Howell E. Begle Jr. photographed for a 1995 Washington City Paper profile. Credit: Charles Steck

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For years, Howell E. Begle Jr., used his position as a partner at a D.C. law firm to secure royalties for ’50s-era R&B artists who were swindled by record labels. 

Alongside his more lucrative legal work on media transactions, Begle, who died on Dec. 30 in Lebanon, N.H. at age 74 following a skiing accident, spent 15 years fighting labels over payments they owed to primarily African-American artists who had signed exploitative contracts.

Facing off against Begle was “kinda like having a pit bull on your trouser leg,” music critic Dave Marsh, a longtime Begle ally, told City Paper in a 1995 profile of the lawyer.

Begle was born in pre-Motown Detroit; 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 a 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.

The genesis of Begle’s R&B crusade occurred in the early 1980s, at the 40th birthday party of an investment banker who had sent many clients to the firm then known as Verner, Liipfert, Bernhard, McPherson, & Hand. 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, while Brown’s career encompassed five No. 1 hits, 20 top 10 hits, and 80 records, she was receiving no royalties from Atlantic Records, and that she had become a domestic worker 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 to 1962. They found that the contracts were surprisingly straightforward, meaning that 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—including legends like Wilson Pickett, Sam & Dave, The Coasters, and The Drifters—still carried five-digit negative balances after 30 years. In other words, they owed the company money, not the other way around.

“Any black artist negotiating with any white (label executive) 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,” Begle said. In some cases, as with Brown, the label was even paying the salary of the artist’s agent—a blatant conflict of interest.

With a rebirth of interest in R&B music in the 1980s, long-dormant accounts showed signs of life, but royalties still weren’t flowing to the artists.

“People didn’t return my phone calls,” Begle said. “They were hoping I’d go away.” Then he was introduced to Bill Harris, a D.C. 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. The hearings, with Brown as a star witness, received sympathetic coverage.

This helped set the stage for a pivotal meeting between Begle, Atlantic’s ultimate boss—the late head of Time-Warner, Steve Ross—and civil rights figure Jesse Jackson. They adopted a strategy of “embarrassing the hell out of them” by proposing to boycott Time-Warner’s music. They won concessions in 1988, leveraging the approach of Atlantic’s televised 40th anniversary gala.

Because of Begle’s work, Time-Warner agreed to wipe out the unrecouped balances for his 35 clients and pay royalties totaling as much as $30,000 to each of them. The company also agreed to donate $1.5 million to endow the Rhythm and Blues Foundation. Soon after, other record companies followed suit and a slew of ’50s R&B artists were paid royalties.