Steve Ganaway: Business mogul or Nashville's numbers king? 

"What do you need, son?" Steve Ganaway asks his BlackBerry. A tiny voice squeaks from the phone with the familiar timbre of a child who wants Dad to buy him something nice and probably expensive."OK," says Ganaway. "Put your momma on the phone." His lithe, lean frame rests on a counter in his recording studio, his body seemingly weightless against it.

It turns out his boy wants sneakers, the $50 kind. Ganaway approves the purchase.

The incident allows him to launch into one of his favorite sermons: The Way It Is Now vs. The Way It Was When I Was Coming Up, starring Steve Ganaway as the poor boy made good.

"You know how long we kept a pair of sneakers when I was a kid?" he asks. "Three years. And when the soles started flapping we just duct-taped it up. And if you got a hole in the sneakers, you put a piece of cardboard on the bottom. When it rained we walked on our heels, like a duck, to keep the cardboard from getting wet."

These days are different. Ganaway can buy his four children anything they want. And he handles that business like most self-made men: personally, tirelessly and with ruthless attention to detail. He does, after all, have a great deal of business to handle.

He owns property all over Nashville and is constantly buying and flipping homes. His record company, SAG Entertainment—named for Steve Allison Ganaway—boasts a coterie of chitlin-circuit R&B artists, including Pookie Lane and Roni ("The Sexy Lady of Southern Soul"). He writes many of their songs and takes a personal hand in production at his North Nashville studio. He'll even "mess around on the keyboard some," he says. "I can play a little."

SAG Entertainment handles booking and media for rap and R&B acts like T.I., Lil Wayne and Charlie Wilson. If a major black artist comes through Nashville, chances are Steve Ganaway had something to do with making it happen.

Add in a funeral home and a construction business, and you'll find that Ganaway is an economy unto himself—with tentacles reaching further.

When Neil Rice opened the King Fish restaurant on Eighth and Monroe a few years back, Ganaway offered help with advertising and promotions. Gratis. "He's a man that's done a lot for the community, not only with his music but his relationships with people...He does a lot of stuff with kids too," says Rice, noting Ganaway's sponsorship of a Pop Warner football team.

But this rags-to-riches sunshine story also harbors clouds. Ganaway has been arrested a dozen times for everything from car theft to burglary. He once shot a man in the gut.

Yet his biggest trouble has come from gambling. He's been arrested at least six times for taking part in numbers operations, that peasant version of the lottery that works just like the state-sanctioned contest, but without the taxes.

In 2007, Ganaway was at the center of a police investigation into an operation allegedly run out of buildings he owns. When cops busted into one of his East Nashville properties, they found a hidden room stuffed with more than $12,000 in cash, gambling slips and a handgun.

When they raided another Ganaway property—an apartment on Church Street—they found Stacy Flemings and Sonya Montgomery counting numbers tickets next to large stacks of cash. But in the eyes of law enforcement, they were merely employees. Steve Ganaway was their CEO.

For his hefty rap sheet, Ganaway comes off as uniquely candid about his criminal past. But he denies involvement in the latest bust.

"I know people who do that stuff, but I don't do that stuff," he says. "I couldn't give a damn if they never made another numbers ticket in the history of the world."

In his telling, he's the quintessential man with a past who's found honest prosperity through the simple tenets of long hours and hard work. Last week, you could find him at the Music City Inauguration Day Charity Ball rubbing elbows with Nashville's best and biggest, nattily dressed in a gray tuxedo with matching hat. Ask for people who will attest to his bad-man-gone-good thesis, and he'll name-drop a list of politically connected elites such as General Sessions Judge Gail Robinson.

But a funny thing happens when you contact his references. Robinson, for example, says they barely know each other, having but once spoken briefly on the phone.

Others, like state Senator Thelma Harper, don't return repeated phone calls. Still others see talking about Ganaway as a lose-lose proposition.

"Nobody wants to get hurt," says one person who's had business dealings with Ganaway. "And when you're dealing with people like that, you never know. It could put you in harm's way. I've got kids."

East Nashville between Gallatin Road and Dickerson Pike is a numbers hotbed. That nondescript deli? That barbecue joint that doesn't open until 5 p.m.? If you know the right people, chances are you can lay some money on tonight's Illinois Lottery drawing, the numbers Nashville operators use for winners.

On a recent afternoon, Ganaway takes a reporter for a ride in his new Cadillac, cruising the neighborhoods of his youth. He pulls into the lot of a no-name convenience store near Dickerson Pike. A woman comes out with thick braids and the kind of ass rappers devote entire albums to.

"Hey, Steve!" she says, smiling, revealing a row of gold teeth. She hands Ganaway a blank notepad and he begins to write down a series of numbers in neat script. He draws a box around the digits and then hands the pad and two dollars back to the woman.

"Just played the Illinois State Lottery," he says as he puts the car in gear.

At 9:20 tonight, he'll turn the television to WGN. If he's a winner, "I'll come back here tomorrow. She'll come out and say, 'Hey lucky!' and hand [me] $7,000 in a Kroger sack." The most he's ever won was $70,000.

The scene at The Eighth Avenue Market on Rosa Parks Boulevard isn't much different, though the female clerk behind the double-paned glass isn't nearly as friendly. Ganaway's attempts to flirt are met with eye rolls.

He plays the same numbers as before. But if he wins this time, he'll have to kick 25 percent to the state.

"Now you see what I'm talking about!" he says, throwing up his hands. "The [government] does the same thing that Steve Ganaway used to do. They just take more of your winnings than I ever did. Shiiit, they bigger cheats than any numbers man alive."

The numbers have been a part of urban life in cities big and small for more than a century. They were a favorite among the poor and immigrant groups, a long-shot chance at bringing home big money on bets of as little as a nickel or a dime, often on credit.

Steve Ganaway's introduction to the game came as a teenager in the late '60s, when he found employment running wagers out of a store on Ninth and Garfield.

The building is a low-slung brick affair, sitting across the street from the elementary school Ganaway attended as a child. He says he made $100 a week—"not much, even back then."

The 15 Ganaway children lived in a house where the interstate now runs. Steve yearned to live in the newly built projects on Eighth Avenue, but those were white-only at the time.

Vernon Winfrey, best known for fathering Oprah, lived nearby. "They were good kids," he says of the Ganaway children, "but they grew up on the rough side of the mountain."

As Ganaway grew, the numbers changed too. New Hampshire became the first state to offer a sanctioned lottery in 1964. Other states followed. But Tennessee wouldn't enter the game until 2004, leaving the numbers to prosper illegally.

Court documents make clear that gambling wasn't Ganaway's only criminal pursuit. In the 1970s, he was caught boosting cars and arrested for a string of minor offenses like forgery and kiting checks. He later spent time in a Florida federal prison.

But by 1991, his crimes were veering in a more serious direction. That's when Ganaway and three other men tried to rob the Hermitage Cooker restaurant on Lebanon Road.

Ganaway later told police that he was approached at an after-hours club by a white guy named Terry Simpson, also known as T-Bone. Simpson asked Ganaway if "he wanted to make some fast money," according to a police report.

The group busted into the restaurant. One man cut the alarm while Ganaway stood by a window as lookout. Moments later the cops showed up. The men fled. Ganaway was the only one captured.

He would eventually rat out his three companions and receive a three-year sentence. After his release, Ganaway opened a nightclub in North Nashville. "It was an after-hours joint," he says, the kind that opens at midnight and closes at dawn.

Jerold Alexander was there one night in 1993, drinking heavily and, according to Ganaway, using drugs. "He was all fucked up on the cocaine shit," Ganaway spits, dismissing the thought of Alexander with a wave of his manicured hand.

At about 6 a.m., Ganaway closed shop and began counting his money, leaving the cash spread on the bar, he says. Alexander knocked on the door asking to use the bathroom. Against his better judgment, Ganaway let him in.

Ganaway claims Alexander grew belligerent, asserting that he'd been ripped off by the bartender and demanding his money back. The two men argued. That's when Alexander reached behind his back. Ganaway though he was going for a gun.

"I shot the fuck out of him," he says unapologetically, "and I would do the exact same thing again."

The bullet ripped through Alexander's belly. At the hospital, he told police that "a [black male] named Steve shot him at a club at 26th Ave. North and Clarksville Highway," according to the police report.

Ganaway would spend another two years in county lockup, this time for aggravated assault.

Soon after his release, he ran into Alexander at a dice game on Jefferson Street. "He was selling cartons of cigarettes and he asked if I wanted some," Ganaway says. "I didn't even recognize him because now he was so fucked up on that crack shit. I let it go. He died not long after that."

These days, Ganaway openly talks about past troubles with the law, insisting they're all behind him.

"Time brings about a change," he says, "and Mr. Ganaway has made that time and made that change. I have a different outlook on life."

Police would beg to differ.

Their most recent investigation began in 2006, when Det. Matt Dixon went through Ganaway's trash at 1003 Petway Ave. He found "a brown paper bag containing an illegal numbers ticket, mail addressed to Steve Ganaway...and mail addressed to Stacy Flemings."

A year later detectives again went dumpster diving on Petway. They found more numbers tickets and receipts.

By the summer of 2007, police were conducting surveillance on Ganaway, Flemings and Sonya Montgomery. The three would meet in the parking lot of a Kroger store on Gallatin Road, then head to the house on Petway together. Sometimes Ganaway would circle the lot in a blue Chrysler, apparently scouting for nosy cops.

"These actors coordinate pickups at remote locations in order to limit the vehicular traffic at 1003 Petway Avenue," wrote police in a search warrant request. "Steve Ganaway utilizes counter-surveillance techniques in an effort to detect the presence of law enforcement."

These techniques, however, were too little and too late. Detectives had already placed a radio transmitter in the wheel well of Montgomery's car.

On June 21, 2007, police searched the Petway house and found a hidden room with boxes of gambling tickets, organized by location of where the bets had taken place. They also found a 9mm handgun and a housekeeper who told them Ganaway lived there—not to mention deposit slips for SAG Entertainment for "tens of thousands of dollars," according to court documents.

Across town, detectives were also knocking on the door of 555 Church St. They entered to find Stacy Flemings, Sonya Montgomery, a pile of numbers tickets and $11,762 in cash. Both women were arrested.

It wasn't the first time they'd been caught in a count house. In 2004, Montgomery was nabbed in an apartment near Bell Road with numbers tickets and $61,813. A year later, Flemings was arrested in a gambling case involving nearly $18,000 in cash.

After the latest raids, Ganaway was indicted on gambling charges. His trial is scheduled for next month. Though he admits knowing Montgomery and Flemings, he claims he has nothing to do with organized gambling.

"I still see my friends," he says, "but I'm not involved in it."

Calls to Flemings and Montgomery's lawyers were not returned. Police are equally reluctant to talk about the matter.

Given Ganaway's past legal troubles—to say nothing of the evidence against him—it's not surprising that police have targeted him as the ringleader. Since 2000, he's been charged with eight gambling-related crimes, all involving the numbers. Ganaway managed to plead them down, receiving minor penalties such as probation and fines.

In 2005, police raided three properties they say were connected to a gambling ring run by Ganaway. They found $35,422 in cash, a .357 revolver, a 20-gauge shotgun, a .45 automatic and numbers tickets. One of the properties was the same Church Street address where Sonya Montgomery and Stacy Flemings were arrested. The second is 1508 10th Ave. N.—the current location of Ganaway's favorite enterprise, SAG Entertainment.

Listening to Steve Ganaway talk about his place in the music business, you would think he's Quincy Jones. "I am a producer, a writer and I can play these instruments," he says, standing in his large studio. "I can do every fucking thing in this place."

His roster of new artists evokes thoughts of Courvoisier and strawberries dipped in chocolate. Lots of chocolate. But his real money comes from promoting shows for the older names of R&B.

"I pick up the phone, I can call the Temptations. I pick up the phone, I can call the Chi-Lites. I pick up the phone, I can call Patti LaBelle," he says as he waves his BlackBerry. "Little Richard? He's on my speed dial."

Ganaway uses his music success as a built-in argument against the gambling charges. "Why would Steve Ganaway ever need to make money from a criminal enterprise?" he asks, throwing his hands in the air. "My business is good!"

Tooling around Nashville and listening to him talk earnestly about community development and the charities he sponsors, it's hard to believe he's a man with the time—much less desire—to run a sprawling numbers game.

Then again, Ganaway's business is show business, where perception and reality have always been worlds apart.

Email pjtobia@nashvillescene.com, or call 615-844-9400.

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