When coins and gum called the tune

jukeboxWhen it comes to popular music royalties, things don’t change so much for staying the same. The recent launchings of Neil Young’s Pono and the celebrity musician subscription service Tidal evidence growing efforts by writers and performers to retain a greater share of what their work generates. Anyone old enough to remember renting a favorite song by dropping a coin in a slot instead of paying for Pandora or buying an iTune knows at least one sad story about young artists being cheated.

When American pop songwriters, singers and musicians weren’t being robbed by shady producers and record companies, they were often being jerked around by the Mafia—Jersey Boys is not an isolated case of mob influence over the artists and the recording industry. The mob even had a piece of those once ubiquitous jukebox machines that spun popular music at every malt shop, quick-service counter, bar, lounge, and café.

In San Diego, the man who controlled the machines and used the cash business to wash income derived from illegal sources was none other than local mob chief Frank Bompensiero.

In exchange for his unquestioning performance as an assassin for the Los Angeles branch of organized crime that controlled San Diego, the mob awarded Bompensiero—among other legal fronts—the Gold Rail Steak House, an unlicensed bar that sold no food, and a partnership in Maestro Music Company, which leased jukeboxes throughout town.

In her book, A Bad, Bad Boy, Judith Moore offers an insightful anecdote about how Bompensiero came to dominate the business:

“We go in and tell [business operators using non-Maestro machines], ‘(w)e got a better jukebox, more players.’” If the business indicated it was happy with the machines it had, Bompensiero told his daughter: “Pretty soon the jukeboxes don’t work anymore.” Moore then relates how Bompensiero sent his people in with gum and slugs to ruin the competing players.

No matter percentage the artists may have received for tunes played on jukeboxes, Bompensiero and the mob made certain to get theirs.

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