Acrimonious split... A local music insider is calling it a "horrible divorce." And for sure, the recent parting of ways between Houston bar-rock chanteuse Miss Molly (a.k.a. Molly Ann Elswick) and her longtime friend and manager Dickie Malone has all the ugly trappings of a stormy soap opera separation.

Miss Molly and her backup band, the Whips, broke it off with Malone -- who'd been handling the artist's career in one form or another since 1990 -- on May 15. Three months later to the day, Elswick, along with Whips Gene Kurtz and James Henkel, filed a civil suit in state district court demanding, among other things, the return of all Miss Molly and the Whips property (which includes, I might add, her cache of Press Music Awards) and payment of thousands of dollars that Kurtz and Henkel claim is owed them from live performances over the last seven months.

On her own account, Molly contends in the suit that Malone owes her royalties from sales of her last two releases (Miss Molly and In the Garden) and various merchandise, in addition to revenue derived from publishing rights (Malone and Elswick co-wrote many Miss Molly compositions). Also included among the plaintiffs in the suit are Brian and Jennifer Reed, die-hard fans who claim to have loaned Malone upward of $20,000 to help support the Molly cause. Needless to say, the couple claims to have never seen a return on their investment. Neither, they allege in the suit, did Malone ever attempt to pay back the money he borrowed from them -- with anything other than rubber checks, that is.

At deadline, Malone and his opponents were scheduled for a September 9 appearance before a judge. Although both parties have been instructed by their attorneys to say nothing to the media about the case, Whips bassist Gene Kurtz did talk to me about the dispute back on June 27. That proved to be news to Malone's lawyer, Seth Ellerin.

"We both agreed not to talk to the press," Ellerin said. "And I don't break agreements."

As you might expect, Malone has his own take on events, but he, like Molly, is keeping his mouth shut for now. One piece of possible evidence submitted with the suit, though, hints that Malone may have at least one leg to stand on: A 1995 letter signed by both Molly and Malone appears to confirm that the two were in a 50-50 partnership. As such, it's unlikely Molly could "fire" Malone, as she claims to have done in her personal affidavit, and it also suggests he may have some ongoing rights to the Miss Molly and the Whips enterprise.

Even so, there is plenty else accompanying the legal papers that raises an eyebrow -- i.e., photocopies of the bounced checks and some rather detailed accounts of Malone's alleged incompetence. Among the more glaring examples of the claimed mismanagement are a promotional deal with Budweiser from which Molly says she never saw a cent, and contentions that Malone borrowed money from clubs and promoters on the promise of repayment through a future Miss Molly and the Whips performance.

Still, those close to Malone insist that he's essentially good at heart and that he has always tried to act in Molly's best interest -- even when Molly herself failed to do the same. "He worked long hours into the night for her," says one insider, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

As for Molly's suit, the source adds, "it's all crazy and interdependent psychotic stuff. You can't just levy charges against someone when you participated in it."

The performer's and manager's paths first crossed in 1988, when Molly was still living in Lake Charles, Louisiana, the town where she got her start as a singer, and Malone was playing bass with the legendary Houston outfit the Dishes. Come 1990, he was overseeing all business pertaining to Miss Molly and the Whips. A partner in the Fabulous Satellite Lounge, Malone began booking Molly at the club when it first opened in 1992, and she quickly became a weekend staple of Houston nightlife.

According to both Molly and the two complaining Whips, the band's financial affairs began to unwind in 1995; the suit contends that poor accounting and Malone's wheeling-and-dealing with various third parties were largely at fault. For whatever reason, Molly always made it a point to stay out of the business side of her career. In fact, when all this nonsense came down, Kurtz told me in July, Molly was still largely in the dark.

But that's no longer the case. Molly is currently in charge of her own booking and management, and as part of her suit, she's seeking a temporary restraining order against Malone to prevent him from conducting any business in her or the Whips' names. It's a slightly paranoid move, perhaps, but Molly must know by now that she's running out of second chances. It's no secret that Miss Molly's star has faded significantly in recent years. Gigs have dried up, attendance at shows is down and the money simply isn't coming in at the same rate it was three years ago, when Molly was packing houses all over Texas and Louisiana. In his June interview, Kurtz reluctantly acknowledged that Molly's draw isn't what it used to be.

"It's taken way too long to put out what will finally be her third CD," he said. "[But] I would contend that [Malone] is as much responsible for any decline in Miss Molly's popularity as Molly might be." The disc in question, A Royal Pain, is in stores now, and -- big shock -- there isn't a single mention of Malone in the liner notes, though Malone did have a hand in writing the material. The success of A Royal Pain could mean the difference between a struggling career or no career at all. As if acknowledging such, the taut performances on the CD suggest a seasoned ensemble plugging along as if their lives depended on it. "We'll leave it all behind us / And nobody's gonna find out," Molly hollers with oxidized fervor on "A Place We Can Go."

For his part, Kurtz -- a fixture on the Gulf Coast music scene (he co-wrote the Roy Head classic "Treat Her Right") -- estimated that Dickie Malone Productions owes him in excess of $7,000 in back pay. And the stash of returned checks he's compiled over the last few months does offer some evidence for his case. While Kurtz admitted that Molly has had her problems in the past (Molly herself has never disputed her history as a hard-living gal), he added that "she's had it together for quite some time now."

Not surprisingly, the off-the-record bitterness between Malone and Molly is palpable. When given the chance, Molly and Malone rave like jilted spouses, spewing vicious barbs and claims of malfeasance, each accusing the other of a plethora of ills. If you believed every charge leveled by the two parties, you'd think both of them belong either in jail or under a doctor's supervision -- or maybe both. Whatever comes of the dispute, one thing is certain: The gaping rift between the two is blanketed in bad blood, broken promises and bum steers -- accompanied, it seems, by an incredible amount of denial.

-- Hobart Rowland

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Hobart Rowland