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Few of those who made Request magazine’s list of the top two-dozen figures in the music industry boasted a home base far from Hollywood and Vine. But for every rule there’s an exception, and Howell E. Begle Jr., a partner in the well-connected Washington law firm of Verner, Liipfert, Bernhard, McPherson, & Hand, is a doozy.
Begle is a Washington lawyer who has spent 15 years securing long-overdue royalties for ’50s-era rhythm-and-blues artists. His efforts led most of the major labels to overhaul their royalty rules and resulted in the creation of the Washington-based Rhythm and Blues Foundation. These triumphs were achieved through a combination of high-powered networking, a willingness to use public embarrassment, and the extensive pro bono resources of his firm.
Not to mention sheer tenaciousness. “It’s kinda like having a pit bull on your trouser leg, and I’m not the first one to say that,” says music journalist and critic Dave Marsh, a longtime Begle ally in the artist-royalty fight.
The lawyer’s crusade might not have been possible had not Verner, Liipfert—a traditionally Democratic firm whose team now includes such ex-bigwigs as Ann Richards, Lloyd Bentsen, and George Mitchell—been so supportive. Begle considers it the firm’s payback for his lucrative main business: handling mergers and acquisitions for newspaper and broadcasting companies. “What pays for my homes in Martha’s Vineyard and Cleveland Park,” he says knowingly, “is not my work for the R&B guys.”
As it happens, Begle lived near most of his generation’s music meccas before settling into his legal career. He was born in pre-Motown Detroit 51 years ago; his parents divorced early on, and mother and son moved to Arizona. It was there that the adolescent Howell first tuned in to Wolfman Jack and other fabled DJs. The family then relocated to the South. Begle attended high school in still-segregated Florida, and spent his undergraduate days at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn. The school was only a short ride from Nashville and Memphis, and students had no trouble attending concerts by the likes of Otis Redding and Chuck Berry.
After earning his law degree from the University of Michigan, Begle cooled his heels at a Wall Street law firm while Uncle Sam kept him in draft limbo. When he entered the military in 1969, he was shipped to Okinawa for a couple of years. “I just wanted to survive,” Begle says, but when he got there, he was given the chance to manage the officers’ club. He jumped at the opportunity, which allowed him to book appearances by such luminaries as Ike and Tina Turner and Lou Rawls.
Begle spent most of the ’70s doing media deals from Washington, but dabbled in show biz through his involvement with a trio of annual television spectaculars—The American Film Institute Life Achievement Award, The Kennedy Center Honors, and Christmas in Washington. This experience, and a stint as counsel to Reagan’s second and Bush’s only inaugural (“Maybe they couldn’t find a Republican entertainment lawyer,” he suggests) gave Begle an entree into Hollywood circles.
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Yet the genesis of Begle’s R&B crusade occurred at the 40th birthday party of an investment banker who had sent many clients Begle’s way. It was the early ’80s, and the financier’s wife had booked a once-famous but by then obscure vocalist named Ruth Brown to perform at the party. The birthday couple was shocked to discover that, though her career encompassed five No. 1 hits, 20 top 10 hits, and 80 record releases, Brown was receiving no royalties from Atlantic Records—and that she had become a domestic in order to put her kids through school.
“We’ve been nice to you,” the banker told Begle. “Now do us a favor for Ruth.”
With help from union officials, Begle spearheaded a detailed investigation of music contracts dating from 1953-62. The paper trail proved puzzling. Unlike today’s complex record contracts, in which labels bill just about every up-front cost they can against an album’s eventual earnings, the texts of contracts from the ’50s and early ’60s were remarkably simple, requiring artists to repay little more than studio session fees. As a result, it shouldn’t have taken long for the artists’ modest royalty rates to kick in and provide a periodic check.
But somehow, most of Begle’s original 35 clients—which by then included Wilson Pickett, Sam & Dave, the Coasters, and the Drifters—still carried five-digit negative balances after 30 years. Begle acknowledges that some of these debts may have originated when a label gave the artists a long-forgotten “gift” of a Cadillac, or fixed up one year’s inadvertent tax underpayment. But he figured that such universal shortchanging must have some other explanation.
It did. Put simply, says Begle, it was the era. Early on, black musicians couldn’t get radio airplay at all. Their only sales, in the days before albums, were for jukeboxes, and reaching the lucrative white record-buying market was little more than a pipe dream. Live performances could make artists some money if they managed to avoid parasitic managers, but few had the wherewithal to negotiate for royalties from composing or publishing. Even if they had, record companies might have set miniscule royalty rates without worrying about losing their artists. If a musician managed to get a reasonable agreement on paper, there was no telling how long it would last, or whether it would be adhered to at all.
“The people who started many of these companies were hustlers,” Begle says. “These were not the greatest people in the world. Any black artist negotiating with any white was going to have a difficult time of it. Imagine 19-year-old Ruth Brown from Portsmouth, Va., sitting down with [Atlantic Records founder] Ahmet Ertegun, the son of a Turkish diplomat.” In some cases, as with Brown, the label was even paying the salary of the artist’s agent, a blatant conflict of interest.
These ancient contracts stood uncontested until something unexpected happened: Old R&B records started to sell again. Albums were reissued, compilations were ordered, box sets were planned. Suddenly, long-dormant accounts showed signs of life. The records still showed deficits, and royalties still weren’t flowing to the artists, but superefficient accounts-payable departments began sending artists quarterly statements assuring them that they weren’t owed any royalties—this month or ever. For some, like Ruth Brown, these mailings simply added insult to injury. “All she knew is that she was getting angry,” Begle said.
In the beginning, Begle found his crusade rough going. “People didn’t return my phone calls,” he says. “They were hoping I’d go away.” Then he was introduced to Bill Harris, a Washington musician who was once musical director for the Clovers. Years earlier, Harris had taught music to Democratic Congressman John Conyers, and Conyers returned the favor by using his influence to hold public hearings on the lost royalties. Mickey Leland, a Texas Democrat with a subcommittee post that was important to the music industry, also turned up the congressional pressure.
The hearings, with Brown as a star witness, received sympathetic coverage, and helped encourage CBS’s now-defunct West 57th Street to do a feature on the plight of Brown and other ex-Atlantic artists. This helped set the stage for a pivotal meeting between Atlantic’s ultimate boss—the late head of Time-Warner, Steve Ross—and Jesse Jackson. Already toting a list of grievances that included Time-Warner’s South African ventures and its dearth of black executives, Jackson added the royalty cause to his agenda and asked Begle to accompany him to the meeting. “We were a black minister, a black lawyer, and me,” he recalls.
Begle’s legal experience had taught him that big corporations often try to smother cases by dragging them out until the opposition loses its will, runs out of money, or both. So he adopted a strategy of “embarrassing the hell out of them” by proposing to boycott Time-Warner’s music. (How history repeats itself!) The corporation soon found a special reason to fear negative publicity about Atlantic: In 1988, Atlantic would be celebrating its 40th anniversary during a nationally broadcast gala on ABC. Time-Warner agreed, on the eve of the anniversary event, to wipe out the unrecouped balances for Begle’s 35 clients and pay their royalties. Artists such as Brown would receive back royalties totaling about $30,000 each. On top of this, Time-Warner agreed to donate $1.5 million to endow the Rhythm and Blues Foundation, a donation bolstered, in the euphoria of the Atlantic celebration, with an additional $450,000 in seed money.
With the Time-Warner victory in hand, Begle says he expected the other companies to immediately see the light. Instead, the going remained slow, until Begle and Marsh met with Irving Azoff, the legendarily colorful man then heading the records division of MCA. Begle still isn’t sure whether it was moral certitude that prompted Azoff to act; a bit under 5 feet in height, Azoff’s sometimes outrageous antics have earned him the nickname “the Poison Dwarf.” Regardless, Azoff’s parting act when he left MCA was to wipe off the outstanding balances for Chess and Checker artists, and to nearly double the artists’ royalty rates. (Decca, Duke, and Peacock artists, however, were not affected.)
Since then, other companies, including all of Capitol-EMI’s labels, have wiped off the old balances, though the impatient Begle often chafed at reform’s slow pace. (Polygram, whose catalog included Motown, has been more reluctant.) The foundation, meanwhile, has evolved from a one-person operation into a four-person office that, until recently, occupied a suite at the Smithsonian (it is currently located in Dupont Circle). The foundation has found a niche handing out lifetime achievement grants to artists as well as small, unpublicized payments to cover bills for destitute performers. (Its first recipient was Bill Harris, whose house had been repossessed to pay the bills for his terminal cancer.) It’s also sponsored live performances, initiated an oral history project, and served as an archival clearinghouse.
But not everybody is satisfied, including Begle, who has publicly faulted the foundation for not being more active in twisting industry arms, something that became rare as soon as its board was flooded with industry types less inclined to bold changes. Suzan Jenkins, Begle’s successor, says that under her leadership the foundation (whose bylaws don’t actually require it to pursue the artist-royalty issue) has taken an alternate path: refreshing people’s memories, then using moral suasion to convince company executives to do the right thing. Embarrassment, she says, “won’t help in anything but alienating people.”
Begle’s frustration, plus five angioplasties in six years and growing pressure to refocus on his law practice, led him to relinquish his day-to-day interests in the foundation several years ago and much of his R&B work earlier this year. He admits that his urgent style, important in the early days, would not have worked well with a mature foundation. “I’d be disastrous in the long term,” he says.
Marsh is less diplomatic. “It’s all cosmetic,” Marsh says. “Estée Lauder does a better job. How the fuck do you get rid of the plantation economy?”
The question is not an easy one. But if anything has made Begle’s efforts to answer it possible, it’s that he worked not in Hollywood but on 15th Street NW, where he possessed the requisite distance to pester entertainment moguls into ignoring their bottom line. “I’m not dependent on any of their business for my work,” he says. “I was never called upon to make the tough choices.” Chalk one up for that universally loathed species, homo legalis Washingtoniensis.