This Day in Music – Where There’s a hit there’s a writ

Where There’s a hit there’s a writ… as the old music industry maxim goes, suggesting that behind the story of every chart-topping release, there’s another one involving courts, allegations and lawyers.

In 1990, M.C. Hammer‘s debut album started a record breaking 21 week stay at the top of the U.S. album charts, making it the longest uninterrupted stay at the top since the album charts started, (in 19…something or other).

Nobody could touch the American rapper and dancer who in his “hammer pants” could do no wrong. Yes – those pants! Hammer’s superstar status made him a household name and pop icon. He went on to sell more than 50 million records worldwide, demonstrating hip hop’s potential for mass market success and was the first hip hop artist to achieve diamond status for an album.

According to “Forbes” he earned $33 million in 1990 and 1991, but his excessive spending while supporting friends and family sent the rapper $13 million into debt. Over the next few years, because of dwindling album sales, unpaid loans and a lavish lifestyle, Hammer eventually filed for bankruptcy in April 1996 at a California court. At the same time several songwriters were suing the rapper for copyright infringement (Hammer’s “Can’t Touch This” being said to use elements of Rick James‘ “Super Freak“).

Although Hammer’s Xanadu-like home in Fremont, California was sold for a fraction of its former worth, let’s remember that at the height of his success, it was estimated that Hammer employed 200 people, with an annual payroll of $6.8 million!

In 1998, The Ronettes appeared in the Supreme Court of New York for their lawsuit against producer Phil Spector. The Ronettes, whose hits include “Be My Baby” and “Walking In The Rain”, claimed that Spector had breached the group’s 34-year-old contract by paying the members no royalties since 1963.

Although The Ronettes went on to win the case, the New York State Court of Appeals overturned the decision four years later, saying that the contract the Ronettes signed with Spector in 1963 was still binding.

Citing the 1963 contract, the court also substantially reduced the amount they stood to gain from royalties on sales of records and compact discs.

The decision reversed two lower court rulings and ended a 15-year court battle that pitted the three singers against Phil Spector, the producer and songwriter who helped make them famous.

In its ruling, the State Court of Appeals said it found the Ronettes’ plight sympathetic, because they had earned less than $15,000 in royalties from songs that topped the charts and made them famous. However, the judges found that the Ronettes’ 1963 contract gave Mr. Spector unconditional rights to the recordings, yet another instance of the adage ‘the large print giveth, and the small print taketh away..’.

George Harrison was found guilty of ‘subconscious plagiarism’ of the Ronnie Mack song “He’s So Fine” when writing “My Sweet Lord”. Harrison’s earnings from the song were awarded to Mack’s estate; The Chiffons then recorded their own version of “My Sweet Lord”. Now that was very nice of them – but it didn’t do as well as Georges’ version.

Tom Petty has a rather relaxed view on all of this as he recently told Rolling Stone: “…a lot of Rock n Roll songs sound alike. Ask Chuck Berry. The Strokes took ‘American Girl’ [for their song "Last Nite"], and I saw an interview with them where they actually admitted it. That made me laugh out loud. I was like, ‘OK, good for you.’ It doesn’t bother me.”

And when some publisher noticed that a portion of the Bruce Springsteen single, “Radio Nowhere.” sounded similar to Tommy Tutone’s 1982 hit, “867-5309/Jenny” they contacted the writer.

Tommy Heath’s response was “I’m really honored at a similarity, if any, I think there’s too much suing in the world now”.

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