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Charles Meredith: Music and Mafia

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Dear Friends,

Good morning. Before I get to the Mafia and the Quakertown connection, Here’s a letter from Nancy Lyons about our new friend Harry Branson, the West Rockhill resident who was a navy aircraft carrier fighter pilot during the Vietnam War. In my meeting with Harry several weeks ago, I didn’t realize that he had a classical music hobby.

“Did you discover that Harry is a great opera buff and classical music fan?” Nancy’s letter began. “Harry and Betsy (the name of Harry’s better half) regularly attend Philadelphia Orchestra concerts and the Metropolitan Opera Live in HD performances. Harry has made CD recordings for me on several occasions. Do you think we could call him today’s Renaissance Man?”

Nancy, absolutely. The next time I see Harry, I’ll ask him whether he and his wife attended the last concert that Ricardo Mutti performed as conductor with the Philadelphians. It was Rossini’s famous “Stabat Mater” (Grieving Mother) that Mighty Betsy and I sang with the orchestra’s chorus (The Philadelphia Singers Chorale).

And I wonder whether the Bransons attended Wolfgang Sawallisch’s last orchestra concert, which featured Sawallisch playing the piano in Beethoven’s “Choral Fantasy”? We’ll never forget singing that program, which included Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, the choral symphony also known as “Ode to Joy.”

David Hayes prepared our chorus because he was the conductor of the Philadelphia Singers Chorale. The orchestra used the Philadelphia Singers when it was performing a chorus piece. To conserve his strength, Sawallisch decided to play the “Choral Fantasy” instead of conducting it. So there was David Hayes on the podium with Sawallisch at the piano … and singers.

The “Choral Fantasy” begins with a solo piano … rather like a sonata. But it’s not one of Beethoven’s 32 sonatas. Soon the orchestra appears and the piece becomes a concerto but not one of Beethoven’s five concerti. Finally a quartet joins the melody and the chorus thunders a reply. If you don’t have the “Choral Fantasy” in your collection, be sure to add it. I’d recommend a CD with both the “Choral Fantasy” and Symphony No. 9.

And now to the Mafia.

One of our Quakertown friends has a fascinating uncle. Diane Bauman shared her uncle’s book, “Working the Edge.” Her uncle Melvin Gudknecht wrote “Working the Edge” in 2017. Gudknecht spent 25 years as an agent with the FBI, mostly in the Philadelphia region. He tells his story about the investigation into the disappearance (and presumed murder) of James “Jimmy” Hoffa, the infamous president of the Teamsters’ Union.

One of the principle lieutenants in the Hoffa organizations was Frank Sheeran, featured in the movie, “The Irishman.” Diane Bauman told me that it took 20 years for her uncle to investigate and help convict Sheeran.

“Working the Edge” is fascinating. Gudknecht names famous tunes of the day in each chapter. He’s not easy to track down. I had several questions for Gudknecht and here are his answers: (1) Why did you write the book and choose its title? He replied that he wrote the book for his family who didn’t really know about his job. (2) Why those songs? The book is a sort of opera and screen play. Playing the tunes gives another dimension to the rhythms of the book. The title referred to the President’s Commission on Organized Crime, which submitted their findings and it was entitled “The Edge, Business, Labor and Organized Crime.” and (3) Did you know Frank “Blinky” Palermo? No, the author knew of Blinky but never met him.

Palermo was a notorious Philadelphia mobster in the 1940s and ’50s. I remember Blinky Palermo and the delicatessen he used as a front for his “numbers” business. The 39th Street Deli was only two blocks from my dorm at Penn.

Often my pals and I would visit the deli and catch a glimpse of Blinky arriving in his stretch limo. Four armed guards would case”the street, looking for potential assassins before opening the door for their boss. Blinky was short, probably no taller than five feet. But his physical size had nothing to do with his oversized Mafia connections.

According to Wikipedia, Palermo (1905-1996) was an organized crime figure who controlled prize fighters and fixed fights. He was best known for fixing the Jake LaMotta-Billy Fox fight in 1947, which was immortalized in Martin Scorsese’s movie “Raging Bull.” Palermo and his partner owned a majority interest in the contract of heavyweight boxer Sonny Liston.

After a three-month trial in which U.S. Attorney Robert Kennedy served as prosecutor, Palermo was sentenced to 25 years in prison. He served seven years behind bars.

I remember Palermo’s daughter, a coed at Penn during my days there. She was bright and pretty. Alas, shunned by her fellow coeds, it wasn’t easy for the Palermo daughter.

The Gudknect book sure brought back memories.

Sincerely, Charles Meredith


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