Norby Walters, 91, Dies; Music and Sports Agent Who Ran Afoul of the Law

Norby Walters, a booking agent for some of the country’s top disco, R&B, funk and hip-hop artists whose aggressive leap in the 1980s into signing college athletes to secret contracts before they turned pro led to legal problems, died on Dec. 10 in Burbank, Calif. He was 91.

His son Gary confirmed the death, at an assisted living facility.

Mr. Walters found his footing in show business through his ownership of restaurants, pizzerias, mambo joints and nightclubs, including the Norby Walters Supper Club on the East Side of Manhattan, near the Copacabana, which he opened in 1966.

He walked away from the club business two years later after a customer at the supper club, shot two mobsters dead in front of about 50 people.

“Everybody hit the floor,” Mr. Walters told The New York Times in 2016. “And this guy was very calm about it. He sat down at the bar, put the pistol down and waited to be taken.”

Mr. Walters closed the club soon after.

He switched to booking musical acts into nightclubs, lounges and hotels, which proved lucrative. Over the next two decades, the client list of Norby Walters Associates (later called General Talent International) included Gloria Gaynor, Dionne Warwick, Patti LaBelle, Parliament-Funkadelic, the Commodores, Luther Vandross, the Four Tops, Run-DMC, Kool & the Gang, Grandmaster Flash and Public Enemy.

In the early 1980s, Mr. Walters glimpsed a new opportunity in the top tier of college football players. With a partner, Lloyd Bloom, he established World Sports & Entertainment. From 1984 to 1987, the two men signed dozens of athletes to secret contracts that included inducements like cash, loans and cars in exchange for giving their agency exclusive rights to handle their future negotiations with N.F.L. teams, according to the 1988 federal indictment against them.

Most of the inducements violated National Collegiate Athletic Association regulations and would have rendered the athletes ineligible to compete had their schools known about them. But Mr. Walters and Mr. Bloom said their lawyers had assured them that the contracts were legal even if the players were still with their college teams.

The indictment charged Mr. Walters and Mr. Bloom with conspiring with the athletes to conceal the payments by having them agree to postdated contracts that appeared to have been signed after their last collegiate games.

“The crime alleged that he conspired with students to steal their educations, which was preposterous, since the schools had little concern about whether they got an education,” Gary Walters said in a phone interview. He added, “Norby wasn’t doing anything different in the sports business than he did in the music business: giving fair compensation to players who had been denied it.”

The government also charged that the contracts were backed by threats of violence, some involving the mobster Michael Franzese, a member of the Colombo crime family. When most of the athletes decided they did not want Mr. Walters and Mr. Bloom to represent them but kept the cars and the money anyway, the indictment accused them of threatened to have their legs broken and threatened their families with physical harm.

Gary Walters said his father denied having threatened anyone and also denied that Mr. Franzese had any involvement in his sports business.

Mr. Walters and Mr. Bloom were convicted of mail fraud and racketeering in 1989. Mr. Walters was sentenced to five years in prison and Mr. Bloom to three, but neither served a day.

An appeals court reversed the racketeering convictions in 1990, ruling that the trial judge had not instructed the jury that the two men’s actions had been guided by their lawyers’ advice that the signings were legal.

In 1993, the mail fraud convictions were also overturned.

“Walters is by all accounts a nasty and untrustworthy fellow,” Judge Frank Easterbrook wrote in the 1993 ruling, “but the prosecutor did not prove that his efforts to circumvent the N.C.A.A.’s rules amounted to mail fraud.”

Mr. Bloom was shot to death at his home in Malibu, Calif., later that year.

By then, Mr. Walters had retired from his music and sports businesses, which had been damaged by the federal investigation, and remade himself as the host of celebrity parties and poker games.

Norbert Meyer was born on April 20, 1932, in Brooklyn. His father, Yosele Chezchonovitch, a Polish immigrant, served in the Army (where he changed his name to Joseph Meyer) during World War I and later became a diamond courier and the owner of a nightclub in Brooklyn and a sideshow attraction at Coney Island. His mother, Florence (Golub) Meyer, was a homemaker.

“I traveled all over the country with my father’s freak shows,” Mr. Walters told The Daily News of New York in 1987. “It was all a scam. There were no freaks, the alligator boy was a poor fellow with a horrible skin condition, the girl with no body was done with mirrors, the turtle girl was a dwarf with a costume.”

Norby studied business at Brooklyn College from 1950 to 1951 and served in the Army until 1953. He and his brother, Walter, took over their father’s club that year and renamed it Norby & Walter’s Bel Air.

On opening night, when Norby greeted customers by saying, “Hello, I’m Norby,” some responded by asking, “Oh are you Norby Walters?” When the brothers stepped outside, they saw that the neon sign outside the club did not have the necessary ampersand. It said, “Norby Walters Bel Air Club.”

“I’ve been Norby Walters ever since,” he told The Atlanta Constitution in 1987. “My brother hated me for it.” His brother, who became known as Walter B. Walters, died in 2004.

Norby Walters carried the name — which he eventually changed legally — through his restaurant, club, music and sports careers, and into his final chapter.

From 1990 to 2017, he organized an annual Oscar viewing party, which he called Night of 100 Stars, in hotel ballrooms in Beverly Hills. It drew stars like Jon Voight, Shirley Jones, Charles Bronson, Eva Marie Saint and Martin Landau. He was also the host of a regular poker party at his condos in Southern California, where the regulars included Milton Berle, Bryan Cranston, Richard Lewis, Jason Alexander, James Woods, Charles Durning, Mimi Rogers and Alex Trebek.

The final chapter of Mr. Walters’s life included a regular celebrity poker party. At one such party, the attendees included (standing, from left) his wife, Irene; his son Gary; the actors Dan Lauria, Lou Diamond Phillips and Bruce Davison; and Mr. Walters himself, as well as (seated) the actors Ed Asner, Mimi Rogers, Jason Alexander, James Woods and Kristanna Loken.Credit…via Walters Family

“It was $2 a hand,” Robert Wuhl, the actor and comedian, said by phone. “So the most anybody lost was $250 and the most anybody won was $300 to $400. It was all about the kibitzing. Buddy Hackett would come to kibitz.”

The Oscar party was not as hot a ticket as those hosted by Vanity Fair magazine or Elton John, but it was more accessible. In 2016, for $1,000 a seat or $25,000 for a V.I.P. table package, a civilian without show business credentials could be admitted and hang out with celebrities.

In addition to his son Gary, Mr. Walters is survived by two other sons, Steven and Richard. His wife, Irene (Solowitz) Walters, died in 2022.

Nearly 30 years after his legal problems caused him to retire, Mr. Walters said he understood his place in the Hollywood pantheon.

“As I always say to my wife,” he told The Times in 2016, a few days before his penultimate Oscar party, “‘I used to be important.’”

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