Here’s a George Goldner time line, which I swear crystallized in my head for the first time last week, when I happened to pull some of his label-specific collections off the shelf where they reside, neatly, in chronological order.
For those who aren’t familiar with the name, Goldner was one of the truly great record men of early rock and roll. He was also what is, these days, most often described as an “inveterate gambler.” That’s a polite term for gambling addict, which is itself a polite term for gambling junkie which is itself a polite term for degenerate gambler, a phrase that is evidently no longer in use.
Hence–a little miniature history of rock and roll, seen through the prism of George Goldner’s career:
1947: Begins first record label, Tico, specializing in Latin music.
1953-4: Recognizing the rising popularity of R&B, he starts two new labels. The first is Rama. The second is Gee, named after Rama’s seminal hit recording with the Crows, which was one of the first R&B records to cross over to the white Pop chart.
1956: To pay off “inveterate” gambling debts, Goldner sells half interest in Tico, Rama and Gee to “mob associate” Joe Kolsky.
1957: Goldner and Kolsky partner with “mob associate” Morris Levy to start a new label. They call it Roulette (surely proving somebody–God perhaps–was not lacking for a sense of mordant humor). A few months later, Goldner, to pay more gambling debts, sells his interest in Roulette, plus his remaining interests in Tico, Rama and Gee, to Levy.
1957: After selling all his interests in the four successful labels he had already founded, Goldner begins two new labels. The first is called Gone. The second is called End. They are also successful.
1962: The inveterate gambler sells Gone and End. To Morris Levy.
1964: Goldner begins one last venture, becoming a founding partner, with Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller (two of the very few record men who were as accomplished as he was), in Red Bird records and its Blue Cat subsidiary. Like all of Goldner’s other labels, this one has hit records, makes lots of money.
1966: Leiber and Stoller are offered one dollar for their interest in Red Bird and Blue Cat. It is an offer they can’t refuse. Technically, they sell to Goldner, who promptly turns over his interest to Levy….to cover his inveterate gambling debts.
1970: Goldner dies of a heart attack.
1990: Morris Levy dies of cancer, two months before he is scheduled to report to prison, following conviction on two counts of conspiracy to commit extortion. The investigation which ultimately led to his conviction was begun as “ investigation into the alleged infiltration of organized crime into the record business.”. Of course it had.
Books have been written about this stuff (I just started Tommy James’ autobiography where he evidently describes his own relationship with Levy at length). There’s even an off-Broadway play about Goldner’s life.
But “The George Goldner Story”–and a large part of the history of corruption in modern America–really is in those first six label names.
The loss was certainly not Goldner’s alone.
In the decade when the rock revolution’s enduring archetypes were being formed–roughly 1955 to 1965–there were four truly great sixteen-and-under vocalists.
One of them, Brenda Lee, ended up having a long run of hits and a mighty career as one of America’s greatest (if most unsung) vocalists.
The other three–Frankie Lymon, Arlene Smith and Mary Weiss–recorded for labels owned, in whole or part, by George Goldner.
They did not have careers.
I’ll be writing more about Goldner and his most famous protege–one Phil Spector–in the coming days. I just wanted to provide a little background for what I’ll have to say then.
For now I’ll just reiterate.
People make history.
Nothing happens in a vacuum.