One of the hundreds of songs written by the late blues pioneer Willie Dixon is called “I’m a Businessman.”
Nearly three years after Dixon’s death, a jury is being asked to decide how good a businessman he was, and whether he should have known better when he signed away a portion of his song rights 17 years ago.
In a case just getting under way in Los Angeles County Superior Court, Dixon’s widow, Marie, is pitted against the singer’s former personal manager, Scott Cameron. The main issue is a one-page agreement Dixon signed in 1977 forever giving Cameron a third of his publishing royalties, a document Marie Dixon argues should be voided because her husband was duped into signing it.
Millions of dollars are at stake in the battle. Dixon, one of the legends in American blues, who died in 1992 at age 76, inspired some of rock’s top performers and wrote scores of songs recorded by major artists, including “Back Door Man” by the Doors, “Seventh Son” by Johnny Rivers and “Little Red Rooster” by the Rolling Stones.
Music royalty court fights have become increasingly common as artists and their attorneys challenge details of contracts, some signed decades ago. In a similar court case being heard in Los Angeles, Beach Boy Mike Love is suing his cousin Brian Wilson over royalties and credit for some of the group’s 1960s classic songs.
Such disputes have been especially bitter for blues artists, many of whom maintain they were shamelessly exploited by record executives when they were young. Indeed, Dixon in 1979 founded the Blues Heaven Foundation, which helps blues artists recover their royalties and rights. Dixon himself once filed a lawsuit--and received an out-of-court settlement--claiming the 1969 Led Zeppelin hit “Whole Lotta Love” was virtually identical to his 1962 song “You Need Love.”
Dixon’s royalties today flow to Hoochie Coochie Music, a business of Marie Dixon named for the Dixon classic “I’m Your Hoochie Coochie Man.” It receives half the royalties as songwriting rights, with the remaining half being the publisher’s share of the royalties, the ownership of which is at the center of the dispute between Marie Dixon and Cameron.
One court document suggests that the publishing rights overall could be worth $6 million, though such valuations are highly subjective and can change depending on the popularity of specific songs.
As an example, three songs Dixon either wrote or co-wrote appear on Eric Clapton’s recently released hit blues album “From the Cradle,” and two others, including his classic “I Just Want to Make Love to You,” are being used in beer commercials.
In the 1970s, Dixon fought a legal battle to regain his songs from ARC Music, a blues publishing firm that Dixon said improperly gained control over his songs. He reached an agreement in 1977 to get them back.
Cameron and his attorney, Russell J. Frackman, argue that the agreement to give Cameron a third of the publishing royalties amounts to a contingency fee he earned doing invaluable research to help Dixon get his songs back. They argue that before he died, Dixon realized payments of about $3 million as a result of the deal.
“When Scott started to look into it, Willie Dixon didn’t have any rights. When Scott was finished, he got back his rights,” Frackman said.
Marie Dixon and her attorney, Joseph Hart, claim Cameron exaggerates his role in helping Dixon reclaim his songs and that any lawyer put on the chase would have easily unearthed the evidence Cameron found. They further argue that Dixon was no businessman and was barely even literate, submitting as evidence one letter he wrote full of misspellings and grammatical errors. As a result, they argue, Dixon didn’t understand what he was signing when he agreed to give Cameron the one-third share.
“I don’t want to be partners with this man, and Willie didn’t want to be partners with this man,” Marie Dixon said just before a court hearing Thursday.
Frackman disputes the characterization of Dixon as unsophisticated, noting that he acquired some publishing rights on his own and was therefore familiar with the business.
“He wasn’t dumb at all. Willie Dixon was a very smart man,” Frackman said.