigious chefs and offered an extensive menu of fine food and drink. Its roomy stage hosted productions featuring the leading uptown performers of the day.”
Popular black music was transitioning from big bands to smaller combos. It was called jump blues until Billboard contributor (soon to be legendary producer) Jerry Wexler coined the phrase rhythm & blues to capture the growing importance of rhythm sections in the era when the electric guitar and the Fender bass were introduced.
The key transitional figure was Louis Jordan, a saxophonist, witty songwriter and engaging singer. His Tympany Five, a nibble band consisted of drum, double bass, piano, his tenor sax and a horn section that varied from three to five members, including another sax, trumpets and trombone. It was this stripped down instrumental line up that would become standard for blues, rhythm & blues and, it’s step child, rock & roll, and for much pop music in the post war era. During his late ‘40s/early ’50s peak Jordan was called “the king of the jukebox” with hit records like “Caladonia,” “Ain’t Nobody Here But Us Chickens,” “Let the Good Times Roll” and many more. (Jordan would be immortalized years later in the musical Five Guys Named Moe.)
As bands based on Jordan’s new model proliferated, the Bronze Peacock was a major Southern stop. Robey loved these smaller bands since dealing with a five to eight pieces was way cheaper than paying for the orchestras of Ellington or Basie. It was while watching Clarence ‘Gatemouth’ Brown, a young singer, fiddler, and guitarist influenced by Jordan and bluesman T-Bone Walker, do an impromptu set at the Bronze Peacock that Robey decided to make records. Initially he got Brown’s singles release on the Los Angeles based Aladdin label but, unhappy with the results, he founded Peacock Records in 1949.
In 1952 Robey took control of Duke, a Memphis based label, which brought many established performers under his control, including Bobby “Blue” Bland, Junior Parker, Johnny Ace, Roscoe Gordon, Memphis Slim, Johnny Otis, Big Walter and the Thunderbirds and O.V. Wright. Among the historic records released by Peacock were Bland’s classic album,’ Two Steps from the Blues,’ and Big Mama Thorton’s 1953 “Hound Dog,” later famously covered by young Elvis Presley.
The irony of Robey’s career is that, for a man who was deep in the world of gambling and nightlife, it would be gospel music that would cement his legacy. According to historian Michael Corcoran the Mississippi Blind Boys, on tour in Houston in 1950, met Robey who, very aware of the growing importance of rhythm in black music, figured he could sell more records by adding a drum beat to gospel quartet singing. Until that point all gospel quartet recordings were done acappella, replicating the performances delivered at a black churches. Recording as The Original Five Blind Boys, the group cut “Our Father,” a sung version of The Lord’s Prayer backed by strident drum beat. The record got picked by jukebox operators in bars and restaurants, a success Robey quickly capitalized upon.
In 1953 he shut down the Bronze Peacock, turning the club into office space and a recording studio for his burgeoning empire. Between 1953 and 1960 Robey would sign three of gospel’s greatest vocal groups: the versatile Dixie Hummingbirds lead by the magnificent Ira Tucker, the Sensational Nightingales lead by the fiery vocals of Julius Cheeks and “the Temptations of gospel” the Mighty Clouds of Joy. At one point in the ’60s Robey would have some 109 gospel acts under contract.
The network of nightclub relationships Robey had built in the late ’40s blossomed into a full-fledged business in the ’50s. Under the banner of Buffalo Booking and the management of his chief lieutenant Evelyn Johnson, Robey’s venture became a dominant force in South. Robey may have owned a Buffalo Booking, but the company was registered with the American Federation of Musicians under Johnson’s name and she made all the operation’s day to day decisions. Her ambition had been to become an X-ray technician had been stifled by racist Texas state officials who wouldn’t let her take the state boards. So Johnson fell in with Robey and did a bit of everything, from helping with the building of the Duke/Peacock studio and running a record pressing plant. But Buffalo Booking was Robey’s cash cow.
“Over the years, Robey had become part of a fraternity of light-skinned kingpins like himself whose membership spanned the South,” wrote historian Preston Lauterback of Robey’s Southern musical network. “They all ran nightclubs rife with gambling, liquor, prostitution — or all of the above. At the national level, these playboys were the backbone of the black entertainment industry known as the chitlin’ circuit. Robey and his colleagues operated in a shadow world, segregated from white society just as black music was segregated from mainstream pop in the r&b category.
“In places like New Orleans, Memphis, and Chicago, this group — informally known as “nigga mob” — ingratiated themselves to white men of power: law enforcement, politicians, and business leaders. In return, the playboys offered a taste of the proceeds from across the tracks, and this ensured the fix as it pertained to any legal difficulties they might encounter. Robey carried a badge identifying him as a special deputy of the Harris County Sheriff’s Department. His badge was customized with diamond studs.”
Buffalo Booking kept its clients working, whether at hard drinking night clubs or gospel jubilees. This was a good thing since getting royalties for record sales or songwriting were nonexistent for artists on Peacock, Duke or his other gospel label Song Bird. For $25 or $50 he’d buy songs from composers and put his nom de plum Deadric Malone on them, collecting what ever publishing monies they accrued. He was more slightly more generous with singers who he was known to give Cadillacs and $1000 a year.
In the early 21st century the Texas State Historical society placed a marker at the offices of Duke-Peacock in the Fifth Ward which, in essence, was a memorial for Robey. It’s doubtful any of the young black residents of the area know anything about him or the blues and gospel stars he recorded. Yet Robey was absolutely as gangsta as any of the current local music biz types hustling trap music via the internet.
Morris ‘Moishe’ Levy was the most famous reputed record business gangster of all-time. So notorious was Levy that he was the basis of the Hesh character in HBO’s epic gangster series The Sopranos. Starting with his ownership of the legendary Manhattan jazz club Birdland in the ’40s, Levy accumulated labels, publishing companies, and retail outlets. His Roulette Records, founded in 1956, like many labels of the era, was notorious for abusive deals and ripping off artists. He owned publishing rights to or controlled thirty thousand copyrights. By the ’80s his fortune was estimated to be $75 million.
The most infamous example of Levy’s business tactics was his treatment of Teenagers featuring the charismatic lead singer Frankie Lymon. In 1955 the group released the single “Why Do Fools Fall in Love,” which went to number one on the pop charts. The song was penned by Lymon, along with bandmates Herman Santiago and Jimmy Merchant. Ultimately Levy’s name found his name on the single and copyright as co-writer with Lymon, generating hundreds of thousands of dollars for the label head. Levy was able to get away with this, and decades more shade dealing, because he was reputedly the music businesses most important connection to the Mafia, close to the New York based Genovese crime family run by Vincent ‘the Chin’ Gigante and Dominick ‘Badly Dom’ Canterio.
Because of Levy’s involvement with R&B he needed a black emissary and he employed a quite fearsome one. His name was Nathan ‘Big Nat’ McCalla, a six-foot, 250 pound ex-Army vet who liked to brag that the U.S. government had trained him on how to kill. McCalla’s office was right down the hall from Levy’s where he was on call when intimidation was needed. The Levy-McCalla partnership appears to have begun when McCalla returned from Army service as a Korean War paratrooper. “If I was going to describe Nate I’d recall the song ‘Bad, Bad Leroy Brown,’” an attorney told author Fred Dannen. “He had hands like baseball gloves.”
In 1965 McCalla was rewarded with his own Roulette distributed label, Calla, and a publishing company with an appropriate name JAMF (as in Jive Ass Mother Fucker.) McCalla may have been a thug but he had good taste in music, signing the Emotions, Little Jerry Williams (aka Swamp Dogg) and Better Lavette, all of whom would have great success post-Calla.
The bond between Levy and McCalla was clearly more than musical. In 1975 McCalla and Levy were indicted for attacking an off-duty police officer outside a Manhattan jazz club. NYPD cop Charlie Heinz made what Levy felt as an inappropriate comment to his girlfriend. According to the indictment McCalla held Heinz on the ground while Levy pummeled his face causing Heinz to lose his right eye. Despite this brutal act of violence a deal was worked out since charges were dismissed before the case went to trial.
In spring 1977, with the backing of Genovese family cash, Levy organized an Independence Day concert at the Take It Easy Ranch on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Popular D.C. air personality Bob ‘Nighthawk’ Terry was brought in to co-promote and host the event. McCalla was sent down to Maryland as Levy’s on site eyes. Apparently Terry was in need of cash and not afraid to cross Levy. With the help of two D.C. hoods, Howard McNair and Teddy Brown, Terry printed up thousands of counterfeit tickets, pocketing money for sales Levy would never get paid for.
On July 2, two days before the concert, the bodies of McNair and Brown were found a few hundred yards from the ranch, each shot dead at close range. Despite this double murder the show went on. People backstage reported Terry and McCalla had a loud shouting match over how many people attended the show’s and how much money was being taken in. Terry, who would be implicated in drug trafficking by local law enforcement, didn’t back down from McCalla. On August 31 of 1977 Terry drove off from WHUR radio station on the Howard University campus and was never seen again. A year later his Oldsmobile was found torched in a North Carolina field. No body was ever found.
Perhaps not coincidentlly Calla Records shut down in 1977 and McCalla split from New York, relocating to Florida and laying low. There was speculation McCalla was being sought, not just for his role in three murders, but to testify against Levy. On February 20, 1980 McCalla’s body was found at a Fort Lauderdale apartment. The backdoor was open. A set of keys were in the lock. The windows were all closed and the heat was on. McCalla was sitting in a lounge chair in front of his television. The back of head blown off. He’d been dead a week when his body was found. He was 49 years old.
Levy’s end wasn’t as violent. In 1990 he who was convicted of extortion charges from an FBI investigation into mob infiltration of the music business. Levy received a ten year sentence, but died of cancer two months before he was to report to prison. He was 62 years old.
These are just two stories of the black music/underworld matrix. There are many more. But there is a difference between how these characters moved in the past and have in more recent times.
The civil rights era of the ’60s and ’70s definitely opened up many once closed doors for advancement for African-Americans. Disturbingly parallel to this progress was an unprecedented flood of drugs into the country’s poorest areas. In the ’60s it was heroin. In the early ’80s angel dust. In the ’90s crack. In each waves of illegal drug proliferation hundreds of thousands were addicted, their hard earned money becoming a business opportunity for people hungry for money, power and respect.
Up until the ’90s crime had been a subtext of much black musical production and distribution. Most of the songs were about love and the singer’s, whether female or male, told stories of love lost and found, temporary and eternal. But with the crack era the drug dealer narrative became the primary text or defining metaphor of thousands of songs. It was the difference between gangsters, who moved in shadows or behind the scenes, and gangsta’s who swaggered through the music in lyrics and in the backstory of artists and entrepreneurs proud to display their bonafides. Many the people I wrote about while covering the music business full time in the ’80s either had criminal backgrounds or had underworld associations. It was still an era euphemism. It wasn’t something to be proud or advertise. By the late ’90s and early ’00s it was a badge of honor that was as likely to be celebrated as condemned. Now that shifted lyrical focus has altered the tenor and impact of R&B will be the subject of some later posts.