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Morris Levy: Big Clout in Record Industry : His Behind-the-Scenes Influence Is Felt Throughout the Industry

July 20, 1986|WILLIAM K. KNOEDELSEDER JR. | Times Staff Writer

On a map of the $4-billion-a-year record business, Roulette Records and its president, Morris Levy, would show up as a speck.

In operation for 30 years, the tiny New York-based company rarely makes the record industry best-seller charts. It hasn't had a consistently successful recording act since Tommy James and the Shondells in the late 1960s. Levy himself is virtually unknown to the record-buying public.

Nonetheless, Levy is regarded as something of an institution in the record industry--a mysterious behind-the-scenes figure whose power--whether actual or perceived--would appear to be out of proportion to Roulette's sales performance.

Over the years, industry sources say, Levy has been the man to whom record company executives often turned for help in solving sticky problems ranging from record counterfeiting to suspected employee theft from pressing plants to turf disputes among rival rock concert promoters.

Exactly how he does it is the subject of considerable speculation. A good example of Levy's clout came last March 6, when an aide to Boston Mayor Raymond L. Flynn sought Levy's help in securing big-name performers for a series of city-sponsored concerts to be held on the Boston Commons this summer.

Levy says he personally arranged for Whitney Houston, Willie Nelson and Kool & the Gang to perform at the Concerts on the Commons. "I am booking the big acts, and I'm doing it for nothing," he said in a recent telephone interview from his New York office. "They (the mayor's office of business and cultural affairs, which is handling the concert series) couldn't get arrested without me," he said in an interview.

Levy's influence apparently extends to the highest levels of the major record companies. He says he has close friendships with Atlantic Records Vice Chairman Sheldon Vogel and CBS Records Group President Walter R. Yetnikoff, among others.

All of which helps to explain why there is uneasiness in the industry these days over recent revelations that Levy is currently one of a number of subjects of three federal grand jury investigations--in Los Angeles, New York and Newark, N.J.--looking into suspected organized crime infiltration of some segments of the record business.

Over the years, Levy has had a series of business and personal relationships with a number of reputed organized crime figures, including Thomas (Tony Ryan) Eboli, reputedly the boss of the Genovese crime family until he was gunned down gangland style on a Brooklyn street in 1972; Dominick (Swats Mulligan) Ciafone, reputely a Genovese soldier; Ciafone's nephew, Gaetano (Corky) Vastola, reputedly a chieftain in the DeCavalcante crime family of New Jersey, and Vincent (the Chin) Gigante, whom authorities believe is currently the acting boss of the Genovese family.

In a telephone interview, Levy said he's known a number of alleged mobsters over the years, but he doesn't apologize for the associations. "I grew up in New York, and I hit Broadway when I was 12," he said. "I started working the checkrooms at the nightclubs, and they owned all the clubs and had the liquor licenses."

He said that he's known Vastola and Gigante "since we were kids" and that he still supports Ciafone's widow. "She called me last week because she needed $1,000 for surgery, so I gave it to her. She's 79 years old." Levy is an active civic leader, philanthropist and political fund-raiser.

For example, in 1973, Levy was honored as Man of the Year by the United Jewish Appeal, for which he's served as chairman emeritus for the last 10 years. The following year, he was chairman of a Washington fund-raiser that netted $3 million for the Black Congressional Caucus. Levy's efforts earned him a citation signed by former U.N. Ambassador (and now Atlanta Mayor) Andrew Young, Rep. Ronald V. Dellums (D-Berkeley) and former Rep. Shirley Chisholm (D-N.Y.).

The citation hangs on a wall in Levy's office, along with a prominent photo of Levy standing on the steps of St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York shaking hands with the late Cardinal Francis Spellman.

"I helped raise money for the Foundling Hospital, the cardinal's favorite charity," he said. "(Roulette) recorded two albums of his St. Patrick's Cathedral Choir."

Last year, Levy was appointed to the board of the Opera Company of Boston, home of noted conductor Sarah Caldwell.

"I'm also on the board of the Columbia County Hospital (in Upstate New York), and I'm very active in the Jewish National Fund, which plants trees in Israel," he said. "I've been involved with civil rights since 1959, when we booked concert tours that played to non-segregated audiences in the South."

Music Publishing Firm

Reputedly a multimillionaire, Levy currently presides over a music and entertainment mini-conglomerate that includes--in addition to Roulette--half a dozen other small, independent record labels, among them Buddah, Sutra, Domino and Sunnyview. The latter label is named after Levy's 1,500-acre racehorse breeding farm in Ghent, N.Y.

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