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Estate of Funk Rock Legend Rick James Sued By Songwriters Over Decades of Unpaid Royalties

The estate of the late funk singer Rick James is being sued by three songwriters who claim there is a breach of contract and copyright infringement. 

The songwriters of one of James’ biggest hits claim that Universal Music Group and the executor of the Rick James estate allegedly have not paid them their royalties to a song they own, Radar reported. According to the suit, in 1979, Leroy O’Neil Jackson Jr, James Calloway, and Aaron “Sonny” T. Davenport created three demos at Blank Tapes Studios and the trio wrote and recorded the song “Big Time.”

American musician Rick James (born James Johnson Jr, 1948 – 2004) performs onstage at the Uptown Theater, Chicago, Illinois, February 28, 1980. (Photo by Paul Natkin/Getty Images)

The song in question has been on 15 albums since its 1980 debut, including its addition to the original soundtrack of the September 3, 2021, documentary called “Bitchin: The Sound and Furty of Rick James.” 

Trio Wants Estate to Pay Past Royalties

The legal docs state the group, represented by attorney Charles Matlock of Chicago, wants past-due royalities.

“Since in or around 1990, plaintiffs have made efforts to engage legal counsel to assist them with the collection of unpaid mechanical writers’ royalties only to be turned away by attorneys unwilling to represent Plaintiffs on a contingency fee basis,” the document stated.

“Despite requests from Plaintiffs to Defendants, Plaintiffs have never received a single accounting statement nor payment for mechanical royalties for ‘Big Time’ from Defendants. Defendants nevertheless continue to distribute and exploit the composition by releasing and distributing digital and physical phonorecords of Plaintiffs’ copyrighted work and are liable for intentional copyright infringement,” the complaint continued. 

Back in 1984, Jackson Jr., Calloway, and Davenport settled a lawsuit they had against Motown records and James’ production company to receive royalties from the song they demoed to James back in 1979 at Blank Tapes Studios.

The original agreement was that James would exclusively get publishing royalties and rights from the song “Big Time” for the first five years, and after being released and added to James’ fourth album, “Garden of Love,” the royalties and rights default to the songwriters.

“Garden of Love” was released on July 16, 1980, by Universal Music Group’s Motown sub-label Gordy Records. “Big Time” was the album’s standout single, topping No. 17 on the Billboards charts, according to All Music.

When the case got settled, the songwriters were awarded about $4,000 after legal fees, the suit claims. 

Rick James’ Estate

James had an estimated net worth of just $250,000 at the time of his passing, Afro Tech reported. He died on August 6, 2004.

Daughter Ty James is the estate president and is responsible for preserving her father’s legac. IP investment and song management company Hipgnosis, which was founded by Merck Mercuriadis and fellow famed pop-funk icon Nile Rodgers, bought 50 percent of James’ music catalog in 2020. Hipgnosis is not named in the lawsuit.

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