Category Archives: Jackie Wilson’s death

Jackie’s death (4): “Think about me”

JW leather stage wearThere is a bootleg recording, reputedly from Jackie Wilson’s last complete concert, captured just days before he collapsed. The audio file may be his last recorded spoken words and the last recorded notes he sang.

If so, it testifies to how great Jackie was at the end, because the medley surrounding “Lonely Teardrops” is outstanding, the ethereal performance of “Doggin’ Around” is one of his most memorable, and the few lines he sings from “My Way” contain some of the sweetest notes you will ever hear.

However, his words just before singing that bit of “My Way” are chilling for listeners who know what happened:

You know, ladies and gentlemen, it’s a pleasure to be back, like I said, and God knows I hope to be back in the near future, very soon. Thank you very much. In the meanwhile, may I say . . . whatever goes up . . . has a tendency . . . most time . . . to come down. Now we all know that. We also know that what goes around eventually comes around. But I’d like to say that nobody . . . but nobody . . . does anything wrong . . . unless . . . they want to do it. By the same token, no one does anything right . . . unless . . . they want to do it. Think about me, and I’ll be damned if I won’t think about you. Listen . . .

You know, I planned each charted course,
And, oh Lord, I traveled each and every highway and byway,
Ah, but more, much more, much more, much more, oh, oh, oh Lord, much more than this

[spoken: Ha, ha, ha, ha]
I did it my . . . [spoken: I love you] . . . wa-ay.

Powerful people wanted Jackie Wilson forgotten, but we have the power to preserve his memory. Let’s think about Jackie and love him as he loved us, his fans.

Jackie Wilson’s death (3): Brunswick and Tarnopol

IMG_0255Jackie Wilson collapsed September 29,1975,
deep in debt to his record company, Brunswick, for
“recoupments” on the many recordings he had made
for them. [Note: Check here for an introduction to
how recording contracts work for contemporary
artists—and remember that things were much worse
from the artist’s standpoint in Jackie’s day.] Jackie also
owed a staggering sum in back taxes to the Internal
Revenue Service, taxes he believed his manager,
Nat Tarnopol, had filed and paid on his behalf.

Off to Chicago. At the time of Jackie’s collapse
he had not had a major hit record in eight years.
He was trapped recording with Carl Davis in Chicago
and unhappy with the material he had to record. Furthermore, he had had an adversarial
relationship with Nat Tarnopol for many years, and by some accounts, Nat was no longer
technically Jackie’s manager.

Those accounts hold that Gaetano Vastola, a New Jersey mobster of the DeCavalcante
crime family and the gangster most closely associated with the recording industry, had
terminated Jackie’s management contract with Nat but left Jackie under contract to record
for Brunswick. If so, this was a distinction without a difference, as by now Nat Tarnopol
owned Brunswick.

Whether Tarnopol or Vastola made the decision to have Jackie record in Chicago is not known,
but it was necessary. Each time Jackie tried to enter New York City, Harlean Harris (tipped off to Jackie’s whereabouts by Nat Tarnopol) had Jackie picked up by the police for non-payment of support. Jackie was chronically short of funds at this point and at the mercy of Nat for what were termed “advancements,” although what was owed to Jackie and what Jackie owed were
dubious concepts, as pointed out in the ABC 20/20 story referenced below.

The “feds” take interest in the record business. Jackie’s heart attack (or stroke) occurred
as federal law enforcement agents were breathing down the necks of Nat Tarnopol and other
Brunswick executives for a variety of violations of the law. This video of an ABC 20/20 episode displays some of the legal documents at roughly the 6:00 mark as their reporter relates
the following:

Shortly before Wilson’s collapse in 1975, Nat Tarnopol and other Brunswick record executives were indicted for tax evasion and mail fraud in a bribery and payola scandal. Among other things, it was charged that Brunswick record artists, and Jackie Wilson was far and away the most popular, were defrauded of royalties, the money they were supposed to earn from sales of their records.

According to the indictment, Brunswick made hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of record shipments that were never put on the books, so the artists were never paid royalties on them. In essence, it was alleged that the same company that had run up debts in Wilson’s name was also cheating him out of the money he could have used to help pay them back.

Nat Tarnopol was convicted in 1976. A federal appeals court overturned the conviction eighteen months later, but the judges took pains to add in their opinion that they were satisfied there was evidence from which a jury could find that Brunswick artists had been defrauded.

A jury never got the chance to evaluate that evidence because a second trial never took place. And even if one had, Jackie Wilson would have been incapable of taking action or testifying because he lay in a nursing home, brain damaged from his collapse.

Specifically, there was no one who could have testified at either trial with anything close to
Jackie’s experience with and knowledge of Brunswick. There were not many artists on the
Brunswick label to begin with, and many of those had been associated with the label for only
short amounts of time. LaVern Baker was in the midst of her nearly two-decade stay in The Philippines, where many believed she was hiding to keep out of reach of underworld figures.
Once Jackie was eliminated, only Eugene Record of The Chi-Lites, associated with the Chicago
office of Brunswick (run by Carl Davis), was available.

How serious was the indictment of Brunswick’s executives? A successful prosecution of Brunswick’s executives could have opened the door to convicting Vastola himself as well as
his close friend and business associate, Morris Levy (“the godfather of the record industry”).
You will find Levy described elsewhere on this blog in the context of Tommy James’s book.
Levy was the head of Roulette Records, and Tarnopol was a Levy associate as well as being
a friend of Vastola.

Levy and Vastola were under investigation by federal authorities for many, many years before
they were ultimately charged as a result of an investigation into “cutout” deals (selling records
off the books without paying artist royalties—the very thing the judges noted in Tarnopol’s
appeal). In his memoir, Tommy James stated that Morris Levy was so contemptuous of the
Internal Revenue Service that he gave them their own office space at Roulette Records in
the late 1960s and had his accountant hand the IRS boys “some set of books” on an almost
daily basis.

In short, not only did the Brunswick executives have reason to worry about their impending
indictments: so did a number of others.

Nat had Jackie insured for a million dollars. Although Jackie Wilson no longer made hit
records, he had some value to Nat Tarnopol. Carl Davis told Tony Douglas, Jackie’s biographer,
that shortly after Jackie’s collapse, he (Carl) requested that Nat provide funds for equipment
for the Chicago office. Nat told him to hold off on the request a bit until Jackie died. At that time,
Nat assured Carl, “Our pockets will get the mumps.”

[Note: At some point I will post on Carl Davis’s memoir. Davis felt that Nat Tarnopol wanted to make him the “fall guy,” and he quickly protected himself by getting separate legal representation from the others listed in the indictment. There is a letter from Davis on the Internet that is very supportive of Tarnopol. The material in the letter was repudiated in the memoir, which Davis published as he reached the terminal stages of lung disease.]

Would Jackie have testified? The longstanding rumor relating Jackie to the legal proceedings stems from Jackie’s tax debt, reported to have been anything up to a quarter million dollars. Many believe Jackie agreed to testify against Brunswick in exchange for avoiding prosecution and years in prison for tax evasion.

Tony Douglas wrote that Jackie’s wife, Lynn, said that at the time of his collapse, Jackie had been subpoenaed to appear before a grand jury.

Next: Jackie Wilson’s death (4): Natural causes

Jackie Wilson’s death (2): Harlean Harris

Background note: If you want to see photos of Harlean Harris, check here, here and here. There are a number of photos of other young Black models that are at times labeled as Harlean. The stepladder photos and the Jet cover are really her, as she looked a few years after Jackie first met her, when he was eighteen and she was probably sixteen. Harlean’s age is a mystery in itself: note that the stepladder photos are from the same photo session, but Harlean is a different age in the two photos. Jackie had just joined The Dominoes when they met, and Harlean, whom Jackie called “Harris,” was one of the co-presidents of the Billy Ward and His Dominoes Fan Club . . . along with Juanita Jones, who years later shot Jackie twice in the abdomen as he tried to wrest a gun from her hands.

Juanita was not aiming for Jackie. Her intended target was Harlean.

The shooting took place in 1961, outside Jackie’s New York City apartment, where he was bringing Harlean home in the wee hours after what turned out to be the “Valentine’s Day Date From Hell.” Police reports, by the way, listed Juanita as twenty-eight. It’s not unlikely that Harlean was closer to that age than the twenty-three or twenty-four she claimed to be at that time.

Jackie’s estate. When Jackie Wilson collapsed, he was deeply in debt to Brunswick, his record label, for “recoupments” on the many hit recordings he made for them. (Check here for an introduction to how recording contracts work for contemporary artists—and remember that things were much worse from the artist’s standpoint in Jackie’s day.) Jackie also owed a staggering sum in back taxes to the Internal Revenue Service.

Why would anyone fight for control of such an estate, an estate that consisted of no valuables, no bank accounts, no known assets whatever? At the time of his death, there was no reason to assume that much money would come from the piddling royalties that would be owed to the estate on any future sales of Jackie’s recordings, given that Tarnopol claimed Jackie owed Brunswick so much money.

The most obvious reason to fight for control of the estate was, of course, to control access to information about the status and history of Jackie Wilson’s financial affairs.

Jackie’s domestic life. At the time of his collapse in late 1975, Jackie considered Lynn Crochet his wife. According to his major biographer, Tony Douglas, Jackie lived with Lynn in Detroit and ultimately in Georgia, where the couple had purchased land to build a kennel so that dog-loving Jackie could enjoy his retirement from show business as a small businessman, breeding Malenois.

Jackie Wilson singing a duet with Shirley Ellis
Jackie Wilson singing a duet with Shirley Ellis

It is noteworthy that Jackie was looking into retirement at age forty-one. Jackie and Lynn had two small children, one born in 1972 and another born in 1975, less than two months prior to Jackie’s collapse.

On the other hand, Jackie and Harlean Harris had been separated at least seven years at the time of his collapse, and they were neither friends nor even friendly throughout those years.

Jackie’s relationship with Harlean Harris had ended acrimoniously after little more than a year of their marriage, which had taken place in 1967. Jackie had left their apartment for good upon finding evidence that convinced him that Harlean was conducting an affair with his manager, Nat Tarnopol, and he never saw Harlean or their son (born in 1964) again after the breakup.

Although a financial agreement had been established by a court (allowing Harris to have Jackie arrested for non-payment of support any time he entered New York City), the final divorce degree was never granted, providing the legal loophole employed to establish Harlean Harris as Jackie’s wife and widow.

In such circumstances, no contemporary American court would recognize Harlean Harris as Jackie’s wife, putting Jackie’s physical well being in the control of an adversary. Why did it
happen back then?

To some degree, race could have been part of the decision-making process or at least a justification for the decision. Historically, it was a time when there were public debates about whether white couples should be permitted to adopt black children, and many Blacks were angered by celebrities of their own race dating or marrying whites. Indeed, many Blacks were angered when any of their race even dated whites. Harlean Harris was black. Lynn Crochet was white.

If there were no assets, what would Harlean Harris achieve by being declared Jackie’s wife? Any child support or alimony owed her would still be owed to her as an ex-wife, so what was her interest in being legally named Jackie’s wife?

One answer would be vanity, grabbing a last chance at the spotlight. Harris had once been a model, a stunningly beautiful young woman. However, by the time of Jackie’s collapse, Harlean Harris’s once-spectacular looks were deteriorating. In a photo taken of her with a celebrity helping to raise money for Jackie’s medical bills, she appears plump and unhealthy. Photos taken at Jackie’s funeral show Harlean fat, frumpy, and looking far older than the number of years she claimed to be.

Another possibility would be that Harlean Harris was thrust into a role she didn’t choose for herself. Perhaps she was made an offer that she could not refuse.

Harris could not afford the legal battles she undertook, so she must have had financial backers. Maybe her family helped out there—a wealthy aunt, or a generous sister . . . or possibly even a solicitous godfather?

Part Three of this series will address Brunswick and Jackie’s notorious manager, Nat Tarnopol.

Jackie Wilson’s death (1): An ugly mystery

Beautiful man, beautiful voice . . . silenced

Beautiful man, beautiful voice . . . silenced

Jackie Wilson died a terrible, slow death, dropping to
the stage floor mid-performance as a result of what
has been variously described as a heart attack or
stroke, and then surviving another eight years in a
state of living death, severely brain damaged. From
the time of his collapse, he was unable to speak or
walk, and he remained helpless in the hands of others.

Trapped in institutions labeled “care facilities” and
“nursing homes,” Jackie suffered neglect, abuse, or
both. Legal actions taken by his court-appointed
guardians cut off rehabilitative therapies whenever it
appeared he could recover.

A few who loved him, most notably Joyce Moore, then known as Joyce McRae, struggled and sacrificed to help him. These few were defeated by a coalition with the substantial financial resources needed to make use of New Jersey courts to undermine Jackie’s medical care and general well being. They established Harlean Harris as Jackie’s “wife” and ultimately his widow. They eventually barred Joyce McRae and Jackie’s real wife from even visiting him. And, of course, they took control of Jackie’s estate.

This blog. So far I have concentrated this blog mostly on positive topics related to Jackie Wilson: his journey to stardom, his relationships with other artists, the incredible recordings he left behind, and his legendary status as a live performer.

As the months have passed since I began the blog last summer, I have felt with increasing conviction that many people now want Jackie Wilson’s death discussed. I see this reflected on the blog’s “stats” page, which shows the search terms that have been employed to reach the blog.

I want to assure readers that I will continue highlighting the upbeat side of Jackie’s life story and celebrating the magnificent music he left us. However, beginning with this entry, there will also be a number of posts recounting the facts concerning Jackie Wilson’s death and posing the questions that have never been answered.

The next part of this series is Jackie Wilson’s Death: Harlean Harris.