Beatle v gangster: the day John Lennon paid off a sleazy record label boss | John Lennon

It was a courtroom drama with two towering protagonists. In one corner stood a record mogul with a history of violence and Mafia ties, known for stealing the work of musicians. In the other corner stood a Beatle.

The battle between John Lennon and Morris Levy, the boss of Roulette Records and the inspiration of a ruthless music mogul in The Sopranosunfolded over several months and culminated in 1976 in New York District Court.

It attracted little attention at the time, but now the attorney who represented Lennon in the hearing has told the inside story of the case, revealing details of how his client prepared for the lawsuit and his determination to defend his fellow musicians who had been deceived. on their royalties

Jay Bergen, who was a trial lawyer in New York for 45 years, told the Observer“That was one of the reasons John didn’t want to settle down. He wanted to try to end some of these really bogus lawsuits and a pattern of managers and publishers and record companies stealing royalties from their artists, especially black artists.

Jerry Adler, second from right, as Hesh Rabkin, a record producer, in The Sopranos. The character is said to be based on music mogul Morris Levy. Photography: Aliyah

Levy was notorious in the music industry and beyond: he beat up a police officer, causing him to lose an eye, but the criminal case mysteriously disappeared from court records before going to trial.

He was a “business” associate of Vincent “The Chin” Gigante, the reputed leader of the Genovese crime family, and inspired the character of ruthless label boss Hesh Rabkin in The Sopranos.

In May, Bergen publishes Lennon, the gangster and the lawyer: the untold story, which is based on thousands of pages of testimony and trial notes. They were stored in his garage and, upon returning there recently, he realized that “Beatles fans would love to read the testimonial” as it is largely an “untold story”: “I all the transcripts, and I spent hours and hours with John.”

Bergen’s extensive notes record Lennon telling him, “I want to get rid of him.” I’m sick of these bogus court cases. I want to end it…I don’t want to make a deal with Morris. He wants to fool me like he’s fooled other singers and songwriters.

John Lennon, second left, with attorney Jay Bergen, right, at a luncheon during the trial.
John Lennon, second left, with attorney Jay Bergen, right, at a luncheon during the trial. Photography: Bob Gruen

The case was sparked after Levy claimed Lennon and McCartney’s song Come Together infringed copyright on You Can’t Catch Me by Chuck Berry, owned by Levy’s publishing company, Big Seven Music. It centered on a few words of the lyrics, despite having different connotations: Berry’s “Here come a flattop” referred to a convertible, and Lennon’s “Here come old flat top” referred to a man who once had a bob cut. brush. But that was just another of Levy’s “threat and settlement scams,” a way to get ensnared by John Lennon, Bergen said.

To avoid the case going to court, Lennon had agreed to record three of Levy’s classic songs on his rock n roll oldies album, on which he had worked. As Levy kept pestering him, Lennon gave him some “rough mix” recordings, telling him, “These aren’t the final version of my album. I might have to cut out some crummy tracks.

Much to his dismay, Lennon was tricked. Levy released them as an unauthorized record, Roots, claiming they had a verbal agreement. The clash led to a lawsuit and countersuit between them.

While all the world’s media and legions of fans would be drawn to such a case today, it received relatively little attention at the time, Bergen recalled. On the first day, the only spectators were Bergen’s mother and aunt, as he had lunch with Lennon every day and only once did someone ask for an autograph. They regularly walked the streets without being accosted.

Morris Levy, manager of Roulette Records
Morris Levy, manager of Roulette Records, 1969.

He recalled telling Lennon that the judge was a classical music lover who played the harpsichord: “We’re going to plan your live testimony so it’ll be a Beatles tutorial. It’s important that he knows what you and the other Beatles have accomplished.

Lennon replied, “It will be easy for me to communicate with him about the music. It’s wonderful that he plays the harpsichord.

Lennon threw himself into preparing for the trial, giving testimony that detailed his creative process. He talked about having “a pretty good reason” for choosing every song on the rock n roll album: “Be-Bop-A-Lula was one of the first songs I learned, and I actually remember singing it the day I met Paul McCartney… Ain’t That A Shame was the first rock and roll song I ever learned. My mother taught me on the banjo before I learned the guitar. No one else knows these reasons except me.

He dismissed the unauthorized record as “poor quality”, arguing that the Beatles “wouldn’t let anything that looked or smelled like it anywhere near the public”.

On August 10, 1976, the final judgment dismissed the claims against Lennon, awarding over $400,000 in damages against Levy and company to both Lennon and Capitol/EMI. Bergen said Levy’s bullying had failed spectacularly: “Many executives, artists and managers feared him. His underhanded methods and connections to the mafia were well known. However, John Lennon had silenced him.

He writes: “In 1986, a federal investigation into organized crime involvement in the recording industry led to the indictment of 117 counts in New Jersey against 17 individuals. Sample [was] indicted for extortion… and sentenced to 10 years in prison. Two months before beginning his prison term in 1990, he died of colon cancer.

Bergen described Lennon as the best witness he ever represented or put on the stand: “John rarely forgot anything we discussed. He never let the interrogator push him around or intimidate him, but he never showed obvious anger.

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