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In “On the Road” (1957) Jack Kerouac wrote about a night at "Birdland, the bop joint. Lester Young was on the stand, eternity on his huge eyelids." The club at 1678 Broadway, just north of West 52nd Street in Manhattan, sported a neon sign in front proclaiming it the “Jazz Corner of the World.” It was allegedly bought by 9 entrepreneurs from mobster “Joe the Wop” Catalano and was scheduled to open on 8 September 1949 but, due to problems getting a liquor license, the opening night was delayed until 15 December: Billed as "A Journey Through Jazz," the debut show featured Maxie Kaminsky, Hot Lips Page, Lester Young, Charlie Parker, Harry Belafonte, Stan Getz, and Lennie Tristano. “Birdland” was named after Parker (nicknamed “Bird”), who pioneered the bebop style of jazz, but he rarely played there. The venue, with a number of caged finches inside, seated 500 people and had space for a full orchestra. It had a long bar, tables, booths, and a fenced-in drinkless bullpen named “the peanut gallery,” where teenagers were sometimes allowed to watch. The club’s master of ceremonies until 1965, Pee Wee Marquette, who was less than 4 ft tall MC, was notorious for mispronouncing the names of musicians , blowing smoke in their faces, and otherwise irritating them until they tipped him. The jazz disc jockey “Symphony Sid” Torin broadcast live on WJZ (later renamed WABC) early in the club's existence, and he was responsible for introducing bepop to a wide audience and it became a fashionable place for celebrities to be seen. In 1952 the club commissioned George Shearing to compose “Lullaby of Birdland;” George David Weiss later added lyrics (as “B. Y. Forster” because of a rule that forbade performing rights organizations ASCAP [the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers] and BMI [Broadcast Music, Inc.] from collaborating). Various jazz artists recorded there, and most of the biggest jazz performers, such as Thelonious Monk (at the bottom of the picture) played there on a regular basis. The club was operated by Oscar Goodstein, who took tickets and tended the bar, but the main owners were Irving Levy and his younger brother Morris. Irving was stabbed to death at the club in 1959 while Urbie Green was performing. The stabbing had apparently occurred unnoticed by the patrons, and the body was subsequently discovered in the rear of the club, near the service area.
In June 1964, Birdland filed for bankruptcy, and the club closed the following year. (The site was taken over by Lloyd Price, a rock singer who had recorded for Levy’s competitors, who renamed it the Turntable.) By then “Morrie” was a major music mogul, known as the “Godfather of the American music business.” Through his Patricia Music (named after his first wife) and other publishing ventures, he acquired the rights to songs performed in his clubs and claimed authorship of songs he had no compositional role in. At one point he even claimed the rights to the phrase “rock and roll.” In January 1957 he formed Roulette Records with George Goldner and others and soon bought out Goldner (and also took over his other record companies Tico, Rama, and Gee). Roulette, a front business for the Genovese crime family boss Vincent Gigante, was one of the industry's major distributors, handling records for many leading labels but was notorious for not paying royalties to its artists, who had to rely on concerts and personal appearances for their income. Tommy James, of the Shondells, claimed that the label kept $30-40 million of the group's royalties though it granted them total artistic freedom, whereas another company would have probably tampered with its formula and might have dropped them early on. The Levy empire owned more than 90 companies employing 900 people, including several record-pressing and tape-duplicating plants, printing presses, Strawberries (a chain of 81 record stores), and other ventures, some of which were used to make bootleg copies of legitimate albums which were distributed outside normal channels. He funded the establishment of Sugar Hill In 1979, which pioneered recording hiphop music. He created Tiger Lily Records as a tax scam that was never intended to make a profit, chiefly by acquiring demo tapes and releasing them without the artists’ consent or by re-issuing material previously published on obscure labels. In 1973 Levy sued John Lennon for plagiarism (on the Beatles song “Come Together” Lennon had borrowed a line, “"Here come old flat-top," from Chuck Berry’s song “You Can’t Catch Me,” and the 2 tunes also had a melodic resemblance), and Lennon agreed to record 3 Levy-owned songs on his next album; during the “Rock ‘n’ Roll” recording sessions producer Phil Spector disappeared with the session tapes and then had a car accident that left him in a coma, delaying the album release. Levy managed to steal the master tapes that Lennon re-recorded and printed them into “Roots,” a mail-order album distributed by Adam VIII (named after Levy’s son); Lennon sued, effectively putting Adam VIII out of business. In 1975, Levy and roulette vice president Nathan “Big Nat” McCalla were indicted for assaulting an off-duty police officer, though the case was later dismissed; McCalla was subsequently murdered. As the Federal Bureau of Investigation built a case against Levy, he sold Roulette and his publishing rights for $22–55 million in 1986. Later that year he was arrested. In December 1988 he was convicted of conspiring to extort and sentenced to 10 years in prison and fined $200,000. However, he appealed his conviction and died in 1990, 2 months before his prison sentence was scheduled to begin. In 1996, a court found Levy's estate posthumously liable for $4 million for unpaid songwriting royalties to Herman Santiago and Jimmy Merchant for the Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers’ 1956 hit "Why Do Fools Fall in Love." Santiago testified that Levy had told him that when he tried to get the money owed to him Levy told him, "Don't come down here anymore or I'll have to kill you or hurt you."
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