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VOL. 121 | NO. 186 | Thursday, September 21, 2006

Royalty Money Better Late Than Never, Music Heritage Group Insists

By Amy O. Williams

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Current board members of United Music Heritage
Dan Greer, president and CEO
Earl Randle
Whittier Sengstacke Jr.
Joseph Travis
John Sangster
Margaret Toler

Founded in 1985
Incorporated in 1987
Mission statement:

"Friends united to preserve musical heritage."

The Stax record label could be headed for a potential rebirth, thanks to Justin Timberlake's announcement Sept. 15 that he wants to build a contemporary version of the iconic label, which started in 1959 as a small record store in South Memphis and later helped launch the careers of music legends like Isaac Hayes and Otis Redding.

But one local group wants to help the other musicians who helped make Memphis music labels famous in the 1960s and 1970s.

The organization is the Memphis nonprofit United Music Heritage Inc., and its goal is simple - to help musicians.

Getting paid - late

One of the main goals of United Music Heritage is to help musicians from that era who were not compensated properly, said Dan Greer, chairman and chief executive officer of United Music Heritage.

"We have run across musicians that have not been compensated," Greer said. "They have legal contracts, but no legal representation."

Through United Music Heritage, Greer - once a producer at MGM's Sounds of Memphis - said he hopes to show these musicians how to find the legal help they need to get the money they're owed.

Some of the musicians Greer worked with during his career include Otis Redding, Sam Moore and Dave Prater of Sam and Dave, Gladys Knight and the Pips and The Ovations.

Though some of the musicians who recorded in Memphis went on to fame and fortune nationally, others died poor, Greer said. Musicians he knew personally such as Gus Cannon, Phinneaus Newborn Jr. and legendary blues singer Walter "Furry" Lewis were among the artists who achieved national fame, but died with nothing.

Lewis played on Beale Street for most of his life, and at the height of his popularity in the 1970s, opened for The Rolling Stones. In 1976, Joni Mitchell recorded a song about him called "Furry Sings the Blues." Despite his fame, Lewis died in Memphis in 1981 at the age of 88. Little is known about how he died. He is buried in Hollywood Cemetery with a marker bought by fans that reads "Bluesman."

"These are just a few of the people that I know personally that died basically indigent; they didn't have anything," Greer said.

Life, art and death

Greer's organization has been trying to raise money to pay for funerals and help indigent musicians pay their medical bills.

United Music Heritage formed in 1985 as a tribute to musician Fred Ford, who produced Cybill Shepherd's first album, "Vanilla," in 1978. Ford produced the album at Sam Phillips Studio in Memphis. Ford also performed on Willie Mae Thornton's "You Ain't Nothin' But A Hound Dog," according to Shepherd's Web site.

"After it was over in May 1985, we decided because it was so successful, we decided to make an organization out of it," Greer said.

The initial goal of United Music Heritage was to honor fellow musicians. The organization began giving its annual Music Pioneer Awards in 1986 and incorporated in 1987. The awards have not been given in several years following the deaths of two of the organization's board members, Cordell Jackson and Mattie Sengstacke.

However, the Music Pioneer Award has been given to such Memphis legends as blues singers Charley Pride, Joyce Cobb and the king of rock 'n' roll, Elvis Presley. The organization has given out more than 300 Music Pioneer Awards since its inception.

Through the years, United Music Heritage's goal has remained the same - to honor the musicians whose music made Memphis famous.

"We live in a city that claims music to be its chief byproduct, Beale Street is a Mecca for tourism, but the people who created the music are dying as indigents," said Nathan "Pedro" Lewis, who played guitar for the Memphis doo-wop group The Ovations.

Greer cites several of the labels that were operating in Memphis in the 1960s and 1970s for not properly compensating artists. Both Greer and Lewis say they have friends who recorded under those labels and still are disgruntled over their contracts.

But Memphis record labels were not the only labels to engage in the practice, Greer said.

"All the labels did that in those days," he said.

Enforcement efforts

As a remedy to that, other organizations across the country have begun to help artists seek compensation for their work.

Among them is SoundExchange, a Washington-based nonprofit organization designated by the U.S. Copyright Office to collect and distribute performance royalties for artists and copyright owners whose work circulates though such media as satellite radio, digital cable, satellite television music services and others, said Neeta Ragoowansi, director of artist-label relations for SoundExchange.

SoundExchange distributes royalties to more than 1,700 labels and 16,000 artists per quarter in the United States and abroad.

The range of royalties paid is anywhere from $10 and up for each sound recording, Ragoowansi said.

Some states also have taken up the royalties cause in recent years.

In 2004, New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer announced an agreement with top record companies to pay almost $50 million in unclaimed royalties to thousands of artists and performers, according to the Web site of New York-based Broadcast Music Inc. Among the musicians owed money were David Bowie, Dolly Parton and Willie Nelson.

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