Re: [Harp-L] Willie Dixon Controversy

Song stealing in the Fifties, and before and since, was as common as dirt. Credit "sharing" even moreso.

I worked for a company that bought the Starday/King publishing catalog. Going through this enormous catalog I kept seeing the same name appearing as a writer or co-writer on thousands of country and R&B songs, many of them very big hits. I no longer remember that name, but this name even appeared on the original contracts, as one of the writers, signature and all. I finally ran into someone who had worked at King and he told me that that was the pen name of the owner of the two companies, and he always got the publisher's half and generally got half of the writer's royalty by insisting on being listed under the fictitious name as the "co-writer."

We were re-copyrighting the entire catalog, song by song, to take advantage of the then-new 1978 copyright laws. The catalog had a great deal of material that was in fact old public domain folk songs. In those cases the owner of the catalog had copyrighted those as sole writer, under his fictitious name.

We re-copyrighted those, too.

There are four principles to stealing a song.
1. Back in the 50's, and going forward and backward, many singers who wrote their own material had no idea that you got money when the records sold or were played on radio and TV. In fact, many had no idea what the names in the parenthesis on the record label were. They were hoping to make money on record sales and on better pay for their live shows.
2. It's a penny business. The idea that it's a penny business hides the fact that those pennies add up if you have a hit. So if someone else wants the credit and the pennies, big deal. Right?
3. If the record company also owned the publishing company, and they almost always did, you didn't get a fair accounting no matter WHO got credit. So why bother fighting?
4. Shared credit, or stolen credit, was presented as a fait accompli. Either you agree to this, or we aren't even going to put out the record. Many artistes couldn't believe their luck at being recorded in the first place. (Imagine if someone were making a documentary about blues harmonica players. They said, "Your music can be in the movie, but you will get no money from it ever, and we get to make money from it as long as the copyright lasts." That couldn't happen, could it? Nobody would fall for that, would they?)

Now, copyrighting folk songs is a very interesting species of -- is it theivery? If the writer of a lyric or melody is long dead or obscured in the mists of the past, why the hell not grant oneself the credit?, some would argue. How the heck are you going to figure out who really wrote Spoonful, especially if you are changing it all around and making it into a commercial song anyway. Did Bo Diddley write Bo Diddley? Did he write that rhythm? (He made both things special all over again. He took composition credit, and then took the name as his own. Did he get paid every nickel he had coming? Who knows?)

Here's a great twist on all this. Leiber and Stoller wrote Hound Dog for Willy Mae Thornton, at the request of her producer Johnny Otis. Johnny Otis informed them that the Duke/Peacock record label would be publishing the song and that he'd be taking a third of the writer's credit and the back-end. Leiber and Stoller agreed. What could they do?

But then the record came out and the song was credited to "Otis-Robey", Robey being Don Robey, the Dallas gangster who owned the record label. Leaving Leiber and Stoller off the credits turned out to be a gigantic mistake on the part of Otis and Robey.

Leiber told me that he wanted to let it go, but that it really irked Stoller, so they pursued a suit against Otis and Robey. Four years later they won the suit, based on the idea that they had signed the contract when they were minors. Both the writers' credit and the publishing reverted to them, not long before Elvis Presley made the song one of the most valuable copyrights in publishing history.

But here's where it even gets weirder. As the hipsters on this list probably know, the original song is sung by a woman who is kicking a free-loading gigolo out of her house. There is nothing about 'never caught a rabbit' anywhere in there. It would have to be changed significantly in order to make it a song a male would sing.

A year before they won back all rights to Hound Dog, a band named Freddie Bell and the Bellboys made the adaptations needed to allow them to sing it. They changed the melody, the length of the lines, they changed just about everything except for that magical first line. They made a record of it, and that got them work in Las Vegas as a lounge act, and that's where Elvis heard their version, which is the one he recorded.

The song was as different from the original as Willie Dixon's Spoonful was from Charley Patton's. But Freddie Bell's record label credited the song to Leiber and Stoller, and so did Elvis' label, RCA. It happens that Leiber and Stoller were probably the greatest songwriters of the era, and they went on to write more than 30 more songs for him because of Hound Dog.

So fighting for their rights, and owning them even when the song was significantly altered, made Leiber and Stoller a pile of money.

Now, whenever we get into a money discussion on Harp-l someone chimes in and says "I don't care about any of this, why can't music just be about the fun of playing music?"

I agree with you whole-heartedly. Mind if I take your publishing?

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