Blues for Freddie

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.

Other than his word, Ames has nothing to prove that he and King ever knew each other, much less entered into a business deal. Ames insists that "at one time" he and King did indeed have a written contract, "but I am unable to find [it] -- either that, or I never got around to signing it." He insists that shortly before King's death in December 1976, the guitar player was on his way to Houston to sign yet another deal to record for Ames.

Ames adds that anyone who wants to see his contract with King is "expecting too much." He doesn't want to discuss his stay in federal prison, from November 1975 to December 1986, where he served time for distributing porn through the mail. During his incarceration, Ames contends, many of his business records were lost.

But Wanda King counters that she has copies of every contract her father signed during his career, and there exists no agreement between Ames and King. She also says that her father never recorded for Ames.

Perhaps the reason Ames keeps finding himself on the wrong side of these legal judgments is because he often contradicts himself. At first, he says he recorded the Texas Opry House concert, and that he attended the show. Then, in the next sentence, he says he doesn't know whether he was present at the show or not. "I don't remember how [the recording] came about," he says. "I started recording people in 1959. Do you remember what you were doing on a Monday night in 1971? I have been at dozens of Freddie King concerts."

Though Ames claims he paid for the recording of the show, he also claimed during the trial he didn't know from whom he had obtained the master tapes. But earlier, in a deposition taken in the Houston case, Ames told Showalter he had received the tapes from Freddie's brother, Bennie Turner, who also was King's bassist from 1959 until King's death in 1976. At trial, Turner testified that during his tenure in King's band, he never once met Ames and insisted he never gave him the Texas Opry House masters. Ames says Turner is "lying," but he maintained a different position during the trial, claiming he might have gotten the masters from the sound engineer who recorded the concert at the Texas Opry House. However, he doesn't recall the man's name.

In 1988, Roy Ames began licensing the Texas Opry House masters to overseas labels, including P-Vine in Japan and Magnum in Europe -- even though Ames had no written proof of his "contract" with King. Since his release from prison, Ames has been snapping up lost master tapes, acetates, even 45 rpm singles recorded by Texas musicians both famous and obscure. He also collects and releases singles originally released on defunct Texas labels. Much of his catalog is made up of tapes that were abandoned in old buildings, garages and closets. Even he admits that he doesn't do much checking to see who owns the music. As far as he's concerned, the stuff is "public domain" -- his to release and profit from as he sees fit.

"That's what America is built on," he says.
Ames will not say how he finds these lost treasures -- "it's a trade secret," he insists -- but since 1990, he has been licensing such albums as Howling Wolf Blues: The Story of Talent & Star Talent Records and The Magic of Pyramids by Roky Erickson & The Thirteenth Floor Elevators through Collectables Records. In 1992, he entered into a deal with Collectables, which failed to check into Ames's claim that he owned the Texas Opry House masters. Indeed, during the trial, the label's co-owner and vice president, Jerry Greene, said his company simply took Ames's word for it, which is label policy.

In 1992, Collectables released Live at the Texas Opry House, which features Freddie King's band and an appearance by Dallas blues guitarist Bugs Henderson and his own group. Wanda King says she didn't find out about Texas Opry House until a year after its release, when someone warned her that Ames was "bootlegging" her father. She also discovered that at least one song from the disc was released by Collectables well before that: In 1991, "Boogie on Down" appears on Texas Guitar Greats: Golden Classics, alongside music from Johnny Winter and Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown.  

"I never believed he owned the masters," Wanda says. "Nowhere had my father ever mentioned a Roy Ames. In one article, Ames said he had been to our house. No way. We didn't know him.... We caught him in lie after lie. Roy Ames is a crook and a criminal, bona fide. He's the real thing, as they say."

Ames insisted during the trial that he tried to contact King's heirs before entering into his deal with Collectables in 1992. He explained that he "always [makes] an attempt to contact the heir when the singer is deceased." But he could not account for what efforts were made or who made them, only that someone told him that Jessie King owned a beauty salon. "And we spent a lot of time trying to locate that beauty salon."

When questioned for this interview, Ames said no other efforts were made to reach the Kings. Never mind that at least one of King's heirs is easily located in the Dallas phone book.

"All they had to do was pick up the phone and call us," Ames says. "It's not my obligation to call them. I own the tapes. I bought and paid for them. I can do whatever I want with them. I can burn them up if I want to."

Wanda claims she contacted Ames about receiving royalties from the sales of the disc; she says he told her he owned the tapes but would be happy to pay the estate a percentage of any money he made off disc sales. Though she didn't believe he owned the tapes, Wanda says that at the time, all she was looking for was a fair percentage of the royalties.

On August 17, 1993, Ames sent a contract to Jessie King -- who was administrator of the King estate -- that stipulated Ames and his company, Home Cooking Records, could "promote and sell PHONORECORDS of certain master tapes owned by Ames and featuring live performances of Freddie King and Band in concert." The contract also gave Ames the right to use King's name, likeness and any biographical material in order to promote the product. In exchange, the contract stipulated that Ames would turn over 15 percent of the wholesale price on any records sold "within 45 days after June 30 and December 31 of each year" thereafter.

Wanda King says she balked at the contract because its language was so broad. She wanted to limit the deal to include only the Live at the Texas Opry House disc. She says she called Ames and told him she was going to add a sentence to the deal stipulating as much, and that he agreed.

Ames also included a "signing advance" of $3,000, "as evidence of good faith." Jessie King promptly cashed the check upon receipt in August 1997. However, Wanda and Jessie King insist Ames did not live up to his side of the bargain and didn't pay the estate the royalties he owed. Though Ames sent the King estate two more checks totaling a few thousand dollars, she didn't believe he was providing her with an accurate accounting of sales figures. She was convinced he owed the estate far more than he was paying, despite Ames's assertion that the Live at the Texas Opry House sold barely more than 7,000 copies -- hardly enough to make anyone rich, he says now.

According to Wanda, she had her New York-based lawyer, John Gross, contact Ames and void the estate's deal with Home Cooking. Only Ames didn't see it that way. He continued to license Freddie King's music to whoever wanted it. He says he has the right do to it. In the end, the jury disagreed.

One of the issues that Wanda is raising on appeal is the matter of copyright infringement -- something Judge Fish threw out after the jury returned its verdict. The judge ruled that there could be no infringement because Wanda had not filed copyright papers with the Library of Congress until 1994, more than a year after the estate entered into its deal with Ames. But Showalter says that's ludicrous. He claims the Texas Opry House tapes were made in 1976. And according to copyright law in effect after 1972, they were Freddie King's property immediately upon his creation.

Though liner notes for Live at the Texas Opry House say the concert took place in April 1976, Ames insists the recordings were made in 1970, and therefore should be treated as public domain under pre-1972 copyright law. He points out that 1970 is the date written on the box of master tapes provided during the trial. But no one can prove who wrote the date on the box or when.  

More likely, said bassist Bennie Turner during the trial, the recordings must have dated "between 1973, 1974," because the first voice heard on the disc is organ player Deacon Jones, who joined the band in September 1972. Wanda King claims she also has written proof that the concert took place on April 20, 1976. In her possession, she allegedly has a document her father filed with the Houston Professional Musicians Association. (Back then, out-of-town performers sometimes had to pay union dues for their musicians.) For the concert at the Texas Opry House, Freddie ponied up $6.16 for the show.

Wanda says she has a good idea who sold the tape to Ames. She alludes to "someone in my father's organization" and is determined to keep the tape out of Ames's possession forever. She says this has nothing to do with Showalter. It's all about protecting her father's legacy, and keeping the money out of Ames's hands.

For his part, Ames simply shrugs and says the lawsuits in Dallas and Houston are ridiculous. To hear him tell it, he too is a victim of greed.

"I haven't done anything," he insists, sounding very much like a man tired of being attacked. "I simply recorded people, signed them to contracts, paid them an advance, and if they sold enough records, I paid them more. That's all that matters. Everything else is made up."

That, as they say, is for the courts to decide.

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