Robert Johnson article from Tuesday WSJ
Tue Mar 22 14:50:30 EST 2005

       As of Tuesday, March 22, 2005

The Print Edition

Blues Rift : Snapshots
Of a Music Legend
Lead to Tug of War
Relatives of Robert Johnson
Fight With Historian
Over Rights to Photos

March 22, 2005; Page A1

GREENWOOD, Miss. -- In about 1935, Mississippi bluesman Robert Johnson
mounted a stool at Memphis's Hooks Brothers Photography studio, picked
up his Gibson L-1 guitar, tipped his fedora and gazed into a camera

Nearly four decades later, Mr. Johnson's half-sister dug the resulting
photo out of a cedar chest to show to a dogged blues historian who had
tracked her down. The trunk she opened that afternoon in 1973 has since
turned into a Pandora's box.

That now-famous photograph and another one that was buried in the chest
have become the subjects of a convoluted legal tug of war between the
blues sleuth and relatives of the legendary musician, who died penniless
and without a will in 1938. At stake: Who is the rightful owner of the
iconic images, the only known photographs of the legendary musician, and
who holds their lucrative copyrights?

The dispute is the final chapter in an epic legal struggle, now entering
its 15th year, over Mr. Johnson's legacy. Earlier, a dramatic trial
elevated a sole heir from a handful of contenders, entitling a once-poor
truck driver to share in the lucrative rights to Mr. Johnson's music.
Now the dispute over the photos is proving just as tangled, thrusting
the blues historian and his business dealings into the spotlight.

"This has been an odyssey every bit as turbulent as the life of Robert
Johnson himself," says Connecticut lawyer Stephen Nevas, who represents
two family members.

To understand the spell that Robert Johnson casts over devotees of
American music, just travel here to the Mississippi Delta, a fertile
expanse of northwestern Mississippi that spawned a strain of blues that
became a foundation for rock 'n' roll.

Dedicated fans have placed gravestones for Mr. Johnson in three separate
rural cemeteries outside Greenwood, after puzzling over the sketchy tale
of his burial in an unmarked grave. He had been poisoned, the story
goes, at the age of 27 by a jealous juke-joint owner whose wife caught
the singer's eye. On a recent winter afternoon, guitar picks, cigarettes
and coins lay scattered around all three gravesites.

Robert Johnson Studio Portrait, Hooks Bros. Studio, Memphis, circa 1935

For decades after Mr. Johnson's death, little was publicly known about
him beyond the 29 haunting country-blues songs he recorded in Texas in
1936 and 1937, including "Love in Vain" and "Hell Hound on My Trail."
When CBS Records' Columbia label released a batch of them on a 1961 LP,
the company apparently assumed he had left behind no likenesses of
himself, and no heirs. The album was illustrated with a drawing.

Blues historian Stephen LaVere, now 61 years old, first learned about
Mr. Johnson's half-sister, Carrie Thompson, as he searched for leads in
Mississippi in 1973. When he reached Ms. Thompson by phone at her home
in Churchton, Md., he asked whether she had any photos.

"It's funny you should ask," he recalls her saying. "I had lost it for a
long time, but I found it in a Bible." An excited Mr. LaVere raced to

When she handed him the Hooks Brothers photo, he thought "album cover."
With Ms. Thompson's permission, he took the photo to a professional
photographer, who produced a negative for him.

As Mr. LaVere and Ms. Thompson rummaged through the trunk during a later
visit, Mr. LaVere came upon a scrap of paper, face down. Turning it
over, he saw a small photo of a man staring intently, a cigarette
dangling from his lips, guitar in hand. "Oh, that's little Robert," Ms.
Thompson told him. Mr. LaVere copied that one, too.

What Mr. LaVere did next has made him a controversial figure in the
blues world. He persuaded the elderly woman to assign him the rights to
the photos and other memorabilia. Assuming her to be Mr. Johnson's only
living heir, he also persuaded her to transfer her rights to Mr.
Johnson's songs and recordings, which until then had been treated as in
the public domain. In exchange, he promised her 50% of any royalties the
material produced. He told her he would commercially promote Mr.
Johnson's music.

But Mr. LaVere, it turned out, wasn't the first outsider to lay eyes on
a Johnson photo. After Mr. LaVere struck a deal with CBS Records to
release a new Robert Johnson collection, another sleuth, cultural
historian Mack McCormick, insisted to CBS that he had secured rights to
biographical information about Mr. Johnson during an earlier visit with
Ms. Thompson. Mr. McCormick came away from his visit with a photo of Mr.
Johnson and his nephew, a sailor. Mr. McCormick declines today to
comment on where that picture is. (Although he does not have a copy, Mr.
LaVere claims rights to that photo as well.)

Wary of legal problems, CBS put the record on ice, where it stayed for
15 years. Finally, in 1990, without the cooperation of Mr. McCormick,
CBS Records released a boxed set of Mr. Johnson's recordings, with the
Hooks Brothers portrait on the cover. It sold more than a million

As the royalties rolled in, the trouble began. By then, Ms. Thompson had
died, leaving her estate to her half-sister, Annye Anderson, a retired
schoolteacher who is now 78, and Ms. Thompson's grandson, Robert Harris,
a Chicago landscaper, now in his forties. Ms. Anderson opened court
proceedings to establish her claim on Mr. Johnson's estate.

That is when gravel-truck driver Claud Johnson, now 73, materialized
with a birth certificate listing as his father "R.L. Johnson, laborer."
His claim on the estate was supported by a sworn statement from an
elderly woman who claimed to have witnessed sexual relations between
Claud's mother and the itinerant musician in the woods along a country
road nine months before Claud's birth. A 1998 ruling named Claud Johnson
sole heir, entitling him to $1.3 million in royalties that had
accumulated in the estate, plus future royalties. Ms. Anderson got
nothing, and her appeal was unsuccessful.

The ruling, which entitled Claud Johnson to split proceeds from his
father's music with Mr. LaVere, threw ownership of the photos and their
copyrights into limbo. Did the photos belong to Claud or to Ms. Anderson
and Mr. Harris? And what about the copyrights, which Mr. LaVere said he
had secured following his 1974 agreement with Ms. Thompson? Under his
deal with CBS, those copyrights were yielding royalties of their own,
although it remains unclear what portion of several million dollars of
royalties is attributable to the photos.

"We can only guess what has been earned," said Mr. Nevas, the lawyer for
Ms. Anderson. "It is certainly in the six figures and probably in the
seven," a range Mr. LaVere says he wouldn't dispute. Ms. Anderson and
Mr. Harris, their lawyer claims, haven't seen a penny.

Ms. Anderson and Mr. Harris filed suit in 2000 against Mr. LaVere, Claud
Johnson and Sony Corp.'s music division, which had purchased CBS
Records. The photographs were family mementos, they argued, not the
property of the estate. Moreover, they claimed, in 1980 Ms. Anderson's
half-sister Carrie had rescinded the agreement under which Mr. LaVere
had obtained the rights. Mr. LaVere refused to relinquish the rights,
the lawsuit said. After several years of legal maneuvering between the
parties, the Mississippi Supreme Court last December ordered the dispute
to trial.

The case promises to bring questions about the images to a boil. Mr.
LaVere says the miniature photo he found in the trunk is a photo-booth
portrait. Ms. Anderson says her sister took it herself with a Kodak,
which, if true, could make it easier for her to argue that it doesn't
belong to the Johnson estate.

Nonsense, responds Mr. LaVere, who is unwilling to surrender his
copyrights. Photo booths render pictures as mirror images, he says, so
that the original pictured the right-handed Mr. Johnson as a left-handed

For the moment, that is impossible to verify. Mr. Nevas, Ms. Anderson's
lawyer, said he is "not at liberty to say" where the photographs are.
When pressed, he says only: "They're in the possession of my clients."

Claud Johnson, for his part, has yet to stake out a position on the
matter, but his lawyer, James Kitchens, promises to do so soon. "I'm not
ready to tell you," he says.

Write to Mitchell Pacelle at

Copyright © 2005 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved

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