Hook, line and cymbal crash: pop stars and the law

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The Independent Culture
It was one of Michael Jackson's more brilliant performances. On 14 February 1994, he gave a private a cappella rendition of one of his bigger selling hits to a privileged audience of 12. Normally he performed to several thousand times that number, but on this occasion his effort was worthwhile: so charmed, so thrilled, so won over were the jury in the Denver court house, they had to be restrained from giving him a standing ovation. Jackson had been called to the witness box to show how he went about writing music and performed "Billie Jean" (a song inspired by a paternity suit) to prove that even the mad have method. So enamoured were the jury (and indeed the judge who later asked for an autograph - for his son, he claimed) that they threw out the claim by songwriter Crystal Cartier that Wacko had stolen the idea for "Dangerous" from him. It is just as well that Jackson is adept in the witness box. Since the $26m payout to Jordy Chandler proved his vulnerability to our learned friends, he might well be spending more time there. He presently has $700m worth of law suits out against his person for a variety of sins varying from harrassing former staff to harrassing small boys. Not to mention claims on file that he stole every hook, line and cymbal crash of his written output.

That is the lot of the star. Generally pop singers who have become successful find they need the law to extract some of the financial benefits of success from the grasp of their management: ever since rock met roll the law has tried to gate-crash the relationship. Justin Hayward of the Moody Blues recently claimed that not a day had passed since "Nights In White Satin" was a hit that had been free of some kind of litigation involving the band; the Stone Roses discovered it was more productive engaging legal advice in their dispute with Revolver records than re-painting the managing director's office; Holly Johnson won his case against Frankie Goes To Hollywood's record company ZTT; George Michael benefitted from an out- of-court settlement releasing him from a less than generous arrangement with Innervision; and both Elton John and Gilbert O'Sullivan won huge sums from their erstwhile managers (Dick James and Gordon Mills respectively) both of whom, coincidentally, died soon after the court judgment.

As the case of the Hendrix estate proves, even if death involves the artist rather than the manager, litigation continues apace. Bob Marley's estate was a legal trainspotter's delight until Chris Blackwell, the founder of Island Records, became so alarmed about the way the great man's posthumous career was heading, he bought the lot from Bob's widow Rita. This was not something that Charlie Dick - Patsy Cline's widower - needed to do. Despite (if you believe Sweet Dreams, the movie of her life) spending all of his wife's career trying to stop her singing and start looking after him back home, the singer's estate landed in Dick's lap when she died in a plane crash. He has since grown ever more comfortable from her work over the 30 years since she died. "I tell you, Patsy keeps me real busy," he said recently. "She has become very time-consuming."

But few of the rip-offs and litigation tales, the posthumous scraps and legal shenanigans, can match the case related by Frederick Dannen in his book Hit Men. It referred to George McCrae, a soul singer who few could blame if he had sought legal advice. Dannen was interviewing McCrae's record company boss on another matter when the singer himself burst into the office. He complained that he was number one across the world with "Rock Your Baby" and yet he had no money to show for it. "Stop whingeing," his boss said to him. "See that Cadillac out in the parking lot? Here's the keys, it's yours and I don't want to hear another word about money from you." As McCrae took the keys and headed towards the car, Dannen expressed outrage that a star could be treated in that way. "Don't worry," said the manager, misinterpreting the source of Dannen's concern. "It's a rental car."