John Lennon and the Rock ‘n’ Roll Lawsuit
In the Beatles song “Come Together,” John Lennon included a lyric that referenced a Chuck Berry song, an act intended as a tribute to one of the founding fathers of rock ’n’ roll. Instead, it got Lennon embroiled in a years-long legal battle with one of the most colorful—and nefarious—characters in the history of the music business.
MEAN MR. LEVY
Morris Levy made a fortune in the music business. From bebop to big-band jazz, from doo-wop to rockabilly and rock ’n’ roll, he had his fingers in everything. But he wasn’t a music innovator or even a musician—he was known primarily as a wheeler-dealer businessman…and a swindler. Levy started as a tough New York street kid growing up in the Bronx during the Great Depression. He got kicked out of school at 13 for assaulting a teacher, ran away from home, moved to Florida, and hung around nightclubs until he was old enough to join the Navy. Upon his discharge after World War II, he returned to New York and the nightclub scene, and in 1949, with money obtained from his former nightclub bosses—members of the Genovese crime family—Levy opened the legendary jazz club Birdland.
BABY YOU’RE A RICH MAN
One night a representative from the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP), the agency that collects publishing royalties for songs performed in public, visited the club. The agent told Levy that he had to pay a monthly fee to cover the songs played by musicians in the club. Levy immediately threw the ASCAP guy out, thinking that it was an extortion ploy from a rival crime family. But after a call to his lawyer confirmed that ASCAP was legitimate, Levy had an inspiration: Owning songs could be lucrative. Anytime a song was played on the radio or performed in public, the owner of its “publishing rights” received a royalty payment.
Levy started a publishing company called Patricia Music (named after his wife) and commissioned the jazz musicians who worked his nightclubs to compose songs for him, including the standards “Lullaby of Birdland” and “The Yellow Rose of Texas.” He began buying up the rights—cheaply—to hundreds of jazz, early rock ’n’ roll, and rhythm and blues songs, including “Party Doll” by Buddy Knox, “Honeycomb,” by Jimmie Rodgers, and various tunes popularized by jazz greats Dinah Washington, Sarah Vaughan, and Count Basie—and routinely cheated the composers out of royalties.
In 1957 Levy was named president of the newly formed Roulette Records; within six months he had staged a hostile takeover and owned the label. At Roulette, he quickly found a new way to cheat songwriters: He changed the credits of songs to list himself as a songwriter. ASCAP may credit Levy as a songwriter, but he definitely did not help write classic songs like “My Boy Lollipop,” “California Sun,” or “Why Do Fools Fall in Love?”
Under a corporate umbrella called Big Seven Music, Levy also handled record pressing and distribution for several smaller labels, and was suspected by the government of making secret pirated copies of legitimate albums and selling them to stores (or mob-run music distribution channels) thereby pocketing all the money, without having to pay royalties—or taxes—on any of it.
Any opportunity that Levy could find to make a buck, morally or immorally, legally or illegally, he took it. But when he felt that somebody else had taken advantage of him, Levy utilized the legal system. And Levy didn’t care who it was—even if it was the most popular musician in the most popular band in the world.
HERE COME OLD FLAT TOP
The first track on the Beatles 1969 Abbey Road album is “Come Together,” written by John Lennon. The first line: “Here come old flat top, he come grooving up slowly.” Shortly after the album’s release Lennon admitted to a reporter he’d taken the line from the 1956 Chuck Berry song “You Can’t Catch Me,” which features the lyric, “Here come old flat top, he was grooving up with me.” A few months later, Lennon was sued for copyright infringement, not by Berry, but by the man that owned the copyright to “You Can’t Catch Me,” Morris Levy.
Levy was probably hoping for a quick settlement, but it looked like the infringement case would ultimately be decided by a judge and jury. Flash forward to 1973. Lennon’s life was a mess. In addition to the pending “Come Together” suit, he was facing deportation back to England because of a 1968 marijuana possession charge. His current album, 1972’s Some Time in New York, had been a bomb, peaking at #48 on the chart due to controversy over the anti-sexism song “Woman is the Ni**er of the World.” There was tension in his marriage, too: Lennon wanted to stay in New York; his wife, Yoko Ono, wanted to search for her estranged daughter, Kyoko. In October 1973, Lennon had had enough. He told Ono he was going out to buy a newspaper, but hopped a plane to Los Angeles instead.
IMAGINE ALL THE PEOPLE
Lennon tried to escape his problems by immersing himself in his work. But writing new songs proved to be too emotionally stressful, so he decided that his next album would be cover versions of early rock ’n’ roll songs he’d loved as a teenager. He convinced producer Phil Spector to help him make the record (the two had worked together on Lennon’s Imagine solo album and the Beatles’ Let It Be).
Spector rented out A&M Studios in Los Angeles and brought in dozens of famous musicians for the project. As many as 30 would be in the studio at one time, including Harry Nilsson, Dr. John, Ringo Starr, and Charlie Watts of the Rolling Stones. Lennon, still trying to forget his problems, drank a lot before, during, and after every session (as did the other musicians, especially Starr and Nilsson). One night, he and Nilsson were so hammered that they got kicked out of the Troubador nightclub for heckling the Smothers Brothers.
Shortly after Lennon started work on what was being called Oldies but Mouldies, the suit with Morris Levy over “Come Together” was settled. Terms of the settlement: In exchange for Levy dropping the case, Lennon agreed to record three songs published by Levy’s Big Seven Music on his next solo album, with an appropriate portion of proceeds going to Levy. It coincided nicely with Lennon’s Oldies project, and in looking through Levy’s catalog, Lennon easily found plenty of his favorite songs; it wouldn’t be hard to find three to record.
By the end of 1973, Lennon, Spector, and crew had completed eight tracks for the album: “Bony Maronie” (by Larry Williams), “Sweet Little Sixteen” (Chuck Berry), “Be My Baby,” (the Ronettes), “Just Because” (Lloyd Price), “My Baby Left Me” (Elvis Presley), and the three Big Seven songs, “Angel Baby” (Rosie and the Originals), “Ya Ya” (Lee Dorsey), and “You Can’t Catch Me”—the Chuck Berry song that had led to Levy’s lawsuit.
HAPPINESS IS A WARM GUN
Eight songs was enough for an album, but Lennon wanted to record about 12. And while he was deciding what the final four would be, the recording sessions for Oldies but Mouldies came to an abrupt halt. Spector, well known for demanding absolute control in his recording sessions (and also known for a history of mental breakdowns), got so frustrated that the drunken Lennon wasn’t taking his direction that he pulled out a handgun, pointed it at Lennon, and fired it into the ceiling. Then he walked out of the studio…with the master tapes. And there wasn’t much Lennon or his label, Capitol Records, could do about it. Instead of billing Capitol for the studio time, Spector had paid for it himself, which made the master tapes legally his.
In January 1974, Spector called Lennon and told him he had the tapes and that he’d never give them back. Two months later, Spector was involved in a severe car accident that put him in a coma and required him to have substantial facial reconstructive surgery. The album was definitely off.
HE CAN WORK IT OUT
Lennon grew increasingly depressed. Ono wouldn’t take him back, and he couldn’t finish the album that the lawsuit settlement agreement required him to do. On top of that, his green-card matter hadn’t yet been resolved, so he could feasibly be deported at any time. His heavy drinking wasn’t helping either, so Lennon locked himself in his bedroom for a week in spring 1974 and quit drinking, cold turkey.
As the summer began, with Spector out of the picture and the Oldies but Mouldies tapes still not forthcoming, Lennon moved back to New York City, both to follow up on his immigration case and to find inspiration to write new songs. Over the next few months, he wrote and recorded the songs for the album Walls and Bridges, released in October 1974.
Legally, though, he was still bound to record three Morris Levy–owned songs. To get the Oldies but Mouldies master tapes back, Capitol Records first threatened to sue Spector, but in the end they just paid him $90,000 in cash. Not wanting to stop his work on Walls and Bridges, Lennon waited until after that album was complete before listening to the Spector sessions. The result: Because of his heavy drinking at the time he recorded them, Lennon’s voice sounded so bad that only four of the eight Mouldies songs were good enough to release, and only one of those (“Angel Baby”) was from the Big Seven catalog. But in order to satisfy Levy, he still had to release them. Capitol wouldn’t issue them on an EP or as singles; Lennon had no choice but to go back into the studio and finish the album.
DON’T LET ME DOWN
When Walls and Bridges was released, Morris Levy was furious. He’d dropped his “Come Together” suit on condition that Lennon’s next album would contain three songs owned by Big Seven Music; instead, Lennon had made and album of all-new material, except for a section of “Ya Ya,” a duet of Lennon on piano and his 11-year-old son, Julian, on drums. (Levy thought that was something of an insult.) Lennon met with Levy and his attorney and explained what had happened with Spector and the missing master tapes, and that Lennon had recorded, but not yet released, the three necessary songs, and would do so on his forthcoming all-covers album (now retitled Old Hat). Levy was appeased, and to help Lennon get the album restarted, let him rehearse at Levy’s upstate New York farm. Lennon also told Levy he could sell the finished album on Adam VIII, his mail-order label.
Within two weeks, Lennon had recorded nine tracks: “Be-Bop-A-Lula,” “Stand By Me,” “Reddy Teddy/Rip It Up,” “Ain’t That a Shame,” “Do You Want to Dance,” “Slippin’ and Slidin’,” “Peggy Sue,” “Bring It On Home to Me/Send Me Some Lovin’,” and “Ya Ya,” which was re-recorded in full. A new title and the album cover art were chosen, too. Graphic artist John Uotomo took a 1961 photo of Lennon standing in a doorway in Hamburg, Germany (the Beatles’ early stomping grounds), and put the words “John Lennon: Rock ’n’ Roll” above Lennon, rendered to look like a neon sign. Lennon loved the image, and thought Rock ’n’ Roll was the perfect title.
LET IT BE
In November 1974, Levy asked Lennon to send him a rough mix of the album. Since Levy had a financial interest in it, Lennon agreed, sending him a scratchy, second-generation copy of the tapes—a poor recording, but good enough to listen to in order to get the gist of the album. Lennon didn’t think the album was very good; the Spector songs seemed overproduced, while the newly recorded songs felt raw and unfinished. But Capitol Records wouldn’t let Lennon shelve it (and neither would Levy), so it was scheduled for release in spring 1975.
That December, Lennon met with his lawyer, Howard Seider, and Levy. Citing a verbal promise Lennon had made to him to let him release Rock ’n’ Roll on his mail-order Adam VIII label, Levy tried to persuade Seider to get the proper legal clearances from Capitol Records. Seider relayed the request, and Capitol refused outright—not only did Lennon not have the authority to negotiate such deals, but they’d paid $90,000 for the right to make this album. Levy didn’t have the legal right to market Lennon’s name, image, or recordings.
MIND GAMES, PART 1
Lennon’s fortunes improved in early 1975. He and Ono reconciled and moved back in together in New York. His immigration case was dismissed (he was allowed to stay in the United States permanently), and the first single from Walls and Bridges, “Whatever Gets You Through The Night,” was a #1 hit.
But in February 1975, Levy—unwilling to accept Capitol’s refusal to let him market the album—took matters into his own hands. He took the incredibly rough demo that Lennon had sent him a few months earlier and released it as an album through his mail-order label as John Lennon Sings the Great Rock & Roll Hits: Roots. The cover art was a cheap stock photo of Lennon taken in 1969. When Capitol heard what Levy was doing, it rushed the real version of Rock ’n’ Roll. They also threatened prosecution against any TV or radio station that advertised Levy’s Roots album (calling it illegal bootleg material) and legally forced Adam VIII to stop producing the album. Capitol sprung to action so quickly that the commercial for Roots had aired for just a few weeks, late at night, in a few East Coast cities. Only 3,000 copies had been pressed, of which 1,270 were sold.
But for some reason, despite the lawsuit, the nearly two years it took to make the album, and the massive headaches they endured while doing so, Lennon and Capitol dropped one of the Levy-owned songs, “Angel Baby,” from the final album. That meant he’d released only two Levy-owned songs (“Ya Ya” and “You Can’t Catch Me”), not the agreed-upon three, which left the door open for even more litigation.
MIND GAMES, PART 2
In 1975 Levy did, in fact, sue Lennon. But not for failure to live up to his end of the bargain. Instead, Levy sued Lennon for $42 million for breach of an oral agreement, because the singer had promised him that he could sell the album on his mail-order label. Lennon countersued for unauthorized use of his name, likeness, and recordings, as well as for damages to his reputation as a recording artist due to the “shoddiness” of Roots and its packaging.
United States District Court judge Thomas Griesa heard the case in January 1976. Lennon’s attorneys argued that because the master tape Levy used to make Roots was an unfinished studio dub, the resulting records could only be of poor quality, and thereby damaging to Lennon’s reputation. They also argued that the cover photo of Lennon, a head shot of him with long hair, damaged his credibility, because the photo neither reflected how he looked when the album was made nor evoked the 1950s spirit of the album. To further that point, Lennon showed up for the trial with short hair. William Schurtman, Levy’s attorney, badgered Lennon on the witness stand, accusing him of cutting his hair only for the trial. “Rubbish,” Lennon replied. “I cut it every 18 months.” Everyone in the courtroom, including Judge Griesa, burst into laughter.
On February 20, 1976, Judge Griesa issued his 29-page opinion. Griesa believed that Lennon had promised Levy the right to issue the oldies album on Adam VIII, but declared the “tentative verbal agreement” void because Lennon had no legal right to negotiate distribution deals—that was Capitol Records’ job. After hearing arguments for and against Lennon’s countersuit, Griesa ordered Lennon to pay Levy $7,000 for breach of an oral agreement (which, ironically, covered the production costs of Roots), but ordered Levy pay Lennon $110,000 to compensate for the lost income from Rock ’n’ Roll due to Roots, as well as an additional $42,000 in punitive damages for harming his reputation. (Ironic fact: After the decision was read, Levy’s attorney, William Schurtman, approached Lennon and asked him to autograph his copy of Lennon’s Two Virgins LP.)
AND IN THE END
Rock ’n’ Roll reached #6 on the British and American album charts. And although it did go Gold over the course of a decade, (more than half a million copies sold), it was ultimately among the lowest-selling studio albums of Lennon’s solo career, only slightly edging out his 1972 dud Some Time in New York City. But Rock ’n’ Roll would end up being the last album released during his lifetime.
Shortly after the release of Rock ’n’ Roll, Yoko Ono announced that she was pregnant with what would be the couple’s only child, Sean, born in October 1975 (on Lennon’s 35th birthday). Lennon decided to retire from the music business and focus his attention on raising his son. In 1980 he returned to the studio to record a new album, Double Fantasy, but he was shot and killed that December at age 40, a month before the album’s release to critical acclaim.
Levy’s decades of shady business practices did finally catch up with him. Though he’d been under investigation by the FBI off and on since the early 1950s, in 1986 he was finally caught. He was indicted for conspiring with a Genovese boss to extort money from a music wholesaler. He was convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison, but while the case was on appeal, Levy died of liver cancer in early 1990. He was 62.
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