Is Rumpole on Michael Jackson's List?

Michael Jackson's sudden break with his long-time attorney and adviser John Branca has all the intrigue and suspense of a genuine pop "Thriller."

The question everybody's asking: Why has pop's biggest star severed ties with Branca, the top rock attorney who guided Jackson's career for more than a decade?

Industry insiders offered a variety of conflicting plot twists after the news broke last week, but there was one common thread: The name of David Geffen, an industry power broker and longtime Jackson inner-circle adviser.

Speculation over Geffen's alleged role in the drama ranged from a power struggle between the chairman of Geffen Records and Branca to a long-range plan to possibly lure Jackson away from CBS Records.

Branca and the always press-shy Jackson refused to comment--and Geffen insisted he was not responsible for Branca's departure. "I had absolutely nothing to do with it," said Geffen, who recently sold his company to MCA in exchange for about $540 million worth of MCA stock.

Geffen continued: "I just think Michael decided it was time to make a change. It's no reflection on John. I think he's a superb attorney."

However, Geffen acknowledged that Branca's law partner, Kenneth Ziffren, has severed his ties with Geffen and his company in the wake of Branca's departure.

"Kenny is an old friend, who remains a good friend," said Geffen, who is also one of four members of a committee that regularly advises Jackson on financial investments. "But I think Kenny feels I should have warned him about what was going on. I just didn't feel I had the right to share whatever I might know about Michael's business with him--or anybody."

The break comes at a critical juncture in Jackson's career and a short time after being released from St. John's (CHK) Hospital where he spent several days undergoing tests after complaining of chest pains.

* Numerous key industry figures, none of whom wanted to be identified, confirmed that Jackson, who has been without a formal manager for more than a year, has been negotiating a contract with the L.A.-based management firm Steifel-Phillips, which has had success in recent years handling the careers of Rod Stewart, Suzanna Hoffs and Prince. The split with Branca has apparently put this deal on hold.

* Jackson is also scheduled to deliver his much-delayed new album to CBS Records by Aug. 1. The package, which has been shrouded in secrecy, was initially billed as a greatest-hits collection with perhaps four new songs. But the album may now consist of all-new material.

* More importantly, Jackson has been in the process of renegotiating his multimillion-dollar contract with CBS--and has made it clear that CBS will not receive the album until his deal is done.

While some observers blamed the ousting of Branca on Jackson's unpredictable temperament, several suggested the departure was prompted by tensions surrounding the CBS negotiations.

The veteran attorney handles a host of big names (including the Rolling Stones, Poison, David Lee Roth and several key corporate clients) and has been credited with helping establish Jackson as one of pop's wealthiest stars, thanks in large part to his extensive music publishing holdings, which include a Beatles catalogue now valued at more than $125 million.

One of Branca's strengths--his good working relationship with CBS Records--could have led to his downfall, some speculate.

"Rightly or wrongly, Michael was apparently unhappy--or at least concerned--with the way Branca was handling the renegotiation," said one top level exec. "He seemed to feel he needed someone who wasn't so closely associated with CBS as Branca."

Suggested another insider, "It's possible Branca brought some of this on by building a lot of his practice on Michael's shoulders. But like many pop stars, Michael is very insecure and was apparently jealous of any time Branca spent with other clients. . . . Michael could be worried about whether he'll ever be able to repeat the huge success he had in the mid-'80s. Maybe he has expectations that no one can possibly fulfill."

Several insiders speculated that if negotiations with CBS were to go badly, Jackson might choose to leave CBS--and sign with Geffen or another label--using a complicated legal loophole involving a seven-year limitation on binding contracts.

Geffen insists he has no intention of signing Jackson--and sources close to Jackson say the pop star has no interest in leaving CBS--unless negotiations reach an impasse.

As it stands, Jackson is scheduled to interview possible new legal advisers. It is expected that instead of hiring one attorney, he will spread his affairs among several lawyers, with one for music publishing, one for his CBS negotiations and one or more for films and litigation. Among the leading contenders are Lee Phillips (for publishing), Bert Fields (for litigation) and Alan Grubman (for record-label matters).

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