Legendary blues musician Robert Johnson’s life was all too short; unfortunately, the in-family fight over his estate continues with all eyes now on the Mississippi Supreme Court.
The state’s highest court heard arguments yesterday in a dispute over two photos of Johnson, who died in 1938 at the age of 28.
When the justices might make a decision is still unknown. Presiding Justice Jess H. Dickinson told The Associated Press that the court would take its time before rendering a decision.
It’s been a long, ugly fight that has splintered a family. On one side are descendants of Johnson’s late half-sister, Carrie Harris Thompson. They claims the photos were Thompson’s personal property but others profited from them.
On the other side are Sony Music Entertainment Inc.; Johnson’s only heir, his son Claud Johnson; and Stephen C. LaVere, a promoter whose Delta Haze Corp. had a 1974 contract with Thompson.
Anita Modak-Truran, a Jackson attorney representing Sony Music Entertainment, said yesterday that court battles over Johnson’s estate have dragged out nearly a quarter-century — almost as long as the blues legend lived.
“This case plays like a broken record and the needle is stuck on ‘Crossroads Blues,’” Modak-Truran said.
On Nov. 20, 1974, Thompson signed a contract with LaVere to assign all her rights to Johnson’s work, photographs and any other material concerning Johnson that she might have. In return, LaVere was to pay Thompson 50 percent of all royalties he collected in his efforts to capitalize off Johnson.
LaVere signed a deal with CBS Records to release a collection of Johnson’s 29 recorded songs. CBS, later acquired by Sony, released a boxed set of Johnson’s recordings. It sold more than a million copies and won the 1990 Grammy for Best Historical Album.
Nevas argued that without the photographs of Robert Johnson, the collection of his recordings would not have been issued and nobody on the other side of the dispute “would have collected the millions they have reaped.”
Thompson died in 1983 and her heirs, Annye C. Anderson and Robert M. Harris, argue that they are entitled to royalties. Anderson is Thompson’s half-sister, but is not related to Robert Johnson. Harris is Thompson’s grandson.
Claud Johnson, whose parents were not married, found out about his father’s estate in the early 1990s, after Thompson’s death, and went to court. In 2000, Claud Johnson was declared the musician’s sole heir.
Leflore County Circuit Judge Ashley Hines ruled in 2001 that when Claud Johnson was declared the musician’s sole heir, the royalties specified in the 1974 contract were to go to him.
The Supreme Court found in 2004 that the question of whether the photos were the personal property of Carrie Thompson was never litigated. It directed Hines to rule on the issue.
Hines, without a trial, found in 2012 there was no triable issue of fact on the plaintiffs’ arguments for royalties and breach of contract. Nevas yesterday asked the Supreme Court to send the case back to the lower court to let jurors decide the issue.