Sunday, July 17, 2011

"Hello, I'm Johnny Cash"

When I started the Bad Lawyer blawg I never envisioned being able to write about Johnny Cash, but the Tennessean reports on Nashville-based Sun Records' lawsuit stemming from a licensing deal with Compadre Records over the remix of some 1950s recordings that have appeared in the soundtrack of a television series called Zombieland.  This is an excerpt from Brandon Gee's story at the Tennessean:

[S]un Entertainment Corp. is suing a Houston record company over the use of Johnny Cash recordings in advertisements, including a trailer for the movie “Zombieland” that featured a remixed version of “Country Boy"  According to the lawsuit, Sun entered into a licensing agreement in 2007 with Compadre Records that allowed the label to remix “Johnny Cash — The Complete Sun Recordings — 1955-1958” for a new album.

[ . . . ] Specifically, Sun alleges that it has not seen its share of $40,000 that Compadre was paid by the producers of “Zombieland,” $23,250 that Compadre was paid by ABC for its use of the same remixed song in promotional advertisements for the CMA Music Festival and Awards, or $70,000 that Compadre was paid by Columbia for its use of the remixed version of “Get Rhythm” in an advertising campaign.

Sun accuses Compadre of breach of contract and copyright infringement. The label has not yet responded to the lawsuit, which is pending in the U.S. District Court in Nashville."
I have some not very well-thought-out ideas about lawsuits over intellectual property and the fair use doctrine particularly as it relates to artists using original material in new works of art, and small-fry collectors being sued into oblivion by the RIAA.  That is not what this case is about.  This is an argument by some major corporations having a pissing contest about dollars. 

But if you knew the historty . .  . well, it's very cool.

Sun Records of Memphis was the brainchild of Sam Phillips, (1923-2003), a law school dropout.  After leaving the service, Phillips worked as a deejay and engineer at WLAY in Muscle Shoals, Alabama.  By 1946 he hosted a daily show at WREC, Memphis called “Songs of the West.” At WREC Phillips developed the signature sound that he would take into the recording studios.  This recorded sound was so good that he was hired to make recordings for other broadcasters which were sent out for playback around the region. After leaving radio he provided sound engineering for the Memphis Recording Service and by 1952 at own Sun Records.

With “Jackie Brenston (Ike Turner's sax man) and his Delta Cats,” Phillips recorded the ur-rock and R&B hit “Rocket 88,” about the  1951 Oldsmobile 88. Some historians call this the first true rock records.

Elvis Presley came to Sun Records paying $4 to record a couple of songs for his mother’s birthday.  In June and July 1954, at the urging of his secretary, Sam Phillips invited Elvis Presley back to Sun to record a couple of other "sides" including a brilliant song called “That’s All Right, Mama,” (Sun 204). By tradition it is said that with Elvis Presley, Sun Records and Sam Phillips mashed together white musicians with black music, country music and rhythm and blues thus igniting the rock and roll era. Eventually, Sun Records sold Elvis' contract to RCA and Col. Tom Parker for $40,000, a then unheard of sum.  But before Elvis departed Sam Phillips recruited other top talent including Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Johnny Cash who on December 4, 1956 recorded and released an album called the Million Dollar Quartet. The resulting recording not all that impressive, but the session was an amazing historical moment.  (pic).

Sam Phillips and Elvis
Johnny Cash was the greatest Sun Records artist in terms of consistency and legacy of work. Sun released seven Johnny Cash albums before Cash moved to Columbia records for the larger part of his career.   It is these Sun recordings that are extremely valuable both as content for licensing purpose and as individual records/iconic possessions, themselves.  In mint condition these vinyl sides from Sun can go for hundreds of dollars.

But Johnny Cash is so much more than these Sun recordings in the 1950s.

Ar Folsom Prison
Part of the story was Johnny Cash's longevity, his rise and fall and rise again.  Part of Cash's legacy was his marriage to the history of country music through June Carter Cash and the Carter family; and part, his amazing progeny: nor only talented children but artistic children.  In large part, Johnny Cash embraced the role of patron saint of country music.  Johnny Cash is sort of like Kevin Bacon in his degrees of separation to nearly all genres of indigenous American music including Jazz, blues, native american, bluegrass, and pop.  Check the YouTube videos with Louis Armstrong, June Carter, Bob Dylan, Bill Monroe, Merle Haggard and Ray Charles--most of which go back to his CBS television show.

Cash in Performance at Folsom Prison
Then there was the late period Johnny Cash. Deeply profound and moving recordings with the heavy metal producer and recording artist, Rick Rubin for American Recordings capturing Johnny Cash in an almost biblical mode.  Hit the YouTube archives for some amazing videos, makes the Reese Witherspoon/Joaquin Phoenix movie seem ridiculous and superfluous by comparison.

Oh, and one more thing, Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison and San Quentin are the greatest law-related recordings in western culture.


  1. I've had problems adjusting to posting in Blogger from the Chrome platform by way of explanation for issues that arose since Friday. I suppose I thought since Blogger is a Google product it would be a little more seamless than in my former browser. Um, not.

    So I wanted to add a note about the Johnny Cash family and extended family who I met during the early 90s when I originated some of the original discussion forums on AOL when AOL's proprietary accounts were the easiest and cleanest way to be online. I was delighted to interact with Kathy Cash who ran the House of Case, Patsi Bale Cox who was at one time Johnny's personal secretary, and Carlene Carter. These are all wonderful and talented folks and it was a great honor to get to know them in those years.

  2. That's some great writin', BL.

    Sun, I believe, is no longer Sam Phillips, but probably an office with an attorney and a contractual cash register. It's spiritually poignent watching a music recording / distribution company get ripped off. Makes you wonder, looking at the amounts described above, how much in these matters was slated to be sent to the Cash family and the other musicians on these recordings who made the whole shebang worth our continued attention half a century or more later. Those are tears on my blue suede shoes.

  3. Yeah, an attorney with a Porsche Boxster outside ready to go.

  4. Thanks, Okiedoke. This story evoked some great memories.

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