Howell Begle Got Early R&B Artists a Few of the Dollars They Earned

In the continuing struggle to convince record companies they need to pay artists a fair share of the money those artists earn for the company, Howell Begle was one of the good guys.

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Howell Begle (top), Ruth Brown (center).

Begle’s death on Dec. 30, from injuries he suffered in a skiing accident a week earlier, would be well-marked by keeping that battle alive.

In the 1970s and 1980s, Begle became a successful corporate lawyer by facilitating media mergers, particularly among newspapers.

But that didn’t make him as unlikely a royalty reform activist as it might seem.

One of the things he did when he wasn’t negotiating for the Denver Post was collect and listen to vintage American popular music, including some that had never been popular at all. His record collection included blues, rhythm and blues, country, gospel and folk music, with 78s by the likes of Peetie Wheatstraw, Hank Williams, the Four Buddies, Dinah Washington, the Cardinals, Bessie Smith and Fats Waller.

The man had taste.

One of his favorites was Ruth Brown, whose recordings like “Teardrops From My Eyes” and “Oh What a Dream” and “Mama He Treats Your Daughter Mean” made her one of the signature female singers from the early days of rhythm and blues. In 1983 Begle went to see her perform and brought along some of her records, hoping she would autograph them for him.

She did, and in the course of their conversation, one of those disturbing factoids about the music biz came up. Begle could probably have sold any one of her records for more money than she had received in royalties for the past 25 years.

If he had worked with the music business, that wouldn’t have surprised him. He hadn’t, so it did, and he promised Brown he would look into it.

What he found appalled him. The way the music biz worked in Brown’s day, artists signed a “standard” deal for maybe 1%-5% royalties, or perhaps a flat per-song fee.

Then the company started charging the artist’s account for session time, engineering fees, touring expenses, unsold copies, and abra-cadabra, the artist “owed” so much money that no matter how many records he or she sold, there would never be a royalty.

In fact, companies like Atlantic, for which Brown recorded and which was sometimes considered one of the more artist-friendly companies, at a certain point shut down their pre-1960 royalty books altogether.

Meantime, starting in the 1970s, record companies began reissuing reams of that early material, often quite successfully. Artists didn’t get any royalties this time, either, though their accounts did get charged remastering fees.

As artists got older and their health declined along with their ability to tour and earn money, the grim stories started to surface. Seriously ill Joe Turner had to drag himself onto stages on crutches to make rent money. Mary Wells, hospitalized with terminal cancer, was getting eviction notices. LaVern Baker, who had lost both legs to diabetes, owed $140,000 in medical bills.

Brown herself had been working as a maid, among other things, to pay her rent. She answered her phone in a fake voice so bill collectors would think Ruth Brown wasn’t home.

Begle began looking for ways to persuade record companies to take some responsibility here, starting with Atlantic and, he hoped, rippling out to others.

Like Brown, he stressed from the start that he wasn’t asking for charity. He was looking for record companies to pay artists fair compensation for the work on which the companies made their money.

Over the next few years, as Begle gathered evidence and started conversations, his work paid off. Soon after Ertegun co-founded the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, reflecting among other things his interest in his legacy, he agreed to recalculate royalties for artists like Brown and to “forgive” debts still on the books.

Brown received a $20,000 royalty check, her first in decades. Other artists did as well.

This wasn’t anything like total victory. Atlantic and other companies said they couldn’t pay royalties from the 1950s because the books were missing, or closed, or incomplete, or something. The settlement also didn’t go across the board, just to specified artists.

Some record companies followed suit, sort of. EMI raised royalty rates to 10% for many of its vintage artists. Other record companies didn’t budge, saying the books were the books.

Begle found it frustrating, though he didn’t discount the value of real cash in the pockets of those artists who previously had received none.

As a kind of outgrowth from Begle’s campaign, Ertegun donated $2 million seed money in 1988 to start the Rhythm and Blues Foundation, whose mission was to honor and assist early rhythm and blues artists. Begle became its first executive director.

Soon, however, as often happens with well-intended organizations, fissures developed.

Begle felt the best way the Foundation could aid veteran artists, long-term, was to help push royalty reform — for a very specific reason.

The biggest worry for many aging artists, as for many aging Americans in general, is health care. Because these artists were members of the union AFTRA, they could become eligible for the AFTRA health insurance plan if they earned at least $7,500 a year in royalties.

The Foundation board declined to get involved in the royalty push, with a majority arguing that would be a distraction from its greater mission and would brand it as an advocacy group, hindering its ability to raise money.

Begle, quietly, and others, not so quietly, suggested those Foundation board members were protecting the record companies for which many of them worked.

Begle resigned from the Foundation in 1998. The Foundation remained active for another decade, primarily hosting an annual Pioneer Awards ceremony at which grants — initially $10,000 — were given to about a dozen honorees each year.

Begle’s work gradually wound down. He moved to Boston, spending most of his time with his family there and on Martha’s Vineyard. As years passed, so did many of the artists for whom he initially worked, including Brown in 2006.

Whatever his legacy with newspaper mergers, an area that sounds downright quaint these days, Howell Begle left a sharp and valuable mark with his legal avocation.

He made no money from his crusade for royalty reform. He did admit that he enjoyed the challenge, and he took visible satisfaction when he was able to mitigate some part of serious wrongs.

As always happens in these kinds of contentious campaigns, he didn’t please everybody. But he made people pay attention to something it would have been easy to keep forgetting — because Mama, the music business did treat its daughters mean.

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David Hinckley wrote for the New York Daily News for 35 years. Now he drives his wife crazy by randomly quoting Bob Dylan and “Casablanca.”

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