Jackie 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
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
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
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