From Detroit Free Press
Two years after an Oscar-winning film raised questions about royalties for Sixto Rodriguez, a copyright and fraud lawsuit has been filed against Clarence Avant, who signed the Detroit singer to a record deal more than four decades ago.
Rodriguez is not a direct party in the complaint, filed today in Detroit federal court by Gomba Music, which is owned by longtime Michigan music executive Harry Balk. But the musician does stand to benefit if Gomba is successful.
Speaking with the Free Press this evening, Avant denied wrongdoing.
“I think I’ve been pretty fair to Rodriguez all along,” said Avant, 83. “I wish him nothing but the best, because I think he deserves it. I admire the nerve.”
Gomba said it had an exclusive songwriting deal with Rodriguez that was willfully ignored by Avant, whose Los Angeles-based Venture Records released the musician’s “Cold Fact” album in 1970. Gomba holds songwriting copyrights for those Rodriguez songs, the complaint said.
The lawsuit contends that Avant instead devised a “fraudulent scheme” to credit the album’s compositions to others — including the musician’s brother — rather than to Rodriguez himself.
The result, said the complaint, is that Gomba — and by extension Rodriguez — failed to benefit from the album’s eventual success in apartheid-era South Africa, where it may have sold 500,000 copies.
The suit seeks unspecified statutory and punitive damages.
The court filing comes one year after the Free Press reported that a legal team had started a royalties inquiry on the singer’s behalf.
“While settlement discussions were begun, they dragged on unreasonably,” the complaint reads.
Reached in Los Angeles, Avant said he was en route to speak with his attorneys. He said he had not read the complaint and was surprised to hear that it cites previous settlement discussions.
“Let the lawyers work it out now,” he said. “If (the lawsuit) says they were in conversations … I will certainly want to settle it, get it over with. I don’t want to be bothered with all this (BS). I really don’t. I’ll tell them today let’s talk to their lawyer and get it over with.”
Asked about the songwriting credits on “Cold Fact” — including the name “Jesus Rodriguez” — Avant said, “I only did what they sent me, and we put it out that way.”
Avant continued: “He named himself that, I guess. I really don’t know. Why would I name somebody? (Rodriguez) was the one signed to Harry Balk, trying to get out of the deal. You wait 40-something years to bring it up? Kind of strange.”
The lawsuit is a dramatic twist in the ongoing saga of Rodriguez, who came to wide attention via the 2012 documentary “Searching for Sugar Man.” The film chronicled the blue-collar singer’s belated discovery of his South African fame and offered a cynical portrayal of Avant while raising questions about unpaid royalties.
Questioned in the film about any money due to Rodriguez, Avant appeared dismissive, telling an interviewer: “You think somebody’s going to worry about a 1970 contract?”
The lawsuit contends that Avant continues to infringe copyright by licensing “Cold Fact” for sale. Propelled by the success of “Sugar Man,” the album has sold more than 198,000 copies in the U.S., according to Nielsen SoundScan.
Avant said tonight that he is frustrated at being cast as a villain to Rodriguez, whom he describes as a talented musician who “should have been huge.”
“I think I’ve really been painted as the bad guy,” he said. “It really bugs me. I think I’ve been the good guy. … It really bugs me that I have to go through this, when I’m the one guy who believed in him.”
Gomba’s Balk, who worked with Motown Records in the 1960s and managed an array of Detroit acts, “did not become aware of the fraud perpetrated on him and his company” until the film’s release, the lawsuit says.
Rodriguez is scheduled to play May 13 at the Masonic Temple Theatre, one year to the week after his sold-out homecoming show at the Midtown venue.
Contact Brian McCollum: 313-223-4450 firstname.lastname@example.org