A '70s Girl Group Seeks Second Act – In Court
After Decades Pass, a Sister Act Discovers Its Hidden Popularity and Seeks to Recoup Royalties
By Cortney Fielding
Daily Journal Staff Writer
LOS ANGELES – It was the summer of 1972 when five young sisters from Compton slipped into homemade, cherry blossom-colored bell bottoms and sang for a packed house at the Inglewood Forum. A year earlier, the family's performances had been limited to their backyard. Now – thanks to a talent manager who'd been scouting for sibling acts following the successful model of The Jackson 5 – The Jackson Sisters were making their world debut opening for R&B sensation Smokey Robinson.
By the time the girls, ages 11 through 17, finished belting out their signature song, “Miracles,” to waves of applause, fame and riches seemed assured. They'd already spent much of their school break recording music in the same sound studio used by TV's The Partridge Family, and better yet, they'd even been sketched for their own Saturday-morning cartoon. Universal is known for being aggressive in the best of financial times, said Douglas Johnson, whose firm Johnson & Johnson primarily handles entertainment-related cases.”They make you pay when you want to complain,” Johnson said. “They play hard ball all the time. It's never ‘Hey, let's sit down and talk.'”
The dizzying ascent into celebrity status made things all the more confusing two years later, when Mum's Records told the family it wasn't working out and they'd might as well call it quits. And so they moved on. Some went to college, others married young and had children. In the decades to come, their short-lived brush with celebrity would fade into family lore, something to joke about at parties.
That is until 2003, when the sisters discovered their music never faded away. In fact, their songs were being played everywhere from the United Kingdom to Japan, and the record label that had acquired the music – Universal Music Group – has profited from their work throughout the ensuing decades. Thus began a five-year campaign to collect royalties from the world's largest label, which has now spilled into a Los Angeles courtroom.
The case represents a unique twist on the age-old battle between artist and label, with Universal telling the sisters to take up their case with a company that has long-since ceased to exist. The record company has steadfastly maintained it has never had a contract with the sisters themselves, and the dispute is really between the Jacksons and Mums Records. Meanwhile, the statute of limitations for any claim the group might have has already run its course anyway, the company claims.
“Not only did the Jackson sisters delay filing this lawsuit for over 30 years, but when they did finally file it, they sued the wrong party,” the company said in a statement. “UMG has no contractual relationship with The Jackson Sisters and thus expects to be vindicated in court.”
The two sides are scheduled to face off in Los Angeles County Superior Court in late February, when Judge Ann Jones will hear the defense's request for summary judgement on those grounds.
The Jackson sisters say they never set out to be stars, insisting they only started singing because their father wouldn't let them do much of anything else. He was so overprotective, he wouldn't let them play in the front yard, fearful that boys were sniffing around his brood of daughters.
To stave off boredom, they'd spend hours in the backyard singing, dancing and rehearsing variety acts.
Blessed with an entrepreneurial spirit as well as natural talent, they took to putting on plays for the neighborhood. “We built a stage and sold popcorn and Kool-Aid for a nickel,” said oldest sister Jacqueline Rencher, who is now a church volunteer. “If we couldn't play in the front yard we had to entertain ourselves in the backyard.”
So when dad brought home an old “raggedy-looking” piano he'd accepted as payment for a construction job, the girls decided to incorporate it into their act. With no formal training, Jackie took to the ivories. They started writing their own songs, with sister Pat choreographing dances.
They first took their act public at a summertime talent show at Tibby Elementary School, which their parents allowed them to participate in only because the performance was scheduled for the afternoon.
The girls won easily, beating out neighborhood boys who merely lip synced to The Temptations. A performance at the Compton “Soul Search,” the roving “American Idol” of the day, sealed their fate. Though they were later disqualified because they were too young to compete, they caught the eye of a small management group, which shopped them to record labels.
Motown, which already had that band with a similar name – The Jackson 5 – turned them down. But a label that ultimately came to be known as Mums Records decided to take a chance.
The year that followed was filled with performances, from Robinson's farewell concert with the Miracles to “Soul Train” to benefit concerts with Bill Cosby and Dionne Warwick.
“This stuff just happened, it wasn't an aspiration,” Jackie said. “It was something to do. We were just excited to get out of the house.”
But the ride didn't last long. The girls claim that once they began to get a following, Motown began intimidating radio stations and even their own label to drop them, fearful they would infringe on their multimillion-dollar brand, The Jackson 5. (They have no documentation to support these claims.)
Whether it was the result of an orchestrated plot, or just plain bad luck, their album didn't sell, and their songs weren't getting radio play. And when their contract ended in 1974, they packed it in and went home.
While they had signed their original contract with Mums in 1972 to record songs in exchange for royalties, the girls said they never received a check. “They told us all the money from royalties had gone to put on our shows, and there was just enough to recoop costs,” sister Lynetta Coleman said.
They claim to have thought little about that period in their lives, until 2003, when a Google search brought it all back again.
Lynetta decided to search the Internet for an old video of the band performing on “Soul Train,” so she and her husband could show their kids.
They found much more. Fan sites were reselling their original 45s for upward of $1,000 and displaying old album charts showing their song “Miracles,” which received minimal airplay when it was released, had been a hit throughout the 1990s in the United Kingdom, during what was called the “Rare Groove Scene.”
And the music had somehow found its way to Japan, where the song had spread nationwide and became a club-kid anthem. In 2008, a Japanese media conglomerate offered to pay Universal ¥9.9 million, or about $100,000 U.S. dollars, to use the Jackson Sisters' songs in television and movies.
The sisters claim they never had a clue their music was still in circulation.
“I didn't think we'd find anything, that's how minute we thought we were. But all these thousands of pages were coming up, play charts showing No. 1's on different charts all over country – all over the world – in small countries I'd never heard of,” Coleman said. “Then we started reading conversations going on online of people still seeking these recordings. After all these years, the music meant something to them,” she said. “It was just really a wowing thing.”
But more surprising to Coleman was the realization that Universal Music Group had been issuing re-releases of Jackson Sisters songs on dozens of compilation disks, from “Old School Jams” to “Good Times 5.” Those songs have since made their way onto at least one television show, a documentary and even a break dancing video game, “B-Boy” for Play Station.
“I was really blown away,” she said. Her husband was swept up with another reaction. “We need to get an attorney,” he told her.
The girls hired a lawyer, who fired off letters to Universal inquiring about their album sales and singles. It responded by stating that in 1975, Mums had gone defunct and entered into a separate agreement with UMG's predecessor, Polydor, and pursuant to that agreement, Mums assigned the girls' copyrights to Polydor.
Then Universal produced a document that floored the sisters. It was a letter recognizing the transfer, with their signatures on it. The document stated the group would only seek future royalties from Mums. Oddly, Gennine Jackson's name had been signed with a “J” and Jackie Jackson's signature was missing an “e.” Neither parent's signature was present on the form.
The girls contend it was forged. They say Universal refused to produce documents reflecting sales figures to their lawyer, who soon dropped the case. More than four years later, they hired a new lawyer, Steve Lowe, of the Lowe Law Firm, who filed a lawsuit on their behalf in Superior Court in February 2008.
Lowe and his associate, Natasha Hill, claimed that while the sisters were not parties to the contract between Mums and Polydor, they were clearly intended beneficiaries.
“You can't assume the benefit of a contract and not assume the liability as well,” said Hill. “Universal continues to make money off The Jackson Sisters without paying them any royalties, and you just can't have it both ways.”
At the upcoming court hearing, Universal is expected to contend that not only did the ensuing 30 years preclude the lawsuit, but that the four years between their latent discovery and the filing further wounded the claim. The Jacksons' lawyer contends the statute of limitations doesn't apply because Universal refused to turn over documents when they were first requested.
“Non-disclosure is a real good way to keep people from filing lawsuits,” Lowe said. “They've kept the sisters in the dark for ages.”
Plaintiffs' lawyers who've gone up against the major labels say they are in for a tough fight. Universal is known for being aggressive in the best of financial times, said Douglas Johnson, whose firm Johnson & Johnson primarily handles entertainment-related cases.
“They make you pay when you want to complain,” Johnson said. “They play hard ball all the time. It's never ‘Hey, let's sit down and talk.'”
While the case may drag on for years, and could yield little results, the sisters insist its' all worth it. They performed together this fall for the first time in three decades at a benefit concert in Palm Springs. Coleman has started a Web site for the group, jacksonsisters.net, and is working on a nonprofit group, the Center for Artists Rights, to help young artists signing with labels understand their rights.
Meanwhile, Gennine Jackson is using the resurgence to bolster her own musical career. She's a regular performer in Palm Springs restaurants and resorts.
Coleman says she understands she may never see a dime, and in fact, could end up owing tens of thousands of dollars in litigation costs. But she said she doesn't care.
“Somebody has to start to correct the wrongs. It's worth it to me just to give it a try whether we get anything or not,” she said. “What's wrong is wrong.”