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Blues for Freddie

The family of a Texas guitar legend fights to protect his legacy

Freddie King is not alive to battle those who would seek to profit from his legend. The blues guitarist, a man whose music inspired the likes of Stevie Ray and Jimmie Vaughan and Eric Clapton, has been dead since December 28, 1976, when years of bleeding ulcers and pancreatitis caused his heart to fail. But perhaps King wouldn't be surprised that there are folks still out there looking to fill their pockets with his hard-earned coin. It's the oldest story in the music industry: To list the names of musicians who had their works misappropriated -- especially before U.S. copyright law became more stringent in the late '70s -- is to recount almost every single artist who wrote a song, picked up an instrument and sang into a microphone. King is just one more hero standing in a very long line.

Even now, King's wife, Jessie, and daughter Wanda fight -- both in and out of court -- those profiteers who hope to get rich using his music and his name. And though he has been spared the humiliation of having to listen to his shoddier recordings made available to the public, Wanda and Jessie are engaged in an ongoing legal battle with a man named Roy Ames -- a convicted pornographer who lives in Houston and has, since at least 1988, profited from King's recordings. Ames, who's been in the music business since 1959, has thousands of recordings in his possession featuring performances by some of the best-known musicians ever to come from Texas. The list includes psychedelic progenitor Roky Erickson, electric-blues master Aaron "T-Bone" Walker and blues-rock great Johnny Winter. Joe "Guitar" Hughes, Pete Mayes and several other Houston blues vets are on the list as well, and their legal tussles with Ames continue to this day.

Wanda King filed her suit against Ames on December 28, 1995 in Dallas federal court, claiming that he has been exploiting myriad recordings of Freddie King without the estate's permission. Among her claims were breach of contract and copyright infringement. On March 25, 1997, a jury agreed with her, but after Judge Joe Fish was through with the verdict, he ruled that Ames owed only $11,375 to the King family -- far less than the $1.3 million the estate was originally seeking. The case is on appeal in the Fifth Circuit in New Orleans, where Ames, who insists he paid for the recording of the songs in question, is contesting the jury's decision. Wanda King, in turn, is contesting the amount of money Fish awarded the estate. A decision is expected sometime in the next few weeks.

At the heart of the lawsuit is a single album, a 1992 disc released by the Pennsylvania-based Collectables label titled Freddie King Live at the Texas Opry House. Ames claims he owns the master recordings from which the album -- and subsequent releases -- was made. Wanda and Jesse King say otherwise. Sounds like a simple case. Or is it?

For years, Wanda King has been extremely protective of her father's legacy, going so far as to lock up Freddie's guitars and photos to keep them "away from friends and fanatics." In 1995, she discovered that her father's mother-of-pearl .38 pistol had been stolen from the Hard Rock Cafe, and called the restaurant's management, telling them to return the rest of the donated items that had belonged to her father. From her Mesquite home, Wanda has also vigilantly pursued litigation against labels, domestic and foreign, that released "private recordings" of Freddie without the estate's permission.

Indeed, Ames is not her sole target. She explains that she is currently engaged in long-running litigation with a French label that has released bootleg recordings of King, and she's about to file legal papers against the Wolf label in Austria, which is selling its own unauthorized King disc. "It's like a traffic jam, I got so many people waiting in line here," she says. "They're robbing from us. They could care less. They know Freddie King is a money-maker. They have no love or respect for the blues. The blues have gotten a raw deal, because a lot of the elders of the blues were cheated on recording contracts, on artist royalties, on everything."

Indeed, there have been only a handful of official Freddie King releases in the 22 years since his death. Roy Ames is only the beginning of her troubles, not the end.

Ames, on the other hand, accuses King's attorney, Houston-based David Showalter, of attacking him in court because Showalter wants to release King's music on his own label, GoldRhyme Music Company. Ames points to another lawsuit, this one brought against him in 1995 by Showalter on behalf of 15 Houston blues musicians and their estates, as proof. However, Ames was ordered in that case to pay $121,500 to 13 of the musicians for copyright infringement and misappropriation. That case is also on appeal in New Orleans.

Ames insists he has the right to license the Texas Opry House recordings because he and King were old friends and had agreed to work together. Ames says he and King met when the former worked as the sales manager for the now-defunct Cincinnati-based Federal/King Records label, which released some of Freddie King's best-known recordings -- including such staples as "Hide Away" and "I'm Tore Down" -- during the early 1960s.

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