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Music Advocate Howell Begle crusaded on behalf of exploited R&B artists

Howell Begle is pictured with, from left, the singers Carla Thomas, Ruth Brown and Bonnie Raitt at an awards show in Memphis in 1990.

JULIE EILBER/The New York Times News Service

Howell Begle, a Washington lawyer who found a second career crusading on behalf of underpaid black R&B stars of the 1950s and ‘60s, leading to industry-wide royalty reform and the creation of the charitable Rhythm & Blues Foundation, died Dec. 30 at a hospital in Lebanon, N.H. He was 74.

His wife, Julie Eilber, said the cause was injuries he suffered in a skiing accident Dec. 24.

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Mr. Begle was a successful corporate lawyer with a specialty in media mergers and a roster of high-profile arts clients like the Kennedy Center in 1982 when a friend encouraged him to meet Ruth Brown, the singer of 1950s R&B classics like Teardrops From My Eyes and (Mama) He Treats Your Daughter Mean. A lifelong fan of Ms. Brown’s music, Mr. Begle met her after a performance and brought along some records for her to sign. When she told Mr. Begle that she had not received any royalties in decades, he agreed to look into the problem.

Ms. Brown had spent years trying to recover royalties from her former record company, Atlantic. One of the label’s earliest and biggest stars, she was so associated with Atlantic that it was sometimes called “the house that Ruth built.” But she had not been paid since leaving the label in the early ‘60s. In the fallow years of her career, she had worked as a maid and a bus driver.

Ms. Brown had signed contracts with very low royalty rates – hers was 5 per cent, compared with a standard of about 15 per cent today. Many artists were further exploited through shoddy bookkeeping and questionable business practices that charged excessive expenses against an artist’s account – leaving them eternally indebted to their labels and therefore ineligible for royalties.

As a Washington insider, Mr. Begle knew how to apply pressure to Atlantic and its parent company, Warner Communications. Ms. Brown testified before a congressional panel and was interviewed by a sympathetic Meredith Vieira on West 57th, a CBS newsmagazine show. In 1986, Steve Ross, chief executive of Warner Communications, met with Mr. Begle and the Rev. Jesse Jackson.

In 1988, as pressure mounted on Ahmet Ertegun, the most prominent of Atlantic’s founders, the label announced that it would waive the unrecouped debts and recalculate royalties for Ms. Brown and others of its R&B artists back to 1970. Ms. Brown received her first royalty payment in 28 years, for about US$20,000 ($26,500).

A donation from Atlantic of nearly US$2-million ($2.6-million) that year helped create the Rhythm & Blues Foundation, which gives grants to artists in need. Mr. Begle was its first executive director.

In time, most other major labels followed Atlantic’s lead in giving legacy artists improved royalty rates. Both Ms. Brown and Mr. Ertegun died in 2006.

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Howell Edward Begle Jr. was born in Detroit on Jan. 4, 1944. In 1965, he graduated from the University of the South, in Sewanee, Tenn., with a degree in political science, then received a law degree from the University of Michigan in 1968. He was then drafted into the Army and sent to Okinawa, where he worked in the Judge Advocate General’s Corps, the military law division. While there he also booked concerts by acts like Ike and Tina Turner.

After leaving the Army in 1973, he moved to Washington and joined Verner, Liipfert, where he became a partner. In later years he ran his own firm in Boston.

Besides his wife, he leaves three sons, Mark, Matthew and Charles; a daughter, Kristin Edwards; and three grandchildren.

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