ABA Journal: John Lennon’s lawyer turns paperback writer to recount little-known case

The ABA Jnl reports

In March 1975, Jay Bergen stepped off an elevator on the seventh floor of the Dakota, New York City’s famed luxury co-op on the Upper West Side. He was met by a young man who escorted him into an apartment. Bergen was in John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s living room. A white Steinway grand piano sat across the space. The view of Central Park was spectacular.

A few minutes later, Ono entered, and the two introduced themselves. For the next hour, Bergen tells me, he was “politely grilled” by the former Beatle’s wife.

Bergen’s partner at Marshall, Bratter, Greene, Allison & Tucker was Lennon’s counsel in the dissolution of the Beatles. Bergen recently had been tapped to represent the musician in unrelated breach of contract litigation.

It was an “audition,” Bergen recalls of his meeting with Ono. She wanted to be sure he was the right lawyer to handle the case. “If she didn’t like me,” he explains, “I would have been out.”

Bergen passed the test, and for the next two years had a ticket to ride as Lennon’s lawyer in the matter. The representation included a lengthy bench trial in the Southern District of New York and culminated with a published opinion from the New York City-based 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Lennon and Bergen parted ways after that, and Bergen went on to a long career as a litigator for various Manhattan firms. He retired in 2008. While his representation of Lennon always made for a good story, last month the Long Island native shared the case on a grander scale. He published Lennon, the Mobster & the Lawyer—The Untold Story, which recounts his representation of Lennon in this little-known case.

In a phone interview from his home in Saluda, which is in southwestern North Carolina, Bergen, 84, discussed his five-year effort as a paperback writer to share Lennon’s story.

Lennon Mobster book cover 


Copyright kerfuffle

Lennon’s troubles began in 1973, after his settlement of a case alleging that his song “Come Together” had infringed the copyright in four words of Chuck Berry’s “You Can’t Catch Me.” The rights to the song were the property of Big Seven Music Corp., a publishing company owned by Morris Levy, a music industry executive with alleged Mafia ties. For Levy, the situation wasn’t so Johnny be good, and he sued Lennon.

In resolving the copyright claim, Lennon agreed to include a trio of Big Seven-owned songs in a compilation album that he was making in which he performed rock ‘n’ roll hits from the 1950s. Levy was to receive certain royalties. Lennon shared a work-in-progress copy of the record with Levy. Despite it being a demo—a so-called rough mix—that was not yet record-release quality, Levy proceeded to sell it through television ads with mail-order fulfillment.

With the bootleg now out on the street, Lennon was forced to quickly finish and release the LP that he called Rock ‘N’ Roll. Lennon’s record company sent stern warnings to television stations that they were advertising an unauthorized album. Levy stopped selling Roots: John Lennon Sings the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hits and sued Lennon for breach of contract. At the heart of the litigation was who had the right to distribute the compilation album.

Bergen’s work is a mix of litigation play-by-play—including excerpts from the 5,000-page trial transcript—and anecdotes of his many encounters with Lennon that led to a close personal relationship between the two.

Bergen describes himself as a “big Beatles fan,” including seeing the Fab Four when they appeared at Forest Hills Stadium in Queens in 1964. Lennon was also one of the most famous people in America at the time. Surely there were challenges to having a client of this sort.

“Once I got over the shock of John Lennon walking into the conference room and sitting there and talking to me,” Bergen says, recalling their initial meeting, “it evolved that he was a client. And I treated him just like every other client that I’d ever had.”

A cool client

Bergen has much to say about the devotion that Lennon gave to the case. “John was really determined not to let Morris bully him,” Bergen tells me, explaining the reason behind his client’s intense interest in the matter. “I think he realized that he had made a mistake when he settled the ‘Come Together’ case. He’d now gotten into Morris’s clutches, and I think he decided ‘I’m not going to settle this case. We’re really going to be involved.’”