Pass it Around

"If I made records for my own pleasure, I would only record Charley Patton songs." - Bob Dylan

When the Band recorded for the Mob Roulette Records and Ronnie Hawkins by Jim Linderman

Show business can be a sleazy business, but in the late 1950s it was even worse.  With the release of the triumphant Basement Tapes Complete Bob Dylan's backing band (then still known as the Hawks from their five-year stint backing rocker Ronnie Hawkins) you can literally hear the boys becoming the greatest American rock band ever to come from Canada.  They discover harmony.  The discover roots.  The year they spend in Dylan's woodshed allows them to discover their voices.  In that camaraderie,  one finds the true beauty of the basement tapes.  Dylan wrote them, but never has there been a collaboration so perfectly distilled and memorable.

How fortunate was the Band to hook up with Bob Dylan?  No less fortunate than escaping the clutches of organized crime.  Specifically the Genovese family, one of the more brutal of the five New York families.  Long before the Band backed Dylan, they worked for the Cosa Nostra!  When they backed Dylan, they were still young sprouts, but they had already broken bread with the Mafia.

The rocking Arkansas hayseed Ronnie Hawkins and his 18 year old drummer Levon Helm went up to Canada in 1958 on the suggestion of Conway Twitty.  Sure enough, the Canadians were desperate for rock and roll, and Hawkins became an overnight success.  Hawkins is responsible for two great things.  One, he invented the moonwalk (see clip) and two, he was the first front man to recognize the staggering talents of young Canadians Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel and, of course, his little Arkansas brother Levon.  The story is well-known, but Ronnie is still not appreciated enough.  Neither is the Band, but if you know them, you know that already


18 year old Levon Helm drums while Ronnie Hawkins (at 1:18) invents the Moonwalk!

Would the Band have made it into the competition on a televised talent show today?  Not even close.  Not even if they shaved their beards.  Still, Ronnie and his band made so much noise up north, they attracted the attention of Morris Levy.  Morris is not in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but he should be. He owned Alan Freed, after all. (Actually, you COULD say Morris is in the Hall of Fame, as they have two archival boxes of tape recordings of him in THEIR basement…) However, Big Moe's record is not one the Hall of Fame wants to share with history.  Morris managed to avoid being inducted into jail too, but it took considerable work.  He was on his way there for federal extortion charges when he died of liver cancer. That is one way to avoid a ten year sentence.

Morris also owned Birdland, a New York city jazz club.  It is notable for many things, but among them is that Levy's brother was gunned down on the front steps.  Mistaken identity... I think they were gunning for Moe. 

Roulette Records was also owned by Morris Levy.  Moe was apparently deep in the pockets of Vito Genovese, and he likely shared his profits upwards to the Godfather.  Vito was the kingpin, and his employees were the biggest big time wise guys.  The Genovese family was as powerful as the Gambino family, with over 250 "made men" and a thousand "associates" of which Morris was probably one of the big earners.  That teen market, you know.  It was like taking candy.

How big was Moe?  Big enough to force John Lennon into performing a shitload of the songs he owned the copyrights on, but that is another story.  I am not sure if the Hall of Fame has done an exhibit of the songs Morris Levy owned, but it would be a big show.  At one time, Levy actually OWNED THE PHRASE "ROCK AND ROLL!"   He made Alan Freed an offer, as they say.   

The origins of Roulette records lie in the gambling debts incurred by George Goldner.  Goldner owned no less than six independent labels:  Roost, Tico, Rama, Gee, End and Gone.  Gambling debts Goldner owed to Genovese, no matter how removed he was from the operation, was not a bright career move.  Levy muscled in and merged the whole group of hit-making labels into one.  Roulette. 

From 1959 to 1964, while being backed by the Band under their Hawks name, Ronnie recorded for Roulette.  For Hawkins self-titled first LP, Levon was the only one involved.  The rest of the Canadian contingent hooked up in time for the second Lp. The first album was recorded in New York by Roulette in 1959. A song or two charted, and that meant enough money for the big guys to record another.

What Does Levon, who at the time was barely shaving, have to say about this?  He mentions Morris Levy in his autobiography,  but as a teenager, he was more impressed with the nice thick steaks the mobster served up than he was Moe's muscle. 

"Whatever his reputation, Morris treated us like royalty.  He took us to his new restaurant, the Round Table, a classy steakhouse on Fiftieth Street, where he introduced us to Frankie Cargo, the so-called underworld commissioner of boxing in New York.  That was the first time I ate one of those big New York-cut steaks, bacon wrapped around it, twice baked potatoes, all the trimmings.  Morris told us he wanted us for Roulette, spent a lot of money wining and dining us, and convinced the Hawk.  We signed to Roulette and began to record almost immediately,"

Levon also describes Levy as "one tough cat, and he practically owned Broadway back then."  Also that he was the "Godfather" of the American music business, which was fine with Ronnie Hawkins.  "We can't miss with these cats behind us" the Hawk said.

Tommy James and the Shondells had a similar deal with Morris Levy and Roulette.  Moe basically told Tommy that Roulette was his only option.  ONLY option, got that? In his book Tommy says Moe swiped some 30 to 40 million dollars of royalties from him. Certainly a good portion of that money was fed up to Vito Genovese

By the time Hawkin's Mr. Dynamo Lp was recorded, Robbie was already writing songs and putting his eggs into the Hawkins basket.  This LP was released in 1960.  Who received credits?  Well, it is complicated, and Peter Viney sorts it out HERE, but some royalties went to a shill company set up by Morris Levy under his wife's name Patricia.  Even then, the songwriter made all the money, and if the songwriter was owned by Moe, that meant much of the money went to the mob, not the recording artists.  Levy would plant his name and those of his associates on songwriting credits all the time.  The Mafia should have their own wing in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.  Levon received songwriting credit on the Lp as well, but I don't think he saw any money from it.   Especially as the disc didn't do as well as the first one.  Stiffed.

In likely Mob-induced desperation, Ronnie tried to catch fire with several new boxes of matches.  Both The Folk Ballads of Ronnie Hawkins and Sings the Songs of Hank Williams were released in 1960.  Kerplunk.  A final try was far better.  The Best of Ronnie Hawkins (not actually a greatest hits compilation, but a pastiche of 1961 to1963 songs with Levon, Robbie, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel and Brother Garth Hudson.)  In  fact, it reveals the increasingly tight band starting to come up with some ideas which did not require the Hawk.  The fourth Lp,  also owned by Morris Levy,  was Moho Jam and Levon takes lead on She's Nineteen and Farther up the Road.  There were no more Roulette hits for Hawkins. Ronnie went back North to stay and Levon Helm and The Hawks struck out on there own, literally…at once both Hawkins and mob-free!  As for Roulette records, Morris eventually sold the company for $55 million.
Copyright Serge Daniloff 1961

Soon the boys  were kicking ass and getting laid on a regular basis in New Jersey beach town teen clubs but still barely making a living.  Memorable performances of the embryonic Band include the bootlegs  Crang Plaza, Old Shoes, and Port Dover.  They eventually made a few 45s on hopefully more reputable labels, including the Atco 45 He Don't Love You here.

They reveal the best bar band in the business, and it wasn't long before word got to Dylan.  Some say it was questionable blues singer John Hammond who suggested it,  others give the honor to Albert Grossman's assistant Mary Martin.   Bob saw the band and wanted Robbie.  To Robbie's credit, he said "You take me, you take us all" and the rest is gravy.  In fact, the rest is probably the most important ten years of Rock and Roll history.  They stuck with Bob through the Royal Albert Hall shows, The Australia shows…and then collapsed, alongside him, in Woodstock and where the magic heard on the Basement Tapes was created.

NOTES  Levon Helm autobiography  This Wheel's on Fire is HERE and it will teach anyone all they need to know about authenticity and music.  Peter Viney's story on the song writing credits on the Ronnie Hawkins Roulette discs is HERE.  The Band Website is one of the finest fan pages on the internet.  The Wiki article on Morris Levy is brief and his career was not…but it's a start.  He figures in another world as well, and I am writing that story in TIMES SQUARE SMUT.  Watch Morris in pasty fleshtone HERE.  One of the clubs on the Jersey Shore the Band found dates at was Tony Marts HERE.  The Basement Tapes, to my great amazement, have  finally been commercially released by Columbia.  Intestingly Dylan was signed to the label by the father of the blues singer John P. Hammond, who also recorded with the Hawks.