My Uncles, the (Possibly Unwitting) Gangsters by
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(74 Stories)

Prompted By Aunts & Uncles

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This story is part of my family lore, passed on — and quite possibly embellished — by my mother’s younger brother Paul.  Uncle Paul was quite the raconteur, and also a bit of a wheeler-dealer, so it must be taken with a huge grain of Kosher salt.

The story concerns Uncle Paul and his older brother, Uncle Al, and their adventures as record store owners in Baltimore’s Black community right after their World War II service. Besides having records for sale in the store, they also had a mail order record business. After a while, the store had a weekday afternoon DJ program on WBAL radio, “The 50,000 Watt Clear-Channel Voice of Baltimore.” The brothers bought the air time from WBAL, and rounded up their own advertisers, of whom the store was a primary advertiser. The radio show was the rabbit hole through which the brothers fell unwittingly (or maybe semi-wittingly) into abetting a local gangster, as the following, per Uncle Paul, will describe.

One day, a limousine pulled up in front of the store, and out stepped a man easily identified, in manner and dress, as one of Baltimore’s most powerful Black gangsters. This man came into the store and had a sit-down with the brothers, during which he made a business proposal: he would pay for one half of the air time on their radio show in exchange for which he got to pick the song that was played at a set time each day. He did not elaborate. The brothers were not naïve, but did not understand why the gangster was making the proposal. They accepted the deal, knowing that there had to be a shady side, feeling that their ignorance of the gangster’s motives would keep them in a state of grace and innocence, or at least plausible deniability.

It turned out that the deal was the means by which the gangster, who was the chief of the numbers racket in Baltimore’s Black community, got out the word on the day’s winning number. Whenever the show played a selection from a record that was available from the store by mail order, the announcer would say, “If you liked that tune, you can order it from [the brothers’ store] – just ask for catalog item number 123.” The tune played at the fixed time of day was always on a record whose catalog number matched the winning number of the day.

The scheme apparently unravelled when a maid in the household of the president of WBAL mentioned what was going on to one of the household. It never occurred to her that any beans were being spilled, as the scheme was very common knowledge among the Black community; she assumed that, if she knew it, everyone in Baltimore knew it. Of course, not a single white person in Baltimore, not even my Two Stooges uncles, knew what was going on — or so Uncle Paul would have it. Blacks and Whites in continual close proximity, nothing labelled “CLASSIFIED,” but zero transfer of information that was universally available on one side of the divide.  Unfortunately, my sense is that Baltimore has not progressed all that far in the seventy-plus years since then. (“The Wire” would seem to reinforce that fact.)

In any event, fortunately for the brothers, the gangster learned of the true source of the leak and, thus, that they had not ratted out the scheme.  So the deal just went away without any retribution to be paid by them, as witnessed by the fact that, among other life-affirming activities, they both later produced two cousins each for me. They also went off into other, less suspect and more profitable business ventures.

Two points on the images I have used here.  First, the featured image is simply a stock photo I found online of a 1940’s record store. Unfortunately, I have not found any photos of my uncles’ store and don’t even know what it was called.  My brother tried to investigate this a bit about five years ago when he read somewhere that the father of composer Philip Glass also had a record store in Baltimore’s Black community right after WW II and he reached out to Glass to see if he might have remembered anything about his father’s rival’s business.  But he never heard back

Second, in doing my image “research,” I came across this old advertisement:

This certainly suggests that the idea of record stores owned by Whites that sold Black records was not universally popular in the Black community Back in the Day. I couldn’t agree with the sentiment more.

Profile photo of John Shutkin John Shutkin


Characterizations: right on!, well written

Comments

  1. Wow John, fascinating story of your (possibly unwitting) gangster uncles!
    And here’s something I don’t think I’ve ever told anyone!

    When I was a teenager I remember leaving the local Bronx record store, slamming the glass door behind me. and hearing it shatter! What did I do? I ran home and told no one, certainly not my parents!

    Good thing no gangsters came after me!

    • John Shutkin says:

      Thanks, Dana. I think the statute has wel lrun on your youthful indiscretion, if it was even that. Hell, there aren’t even record stores anymore — other than (of course) a few “retro” ones.

  2. Marian says:

    A very well told story, John, and timely in its way. I loved how your uncles knew something was up but couldn’t tell what it was. It’s both comical and sad that we lived, and still live, in very different worlds depending on the color of our skin.

  3. Suzy says:

    John, this is a great story! The scheme with the winning numbers being given out via a certain record is exactly like the plot of the movie “Bells Are Ringing,” which is a favorite of mine. There it was betting on horses, and the scheme was foiled when the main character “corrected” Beethoven’s Tenth, since she knew there wasn’t one, and messed up the bets. I wonder if the screenwriters got the idea from the Baltimore numbers racket.

    To get back to your uncles, it’s amazing that the entire Black community could know this was going on, and yet not a single white person did. As you say, zero transfer of information between the two sides of the divide. A fascinating social commentary! And here I was expecting just another funny story about clueless uncles.

    • John Shutkin says:

      Thanks so much, Suzy. And you are absolutely right about the plot of “Bells Are Ringing.” Indeed, I know that plot well and am kicking myself for not ever thinking of that myself. As you may recall, there is one great line in the song “It’s A Simple Little System” in which, to the tune of the “Hallelujah Chorus,” one of the schemers sings out “Who is Handel?” and the gamblers sing back: “Hialeah! Hialeah!” (Hialeah is a famous racetrack in Florida.)

      And, yeah, sometimes in the midst of funny stuff some hard truths come out. in fact, a lot of times. (But I plan to discuss that a bit more in next week’s story.)

  4. I could hear the Baldamore accent clear as day, hon.

    Really great story, John!

  5. Love the story John. And the plot line. Don’t know if you were ever a Dorothy Sayers fan but she used the same device in Murder Must Advertise, but it was about drugs, not numbers.

  6. Laurie Levy says:

    What an amusing story, John. I know there was a lot of that type of business going on in post WWII Detroit. Your uncles seeming lack of knowledge about what they were getting into by making these announcements is pretty funny. All of this so reflects a very different era.

    • John Shutkin says:

      Thanks, Laurie. Actually, both uncles were pretty sharp (in several senses of the word). They knew there was something funny, and probably illegal, going on, and just didn’t want to know more.

  7. Betsy Pfau says:

    Great story, John! And thanks to Suzy for pointing out the similarity to the plot of “Bells Are Ringing”. That was a favorite of mine too! And as for Laurie’s reference about Detroit gangsters…well I have a good connection to my story from this week and musicals – how about Nathan Detroit from “Guys and Dolls”? My Uncle Meyer married his secretary, Anna Steinberg. She had two brothers. One named Nathan, I can’t remember the other’s name. They ran the craps game in Detroit and when things got too hot, they’d go over the border into Windsor, Ontario. I was told by Meyer’s grandson that Damon Runyon modeled the character of Nathan Detroit after Meyer’s brother-in-law, Nathan Steinberg!

  8. John Zussman says:

    Another great story, John, as you reveal one more detail of your interesting background. I remember hearing about numbers running in Detroit, but didn’t know much about it until a recent book about it was featured on Fresh Air. I wonder though, if all the black players knew the secret code, didn’t that dilute their winnings? Or were there enough white players that there was plenty of “sucker money” to go around?

    Apparently I had a real-life gangster cousin in the personage of Abe Zussman, a hit man and drug runner known as “Abie the Agent” in Detroit’s infamous Purple Gang in the ’20s. It would make a good story if I knew more about it. Not really part of family lore, for some reason.

    • John Shutkin says:

      Thanks, John. I assume that, if players didn’t know the winning code, they wouldn’t play. Anyhow, you should probably do more research on Abie. And I give him credit for at least being a “witting” gangster, unlike my knucklehead uncles.

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