The FBI’s Greatest Hits: Inside 10 Musical Cases

Andrew Belonsky :: Monday, June 14th, 2010 4:00 pm

The FBI has its sticky fingers in all aspects of this American life: Wall Street, Main Street and, yes, even Hollywood. Especially Hollywood: the Bureau has a bevy of files on famous people. Here we look at some musicians like Michael Jackson, The Doors and Elvis, who have records in Washington. Did you know Dorothy Dandridge had an affair with Nat King Cole? J. Edgar Hoover was all over that one.

Billie Holiday’s Heroin and Tallulah Bankhead’s Intervention: It was no secret Holiday and her husband Joseph Levy loved their heroin, which explains why the FBI tailed them during Holiday’s 1949 tour through Utah and California. The Feds finally got their mark during a January raid in San Francisco, where they found Holiday “attempt[ing] to destroy a make shift opium pipe and bindle of opium.”

The most intriguing piece in this archive, however, comes in the form of a letter from the actress Tallulah Bankhead to FBI honcho J. Edgar Hoover. According to the letter, dated February 9, 1949, the two had a telephone conversation after Holiday’s arrest, and Bankhead pleaded the junky singer’s case. It must have gone well, for Bankhead’s dispatch showers Hoover with gratitude, “[I] thank you a thousand times for the kindness, consideration and courtesy.” Bankhead, who later had an alleged affair with Holiday, went on to write that she admires Holiday “immensely as an artist,” and asserts, “Although I do not condone her weaknesses, I certainly understand the eccentricities of her behaviour because she is essentially a child at heart….” Hoover took some precious time to reply, “Your comments are greatly appreciated, and I trust that you will not hesitate to call on me at any time you think I might be of assistance…” That Hoover loved a famous dame.

The Grateful Dead, Black Panthers and LSD: The FBI’s heavily redacted entries on The Grateful Dead -– “a rock group of some sort” –- spans from at least 1969 to 1984, and includes mention of an embedded Woodstock source, examines a 1970 connection to the Black Panthers, for whom the Dead would perform a benefit concert in 1971, and investigates claims that the Dead, as late the 80s, were the number one source of the nation’s acid: “LSD originates from San Francisco, California, through a rock group known as Grateful Dead.” Jerry Garcia also has a personal file from 1964 that details his resistance to the Vietnam War: “Garcia generally feels very strongly about his objection to serving in the armed services and is a pacifist in spirit.”

Marvin Gaye’s Coma-Inducing Scandal: I was hoping to find something truly outrageous in Gaye’s dossier. Maybe something on how his father shot him to death, or perhaps some suspicion of counter-cultural activity. Instead the file concerns allegations that in 1977 Gaye and his team bilked concert producers in Richmond and Norfolk, Virginia out of $80,000. Producers claim Gaye charged them twice, and the FBI went to work on the case. The money was evidently returned and the case closed. Snoozefest.

Michael Jackson, Terrorist Target: Duh the King of Pop has an FBI record. Aside from a 1993 plot by a faux John Gotti heir to extort Jackson and kill George H.W. Bush, most of the pages deal with the multiple molestation charges against the singer. Not much to report from these edited reports, except for this particular nugget: the FBI and Santa Monica police feared that Jackson’s 2003 trial would be a “soft target for terrorism due to the worldwide media coverage…” No such intelligence existed, the Bureau notes, although the Nation of Islam’s security forces were seen milling about the crowd, as was a member of the “New Black Panther Party.” Was Jackson the “new black?”

Rowan and Martin Laugh-In, Not Funny: Okay, this technically isn’t a “musical” entry, but I couldn’t resist including a note on the FBI’s 28-page portfolio about the variety show hosted by Dick Martin and Dan Rowan. Apparently American people did not take kindly to the show’s 1971 send-up of the Bureau, for the file includes scads of angry missives about a skit showing FBI “cheerleaders” poking fun at Hooover’s age. “All in all, this skit pertaining to the FBI was rather typical of the poor fare which is served on this so-called laugh show,” the FBI report on the “satirical attack” concludes. “Tasteless, sometimes downright vicious jokes and a great deal of forced humor add up to a more telling commentary on this low-grade show itself than on the FBI.” Those Bureau boys sure were touchy.

The Beatles, Lennon and the New Left: To say that the FBI was obsessed with John Lennon and his band of Beatles would be an understatement. It all started innocently enough: monitoring 1964 concerts for “potential violence involving racial and Muslim aspects.” Agents described the fans thusly: “crowd was generally orderly, became extremely noisy and excited on appearance of the Beatles.” Another report from that same year concerned a letter from “Beatle Hater” who promised to “throw a grenade instead of jelly babies” if a Denver concert weren’t canceled. No grenade was thrown, and I’m left wondering what jelly babies are.

The FBI’s infatuation with the British band became more leery in the 1970s, when their collective eye turned to Lennon and Yoko Ono, who were fighting deportation and, according to FBI sources, working with the “New Left,” which included members of the “Chicago Seven,” Abbie Hoffman, Rennard Davis and Jerry Rubin.

A source claimed that Lennon gave $75,000 to the “Election Year Strategy Information Center,” as part of an effort to disrupt the 1972 Republican National Convention and buy the Liberation News Service. As happens, however, this New Left succumbed to infighting and the FBI eventually concluded, “There has been no information received to indicate that [Lennon and Ono are] active in the New Left.” Another source, meanwhile, “advised that Lennon appears to be radically oriented, however, he does not give the impression he is a true revolutionist, since is constantly under the influence of narcotics.”

Elvis Presley in Gay, Hoover-Loving Scandal: Most of the FBI’s files on Elvis are pretty boring. They’re all extortion attempt this, death threat that -– wait, what’s this? Well, well, in 1959, while Presley was stationed in Germany, a South African national, Laurens Johannes Griessel-Landau, pretended to be a dermatologist so he could get a bit closer to the super star. Then the man made some gay moves. Elvis refused. “Presley reports that Griessel-Landau made several homosexual advances to some of his enlisted friends. Griessel-Landau also is alleged to have admitted to Presley that he is bisexual,” reads the report. “On 24 December 1959, Presley decided to discontinue the skin treatments. At the time that he told Griessel-Landau of this decision he also thoroughly censured Griessel-Landau for embarrassing him as a result of [his] improper advances.”

Outraged and clearly, unfortunately closeted, Griessel-Landau launched a blackmail plot against Presley, of whom he claimed to have “compromising” pictures. The FBI put an end to that, and Griessel-Landau later wrote Elvis a letter apologizing for his “unchristian” actions.

But that’s hardly the most amusing aspect of Presley’s bulging dossier. Its no secret Presley was a patriot with a capital P: He even refused to take tax deductions, because he felt the government needed the money more. He was probably right. So, as a good “Amurican,” Presley in 1970 wrote to the FBI and asked for a tour of their HQ, and a meeting with Hoover. The Feds agreed to the tour. The singer’s personal style, however, was too radical for a face-to-face with the Bureau’s leader: “Presley’s sincerity and good intentions notwithstanding, he is certainly not the type of individual whom the Director would wish to meet. It is noted at the present time he is wearing his hair down to his shoulders and indulges in the wearing of all sorts of exotic dress.” Perhaps cross-dressing Hoover didn’t want to be upstaged.

The visit wasn’t a total wash for the King: Presley offered to be a Hollywood mole for the FBI and specifically mentioned the Smothers Brothers and Jane Fonda as having “a lot to answer for in the hereafter for the way they have poisoned young minds by disparaging the United States…”

The Doors to Obscenity: Before there was 2 Live Crew, there were The Doors, whose FBI file revolves around their potty mouths and 1969 album, The Soft Parade. “I hope the package [reached] you unopened. It wouldn’t do for anybody, especially a lady, to be exposed to the record you have before you,” wrote one concerned citizen in a letter to the late Sen. Sam Ervin. “[This record] is the filthiest and most vulgar thing the human mind could possibly conceive. [We] should try to stop the dissemination of such excretory matter.” Hoover received a similar letter, and replied, “I, too, share your concern… It is repulsive to right-thinking people and can have serious effects on our young people.” And here we are today, a bunch of roving savages, all thanks to Jim Morrison.

Dorothy Dandridge’s “Affair” With Nat King Cole: Just because the FBI isn’t investigating you doesn’t mean they don’t know all your dirty secrets. The Bureau’s 14-page dossier on legendary singer and actress Dandridge explicitly states they weren’t looking into her activities, even if she was working with the then-radical NAACP. Still, the Feds had plenty of information on Dandridge, including this tid-bit: hotel and nightclub impresario Jack Entratter, who owned the Sands hotel in Vegas and ran New York’s Copacabana, once caught Dandridge and Cole in a bit of a tryst. And Entratter wasn’t happy: “[In 1955, an] informant stated that Entratter was furious with Cole for having an “affair” with Dandridge and threatened him. Dandridge reportedly told Entratter to forget the whole matter, as she was Cole’s color, too.” What happens in Vegas… Eh, forget it.

Louis [Redacted] Armstrong: Armstrong once had an archive online, but now it’s missing. Where’s the FBI when you need them?

Yes, yes: I’m intentionally ignoring a few people – Sammy Davis, Jr., Frank Sinatra and Marilyn, for example. I figured their stories are all so well known that if you’re really interested, you can go pour over the thousands and thousands of FBI pages. Tell them Uncle Sam sent you.

3 Responses to “The FBI’s Greatest Hits: Inside 10 Musical Cases”
  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by deathandtaxes, Amy Laviero and Alex Moore, andrewbelonsky. andrewbelonsky said: RT @deathandtaxes The FBI’s Greatest Hits: Inside 10 Musical Cases [...]

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  2. Great articles,interesting to know the cases handled by the FBI,and i think recently the cases handled by the FBI is of the MICHAEL JACKSONS DEAD.As gone through some cases are really interesting and so many complicated points are there.

    Posted by: r4 dsi June 15th, 2010 at 10:38 am
  3. “I’m left wondering what jelly babies are.”

    Because, you know, it’s much more difficult to look something like “jelly babies” up online than FBI files…

    For those that still haven’t heard of sources like Wikipedia, jelly babies are kind of like a cross between gummi bears and jelly beans

    Posted by: DW June 15th, 2010 at 12:36 pm