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Monday, June 30, 2014

When The Mob Met Charlton (Comics)

Morris Levy. He didn't like you either.
The history of Charlton Comics is well known to most, especially the beginnings.  Charlton was formed in 1940 by John Santangelo, Sr. and Ed Levy, who met while incarcerated.  Jail is often the meeting place for strange bedfellows and this was no exception.Santangelo, a bricklayer, was serving time for copyright violation, Ed Levy, a lawyer, was in for a billing fraud conviction.  Formulating an idea they decided to team up and upon release established a printing plant.  From there the duo branched out into publishing, first with music magazines and eventually comics.

It's worth mentioning that most paper printing plants in America in the 1950s and beyond were generally used by various mobsters to print and distribute pornography and counterfeit, and generally illegal, items.  The allure of such publishing was twofold – it could be done cheaply and the end result sold for a massive profit.  Added to the attraction was that such items were hard for the authorities to track the origin of.  It was as win-win for organised crime.

For years there have been rumblings around Charlton Publications (and other publishers, such as DC Comics) and their links with mobsters, but no real evidence had surfaced, just innuendo.  Most of the rumours revolved around the involvement of organised crime figures utilizing printing presses and becoming a part of the distribution, but when it comes to an actual employee, there's been nothing tangible to link the Mob to a comic book publisher .  Someone knew someone who worked at Charlton who might have been connected, the founders had met in jail (newsflash – being in jail does not automatically mean a person is a mobster) and so forth.  But now there is absolute proof that Charlton Publications did have a mob connection and, as such connections go, it was a big one.  You see, none other than Morris Levy worked as a consultant for Charlton Publications, best known for it's line of comic books.  Just who was Morris Levy? Read on!

Morris Levy's FBI file, early 1960s, showing his employment history with Charlton Publications.
One time music publisher and record label boss, Morris Levy was one of the most mobbed up members of the music industry.  His life was captured, brilliantly, in Fredric Dannen’s book, ‘Hit Men’ and ‘Me, The Mob and The Music’ by Tommy James, both of which are essential reading for anyone remotely interested in understanding the workings of the mob and music.  Levy, who founded the Birdland jazz club in New York and the Peppermint Twist Lounge in Miami, ran such recording labels as Roulette, where his practice of adding his name to songs released helped him make an absolute fortune.  Along the way he ripped off as many R&B and rock and roll acts as he could (including John Lennon in 1975 with the 'Roots' album, that Levy compiled from demos and attempted to sell via mail order).  He also was a stand over man and liked to threaten people; however when threats and intimidation didn't work, Levy wasn't above resorting to the tried and true mob methods of assault and extortion.  He dealt with the underworld as easily and ruthlessly as he did legitimate business. In the late 1950s and through the 1960s he mixed with the likes of Allen Freed (indeed Levy insisted that it was HE and not Freed who coined the phrase 'rock and roll') and Murray ‘The K’ Kaufman, the of whom latter organised for The Beatles to stay at Levy’s mansion while they were in Miami during their first tour of America.

The FBI tried many times to shut Levy down for over thirty years, on various charges from Anti-Racketeering to extortion, all to no avail.  From their on-going surveillance the FBI knew that Levy was connected to the Genovese crime family, that he was tight with other families and associated with known criminals with names such as Johnny Bathbeach, Joe The Wop and Swats Mulligan.  Showing how fickle the world of crime can be at times, 'Swats', better known the FBI by his real name Dominick Ciaffone, beat Levy  to a pulp in the Roulette offices over a dispute involving late payments to the mob, not that Levy held it against him - he and Swats dabbled in various nightclubs through to the 1970s.  Mobsters, and Levy for that matter, used Roulette and Levy's nightclubs as fronts for various mob activities, including drug smuggling, money laundering, drug dealing and the theft of literally truckloads of records from other record labels. 

When the FBI finally nailed him in 1986, on two counts of conspiring to extort.  Levy and a host of others had tried to take over a company that specialized in dealing with ‘cut outs’, old, out of date records that a label simply wants to discard for next to nothing. Levy had arranged for a company called Out Of The Past to buy just over four and a half million such albums and cassettes for $1,250,000 from MCA Records, but had taken the best albums out the stock, leaving the owner of the company with virtually unsalable stock.  Levy and his partners then asked for the full amount owing, when this wasn't forthcoming, the owner was beaten.  Instead of paying up, the terrified owner went to the FBI and testified.  Found guilty, Levy mocked the trial and his ten year sentence by repeating that he would never serve any time.  He was right; he died of liver cancer before he was due to start his sentence.
Gotcha! Morris Levy's 1986 FBI mug shot. Nothing glamorous here.

You really need to read this book
Reading through Levy’s FBI file makes for fascinating reading and shows many links between organised crime and the American music industry, especially in the ‘60s and ‘70s (the file describes Levy as being a front man for the mob and notes that most people considered him to be a ‘loud-mouthed bore’_.  Inside the file is an FBI dossier on Levy, compiled in the early 1960s that has one line which explains a bit and raises many more questions.  Between the years 1956 to 1958, Morris Levy worked as a ‘Music Consultant’ (although just what his job entailed is still unknown) for none other than Charlton Publications, Derby, Connecticut, working on such magazines as Hit Parader and Song Hits.  The editor on the music publications was one Arthur Kass however I’m not entirely sure that this Arthur Kass is the same Art Kass who helped form Karma Sutra with Neil ‘Casablanca’ Bogart in the 1960s.  When Kass began to go bankrupt and woke up heavily in debt, he turned to the one person who he knew could and would help him - his old friend, Morris Levy.  

If the Charlton Arthur Kass is the same Art Kass who owned Karma Sutra, then it would explain Levy’s connection to Charlton even more so.  How deeply was Charlton connected to the mob and Morris Levy?  Levy was there for two years and one thing is known about Levy, if was onto a good thing and it was making him, and others, money then he didn't let it go.

One thing that can be discounted is a direct (sibling) family relationship between Ed and Morris Levy, although it is possible that they were related in some form.  Morris Levy’s only sibling, Zachariah, better known as Irving, was stabbed to death at the Birdland in 1959.  At the time, and for years after, it was widely believed that Irving was stabbed in a mob hit gone wrong and that the true target was none other than Morris.  Irving just happened to be the wrong place at the wrong time.


Watch this space…more to come.

2 comments:

Will Hansen said...

Wonderful write-up. I read the Tommy James book and I agree that it is very explicit in revealing the mob's influence in pop music.
I don't often comment, but I enjoy reading your writings here. As an American I am fascinated by your stories about Australian comics. I have been saving up to buy your Andru & Esposito book.
Keep up the good work and don't get too discouraged. Yours is one of the finest sites, and most detailed, on the internet. I learn something new each time you post. And I have been buying and collecting comics for over 50 years. Thank you again for all your hard work.
Will

The Seditionist said...

An epilogue to the Morris Levy story, of sorts: A couple of decades ago, we worked on a case representing a woman attacked by Levy's dog. Client was his nurse while he was slowly dying of cancer. The client had respect, as it were, of Levy -- as in fully knowing who he was, although holding back on spelling things out. And between his health and he being he, a deposition was out of the question.
Years later -- thanks, internet! -- I began finding out the story. This post was news to me. Good job, Daniel!