Lawsuit Is Latest in Long Line of Music Spats

A member of the British pop group Procol Harem is suing his bandmates for not getting royalties from the band's one hit, "Whiter Shade of Pale." Musician and Day to Day contributor David Was explains that the disagreement is part of a long history of disputes over who gets credit in popular music.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Madeleine Brand.

There's a new dust-up in the music business; it's just the latest in a long line of who-wrote-what disputes. They seem to be as much a part of pop music as guitars and spandex. Here is musician and DAY TO DAY contributor David Was.

(Soundbite of song "A Whiter Shad of Pale")

DAVID WAS: Lawsuits are to the music business as flowers are to bees, and will be until the last melody is written. And so it came as no surprise that Matthew Fisher, the keyboard hand who played these famous organ passages in Procol Harum's Whiter Shade of Pale, would be suing his former bandmates for the 40-years-worth of royalties he now claims to have been denied.

(Soundbite of song "A Whiter Shad of Pale")

PROCOL HARUM (Musical Group): (Singing) We skipped the light fandango...

WAS: Songwriter of record Gary Brooker admits to copying the melody in question, but says he stole it from another long hair named Johann Sebastian Bach.

(Soundbite of music)

WAS: Others have noted the similarity to this famous song by Percy Sledge.

(Soundbite of song "When A Man Loves A Woman")

PERCY SLEDGE (Singer): (Singing) When a man loves a woman...

WAS: A British judge will have to sort it all out, which is problematic in itself given the he said/he said nature of these disputes, one of which I was involved in myself many years ago.

(Soundbite of song "Wicked Game")

WAS: An ad agency asked me to cut a track for a major car manufacturer and was hoping I could invoke the mood of Chris Isaak's hit song, "Wicked Game."

I called up guitar man T-Bone Burnett to replicate the twangy sound and delivered it onto the happy hands of the creative director behind the commercial.

Next thing I know, I'm in receipt of a registered letter from the agency's law firm informing me: that Chris Isaak's plagiarism suit would be my personal responsibility to defend since I warranted in my signed purchase order that the work was original and that they were indemnified from such actions.

The next day's L.A. Times reported an aspect of the story the ad boys had kept from me. That Isaak had turned down 150 grand for use of "Wiched Game", which is when they asked me to do my so-called homage. At that point, I informed them they'd better check their files because I'd never signed said purchase order, and wished them good fortune in court.

Less than a week later, I read that the agency had withdrawn the commercial and paid Isaak a cash settlement, at which point the scoundrels had the nerve to call me to do a new track after hanging me out to dry.

(Soundbite of song "Wicked Game")

CHRIS ISAAK (Musician): (Singing) No, I don't want to fall in love...

So Procol Harum's dust-up is not the first or certainly the last of these lawsuits to come down the pike. For instance, until his recent untimely death, Knack drummer Bruce Gary was planning on suing his former bandmates for his role in creating the signature drumbeat from mega hit "My Sharona," the melody and lyrics of which he staked no claim to.

(Soundbite of song "My Sharona")

Mr. DOUG FIEGER (Singer): (Singing) Oh my little pretty one, pretty one...

WAS: It's said that Duke Ellington used to pay close attention to his musicians' solos and use their improvised passages as fodder for his next composition, paying them a measly couple of hundred clams for the privilege. But like John Coltrane said: There's only 12 notes; it's what you do with them that matters.

BRAND: David Was is half of the musical duo Was Not Was(ph).

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