Part 34: Riley's Roulette
It is July 18, 2020. We are still in the first wave of the pandemic known as the Corona Virus. It feels like the second wave, but we're still in the first. There's ineffective testing and tracing, and many people don't follow the rules. The U.S. just recorded 75,600 new Corona Virus cases on Thursday. We are not allowed in Canada, Mexico, or Europe, or Iceland, or anywhere, really. I'm distracting myself by digging into Roulette Records and Morris Levy, a brutal character in the criminal world of the music business.
Morris Levy (not to be confused with Lou Levy, another one of Riley's employers) owned Roulette Records. Morris Levy was Jewish, so he couldn't officially join the five Mafia families that ran the entire city of New York, but he worked closely with the mob. "Mafia adjacent", he began working in coat check and waitstaff in mob owned clubs, climbing the ladder all the way up to running a jazz club called "The Cock Lounge."
Later, he and his brother, Irving, opened "Birdland" a 500 seat venue. Eventually, Levy learned about copyright laws. He wanted to collect royalties. He opened a publishing company called "Patricia Music", his first song was "Lullaby of Birdland." Soon, with backing from his crime family pals, Levy opened more clubs, and then founded Roulette Records in 1956. He controlled artists, the rights to their songs, owned the venues they performed in, and actually added his own name to the writing credits of songs he had nothing to do with. He was swimming in cash, much of it swindled from artists.
This photograph of Riley was probably taken when he was in his forties, in the early 1960s. He met my mother in 1962, when she was 23 and he was 43. That's around the time when my mother first heard Dad tell the stories about the colleague who got his throat cut by the mob and lived to tell about it. Mom's recall is fuzzy, but she said the guy who was attacked was a DJ for a radio station, which now clicks into place, since Levy sent out guys to rough up anyone who crossed him, or people he wanted to intimidate-- including radio stations.
Riley was still with Joanne Sullivan (pictured below) an actress who went by the stage name Jo Graham. He was with Jo when he worked for Roulette Records.
I've been snooping around in Dad's secret journal, especially the pages concerning the women he was romantically involved with. It's clear that Riley's relationships often overlapped, and he'd left behind at least two families (his sons) in New York when he abruptly left town. (By 1963 he took off again with my mother, leaving Jo and his two children behind. He was with my mother when he came up with the names Klym Hawley and Riley Cooper.)
I used to think he fled New York to get away from all the messes he made, all these families, landlords, people he'd lied to. Now, I'm not so sure why he left. Perhaps he'd crossed the wrong people.
I've typed in an excerpt (in bold and italics below) from Riley's memoir, the one he sent me in the late 1980s. It's less candid than the secret journal that I was given after the "Hidden Brain" episode aired. A lot of what he sent me back then is almost like "puff pieces" about his career, where he's always cast as the hero.
My father sent me everything he was working on when I was in College and directly after, although rarely had time to really examine what he'd written. I've always had to work, even during my high school and college years. I worked in fast food places, diners, a baseball card shop, a peach cannery, a beauty salon, an ice cream shop, the college library, plus a full load of classes, and on top of that, I was cast in shows in the theater department.This COVID-19 shut down is the first free time I've had since it was legal for me to work. I saved everything he sent me, though. He included many newspaper clippings, although it's frustrating as some don't have dates, or they have the month and day, but not the year.
Here's Riley's entry about that time:
My association with Roulette was pleasant for a while, but we had different ideas about who, what, and when to record. Some ideas just weren't possible to bring to fruition. A couple that didn't happen involved several well-known entertainers, such as Milton Berle, Henny Youngman, Shelley Winters, etc.
At the music-recording DJ convention in Nashville, which I attended, I saw again what I didn't admire about the business. I did get to spend time with many old friends, but none of it inspired optimism. I did meet Floyd Tilman, a singer-song-writer I admired. When he informed me that he couldn't find a hotel room, I gave him mine and headed back to New York. That ended my connection with Roulette because I leaned that one of the other executives refused to allow Floyd to occupy my room.
Within a few months I signed a writing contract with Harry Belafonte. He had heard a couple of my albums on which I had used the voices of the group called "The Belafonte Singers", and he liked my work. He supplied me with an office and paid me a weekly advance on whatever material I came up with that he could use and/or wanted to publish. In addition, introduced him to Nancy Ames, a beautiful young singer, who was then in a show starring Maurice Evans on Broadway. Belafonte signed her to a management contract. She soon became featured on a morning NBC network program and obtained a recording contract wit Columbia Records.
However, I refused to get involved with Belafonte's socio-political, which, at the time, were quite extensive. But don't misunderstand; it wasn't that I disagreed with his opinions. I explained my position with him in these words: "I've been there, done that, and all I ever got in return was a lot of trouble from the government."
After six months I was totally bored with both New York and the music business. Tired of business, not music. Obtained a release from contract with Belafonte and "hit the road" again. My first stop was Reading, Pa., where Shorty Long lived and operated an entertainment park. During my three months there, Shorty and I did a daily radio program on the local radio station and performed around the surrounding area. From Reading I went to Pittsburgh, then on to Cleveland, Ohio. After a short stay, I used the alias Klym Hawley, performed at night clubs and theaters and opened a restaurant.
After Chicago came Minneapolis. On a hundred dollar bet with a friend, an advertising salesman for a local station, I took the name Riley Cooper and went to work. It was a simple bet: I'd owe him a hundred dollars if I couldn't organize local talent and produce a "country-western show similar to Chicago's "National Barn Dance", without using my well-known name. Well, I won the bet but never got the cash.
Some of what he wrote has my bullshit detector on high alert. Who knows why Roulette Records wouldn't let Floyd Tilman stay in Riley's hotel room? Is that the real reason why Riley left Roulette? When you dig a little deeper into Roulette Records, there's a shitload of creepy stories, and the whole business was a front for organized crime. Morris Levy was described by AllMusic as "a notorious crook who swindled artists out of their owed royalties."
Tommy James, of the 1960s band "Tommy James and the Shondells" said that Roulette and Levy ripped him off to the tune of 30-40 million dollars. James wrote a book called "Me, The Mob, and The Music" where Levy is described as a dark, brutal character, who would have you beaten or killed if you crossed him.
I've double checked some of what Riley wrote, above, with my mother. He didn't "open a restaurant" in Chicago, but he did work for a Jewish man who owned a Denny's style diner, maybe just a bit nicer than that, she said. On the phone call last night, she told me that when Riley did the radio shows in Minneapolis, no one got paid-- because something happened to the payroll. It just vanished. The radio show was called "Hootennany Jamboree" network, Riley went by Riley Cooper instead of Riley Shepard. (see newspaper clipping, below.)
What happened to the payroll?
The way it ended with Harry Belafonte...I'm sure it's true that my father was filled with fear about exposing his real politics, especially right after the Red Scare. My father was terrified of law enforcement, with good reason. I'd like to know how his contract with Belafonte really ended.