Attorney Donald Engel, Record Contract Buster, Dies at 84

Don Engel - P 2014
Courtesy Mark Passin

Don Engel - P 2014

Attorney Donald Engel, whose groundbreaking legal victories for Olivia Newton-John and other musical acts snapped a record-industry stranglehold by freeing artists from their contracts, has died. He was 84.

Engel, who also successfully represented Donna Summer, Teena Marie and Boston's Tom Scholz in key court cases, died Wednesday in Redwood City, Calif., after a long battle with leukemia, attorney Mark Passin of Los Angeles-based Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi told The Hollywood Reporter.

Engel specialized in representing musical performers who were reeling from their contracts, and record companies often chose to settle rather than litigate when they were informed that he was hired. 

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"These artists feel they must make changes," Engel said in 1993 as he was going to bat for Don Henley in his bid to break free from Geffen Records, which had sued the Eagles veteran for $30 million to prevent that from happening. "And the company's position is that the artist is theirs for life."

The Los Angeles Times once referred to Engel as a "contract buster" and a member of “rock’s royalty.”

His clients also included musical artists Sammy Hagar, the Beach Boys, Frank Sinatra, Tom Jones, Michael Jackson, Janet Jackson, Stevie Nicks, Cher, Clint Black, Dixie Chicks, Janis Ian, Joan Jett, Meat Loaf, Rod Stewart, Van HalenLeiber & Stoller, Kasseem DeanDon Cornelius and Sydney Sheldon; managers Doc McGhee and Jay Bernstein; actors Farrah FawcettRobert Wagner and Stefanie Powers; and the estate of W.C. Fields and the Hopalong Cassidy character.

His most famous case was representing Newton-John against MCA Records. The singer made a deal in 1975 to deliver four albums the following two years, and MCA was given the option of getting more recordings for three additional years. The contract also allowed MCA to extend the term of the agreement if recordings weren’t delivered. When Newton-John decided she didn’t want to record for MCA anymore, the record company went to court to enforce the contract or restrain her from making albums for anybody else.

That led California judges to look at her deal under California’s “Seven Year Rule,” enacted to stop film studios from having a stranglehold on talent with long-term contracts. In a victory for Newton-John, courts decided that MCA couldn’t extend her contract past seven years even if she failed to perform under it.

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Engel’s legal wins caused headaches for record companies and were often the impetus behind furious industry lobbying and changes in law. In 1984, he successfully represented Marie when Motown Records wanted to restrain her from performing for anyone else. A California appellate court held that a clause in her contract that gave the label the right to pay her $6,000 didn’t satisfy the statutory requirement of minimum compensation. Soon after, the California legislature changed its minimum compensation statute.

Likewise, after Newton-John prevailed, California lawmakers carved out new rules for record contracts whereby artists who didn’t fulfill their commitment during the term of a deal could be sued for “lost profits” on uncompleted albums.

Born Dec. 11, 1929, in the Bronx, Engel graduated from City College of New York. After a stint as an intelligence officer in the U.S. Army during the Korean War, he attended NYU Law School, where he was first in his class.

He then worked in the antitrust division of the U.S. Department of Justice, taught law at Rutgers and NYU, and was named special counsel to New Jersey governor Richard Hughes to help coordinate the state's anti-poverty program.

Engel went into private practice and established Engel & Engel in 1972 with his wife, Judy. They became one of the country’s preeminent publishing law firms, representing Simon & Schuster, Grosset & Dunlap, Golden Books and a host of prominent authors. Three years later, the firm relocated to Los Angeles. 

In addition to musical artists, Engel represented many of the major corporations in the entertainment industry, including Harcourt Brace Jovanovich (then owners of SeaWorld), Interscope, Motown, MCA, Disney, Lorimar and Paramount.

In addition to Judy, his wife of 43 years, Engel is survived by children Gregory, Jacqueline, Laura and Stephen and grandchildren Samuel, Bradley, Jacob, Alec, Hannah, Rachel and Jason.

A service is scheduled for 11:30 a.m. Sunday at Mount Sinai Memorial Park in Los Angeles. In lieu of flowers, contributions may be made to the Sequoia Hospital Foundation in Redwood City.

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