Making the Rhythm, but Living the Blues

By Newsome, Melba | American Visions, June-July 1997 | Go to article overview

Making the Rhythm, but Living the Blues


Newsome, Melba, American Visions


In less than a decade, the Rhythm and Blues Foundation has established itself as the champion of displaced and dissed music legends, righting wrongs committed against talented but often naive R&B pioneers. By coaxing, cajoling or coercing, the foundation has convinced or compelled major record labels to institute royalty reform, to pay back royalties and to forgive suspect "debts" of recording artists -- many of whom have fallen on hard times. It's quite an achievement for a movement that began when singer Ruth Brown determined to get the money she was rightfully due from Atlantic Records.

Many of the pioneers shared more than musical talent: They were cheated -- big time. Artists responsible for countless gold and platinum records were frequently paid as little as $50 to cut their songs, and they received few, if any, royalties while their hits stayed on the charts for months. Often young and unsophisticated, they found the deck stacked against them. They rarely scrutinized their contracts -- contracts that always favored the label. Creative bookkeeping kept them permanently indebted to the record companies, which often hand-picked the artists' lawyers.

Brown was a case in point, getting as little as $69 each and no royalties for a series of songs that enabled the then fledgling Atlantic Records to establish itself as an industry giant. One of the biggest-selling recording artists of the 1950s, Brown was so instrumental in Atlantic's success that the label was called "the house that Ruth built."

Not until the mid-1980s, when Brown was aided by attorney and R&B aficionado Howell Begle, did the singer who'd paid her dues get (some of) what was due her. Pressure from Brown and Begle, and a keen sense of public relations by a firm still profiting from the sales of her songs, led Atlantic to make amends. In the process, the Rhythm and Blues Foundation was born.

Jump-started with a $1.5 million endowment from Atlantic and a $450,000 grant from Time Warner, the foundation's mission is to educate the public concerning the worldwide political, cultural and economic impact, of R&B music. Based in Washington, D.C., the foundation sponsors archive and educational programs to preserve the music's history. Its annual Pioneer and Lifetime Achievement awards, an official part of Grammy week, pay tribute to artists who have made significant contributions to R&B.

Look beneath the surface of the foundation's mission statement, though, and you find the need -- and the passion -- that drove Brown to speak out. Much of the foundation's work is providing for indigent members -- members who appreciate that such rock giants as Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger and Eric Clapton credit blues and R&B singers as their inspirations, but who would really rather have had the money. That hard-edged, real-world concern is why the foundation's annual Pioneer Awards include money -- $15,000 to individual recipients and $20,000 to groups -- in contrast to other music awards, which are tributes only.

"We've also had the unpleasant task of burying our members," says Suzan Jenkins, the foundation's executive director. "In the nine years that I've been here, I've made funeral arrangements for more than 50 artists, including David Ruffin, Eddie Kendricks and Mary Wells." Sadly, last March, 68-year-old LaVern Baker's name was added to that list. Baker, only the second female vocalist inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, performed at the Rhythm and Blues Foundation `96 Festival from her wheelchair, having lost both lower legs to diabetes.

The foundation's festival testifies to a shift of its agenda: As its royalty reform efforts have laid a foundation, preservation has come to the fore. But can the recording industry's persistent gadfly put on a world-class festival, showcasing the music that enriched the industry? Looks like it can, for the Third Annual Rhythm & Blues Festival, which will take place July 25 to 27, in Newport, R. …

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