Groundbreaking popular-music labels, Motown Records and Philly Groove Records, both got a boost in their business dealings due to their respective underworld connections, according to federal documents and confidential informant files. The “Motown Sound” and “Philly Soul Sound” redefined the pop charts in the 1960s and early 1970s, ushering in a new era where “Black” music morphed into mainstream music. Per government records, Motown-founder Berry Gordy used a loan from the Italian mafia in Detroit as part of his seed money to start what became his transcendent R&B empire and Philly Groove founder John (Stan the Man) Watson utilized muscle provided by the notoriously-brutal Black Mafia in Philadelphia to grow and sustain his label through intimidation tactics.

Hounded by rumors of mob links during the early-portion of his career as a songwriter, producer and fledgling record-label owner, Gordy, 86, has always vehemently denied any ties to the underworld. One confidential informant file from a Michigan State Police dossier claims Gordy took a mid-sized loan of a few thousand dollars from the Detroit mafia’s Meli crew in 1959 in which he used to expand his then-Tamla Records to the Motown label and several more subsequent labels under the Motown banner. The informant told his MSP handler that Gordy made back the money fast and repaid the Meli family by the end of 1960.

Motown spawned mega-successful acts like the Temptations, the Four Tops, Smokey Robinson & The Miracles, Diana Ross & The Supremes, Michael Jackson & The Jackson 5, Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder. By the time Motown relocated from its’ original headquarters in Gordy’s hometown of Detroit to Los Angeles, he was the preeminent African-American music-&-entertainment mogul in America.

The Meli crew was a powerhouse in mob circles, just as Berry Gordy was in pop culture. Patriarch Angelo (The Chairman) Meli was one of the modern-day Detroit mafia’s founding fathers. He served as the syndicate’s underboss from 1936 until his death of natural causes in 1969. His faction of the Borgata handled labor racketeering.

Angelo Meli

Angelo Meli

Meli’s brother Frank and nephew, Vince, were two of his top lieutenants and heavily involved in the music industry. They co-owned Meltone Music, White Music Company and Jay-Cee Music with fellow Motor City mobsters Michael (Big Mike) Polizzi and Raffaele (Jimmy Q) Quasarano and controlled area distribution of juke boxes as well as maintained leverage in all local club bookings. Both future consiglieres, Polizzi was the crime family’s finance whiz, Quasarano, a noted strong arm, wholesale drug dealer and hitman.

“Little Vince” Meli went on to become capo of the Meli crew and then underboss. The former WWII hero (two Purple Hearts, helped liberate the Nazi concentration camps) lost a bout with cancer in 2008.

Probably the biggest reason Gordy kept getting glimpses from the federal government wasn’t his alleged relationship with the Italians, but rather because of his friendship and business dealings with Edward (Big Foot Eddie) Wingate, a Detroit policy kingpin, mob-backed gambling specialist and prolific legitimate businessman deeply entrenched in the music industry. Beside cop-turned-drug boss Henry (Blaze) Marzette, Wingate was the most prominent African-American underworld figure in the city throughout the 1960s. Per FBI records of the day, Big Foot Eddie’s illegal numbers business was gigantic and spread across every Black neighborhood in town. The whole operation, according to the records, was backed by the Detroit mafia’s Corrado crew (ran by “Machine Gun Pete,” his sons “Fats” and “Tony the Bull” and his cousin “Sparky”).

Among his many business holdings, Wingate owned and ran the trendy Twenty Grand Club, a popular dining and entertainment spot in Detroit where the Motown elite often partied and performed. He also was a Gordy-rival for a period of time, starting Golden World Records in 1962 and then acquiring Ric-Tic Records from a local radio disc jockey shortly thereafter. Gordy bought Wingate out in 1966, purchasing both Golden World and Ric-Tic Records. Big Foot Eddie took a gambling pinch in the 1970s and retired to Las Vegas where he died in 2006.

In response to Berry Gordy and his famed Motown Sound, “Stan the Man” Watson started Philly Groove Records in 1967 and created the Philadelphia Soul Sound, a similarly-styled brand of R&B on the east coast. While if Gordy did indeed maintain ties to the mob they were relatively marginal, Watson’s connections to the underworld were more direct. The federal government considered Stan the Man a highly-placed associate of the Philly Black Mafia.

Watson’s signature act on Philly Groove was The Delfonics, a four-man singing group born and raised in West Philadelphia known as the original pioneers of the Philly Soul Sound. Their 1968 ballad La La (Means I Love You) was a smash hit and sold over a million copies.

The Philly Black Mafia was founded around the same time as Watson’s record label by a group of murderous thugs, racketeers, extortionists and drug peddlers led by Sam Christian and trying to veil their illegal activities under the guise of religion (the Nation of Islam) and community outreach. When Christian was locked up for killing a pair of rivals in an Atlantic City nightclub, Eugene (Bo) Baynes assumed the PBM throne.

Baynes was close friends with Watson and Watson employed him as a road manager, promoter and all-around fixit man. Informants told the FBI that Watson would send Baynes into radio stations to strong arm disc jockeys into playing Philly Groove records. He worked mostly with the Delfonics. According to one federal document, when the group discussed possibly leaving Philly Groove and beginning to collect and book for their own shows in the early 1970s, Baynes stepped in and intimidated Delfonics members into staying and still allowing him and Watson to collect and book on their behalf.

Convicted of various racketeering offenses in 1974, Bo Baynes did 25 years in prison. Believed to have ordered the May 1, 1973 double gangland homicide of Hilton Stroud and Walter Tillman in Camden, New Jersey for stealing a narcotics shipment of his, he died peacefully himself a free man at 73 years old in 2012.

Sean Patrick Griffin’s excellent book Black Brothers, Inc. – The Violent Rise and Fall of Philadelphia’s Black Mafia was consulted for portions of this piece.

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