The Mobster, The Who, and the LAW
A True Story by Steven Acker
PART ONE: LAW MEETS THE SCARFACE OF PORN
It was 1975 and my band, LAW, had acquired a sizable following in Atlanta. We’d been playing all the hotspots for years—Alex Cooley’s Electric Ballroom, Richard’s, The Fox Theater, Funnochio’s, Grant’s Lounge in Macon. They called Atlanta at that time “Hot ‘Lanta,” and throughout the early 70's Atlanta was burnin', indeed.
It was time for LAW to make a record. Warner Brothers and Capitol Records had already passed on the band, so when an independent Atlanta label called GRC (General Recording Corporation) offered us a three-album deal that included $35,000 tour support money to promote the first album, we jumped at it.
We’d heard rumors about the label’s owner, Michael Thevis, but our ambition had rendered us deaf, dumb, and blind, I suppose. Thevis was spending money like he was picking it off trees, hiring top label executives from New York and L.A. to run the company, building a state-of-the-art studio in Atlanta he called The Sound Pit, throwing money at his artists as if GRC was MCA. He lived in an ostentatious mansion called Lion’s Gate (which baseball great Dave Justice later purchased for his new bride, Halle Berry). He was top-of-the-line all the way.
We didn’t really know—or maybe we didn’t care—that all that money had come from Thevis’ Empire of Porn. Thevis was a gangster, pure and simple. But he was our gangster. When he hosted a party for the band at Lion’s Gate, he had cold Coors Beer flown in from Colorado (this was long before the modern era of imported beer and micro-breweries). That was a true symbol of affluence back then. Quite impressive.
Born in Raleigh, NC in 1932 and raised by his Greek Orthodox grandparents, Thevis studied engineering at Georgia Tech University before dropping out in 1950 to operate an Atlanta newsstand. He married, fathered three children, and struggled to make ends meet while continuing to run the newsstand. When he realized that his most profitable magazine was Playboy he started selling other “skin mag’s.” In 1967 he founded the black-market Pendulum Press, publishing his own hardcore books and magazines. Among them were the novels Raped in the Grass and Bye, Bye Broadie, credited to the pseudonymous Donna D. Dildo, who was later revealed as the pen name of Ed Wood, Jr., the cult filmmaker behind the low-budget landmark film, Plan 9 from Outer Space.
As the enterprise grew, Thevis partnered with mobster and fellow pornographer Kenny "The Jap" Hanna, whose underworld connections fueled Pendulum's expansion into hardcore bondage, rape, bestiality, and even child pornography. Hanna ultimately introduced Thevis to Roger Dean Underhill, a low-ranking foot soldier in New York City's notorious Gambino crime family. Together, Thevis and Underhill founded Automatic Enterprises and Cinematics to manufacture and distribute peep show machines to bars and sex shops across the U.S. As profits accelerated Thevis became one of the Gambinos' most valued and influential associates, even attending family summits alongside "made" members.
Nevertheless, Thevis soon ran afoul of Urban Industries founder Nat Bailen, who first developed peep booths in the early '60s as a means to exhibit kiddie cartoons. Bailen publicly assailed Thevis for transforming his brainchild into a vehicle to peddle smut. When the Urban Industries manufacturing site burned to the ground in April 1970, investigators concluded the fire was an act of arson. After Hanna was found murdered that November, Thevis emerged as a prime suspect.
The subsequent FBI investigation determined he was by this time responsible for roughly 40 percent of the legal and black-market pornography distributed across the U.S. Thevis by this time controlled more than 400 adult bookstores and X-rated movie theaters, generating an annual income in excess of $100 million. His response to news of the federal investigation was to establish a handful of legitimate businesses as fronts for his illicit pursuits, including the music distribution firm General Recording Corp. and its attendant record labels GRC, Aware, and Hotlanta.
Regardless of Thevis' motivations for entering the music industry, GRC and Sound Pit Studio on Atlanta's Simpson Street became a dominant force in the thriving local R&B scene of the early '70s, yielding a series of minor hits like Ripple's "Dance Lady Dance," Dorothy Norwood's "Let Your Feet Down Easy," and the Rhodes Kids' "I Need Your Lovin'." Even more notable was Hotlanta, which issued material by soul cult favorites like Loleatta Holloway, Frederick Knight, King Hannibal, and Sam Dees. GRC scored its biggest hit via country singer/songwriter Sammy Johns, whose country hit "Chevy Van" sold three million copies in 1975.
It was at this point that LAW came to Michael Thevis’ attention. It was a brief courtship. He signed the band almost immediately after seeing us perform at Richard’s in Atlanta, and in June 1975 we recorded our first album at the Sound Pit. Our manager, Gary LoConti, had recruited Miami’s Ron and Howard Albert to produce the album.
The Howard Brothers had been serving as chief engineers at Criteria, where they engineered Derek and the Dominoes' “Layla,” among other now-classic albums by CSN&Y and others. But as producers, they left much to be desired. I remember Howard complaining to me how sick he was of guitars; all those guitar tracks on Layla had soured him on the instrument. So rather than produce LAW as the hard-rockin' guitar band we were, they added the Memphis Horns and a string section to many of our tracks. The album sounded not at all like LAW on stage. Still, as I look back on it and listen to some of those tracks, I am proud that the greatest horn section in the history of modern music added its touch to our music. The arrangements are impeccable.
Unknown to us, by the time we had completed the album, Michael Thevis' empire was already in free fall. In 1973, Roger Dean Underhill was arrested during a routine traffic stop that yielded a cache of stolen guns. The FBI offered him leniency in exchange for information on Thevis. Underhill revealed in a sworn affidavit that Thevis had ordered the fire that destroyed Urban Industries, and admitted his culpability in Thevis' executions of Hanna and Cinematics employee James Mayes, who was killed for the crime of seeking a pay raise.
Just as our album was to be released, Readers' Digest published a cover story about Thevis, labeling him "The Porno King." Federal Marshalls arrested Thevis on a variety of federal charges and threw him in Lexington Federal Prison to await trial. Thevis arranged to have LAW perform a concert at the prison in August 1975. It was a surreal event, the first and only time I ever saw the inside of a prison. We played outdoors on a beautiful, sunny afternoon, with Thevis smiling and bobbing his head to the music at a picnic table in front of us.
Three months later, with GRC in shambles and all the rats abandoning ship, we found ourselves playing on Thanksgiving Night 1975 at a Tampa, Florida disco. Our album was dead. Thevis had lost all interest in the company and all his money was going to his defense. We were all depressed and discouraged when we left our hotel for the gig, and even more so when we returned.
The following year, Thevis was sentenced to eight years and six months in prison for conspiracy to commit arson and distribution of obscene materials and ordered to pay $650,000 to Nat Bailen, Urban Industries' staff, and its insurance company. Underwood personally testified during the trial. Prior to entering prison, Thevis and attorney Joel Katz (today one of the nation's most powerful entertainment lawyers) sold GRC to Thevis' secretary Laverne Bowden. The label's copyrights and publishing are presumably owned now by Atlanta publishing firm Ginn Music Group, although the rights remain in dispute.
Personally, I don't care. If Ginn Music should ever come after me for marketing LAW's material from the GRC album, I'll just tell them. "Fuhgeddaboutit."
In 1977, while still incarcerated in Lexington, Thevis was indicted in Florida on various charges under the RICO act. He later made national headlines by escaping from prison in 1978, immediately earning a spot on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list. Though the target of an international manhunt, Thevis somehow tracked down Underhill, killing him and his associate Isaac Galanti with a shotgun. Police apprehended Thevis soon after those murders. While awaiting trial in Florida, he reportedly bragged of the killings to his fellow inmates, and his cellmate repeated the information to authorities.
In 1980 Thevis was convicted on murder charges, receiving a sentence of 28 years to life. Denied parole in 1999, Thevis remains to this day confined in Oak Park Heights Correctional Facility, a sprawling underground penitentiary outside of Minneapolis.
PART TWO: ENTER ROGER DALTREY THANKSGIVING EVE, 1975.
LAW was playing that night at a Tampa, Florida disco. We were quite discouraged because our first album had just bombed completely. GRC had paid us a $35,000 signing bonus, we had recorded a good album, and we thought we were on our way to the big time.
As Michael Thevis’ legal troubles mounted, his focus on GRC Records had waned. With the label’s distribution deals in disarray, our album was virtually invisible. That was the situation we faced as we prepared to play that disco that of 1975. There we were in Tampa with no albums in its record shops, and no fans clamoring for our non-existent hits.
I spoke that afternoon with my girlfriend in Atlanta, Kathy Sullivan. She was excited because our friend (and former roadie), Jack Williams, had been invited to Roger Daltrey’s suite at the Atlanta Hilton, and he had invited her to go with him. The Who was staying there for a week, flying out to various gigs in the Southeast and returning the same night to Atlanta.
Jack knew how to hustle and he had somehow insinuated himself into the Who’s inner circle, especially with Roger Daltrey himself. He was also an aspiring songwriter and had co-written one of the loveliest songs on the GRC album. Daltrey invited Jack to bring his tape to the hotel for a listen because he was planning to record a solo album at some point. I told Kathy to enjoy herself and tell me all about it later.
We played the gig that night and returned to our hotel. It was a miserable experience--a disco, complete with mirrored ball and flashing floor lights. Someone asked us to play “Do the Hustle.” Instead, we hustled our asses out of there as soon as we could.
Back at the hotel, the phone rang in my room. It was Kathy and she was beside herself. “You’re never going to believe it!” she squealed, “you’re never going to believe it! Roger Daltrey heard your album and he wants to sign LAW to the Who’s production company.”
You can imagine how incredible that sounded! The WHO was at the top of their game in 1975. I had seen them perform once and it was the greatest concert I had ever witnessed (with the possible exception of Jimi Hendrix). They were personal heroes of mine, and here their lead singer was talking about signing the band to a deal. We had done shows with quite a few national acts like Bob Segar, Alice Cooper, and many others. I was acquainted with many "stars." But this was THE WHO! Hell, that very week, Roger Daltrey was on the cover of People Magazine!
Somehow--I don’t recall the specific sequence of events--LAW’s manager, Gary LoConti, was put in touch the next day with the Who’s manager, Bill Curbishley (he still manages the Who to this day).
Needless to say, our mood turned from despair that night to great hope in a matter of seconds. It was really quite unbelievable. But what actually happened in Daltrey’s suite is even more improbable and amazing. This is how it went down:
Jack and Kathy went together to the Hilton. Kathy lingered in the lobby while Jack was admitted to Daltrey’s suite carrying a boom box with his songwriting demo cassette tape inserted and ready to go. He hit the play button, but instead of Jack’s demo, the music that poured out those boom-box speakers was the first track on our first album, “The Old Days Are Gone.” Jack had cued the tape to the wrong spot!
He quickly stopped the tape, but Daltrey said, “Hold on there, I want to hear that.” After listening to the entire album, Daltrey called in both his manager and Pete Townshend to hear it, and they were, as Jack tells it, equally impressed. Daltrey did eventually hear Jack’s songs and signed him to his first publishing deal. But that night was LAW’s Big Moment.
As I say, the sequence of events at that point has not been retained in my memory bank, but it is probable that I called Gary LoConti n Cleveland, who then called Bill Curbishly in Atlanta. Curbishley asked Gary if he and a representative of the band could meet him in two days in Chicago. As it happened, we had the next day off to travel from Tampa to Huntington, West Virginia for our next gig. It was decided that our bass player, John McIver, and I would fly to Chicago to meet up with Gary, Curbishly, and Daltrey. We met them in Curbishly’s suite the afternoon of our gig in Huntington. We had tickets to fly from O’Hare Airport to Charleston, W.V. and get to Huntington just in time for the gig.
Daltrey and Curbishley couldn’t have been nicer. They liked the band a lot and wanted to see us perform live. So they added us to their upcoming show in Cincinnati, December 6th, 1975 (this was the same arena where, a few years later, 11 people would be killed in a stampede at another Who concert). Cincinnati was not one of LAW’s strongholds. We’d played there a few times, but our closest real following was in Columbus. Fortunately, many of those followers attended the concert, and we felt like we were playing at home. Toots and the Maytals, a Jamaican reggae band, opened the show. They were not received well. In fact, they were booed. I was appalled. I thought they were great. Would they boo us, as well?
They didn’t. In fact, we put on one of our most powerful shows. We had the entire arena standing and dancing by our last number.
LAW, at that point, was a 4-piece band consisting of Ronnie Lee Cunningham on lead vocals and keyboards, John McIver on bass, Steve Lawrence on drums, and myself on guitar. Tom Poole, who played on the GRC album, was a capable drummer, but he didn’t play with the amazing energy and intensity we once had with our first drummer, Steve Lawrence. Between the release of the album and that first Who show, Steve had returned to the band, replacing Tom Poole.
Frankly (if somewhat immodestly) we kicked ass live. The Who were impressed. We primed their audience and worked them into a frenzy before the band even took to the stage. So they added us to several other shows in the coming month or two as Gary LoConti and Bill Curbishley started talking terms.
The idea was that Curbishley and Daltrey would first sign LAW to their company Goldhawke Productions, then, in turn, sign us to their label, MCA. They would buy out our contract with GRC Records in Atlanta and put us in a studio to record our second album with an advance to cover our expenses while recording.
Curbishley also laid down “the law,” in one regard. We were not, under any circumstance, to give Keith Moon any drugs, period. If he asked, we were to sidestep the question or risk being thrown off the tour. Sure enough, the first time I spoke with Keith he asked me if I had any coke. I told him I did not (and I didn’t), and he called me a “fucking wanker.” I retorted that I had neither fucked nor wanked for several days--would he please send his rejects my way? He laughed at that and we became buds. From that point on Keith went out of his way to say hello and chat at every show. But he never did set me up to get laid! His girlfriend (later to become his wife) had joined the tour and he was being a good boy.
It took a couple of months to finalize our contract with Goldhawke Productions. We started to write material in the spring of ’76 for our first album on MCA. But there was still something missing. Ronnie Lee was a great front man, but he was stuck behind the keyboards most of the time and he was also suffering from vocal cord problems and could no longer sing for an entire night. So we decided to find another singer to share vocal duties with Ronnie Lee and provide another focal point on stage.
As a temporary stop-gap measure, we brought in a Pittsburgh singer, B.E. Taylor, to augment Ronnie’s vocals. B.E. was (and still is) a great singer but he had his own solo career; it was not intended to be a permanent partnership. [NOTE: Sadly, B.E. passed away in 2016 from brain cancer].
Our producers, Ron and Howard Albert from Criteria Studios in Miami, suggested a couple of candidates whom we listened to and passed on. Then they came up with Roy Kenner, who had replaced Joe Walsh in the James Gang along with Toronto guitarist Dominic Troiono, then later Tommy Bolin. The James Gang had finally split up and Roy was living in Toronto, at large.
We all liked his singing and liked his looks so it was decided that I would fly to Toronto, “interview” Roy, and make a decision based on my impression of him. I liked Roy immediately and he liked the new demos I played for him, so I officially invited Roy to move to Ohio and join the band. He accepted the offer. LAW, which was originally a 3-piece power trio, was now a 5-piece, high-energy, funk-rock band. Somehow, through all the changes we had made over the years, we held on to our fan base in Ohio, PA, Atlanta, Detroit, New York and Florida and retained the charismatic stage presence and stadium-rock energy we’d had from the beginning.
So we started working harder than ever to expand our fan base. We still had several WHO shows to play. Roger Daltrey and Bill Curbishley approved of the changes in the band and we all looked forward to recording our album at Miami’s famed Criteria Studios. It was the summer of ’76 and it was sweltering in Miami. Our manager, Gary LoConti, arranged for us to stay at the same house on 461 Ocean Boulevard that Eric Clapton had stayed in and named his “comeback” album for. It was right on the beach, roomy and quite comfortable. We contracted with a catering service called Home-at-Last to cook our meals and wash our clothes and keep the house in order.
One thing we noticed is that the palm tree Clapton stands next to on the 461 Ocean Boulevard album cover was gone. Howard Albert told us that the man who used to own the house planted that tree way back in the 30s and that just after he died in late ’74, the tree suddenly died, as well.
Several times we had good-looking girls knocking on our door “looking for Eric.” We invited them in and that led to all kinds of rock and roll memories. One day, we met Neil Young at the studio and brought him back to 461 for dinner. I also met Bob Marley and Rod Stewart during our stay there.
All in all, it was an exhilarating three weeks. With the album in the can (but not yet mixed) we went to Jacksonville to play the Gator Bowl with the Who, LaBelle and Black Oak Arkansas. My two brothers came to that show from Jackson, Mississippi and I was so proud that they got to see the band at its peak and to meet the Who, as well. Pete Townsend was particularly affable that day. We then went back to Miami with the Who and Black Oak for a show at Yankee Stadium.
The next day we went back to Criteria. Daltrey and Curbishley were to meet us there that afternoon to listen to the rough mixes. They never made it, though, because Keith Moon had gone berserk in his suite at the Fontainebleau Hotel that day and severely cut himself on the bathroom mirror. They found him passed out in a pool of blood and rushed him to the hospital.
As it turned out, LAW’s connection with the Who did not bear commercial fruit. The album “Breakin’ It” contained a few gems, but it fell between the cracks for radio programmers--to0 white for black R&B stations and too black for white AOR (album-0riented-rock) stations. The first single was “The Shelter of Your Arms,” written by yours truly. It garnered a good review on Billboard and broke into the Top 100. Dick Clark played it once on American Bandstand and the audience gave it a good rating. Our producers, Ron and Howard Albert, wanted to produce a disco album a la KC and the Sunshine Band. They imposed their preconceived notions on the band and it just didn’t work as well as it might have. They under-produced my guitar tracks and overproduced the sweeteners—horns and strings. The material itself, while powerful on stage, didn’t translate well into commercial, radio-ready tracks. Some of the songs were weak.
In retrospect, we should have found and recorded a few outside songs, as many chart-toppers of the day did. We should have found some hits. There was no question that we could play our asses off. With the right song, we might have achieved what our friends in Wild Cherry achieved with “Play That Funky Music,” which was released about the same time “Breakin’ It” was released.
Gary LoConti tells me now that there were also political forces within MCA Records and Goldhawke Productions that conspired to hold the record back--changes in key personnel, for instance. I didn’t know much about that at the time. We were fairly oblivious to the business side of things. Oh, if I only knew then…. At any rate, the band continued to tour, opening for major acts and also playing small theaters and large clubs around the country as headliners. It would be another year-and-a-half and one more album before I finally quit the band on December 6, 1977, after our final show with Golden Earring at Keil Auditorium in St. Louis.
Three days later, I flew from Columbus to Jackson, Mississippi. My family had moved there in 1972 when my dad was promoted to the position of Director of Southern Operations for General Motors’ Packard Electric Division. In Mississippi, I started a whole new life. It would be 31 years before I returned again to Ohio.