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A dramatic court decision nearly a half century in the making, including the last 10 years in a Texas federal courtroom, happened on Monday night when a judge awarded soul legend Al Bell the rights to hit 1990s songs including “Whoomp! (There It Is)” and “Dazzey Duks.” The outcome represents a declaration of Bell’s rights over the compositions. On Wednesday, a jury followed that up by awarding more than $2.5 million in damages for a record company’s exploitation.
Al Bell (aka Alvertis Isbell) was a pioneer of American soul music as an executive, record producer and songwriter. In the 1960s, he was head of Stax Records, and with artists on the roster like Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, Booker T. & the MG’s and Isaac Hayes, the company became one of the nation’s largest black-owned companies.
But in the 1970s, Stax fell into financial trouble. The record company had a difficult distribution relationship with CBS Records, and Bell and Stax were forced to borrow heavily. Stax sued CBS and its bank for antitrust violations, and then Stax was forced into involuntary bankruptcy. In 1975, Bell was indicted for bank fraud in a case that gathered tremendous attention. He was acquitted, but broke, and it would take two decades before the man who once marched with Dr. Martin Luther King and is credited with being an integral figure during the civil rights era, would land on his feet.
But even then, things didn’t come easy.
In the 1990s, he set up two companies — Bellmark Records and Alvert Music.
At Belllmark, Bell scored big with Tag Team‘s “Whoomp! (There It Is),” one of the fastest selling singles in the music industry history, the ’90s party anthem “Dazzey Duks,” and Prince‘s “The Most Beautiful Girl In The World.”
But money troubles still haunted Bell and in 1997, Bellmark filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
During the bankruptcy process, another record company stepped up to acquire Bellmark’s assets. This company was DM Records, which had a license on both “Whoomp! (There It Is)” and “Dazzey Duks” since 1995. After acquiring Bellmark’s assets, DM Records acted as though it owned the compositions and began licensing them to others.
But Bell maintained the songs were really owned by his Alvert Music, his publishing company that never declared bankruptcy. In 2002, he filed a lawsuit against DM Records, asserting copyright violations.
The case has been jumping around for a decade, moved to bankruptcy court and back to federal court, with much fussing over documents along the way.
DM Records contended that Bell was attempting to improperly assert ownership over the songs and that they never were properly transferred to Alvert Music. Failing that argument, DM believed that in interpreting the contracts, a judge should deem Bellmark as an alter ego of Bell.
But Bell’s attorney argued that the contracts over song rights couldn’t be more clear in stating that composition copyrights were not assigned to Bellmark but rather “Bellmark’s affiliated designee publisher.”
For the past two weeks, the parties have been involved in a trial over these issues.
Bell presented evidence that including his copyright registrations, how one of DM’s 17-year-old compliation albums once listed Alvert Music as the publisher of “Whoomp (There It Is),” and how Bell had to personally pay an adverse judgment of more than $632,000 for using an uncleared sample on the Tag Team single after a New York court determined he — not Bellmark — had licensed the hit song in question.
At the end of the trial, Richard Busch at King & Ballow, representing Bell, made a motion for judgment as a matter of law. It was successful. Busch says it is a “hugely important” victory for Bell, now 72 years old.
Busch tells The Hollywood Reporter that the judge on Monday night decided that DM never owned the composition and that Bell was the rightful owner of “Whoomp (There It Is).”
Richard Wolfe, attorney for DM Records, responds that the judge decided that his client owned the sound recordings. He also says he’ll be filing post-trial motions. “This is round one and there are many issues here,” he says. “Ultimately, this will be decided by a jury and an appeals court in New Orleans.”
Busch responds that sound recordings were never at issue.
After the judge’s verdict, the trial went into a damages portion and the jury found willful infringement. DM Records has been ordered to pay $2,131,432 in actual damages and profits for infringement of “Whoomp (There It Is)” and $132,500 in statutory damages for infringement of “Dazzey Duks.”
E-mail: email@example.com; Twitter: @eriqgardner
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