In certainly one of the more interesting local items to come in over courthouse.com, a Web site that reports on notable, unusual or legally significant filings in the federal courts, Houston songwriter and performer Archie Bell has filed suit against monumental soul-disco powerhouse Philadelphia International Records (PIR) and the hit songwriting and producing sister company Gamble-Huff Productions in the Houston division of the U.S. District Court.
PIR and Gamble-Huff are the corporate vehicles for the songwriting team of Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, the duo that single-handedly invented what became known as "Philly Soul," and together wrote or produced over 170 gold records. Gamble & Huff were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2008.
Along with his band The Drells, Bell had a Billboard No. 1 and a gold record with the 1968 Houston-centric single "Tighten Up." After picking up the single for distribution, and following several other charting singles collected onto the Tighten Up album, Atlantic rushed out follow-up album I Can't Stop Dancing that same year. Among other songs and production work, Gamble and Huff wrote Dancing's title track, which reached No. 5 R&B and No. 9 pop.
According to the Soul Patrol Web site, Bell and the group left Atlantic in 1970 and signed with the Glades label, where they had further chart success with "Dancing To Your Music" and "Girls Grow Faster Than Boys." Bell eventually signed with TSOP/PIR in 1973.
Gamble and Huff produced four albums for TSOP and/or PIR: Dance Your Trouble Away (1975), Where Will You Go When The Party's Over (1977), Hard Not To Like It (1977), and Strategy (1979). Bell began a solo career shortly after.
The court filing alleges that PIR et. al. breached their contract with Bell by not paying him royalties and other fees. Specifically, Bell's complaint alleges:
Defendants remitted some, but not all, of the payments for the royalties to Plaintiff and to others, but did not provide Plaintiff with an adequate, complete or accurate accounting of revenue received by Defendants or of the distributions made by them. On information and belief, Plaintiff had reason to believe that Defendants were diverting monies they had collected for Plaintiff s benefit and converting them to their own use and benefit in derogation of the duties owed to Plaintiff.
The legalese phrase "on information and belief" may sound like something out of a GOP primary debate, but it is a direct quote from Bell's filing. According to one attorney, this is a phrase lawyers use to imply that they don't have direct evidence, but they have witnesses who can corroborate the allegations.
When the filing goes on to allege "fraud/fraudulent inducement," it really gets interesting. In effect, the legalese basically says that PIR either misrepresented themselves to Bell or made promises they either couldn't or didn't keep to induce him to sign with the label. Further, by charging PIR with "fraudulent concealment," Bell's attorney seems to say that PIR engaged in a shell game to rook Bell out of his money.
In the music business? Imagine.
Rocks Off contacted one music business attorney, who noted that most contracts stipulate that disputes are to be settled in the home state of the record label, so the first thing likely to happen is that PIR's attorneys will file for dismissal, since Bell's cause seeks to have the matter tried in Houston federal district court.
"It's impossible to tell from the filing, but it almost reads as if the attorney hasn't seen a copy of the contract," says our source. "It's likely that this is being handled on a contingency basis," meaning the only way for Bell's attorney to make any money is to win the case and take a portion of any judgment as his pay.
"But attorneys aren't known for liking to do work that they have no chance of winning, so it seems logical that the attorney has some basis for thinking he can get the case tried in Houston rather than in Pennsylvania," the source adds. "PIR will certainly file a motion to dismiss at least partially based on the jurisdiction issue."
Our source went on to note that if PIR does not get a dismissal, the discovery phase could prove very interesting.
"If this matter moves ahead and isn't dismissed, Bell's attorney will certainly ask that PIR produce an accurate accounting, and it's doubtful that any federal judge would look with any favor on PIR if they say, for instance, we don't have any way of giving an accurate accounting."
"With all the hits he had, Bell is probably still receiving various checks from time to time for royalties, etc., so for PIR to say they can't give an accurate accounting won't be something a judge is likely to find very convincing, especially in Texas."
A local music attorney who requested anonymity told us that Bell's attorney, David Showalter, is "known for helping some of the old guys get money that's owed them."
He went on to add that, in his opinion, the suit likely has some merit.
Rocks Off attempted to contact Showalter but his office said he was "in transit" and could not be reached at the time of our publishing this blog. We will continue to seek comment from Showalter and will report our findings when and if we are able to speak with him.
Rocks Off attempted to interview Bell in late 2007, when we published a piece on the TSU Toronadoes ("Ghost Writers"), but at that time Bell told us he did not want to be interviewed due to pending, unrelated legal issues. We don't know for certain, but assume that this is the legal matter he referred to.
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This is not the first time PIR and Gamble-Huff have been accused of violating contracts with artists. Members of the O'Jays sued in 2005 for much the same issues as those in Bell's complaint.
Rocks Off will be monitoring developments in the litigation and will report on any breaking news in the matter as it occurs.