Part 31: Outlaws in the Wild Wild West
The recording industry was the wild west, and Riley had a lot of sketchy relationships and activities. He was swimming in a murky pool, and yet he fit right in. Hard for me to admit that, even after all these years and everything I know. Sometimes in my "magical thinking" I believe that perhaps my Dad was the one who had been ripped off. Maybe he did write a lot of songs he was never credited for. But when I look into the men he hung out with and stayed in touch with, it looks like he might have been the one doing the taking. Perhaps it was a little of both.
There was a lot going on in the late 1950s. The music, publishing, and radio business was a dirty racket, and payola added to that. There were various crime organizations that had ties to show business and the music business. The mob was involved in the industry. There were few rules and a lot of opportunity and room for criminal behavior. It wasn't until 1959 that congress had investigations into payola, (the practice of paying for airplay) and even with new laws, there remained a dark underbelly.
Even some of the music publishers Dad had good relationships with, Sylvester Cross and Gary Romero, had questionable business practices. I have letters from Gary Romero to Riley, he and Riley stayed in touch for years, and they seemed to be two peas in a pod. I also heard that Sylvestor Cross sometimes wouldn't pay songwriters just to fuck with them. One songwriter had to get an attorney to finally get his money from Cross. Funny that my father worked so hard to get equal pay for hillbilly artists only to team up with a notorious shady dealer.
He also had a great relationship with Colonel Tom Parker, who totally ripped off Elvis, and perhaps worse. Parker was always one step ahead of going to prison.
In the late 1950s, something went terribly wrong for Riley. So wrong that he dragged his actress wife (kicking and screaming) and his two babies all the way to Reading, Pennsylvania. Remember, my father warned me never to move to Seattle, because it was, according to him, not really a city at all. Dad talked about New York as the only place an artist would want to be. "Nothing going on" in Seattle, no serious artist would move to Seattle. Or Portland, for that matter. He didn't use the word "podunk" but that's what he meant. So why did he leave New York so suddenly, and to such an out of the way place? Jo, his wife, certainly hated the idea of moving. It's true that Shorty Long was from there, and perhaps was living there, but so what? Even if Riley had a job with Shorty, he didn't have to move his whole family to such a small town, especially when Jo still wanted to get acting work.
My mother met Riley in Reading, Pennsylvania, and she told me the town was sleepy, mostly cloth mills and bars. Mom had some strange stories about my father. He had confided in her early in their friendship, and I'll get to those. My parents met and became friends in 1962 while Riley was still married to Jo Sullivan, or Jo Graham as she was known as an actress.
In 1957, Riley released an album called "Outlaws of the Old West" and was going by the name Dickson Hall. In 1958, he recorded "And God Said" with Dana Andrews for Epic. In his journal, he writes that he wrote "Just Wearing Out Your Shoes" under the name Paul Lester with Ray Haney. In July of that year, Walter Winchell did a write up on two projects Riley did, "Woman" and "And God Said." He wrote the title song for a movie starring Glenn Ford, Jack Lemmon, Brian Donlevy, and Anna Kashfi called "Cowboy." He made two albums for the Kapp Label and Epic (LN 3427).
In 1959, Riley had a review in The Denver Post for "And God Said." I'll see if my friend Marilyn will look for that review. He writes that on May 5, 1959, there was a letter in the NYTimes thanking him for a show he did.
That same year, he sold "Pretty Girl Waltz" to Duchess. He had a company called "Dickson Hall LTD" with the address 743 5th Ave. He lived at 429 W. 44th Street. Some write ups spelled Dickson "Dixon." In April of 1959 he worked with Larry Kay on a Hugh Downs Album.
I'm going back in time in Riley's autobiography, which I've had since my college days back in the 1980s. There's something funny about the way how he describes the sale of his business to Cross, and how he couldn't bring himself to treat a friend and partner that way for money. Huh, really? What was so special about that guy?
Riley also writes about beginning his encyclopedia of Folk Music. His words will be in Bold and Italics.
I went to Hollywood, checked in with Sylvestor Cross, called on several friends, and returned to New York. Once things were in order and running smoothly, I decided it was time to get back to work on my research and put my encyclopedia together. I was again getting bored with the razzle-dazzle of the music business. Sold my interest in the business to Sylvestor, for much less than I was offered by others. But I couldn't bring myself to treat a friend and partner that way for money.
Once again I traveled, visiting various State libraries. In Albany, New York, I did a commentary radio program on one of the local stations and spent time with Dave Denny, who was there with his own program on another station.
After that short sojourn, I traveled through Pennsylvania, the Midwest, Southwest, and on to California. The war was over so I decided to do more research across the ocean. I visited libraries in England, Scotland, Ireland, France, Spain, and Italy. It was in Rome that I discovered something that surprised me. I learned there that our Star-Spangled Banner melody was originally an Italian drinking song. I was constantly surprised at how obliging the librarians were every place I went.
What I didn't realize at the time was it would take me another twenty years to finish my encyclopedia. I the meantime, the material I collected gave me several good ideas for works that could be recorded commercially. I worked on organizing these ideas when I returned to New York in the 1950s.
Lou Levy, who had purchased the Bob Miller catalogue, asked me to come back and see what I could make of Miller's copyrights. I found myself once again plugging songs.
One day while playing songs for Harry Myerson at MGM, Frank Walker called me into his office and asked if I'd like to record again. I promised I would with him if I decided to again be an artist. The following week, when I found out that Burl Ives wasn't available to record a folk album prepared due to a dispute with Decca, I took the work to Frank Walker. He liked the work and signed me to perform it. Since I'd never done a folk album, I decided to sue another alias. Frank Walker said, "Okay," and DICKSON HALL became an MGM recording artist. The album was released as OUTLAWS OF THE OLD WEST --MGM E3263. (Cover included later.)
My next project was to combine the Old & New Testaments with songs. SHAPIRO-BERNSTEIN paid a hefty advance for the publication rights. Jim Foglesong, A & R at Epic, wanted to record the work. As a friend, I agreed. Question was: Who could we get to narrate the Biblical verses. I went to see Dana Andrews who was starring in a play with Anne Bancroft. I knew his father had been a minister. Dan was impressed with the idea-- So impressed he agreed to make the album just for royalties.
Now for the strange stories. When they first became close, Riley told my mother that he worked for someone in New York, and that they found out that he was embezzling money from them. I got the feeling that Riley had embezzled from his employer for a long while before he was found out and confronted. According to my mother, the company told Riley that they wouldn't press charges on one condition: Riley had to tell them how he did it. He did tell them, according to the story. And just like that, they let him go. Fired, but not prosecuted. I wish I had more details. How much money did he get? How did he do it? One thing I'm sure of, my father was probably proud of the whole scam.
I'm guessing that the company he embezzled from was Lou Levy and Leeds, since that was his last major employer in New York. Talk about biting the hand that feeds you.
Riley also confided something else--- he told my mother that he was working for a radio station that was deep in the payola scandal. (Payola involved paying DJ's at radio stations in either money or gifts to play songs, see link above. Dick Clark was implicated back in the day.) The man he worked for at the radio station was also involved with the mob.
Here's the creepy part: One night, Riley found out his boss had his throat cut from ear to ear, and was left to bleed out in an alley somewhere. Miraculously, the boss lived. Riley told my mother he was afraid for his life. I have no idea who that boss was, or where the radio station was. Somewhere, there was a man with a long scar that went from one ear to the other. Perhaps he'd have to lift his chin for a person to see it. Perhaps that boss died at a ripe old age like my father did. Probably people that have an experience like that keep quiet, I'm guessing.
The combination of that attempted murder and also the United States Government getting involved with Payola probably scared the shit out of Riley. I'm guessing that's why my father left New York, things just flew off the rails.