Robert Gordon | Memphis Rent Party | Bloomsbury | March 2018 | 32 minutes (6,304 words)
This story first appeared in LA Weekly in 1991.
* * *
The sun did not shine, but it was hot as hell the day a memorial stone was unveiled for bluesman Robert Johnson near a country crossroads outside Greenwood, Mississippi. About seventy-five people filled the tiny Mt. Zion church, a row of broadcast video cameras behind the back pew and a bank of lights illuminating a hoarse preacher as he praised a man who reputedly sold his soul to the devil.
There was no finality in setting the stone. The attention came fifty years too late, and even if his memory is more alive today than ever before, Johnson’s rightful heirs still have nothing but the name. This service was not about the body of the bluesman, which lies in an unmarked grave somewhere in the vicinity; it was about the guitar-shaped wreath provided by Johnson’s current record label, and about the video bite that would be beamed into homes around the country that April 1991 evening.
Johnson’s recordings captured a spirit, a desperate, maniacal, even existential spirit, but so have other recordings. Leroy Carr, Kokomo Arnold, Tommy Johnson, and people whose names we don’t even know have weeds instead of memorial stones on their graves. But Johnson has the myth.
When he first played around Robinsonville, Mississippi, his skill was so poor that other musicians made fun of him. After traveling for a year or so, he returned and talked his way into playing a party while the great Son House took a break. “He was so good! When he finished, all our mouths were standing open,” recalled the late House. “I said, ‘Well ain’t that fast! He’s gone now!’ ” Many people were suspicious of his sudden improvement. Whether Johnson himself told others or whether it was whispered about him when he was not around, the possibility was generally accepted that he had sold his soul to the devil.
His fatal poisoning at age twenty-seven in 1938 also stokes the myth—the murderer and the means remained unknown for decades. His mystery was so great, it was not until the midseventies that researchers knew what he looked like; no photograph had ever been found. Johnson’s racked, cryptic voice, and the drama of his guitar playing have influenced countless musicians (When Keith Richards first heard Johnson, he asked, “Who’s the other guy playing with him?”).
Only in the last year have fans been able to hold the myth in their hands. Robert Johnson: The Complete Recordings, a boxed set released in August 1990, has triggered extraordinary interest in the mysterious bluesman. The Complete Recordings marked the first time that all the known tracks by the Delta blues great were issued together. More than six hundred thousand sets have been sold worldwide; the box reached as high as eighty on Billboard’s pop charts, generating an initial royalty payment described by a source at Columbia as a “chunky six-figure check.” (Using a standard formula for royalties, that would be approximately $420,000.) With the next payment in September, Johnson’s combined royalties could amount to well over a million dollars. Johnson won a Best Historical Album Grammy in 1990, but in 1991 he is a contemporary pop phenomenon. He’s been on the cover of numerous magazines, been featured as the lead story on Entertainment Tonight, and been the subject of talk around Hollywood. Robert Johnson is a growth industry. For somebody.
To date, Robert Johnson’s family has received no money from The Complete Recordings, no money from cover versions of his songs, no money from the publishing of the singer’s photograph.
* * *
Decades back, when a folklorist for the Smithsonian Institution named Mack McCormick chanced upon information concerning Robert Johnson’s death, the mysteries of the bluesman’s life began to open up.
“In 1971,” says McCormick, an authority on Texas blues who had been pursuing Johnson since 1948, “an ex-wife and Johnson’s children were located.” The following year, he found Carrie Spencer Thompson and Bessie Hines, two of Johnson’s half sisters. Among their documents were the first two photographs of Johnson ever discovered by researchers: a studio picture of Johnson and a nephew and a dime store booth shot. McCormick signed agreements with both sisters granting him first publication rights for the pictures and for biographical information to be used in a book already under way.
Soon after meeting the sisters, McCormick contacted Columbia Records’ John Hammond. In the course of the legendary talent scout’s career, Hammond had worked with Don Law, the producer of Johnson’s two recording sessions; he was also a passionate Johnson fan, and a key source for McCormick. By the time they corresponded in 1972, McCormick was giving the strong impression the book, Biography of a Phantom, was imminent.
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But in the summer of 1973, blues entrepreneur Stephen C. LaVere also found Carrie Thompson. (Bessie Hines had died.) LaVere asked Thompson about Johnson memorabilia, and she presented him with a photograph different from the two she had given McCormick. LaVere remembers: “She told me, ‘You know it’s really strange that I didn’t have this picture when Mr. McCormick was here.’ And we both took that as a sign of Providence that the good Lord just didn’t want Mack McCormick to have that photograph.” LaVere went to Thompson’s attorney and had a new agreement drawn up, assigning him ownership of her photographs and, as long as God was on his side, ownership of Johnson’s copyrights. Thompson died in the early 1980s.
“As the last known surviving heir,” says LaVere, “Carrie Thompson was the holder, the common law copyright owner, of all Johnson’s compositions. My arrangement is a full and complete transfer of all right, title, and interest to me. I am now the copyright owner . . . Now that she is gone I have an obligation to pay her heirs, and when I’m gone, my heirs have to pay her heirs. And it goes on, as long as money is collected, money will be paid.”
Money is being collected, but money is not being paid.
* * *
Like the Mississippi River that constantly eats away at its banks, the Robert Johnson myth consumes fans, critics, and scholars. Eventually, everything at the edge of the river falls in. Everything becomes mud. “It’s almost part of the Robert Johnson myth that as you become involved with it you decide you own it,” states Jim Dickinson. A producer and musician who has worked with people as diverse as the Rolling Stones, Sleepy John Estes, and Sly and Robbie, he is a longtime Mississippi resident. “It comes with the territory.”
When screenwriter and filmmaker Alan Greenberg was beginning his screenplay for Love in Vain, a fictional account of Johnson’s life, McCormick invited him to peruse his research files. “The summer of ’77 I was in the Delta,” Greenberg recalls. “By the time I got to Houston, I had been skipping meals and nursing the gas pedal just to get there. I get to his house, he invites me in, everything is very nice, he gives me a drink, which got me very drunk just from the first sip because I was starving, and when I got to the point of saying, ‘Okay, where do we begin with all the research stuff,’ he said, ‘For $35,000 and six and a half percent of the profits of your film, I’ll show it to you.’ ”
A record collector tells of a time he was riding on a California highway with LaVere in the midseventies. “I had a tape of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s live album, and I asked him if he had heard it. And he went nuts when he heard Johnson’s ‘Crossroads.’ He said, ‘Pull off at the first place you can where there’s a phone.’ And this is like nine o’clock at night, out in the middle of nowhere near San Diego. It would have been midnight on a Saturday night in New York. He called some people back in New York and started screaming how he was going to sue ’em and all this kind of stuff, wanted a cease and desist order immediately on the record and wanted them to pay him royalties.”
Like the Mississippi River that constantly eats away at its banks, the Robert Johnson myth consumes fans, critics, and scholars.
Both LaVere and McCormick were fans of the blues before Robert Johnson came into their lives. But when these two men, from distinctly different backgrounds, found Johnson, they found a calling.
Robert Burton “Mack” McCormick, the first Robert Johnson authority, lives in Houston. The son of X-ray technicians, he has worked on a chicken farm in Alabama, been employed by the National Park Service, and shilled for a Las Vegas casino. By the 1960s, McCormick was writing about jazz for DownBeat and producing records for people like Lightnin’ Hopkins and Robert Shaw. In 1965, he took a group of Texas prison inmates to the Newport Jazz Festival. He has worked in various capacities with the Smithsonian Institution.
“He’s an excellent field-worker, an excellent writer, and an excellent idea person,” says Ralph Rinzler, assistant secretary emeritus at the Smithsonian, and the man who brought McCormick to the Institution. “He’s meticulous and determined in his pursuit of information.” Among his other achievements is an enlightening ten thousand–word essay that accompanies the 1974 album Henry Thomas—“Ragtime Texas.” Other writing projects, however, have not fared as well. He collaborated with author Paul Oliver on what was to have been a definitive history of Texas blues, though it has yet to be published. McCormick is also a playwright; one of his scripts was produced in England.
A very private person, Mack McCormick rarely grants interviews. After two weeks of receiving phone messages and a Federal Express package from this writer, McCormick’s “brother” finally responded. Claiming to be a lawyer, the “brother” provided much information about the search for Johnson’s family, including firsthand observations; apparently, he often accompanied Mack on research trips. The “brother” asked not to be quoted. McCormick’s quotes come from articles and press releases.
Stephen C. LaVere, the son of a Los Angeles piano player who worked with Jack Teagarden, is a longtime record collector who started out working in record stores. He narrates his background, like he describes his current work, in a smooth and patient voice, his tone conveying an ordered world with everything in its place. “I produced a number of records for the Liberty combine—Imperial, Blue Note, World Pacific, those labels,” he recalls over the phone from his Los Angeles home. Sunnyland Slim, Shakey Jake, and the Muddy Waters Blues Band are some of the performers he recorded. “I was very close friends with Bob Hite and Henry Vestine of Canned Heat. We had a brainstorm one day and came up with the Legendary Masters Series, which was a very successful series for Imperial, reissuing a lot of early blues.”
LaVere went south in 1969 to work at the Memphis Country Blues Festival. “I became acquainted with Furry Lewis, Bukka White, Piano Red, Sleepy John Estes, and all those people, and it was just mind-staggering. I couldn’t believe the wealth of blues talent that was just laying there going to rot, getting one festival a year and a gig here and a gig there. I was there until May of 1975 working with the old cats.”
A job with Sun Records, then recently acquired by music industry entrepreneur Shelby Singleton, led LaVere to independent research. He turned up new information about bluesman Joe Hill Louis and rediscovered Harmonica Frank Floyd and Jimmy DeBerry, as well as a few other neglected musicians.
His former employer at Sun, Shelby’s brother John Singleton, has not forgotten LaVere. “He kept some of our tapes, which rather perturbed us,” recalls Singleton, who now runs the label. “I think it’s well known in the industry that several of our things showed up on bootleg albums not too many years after that. We’ve really had nothing to do with him since.” (Among tapes said to have come into his possession are Howlin’ Wolf sessions and a famed Jerry Lee Lewis conversation about the devil. LaVere says about the accusation: “No, that’s not true.”)
“One of my oldest and closest friends” is how LaVere refers to photographer Ernest Withers, who has documented Memphis’s African-American culture for five decades. In the 1960s, according to Withers, LaVere took an extensive collection of photographs and negatives from his studio without permission. Recently, a Memphis museum obtained photocopies of LaVere’s collection of Withers’s material. “When I saw that stack of pictures, I realized: Here’s a man who robbed me. There’s collections of dead folk, church people, people he don’t know. All he knows is Elvis Presley and Bobby Bland,” says Withers. “Here’s my wife with Count Basie,” he continues, holding a photocopy of the image. “Do you think I’d give him that?” And though Withers vehemently states, “I have never signed a contract with him,” LaVere wrote in Living Blues magazine: “The shot of Howlin’ Wolf [in the boxed set booklet] is my copyrighted photograph by Ernest C. Withers.”
Withers is contemplating legal action. “It was a verbal agreement,” says LaVere. “He said just take ’em with you and if you make any money off ’em, share it with me.”
“LaVere used to run this little shop on Cooper,” recalls Jim Dickinson, “a curio shop, used records and that kind of shit, and Nazi stuff. I mean for real Nazi shit.” The store was called the South Cooper Street Curio Shop; after LaVere left Memphis, the building was destroyed in a fire that may have been set by striking firemen. “That’s where I first saw the pictures of Robert Johnson. And he had dogs that he kept there all night because he was paranoid someone was going to steal from him what he had stolen. He was here for a good many years, all through the seventies. Used to drive an old Buick.”
(“Oh yeah,” says LaVere, “we sold all kinds of stuff, anything that would sell.”)
“Outside behind the old Home of the Blues,” continues Dickinson, referring to another Memphis record store, “they used to throw away the old 78s, and I’ve seen LaVere and [folk guitarist / folklorist] John Fahey stand behind Home of the Blues and if there were three of a certain thing, they’d take one each and they’d break the third one. I saw that personally.” The rarer the records, the higher the value to collectors.
LaVere returned to California, where he “spent seven or eight years in the insurance business.” By selling policies door-to-door, a record collector can gain entrance to peoples’ homes—and to their music collections. The residents can unload some clutter and get a little spending money; the collector can find, literally, lost treasures.
Documentarian and musician Randall Lyon was active in Memphis’s country blues renaissance. He too met LaVere. “At the time, white people didn’t like us playing black music, and black people didn’t like us invading their communities.
“When people started realizing money could be made on this music, this guy came along who smelled a buck, he lived in Los Angeles and all, and he really creamed us. We were just a bunch of naive redneck hippies.
“We were so involved with getting people to trust us that we didn’t even see [LaVere] sneaking up on us. And finally, when all our records and all our paraphernalia was gone, we realized what he’d done.”
Since 1983, LaVere has been a dealer in rare records and has established a small photo archive. “You have to do what you think is right, try to make a living for yourself in this world,” he says. “There’s lots of ways to do it, and you have to be inventive, you have to be creative if you want to do what you want to do. I don’t want to sell insurance, I want to deal in the music business.”
* * *
Now that he had Carrie Thompson’s agreement in hand, in 1973 LaVere approached Columbia Records with an idea: to package together all of Robert Johnson’s recordings. John Hammond immediately hired him as coproducer of The Complete Recordings, a version of which jazz and blues producer Frank Driggs was already compiling.
The first time Robert Johnson’s music was available in anything but old 78s was when Driggs packaged King of the Delta Blues Singers for Columbia in 1961. Featuring sixteen of Johnson’s twenty-nine titles, this album helped create a new generation of fans. King of the Delta Blues Singers, Volume 2, released in 1970, had the remaining titles. Both sold better than Johnson sold in his entire lifetime, and both continue to sell. By 1973, demand was such that Columbia was packaging them together.
On the back of the second volume, Columbia printed a minor statement worth major bucks: “The selections are in the public domain.” For all the years that Columbia sold Johnson, they never paid song royalties, thinking that nobody owned the copyrights.
Whoever owned them would be entitled to payment every time one of Johnson’s songs was heard on the radio, played on a stage, or covered by another performer. Record labels often make a practice of obtaining the copyrights, or a percentage, so that they are paying themselves. The more of the copyright they own the less they have to pay the artist. Since before the thirties, many a blues musician was offered a hot meal and a few dollars in cold, hard cash for their signature on a copyright agreement.
LaVere says his 1973 offer to Carrie Thompson included two copies of her half brother’s recordings, and a fifty-fifty royalty split.
A song’s copyright has a certain lifetime, and when it expires, it goes into public domain. So when Columbia labeled Robert Johnson public domain, they were guessing; Johnson’s contract had never been located. The label in effect made a public announcement that they didn’t own his songs and they didn’t owe anybody royalties.
He could not be sure, but Columbia producer Larry Cohn claims in the May / June 1991 issue of Living Blues that Johnson signed a contract giving him a flat fee up front and no royalties, as was “the standard procedure for that time period.” Such procedure produced broke musicians and rich executives, and the system has yet to be overhauled.
(McCormick claims to have found a contract signed by the Chuck Wagon Gang, who recorded in San Antonio the same day for the same label as Johnson. That agreement assigned them a royalty, he says; however, the Chuck Wagon Gang’s archives in Nashville claim no knowledge of this document.)
Though it appears he did not own them, Hammond (a friend of LaVere’s father) nonetheless signed away the copyrights to LaVere in 1973. “LaVere got a deal such as nobody I’ve ever heard of getting in the history of the business,” recalls producer Frank Driggs. “I have no axe to grind with him, but it boggles the mind.”
Driggs cites a CBS contract made by Hammond with blues singer Ethel Waters in the 1960s as the precedent for LaVere’s contract. She was still alive when Columbia was releasing a three-record compilation of her material. “Hammond called Waters and said, ‘We’re going to make up for the fact that Columbia didn’t treat you right,’ ” recalls Driggs. “He always did it on the basis of conscience. She was not entitled by contract to royalties on some of those songs, so we made an overall arrangement whereby she got royalties on everything.”
Such procedure produced broke musicians and rich executives, and the system has yet to be overhauled.
“I not only also represented the copyrights, both musical and photographic, but Johnson as an artist as well,” LaVere recently recalled in Living Blues. “Consequently, CBS had to be very forthcoming to satisfy me.” Whether they had to, CBS assigned the money owed the heirs to a third party; putting the royalties in escrow would have been easy enough, but Columbia took LaVere’s word that he would pay Johnson’s family.
The Complete Recordings was compiled and mastered by LaVere, and awaiting release in 1974.
In satisfying LaVere, CBS necessarily dissatisfied McCormick, who learned about the deal in a 1974 phone call from, of all people, LaVere. McCormick contacted Hammond, who claimed not to know him. (Hammond’s associates have noted that he had suffered a stroke and his memory was affected.)
McCormick pursued his case, writing Columbia’s chief legal counselor to question the validity of LaVere’s contract: “Please be advised that by agreements signed July 8, 1972 with Mrs. Carrie Thompson . . . I purchased rights for exclusive first publication of all documents, photographs, memorabilia, and other material from their family collections and / or personal reminiscences . . . I respectfully suggest you examine whether you do in fact have proper title.”
The specter of a legal battle loomed, and CBS ultimately shelved the completed project.
“It got to be a running joke,” says former Columbia A&R person Jim Fishel, who picked up the dormant project in 1976. “We used to go to a product meeting every week, the various departments. We’d get to Robert Johnson and they’d look at me. We’d start to laugh and they’d table the discussion and it would go on to the next meeting. I had the same cover [as that released in 1990] on my wall in my office back in 1977. It was done, just sitting and waiting. It had catalog numbers and everything.”
McCormick’s letter to Columbia frustrated LaVere. “It was a bluff,” he says. “[McCormick] would have never sued CBS because he didn’t have a leg to stand on. I mean, I have all the documents I need to file for song copyrights, photo copyrights. And Mack never did have that. Whatever he claimed as purchasing rights is invalid because it wasn’t a legal contract.”
He acknowledges that McCormick beat him across the finish line, but he says that his contract makes him the winner. LaVere says his is binding, even though McCormick’s predates his.
In fact, LaVere’s fundamental premise—that Carrie Thompson was the “sole-surviving heir”—might be flawed. Johnson’s mother was definitely alive when he died, so according to Mississippi intestate law, she precedes the sister as an heir. Thompson’s claim is no stronger than that of any of her nine siblings, or her nieces or nephews. Further, Johnson’s children or a widow would precede the mother, so if McCormick has in fact found either, Carrie Thompson could not sign away her rights because she never inherited any.
(An attorney for Thompson’s heir contends that the contract between LaVere and Thompson may be null and void. “Based on factors relating to Mr. LaVere’s alleged non performance,” says Jay Fialkov, “efforts were made in the early eighties by representatives of the estate of Robert Johnson to rescind that agreement.”)
LaVere admits that if McCormick has found heirs, his case would be damaged. “He says he’s found a large extended family of Robert Johnson’s, but he has never identified anybody. He’s only just made that claim.”
* * *
McCormick has made that claim and many others. In the slim field of Johnson scholarship, he is well respected. “[He] doggedly pursued the most tenuous leads and . . . has gone a long way toward filling the enormous void of knowledge surrounding Johnson’s life,” writes music historian and author Peter Guralnick in his Searching for Robert Johnson. McCormick was the source for—and in large part the subject of—that book.
While in Mississippi in 1970 riding a “rolling store”—a truck that serviced farm workers—McCormick’s inquiries into Robert Johnson’s history produced the response, “You must mean Robert Spencer.” That same year, in Dumas, Arkansas, he logged the first two eyewitness accounts of Johnson’s murder.
“Finding the facts of his death—the end of the story,” McCormick wrote in a 1988 article in the Smithsonian’s American Visions magazine, “brought with it a fresh compulsion to learn the rest of it . . . I decided to write a book on Robert Johnson under the working title, Biography of a Phantom. It evolved as a detective story.” That the dead man went by several names makes it that much more suited to the genre. Learning of the death, the gumshoe—McCormick—attempts to uncover the circumstances, which leads to an investigation of the man’s life. But this detective has yet to turn over his evidence—after forty-two years of research McCormick’s book is still not published.
In the 1970s, McCormick told Guralnick that the book was in the hands of an academic press and a trade press and he simply had to choose between them. Since then, he has said he could not publish until after the murderer’s death. In the 1988 article, McCormick claimed his sources feared repercussions if they revealed their information. “They finally spoke when I offered a signed document stating that what they told me would not be published until after their own deaths.”
More than forty years since McCormick began making inquiries into Johnson, and more than twenty years since those first substantial clues, McCormick’s reputation as the preeminent Johnson authority remains based on trickles of information shared with only a few journalists. His scholarship remains locked up in his files.
The aura of mystery that clings to McCormick befits a Johnson scholar. Much like the power Johnson has gained from the unanswered questions that surround him, McCormick’s seclusion has become his strength. Should he release his information—whatever information he has—McCormick becomes a bona fide authority, but at the expense of his mystique. After so many years of essential silence, McCormick’s secrecy seems intimately tied to the force that he found in Johnson. In his attempt to master the Robert Johnson myth, the myth may have mastered McCormick.
McCormick’s reputation as the preeminent Johnson authority remains based on trickles of information shared with only a few journalists. His scholarship remains locked up in his files.
In 1976, Guralnick visited McCormick while working on a story about Johnson for Rolling Stone. It was one of the few times that McCormick divulged any of his research, and in that article, he referred to LaVere’s information as “pirated.” By putting family members and other sources in touch with one another, McCormick made the work easier for future researchers.
“I had no doubt that he had found the sisters first,” says Guralnick, “considerably before Steve LaVere, and that he had made an agreement with them which precluded LaVere from selling the photographs to Columbia. I have no doubt of that today. But what seemed to me to happen after my story came out was that Mack used the story as ammunition. He argued even more vigorously that Columbia had no right to use the photograph without his permission, which they probably didn’t—and essentially that was what tied up the album’s release for fifteen years.”
Neither man made any major moves for the next decade. In 1982, Guralnick published his “Searching for Robert Johnson,” initially as an extended essay in Living Blues and in 1989 as a book. LaVere wanted Columbia to interpret that article as the fulfillment of McCormick’s contract with Thompson to publish her information first, despite the fact that the photographs were not used and McCormick was not the author. Columbia did not agree.
Greed wasn’t likely LaVere’s original motivation. When he proposed the Complete Recordings package in 1973, neither the blues audience nor Robert Johnson’s popularity was very large. Johnson wasn’t making anybody rich. In the beginning, LaVere was, probably, just a fan—an energetic, obsessive, hustling blues lover. But as Johnson became a bigger part of his life, LaVere began blurring the line between fan and artist. By putting his copyright on the songs and photographs, LaVere owns the Johnson that survived. In his arrangement, Johnson’s relations must come to him for their money, as if he were the artist returning from a gig, his pockets jingling.
* * *
The sun came up on LaVere’s fortunes the summer day in 1990 that he got a call from Columbia executive Larry Cohn. “He said, ‘We want to release the package just the way you envisioned it.’ And I said well hallefucking-luyah, it’s about time.
“Since the CBS record has come out,” continues LaVere, “it has been very advantageous for [me], because we can now say that CBS recognizes that my publishing company is the legitimate copyright owner. With one big dog like that in our corner, we have a chance at going after some of the other big dogs.”
The dogs could be set loose on anybody who covers a Robert Johnson song and does not pay LaVere. Such acts include Cream, Led Zeppelin, Johnny Shines, Cowboy Junkies, Bonnie Raitt, the Kronos Quartet, and John Hammond Jr. Johnson has even been sampled on at least one rap record. When the Rolling Stones covered “Love in Vain,” they attributed the song to “Woody Payne.” Though obviously not the author, the invention was an attempt to avoid becoming embroiled in copyright disputes. “We have to go after them,” says LaVere, whose company has begun receiving royalties, but he won’t say from whom. “All sales from this point forward should be contributing to my publishing company.”
In 1986, LaVere was approached by Rolling Stone about publishing, for the first time, one of his Johnson pictures. “So much time had gone by since Mack and Peter Guralnick initially published that research,” says LaVere, “I figured well, why not.” When the photo came out and there was no complaint from McCormick, the marketing of the pictures began: calendars, postcards, posters, magazines.
In his attempt to control how the public sees Johnson, LaVere has vigorously pursued payments for the publishing of the photographs. Thus, he has billed Musician magazine, which used a photograph and put an illustration of Johnson on their cover. “There’s nothing in their article that is a direct promotion of the LP,” says LaVere about the cover story. “The emphasis of that article is the influence of Robert Johnson upon the musicians of today.” Cartoonist R. Crumb drew an image of Johnson for 78 Quarterly that also ran on the cover of Rock & Roll Disc, an independent, small-press magazine. “Our article was completely a review of the boxed set,” says Tom Graves, publisher of RRD. “LaVere has sent us confrontational letters with a threatening tone. He implied a suit and told us to contact his lawyer.”
R. Crumb received an unsolicited contract for his use of Johnson’s image. “LaVere was telling me if I did anything else with this drawing,” says Crumb, “I would immediately have to pay him five thousand dollars. He wanted to keep the original drawing I did as part of the deal so he would have exclusive proprietary rights to that. I never gave him any.”
CBS professes ignorance of LaVere’s actions. According to Columbia spokesman Robert Altshuler, “What LaVere does is entirely between LaVere and who he does it to.”
* * *
It was bound to happen. As the royalties mounted, so would the claimants. On a June 1991 day in the tiny Leflore County courthouse in Greenwood, Mississippi, infighting began among Johnson’s relatives. “The court listened to testimony,” says attorney Jay Fialkov, who earlier this year represented Annye Anderson, a retired schoolteacher and half sister of Carrie Thompson. “The judge became aware of allegations which suggested a potential dispute concerning who the heirs of Robert Johnson were. It was impossible in one brief hearing to get a full sense of everything that has happened so far concerning the estate and everything that needs to be done. And for that reason, he appointed his chancery clerk as the temporary administrator of the estate.”
Craig Brewer is the Greenwood attorney representing the temporary administrator. He has spoken with LaVere’s attorney and happily reports that “LaVere was coproducer of the Complete Recordings and may have been a corecipient of the Grammy . . . He apparently has a wealth of information about Robert Johnson. LaVere’s willing to pay money into the estate, they just don’t know who the rightful heirs are.”
LaVere further established his benevolence by presenting a sum of money to the court. “[The funds] were tendered on the basis that they represent royalties owed and collected to date by Stephen LaVere,” Brewer explains. When asked if the check from LaVere was (as the Columbia source indicated) in the “chunky” six-figure range, Brewer was dumbfounded. LaVere’s check to the court: $46,968.39. Brewer said, “It would almost appear that somebody slipped a decimal.”
If Brewer considers LaVere a potential source of information, Anderson tends to view him more skeptically. She is contemplating a suit against him.
In LaVere’s arrangement, Johnson’s relations must come to him for their money, as if he were the artist returning from a gig, his pockets jingling.
LaVere explains that mere details delayed his payment to his contractual partners. “There’s [been] a matter between me and the heirs that needs to be settled,” he says. The “matter” is a third photograph of Johnson, once in McCormick’s possession and described in Guralnick’s book. “If [Thompson’s heirs] have it, I want it,” says LaVere, claiming it was mentioned specifically in his agreement with Thompson. “And if they don’t have it, then tell me so. But I haven’t received any correspondence from the lawyer at all.”
“It’s just jive, he’s just making up a story to justify his grief,” responds a lawyer associated with Thompson. “There is no holdup.”
The last fair deal has yet to go down. While Thompson’s heirs attempt to establish their rights and prepare their case against LaVere, and while those heirs known by McCormick remain a mystery, this writer turned up at least one heir-claimant who knew nothing of either historian when he copyrighted twenty-eight of Johnson’s twenty-nine titles in 1973. (The title he overlooked, “Dead Shrimp Blues,” was later claimed by LaVere.) Though that is the same year that the Columbia dispute began, Ken Johnson, who says he is the bluesman’s grandson, apparently acted independently of both researchers when establishing his Queens, New York–based Horoscope Music Company with the United States Copyright Office.
Ken Johnson may not be entirely reliable. To other people he has claimed Robert Johnson was not his grandfather but his father. Also, he has said Robert Johnson was still alive but horribly disfigured and an embarrassment to the family. Further, four months after its release, he was unaware that Columbia had issued The Complete Recordings.
Columbia spokesman Bob Altshuler again: “This company always pays royalties to the person who the royalties are due. Other than that, we don’t discuss our royalty payments on any artist.”
* * *
“CBS is generally off the hook,” says CBS project coordinator Gary Pacheco. “Steve LaVere, through documents he presented us, assumed responsibility. The agreements give CBS indemnification. We’ve done a number of things that have proven we have nothing but the most altruistic goals here.” The label’s good deeds, according to Pacheco: They “get this guy’s music heard,” an act of charity also known as “selling records.” And they gave $17,000 to the fund that erected Johnson’s memorial stone.
The owning of the myth. Like the hamster that eats its children to protect them, McCormick will not reveal the identities of the heirs he says he’s found. He not only wants to preserve their knowledge for his book, he also wants to protect them from exploitation. But if he is protecting them, he is also depriving them; their information and photographs have been worthless since they met McCormick. His protection parallels LaVere’s proprietary notions.
McCormick is reportedly working on a film in Mexico now, while he awaits the death of Johnson’s acquaintances. (If anyone knows the whereabouts of a man named Tush Hog or his two daughters, last heard of near St. Louis, conveying the information to McCormick might expedite publication.) Biography of a Phantom has no publishing date.
Though Johnson may make LaVere a millionaire, it took the recent Greenwood court hearing for him to even make a token compensation.
Though Johnson may make LaVere a millionaire, it took the recent Greenwood court hearing for him to even make a token compensation. Ironically, LaVere’s selfishness has had a public benefit—the rerelease of the music. McCormick’s archives remain his alone, while LaVere makes his bread basket available to the public for an offering.
While talking to him on the phone one day, I asked LaVere something I’d been wondering for a while: How did he choose the name of his publishing company, the name of the concern which collects Robert Johnson’s royalties. Considering his role as paymaster to Johnson’s heirs, the name LaVere picked, King of Spades, has some unsettling connotations.
He responded immediately, as if he’d already posed the question to himself. “In all of Johnson’s words I could find only one reference to him in the third person, and that’s in ‘Little Queen of Spades.’ ‘You are the little Queen of Spades and I am the King.’ So I thought, well, King of Spades. Makes sense to me.”
* * *
This article focused attention on the Johnson case and prompted new reporting from the Washington Post and international magazines. But it was light with no heat, no change in the shady dealings between the music business and blues musicians. Many artists, especially from the first half of the twentieth century, had neither the knowledge nor the wherewithal to protect themselves and their families from corporate exploitation. They signed the deal, pocketed small change, and the corporations made the money.
In 1998, seven years after this piece was published, Mississippi courts determined that Robert Johnson’s heir was Claud Johnson, a son not born of Johnson’s wives. Claud was in his seventies and working as a graveltruck driver in Crystal Springs, Mississippi. His wife ran a BBQ stand. If the blues had been falling like rain, the weather changed: Claud Johnson received a hefty payment from the escrow account. When he moved his family to a nicer house, he kept his gravel truck, a reminder of his life’s hard work. He died in 2015.
Court battles continue, but the publishing money flows steadily to the Johnsons of Crystal Springs. The Mississippi Supreme Court, in 2014, secured their ongoing income from photograph licensing.
Now here’s the twist: By creating the publishing company, Steve LaVere created payments that Sony would have to disburse, of which he’d pocket an uncomfortable amount, and then the remainder would wend its way to a family who otherwise would have known no wealth. The corporation keeps less, and one dispossessed family is enriched—collateral benefits of LaVere’s work. Later, LaVere sold his King of Spades publishing and it has since changed hands again, its value increasing. LaVere cashed out. The Johnsons of Crystal Springs continue to cash in.
And as for Carrie Thompson, she got the blues. She preserved the photos all those years, shared blood and company with Robert Johnson, empowered LaVere as the presumed heir—until she tried to rescind the contract, or became uncooperative, or was somehow replaced by the Johnsons of Crystal Springs—and all she and her heirs got was LaVere’s hundred bucks.
Mack McCormick died in November 2015. His books have yet to be published. Perhaps it was all that potential for proprietary research in blues heaven, but five weeks later Steve LaVere followed Mack’s trail.
Excerpted from Memphis Rent Party: The Blues, Rock & Roll in Music’s Hometown by Robert Gordon. Copyright © 2018 by Robert Gordon. Reprinted by permission of Gordon.
Robert Gordon is a writer and filmmaker. His film work includes producing and directing the documentaries Johnny Cash’s America and William Eggleston’s Stranded in Canton. His Best of Enemies won an Emmy in 2017 and was shortlisted for an Oscar. His books include It Came from Memphis, Can’t Be Satisfied: The Life and Times of Muddy Waters, and Respect Yourself: Stax Records and the Soul Explosion. He won a Grammy for his liner notes to the Big Star boxed set Keep an Eye on the Sky. Gordon lives in Memphis. You can get signed copies of Memphis Rent Party at his local Burke’s Book Store.
Longreads Editor: Aaron Gilbreath