John Lennon Vs. the Mob

Lennon’s lawyer tells the story of his near-forgotten rights battles with mobster Morris Levy

There have been scads of books about The Beatles in general and John Lennon specifically. Paul McCartney carries the Beatles legacy forward, playing stadia across America, dinging nostalgia bells in a live context, and, to a somewhat lesser extent, so does Ringo Starr, with his All-Starr Band tours, where I always think, “C’mon, Ringo, more Beatles, fewer long-ago hits by your B-level rock pals.”

But it’s Lennon–well, those who write about Lennon–who rules the bookshelves. This, obviously, owes to the fact that there was an endpoint to his career, a very bloody endpoint in December 1980 which needs no further exploration here. And the ever-lingering question of “What if?” which hovers around any artist taken away too soon.

One of the smaller slices of Lennon-alia gets the full treatment in Lennon, the Mobster & the Lawyer: The Untold Story by Jay Bergen, which came out May 1. (Bergen’s the Lawyer, Morris Levy is the Mobster and Lennon is the wronged rock star.) It’s about a trial many of us may vaguely recall from the hurly-burly days of the mid-1970s, but, for me, at least it was a hazy memory of, “Oh, yeah, weren’t there two versions of that oldies record Lennon did, one peddled on late night TV. How the hell did that happen?”

Lennon
‘Lennon, the Mobster, and the Lawyer,’ by Jay Bergen.

As causes celebre go, it was pretty minor at the time, but those were different times. Imagine the brouhaha in today’s world.

Bergen, 83 and living in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, is here now to explain the twisted tale. He worked on the book for four years and had initially done some of the material that would show up seven times as a lecture-with-video presentation. Famed New York photographer/Lennon pal Bob Gruen, who pens the Foreword, encouraged him to set it down in print for posterity.

Bergen’s book is simultaneously fascinating (the curtain is raised!) and numbing (enough is enough!) and it certainly made me think, 1) I would hate to be a lawyer and 2) I hope I don’t end up in any litigation. The wheels of justice grind slowly and tediously and there is a surfeit of repetition in the testimony. There’s also a lot of repetition in the book. Bergen lays out the head-scratching details of the litigation and then re-iterates it later, only to follow it with Lennon’s Q/A testimony. Bergen needed a better editor; this didn’t need to come in at 317 pages.

In Lennon, The Mobster & The Lawyer, the difference in sound quality between recording tape at 7 ½ ips and 15 ips is explained so many times I was ready to scream: “Stop! We know this already!” If you’re curious, the former is acceptable for rough demos; the latter is for the finished product. The sound is better at the faster speed.

Asked if he was qualified to judge how the public was confused by Roots, the album of old rock ‘n’ roll songs Lennon recorded and Levy illegally peddled and Rock ‘n’ Roll, Lennon’s official, Capitol Records release with two fewer songs and far better sound, Lennon replied: “I am. I met the public who talked to me about my product. I met a taxi driver who said, ‘Sorry, I already bought the wrong one.’ They talk about me on the street. I know what they are thinking. I don’t live in some ivory tower. I walk the streets. I get in taxi cabs and I know what they think.”

Ok, so it’s clear: The two versions confused at least one taxi driver. I suppose it confused the general public as well. The enjoyment of Bergen’s book comes from hearing Lennon talk about the recording process, all the steps it takes to get from song to studio to mixing, mastering, lacquering, and test-pressing to distribution. At least what his process is. The care he took with assembling just the right package from the music to the cover art. The Beatles were among the first, if not the first, to demand and get control over their cover art. At times this verges on “how the sausage is made” territory as Lennon goes over the process again and again.

Lennon, according to Bergen, was full-in on this, wanting the victory in the first trial, and proper damages assessed in the second.

Levy released the Roots record a week before Capitol’s Rock ‘n’ Roll; Capitol rush-released it to get it on the market and squelch the sales of Levy’s LP.

How did Levy get it? It seems, at one point, Lennon and Levy were friends or at least friendly acquaintances. Their families went to Disney World together and Lennon agreed to go Levy’s farm in upstate New York to rehearse. Was Lennon unaware of Levy’s unsavory reputation and unscrupulous business practices? For all his worldliness was he that naïve, unaware of what Levy wanted to get from him? Evidently.

The backstory: Levy claimed that the Beatles’ Lennon-penned “Come Together” infringed the copyright on Chuck Berry’s “You Can’t Catch Me,”which Levy’s publishing company, Big Seven Music, owned. It keyed in on a few words about “flat-top” and it seems ludicrous from a distance, but I guess for Levy, it was a way to get into Lennon’s headspace and scam his way to a settlement.

It worked, up to appoint. To avert a court case, Lennon agreed to record three Levy-owned songs on his oldies album, so Levy would get some publishing cash back. Levy kept bugging him about it and Lennon finally gave him a batch of those 7 ½ ips recordings, telling him they weren’t final and he’d want to get rid of some “crummy” songs.

Jackpot! thought Levy. He claimed he and Lennon had a “verbal agreement” to release the record – all the tracks, presumably – which, to use that word again, was ludicrous. Capitol owned what Lennon did. He couldn’t have given Levy the record if he wanted to and, furthermore, Lennon made it a point to never talk business. That’s what his people did. And so, in 1976 and 1977 … lawsuit and countersuit.

Bergen says that Lennon was his best client ever – not because of his celebrity (Bergen was only vaguely aware of The Beatles’s music before he took the case, oddly enough) but because he paid rapt attention to detail and gave sharp, precise testimony, not without wit at some points.

For fans, probably the details about the recording process are the most interesting. The least interesting? All the legal mumbo-jumbo, the back-and-forth fine-tuning and nit-picking that sometimes makes you feel like you’re reading one of those terms-and-conditions statements we all get.

This, I didn’t know. Lennon liked the idea of the TV adverts to sell the record, presenting the package as an LP of oldies hits from someone who was no longer with us–as they did on the late-night TV ads for hit collection albums back in the day. So, his idea was to be playful with marketing of it, but when Levy did his bit, it was not only illegal but cheesy in a way Lennon hated, just like he hated the crap, out-of-focus cover.

Of course, in the collectible-mad world we live in, because they only pressed 3000 of these Roots albums, a copy can now fetch $2000; Rock ‘n’ Roll runs about $82.

Bergen and Lennon (and Yoko) essentially had a business relationship that also coursed along a lower level of friendship. They dined together, shared some jokes, mostly about Levy’s attorney. But when it was over, it was over. And that was fine with all parties, it seems. We’ve all had these–intense get-togethers for whatever reason that matter when they’re happening–but then the relationships wane. It’s part of life.

One lingering question: Why did Levy think he could get away with it? The probable answer is because he had it the past. (See my Rock and Roll Globe story April 29 about Tommy James, and his infamous dealings with Levy.) He calculated Lennon would rather pay him off to go away than bother with a detail-laden lawsuit. It was his standard business ploy.

I did wonder, too, considering Levy’s history–a con-man swindler with mob connections ( Richard Carlin’s bio called him “The Godfather of the Music Business”)–whether Bergen or Lennon worried about any violent blowback from him or his compatriots outside of court? Evidently, not, from Bergen’s accounting. Levy was a bad guy, but not that bad.

Postscript: Levy was convicted in December 1988 by a Federal jury on two counts of conspiring to extort.  Also convicted were Howard Fisher, an exec at Levy’s Roulette’ record company, and Dominick Canterino, a cop in the Genovese crime family.

At his sentencing hearing, his attorneys cited his philanthropic work, while FBI agents testified that Levy had also been a major supplier of heroin for a convicted Philadelphia drug dealer. In 1988 Levy was sentenced to 10 years in prison and fined $200,000. He appealed and remained free on bail. It was upheld. He petitioned to have his sentence eliminated because of the cancer that was killing him. The court granted him a 90-day stay but he died just before he was scheduled to report to jail.

As to Lennon, well, we know what went down there. The house-husband life, rearing Sean, then going back into the studio to record Double Fantasy with Yoko, Jack Douglas, Rick Nielsen and others. And then the encounter with Mark David Chapman.

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Jim Sullivan

Jim Sullivan wrote about pop music and culture for the Boston Globe from 1979-2005 and currently is doing the same for WBUR’s ARTery and Rock and Roll Globe among other websites and outlets.

One thought on “John Lennon Vs. the Mob

  • May 15, 2022 at 1:16 pm
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    I have not yet read this book — only because I’m learning of it for the first time this minute, and thanks Book and Film Globe! But I know Jay Bergen a little bit. He was a friend of my uncle. When my indie rock band, Green, was asked by CBS Records to contribute a track to their music sampler, we basically assumed we had “made it.” The rest would be a cinch. Then Epic Records sent over a contract that was about 150 pages of crazy lawyer language. We were being asked to sign our lives away and our genius songwriter was naturally a “my songs are my children” kind of guy. My uncle introduced us to Jay. We went to his office in SoHo and our jaws hit the floor when we saw all the Lennon memorabilia, including photos of Bergen himself in some of the shots from sessions that became legendary for Beatles fans. Jay cleaned CBS’ clock and the final contract had a million scratchouts in our favor. Jay refused to charge us a penny. This did not lead to rock stardom for Green, sadly. But it was a forever memory for a scruffy trio from Chicago.

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