Isley Feels Vindicated In Bolton Case
The Feb. 4 episode of the Steve Harvey television show featured Lil' Bow Wow as a rapper who wanted to remake a song originally performed by Harvey's old band. Portraying one of those band members wasThe Feb. 4 episode of the Steve Harvey television show featured Lil' Bow Wow as a rapper who wanted to remake a song originally performed by Harvey's old band. Portraying one of those band members was Isley Brothers front man Ronald Isley, who, ironically, had earlier witnessed the final act in the brothers' nine-year court battle against singer Michael Bolton for plagiarizing the Isleys' 1966 song "Love Is A Wonderful Thing."
And while Bolton, in an earlier interview with Billboard, adamantly disagreed with the court's decision that his 1991 top five pop hit of the same name was copyright infringement, Isley is just as adamant that justice finally prevailed.
The initial verdict in the protracted court fight was handed down in 1994 when a lower court ruled that Bolton, co-writer Andrew Goldmark, and Sony Music Publishing had to give the Isley Brothers $5.2 million in profits from the sales of Bolton's version. Bolton appealed that decision, which was later upheld in a May 2000 decision by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco. The battle ended Jan. 22 when the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear Bolton's appeal of the May ruling.
When the first judgment was handed down, the original trial jury determined there were five instances in which the Bolton/Goldmark song plagiarized the Isleys' tune. The original jury ruled that 66% of the song's profits came from copyright-infringed material and that 28% of the profits from the album "Time, Love & Tenderness" resulted from the Grammy-winning track.
According to appeals court documents, the Isleys are to be paid $4.2 million from Sony Music, $932,924 from Bolton, $220,785 from Goldmark, and the balance from Bolton and Goldmark's music publishing company.
The Isley's share will "go to the bonds for the deal we did," according to Pullman Group principal David Pullman. The Pullman Group acquired the Isley catalog for $4.8 million during Isley's bankruptcy proceedings and later issued bonds secured by the assets, as he has for David Bowie and other artists.
"The money, bonded by Sony, is there right now," Pullman says. "It's just a matter of doing the paperwork for the release."
Bolton's representatives did not return calls by deadline.
Here is Ronald Isley's full interview with Billboard:
What was your initial reaction when you heard Michael Bolton's song?
When I first heard his version of the song on the radio, I was really pleased. Then I went out to pick up the record and looked for my credit. I was upset because the credits weren't on there. So we got in touch with his people and then he went into the "Oh, I didn't know you all had a song like this." That type of thing.
But the musicologist and everyone else who got involved after hearing our song said this was the best case out of any case they'd ever had. This is your song, hands down, [they said]. It just bothered me that he [Bolton] wouldn't go ahead and admit that.
Did you try to reach an agreement with Bolton?
We tried to reach some sort of agreement. But I said, "Man, it doesn't have to be like this. But they didn't want to reach anything. He had gone to court with someone else and won a similar case with against someone else. So maybe he felt like he knew how to win these kinds of cases. And I think he thought I wouldn't go through with it.
Angela [singer Winbush, Isley's wife] and I were listening to his work tapes. And on the tape, we heard him say, "Where did I hear this song before? Is this Marvin Gaye?" And this is on his work tape. So we subpoenaed those work tapes and they were played in court. We had to turn that part of the tape up to hear his dialog and all of that. But that's something that slipped by them because I guess they would have hidden that.
But he could have settled the case for way less money, rightful money, and he didn't want to do it. And then he got into this kind of contest thing with us: I'm going to show you. And that's what it turned out to be. I lost a lot of respect that I had for him as an artist. But we just went all the way with it.
Had you met Bolton before?
Angela was performing on the Lou Rawls' annual UNCF telethon. And so was Bolton. She was going to introduce me to him and he said, "Hey, you don't have to introduce me to him. I know all of his stuff from a kid on up." And I didn't forget that he said that.
But in court he forgot Lou Rawls' name. He forgot the show: "Well, I've played so many shows." Here's a guy who's a connoisseur of black music and all of a sudden on the stand he told people he didn't know who the Isley Brothers were. He was told, "Well, they're the same group that sang 'Twist and Shout.' "Well, I thought that was the Beatles," [he said]. "Well, what about 'For The Love Of You?'" "I thought that was Whitney Houston." "What about 'Summer Breeze?' I thought that I heard Ernie play on that but I thought it was somebody else." It was one lie after another. He made himself look real stupid.
In these ensuing nine years, did you ever think about giving up?
No, I knew we were right. I knew he was fighting a battle he could not win. The melody was the same. Everybody said it but him. Everybody knows that "Three Blind Mice" is "Three Blind Mice," but he wanted to call it something else. After we won the money judgment, they had to put up X amount of dollars and then the interest started ticking. So after winning the judgment, we knew the money was there.
Angela and I were at every hearing. Just us. It really didn't involve the younger brothers. My older brother (O'Kelly) passed earlier. Rudolph was involved, but he didn't attend any of the hearings. Sometimes the publicity people get it wrong: they use Marvin's name, but he had nothing to do with this.
What's your response to Bolton's comments that the record never charted?
We brought in DJs who had played the record. They testified about numbers the record made it to on their stations: E. Rodney Jones, Gerry Bledsoe in New York, and Jerry Blavat on his television show. But once again, if you ask Michael, he'll just say anything. When he makes those kinds of statements, I could say I'm going to sue you because you're making another statement that's wrong. But we would go on forever.
Even after we won the case for $5 million, Bolton and his attorneys wanted to appeal? You know what they wanted to settle for? $150,000. That's what his attorneys told him. Like it's some sort of joke. Then he [Bolton] went from there to sending letters to my brother [Rudolph] who's in the ministry now, saying, I'll perform in your church. Can I give you X amount of dollars? And I have the letters if you ever want to see the ridiculous stuff they tried. They went to Washington to lobby with different senators and stuff like that.
How did you feel when Bolton became one of the bidders in your bankruptcy proceedings?
My bankruptcy was always a thing I knew would be satisfied. But it got blown out of proportion when he came into it. We knew we were doing the bonds. We knew that we were going to take care of whatever I owed, which happened anyway. But it got out of hand and got the publicity when he came in and tried to pit EMI and others against us.
What was your reaction to the U.S. Supreme Court's decision refused to hear Bolton's appeal of the May 2000 court decision?
When I heard the verdict, I said, it's finally over with. Everybody that surrounded us, our team, felt that way. This will be a piece of history and now maybe somebody else won't have to go through this. We can't take an R. Kelly song and call it an Isley Brothers song. We can't take a Holland-Dozier-Holland song and call it an Isley Brothers song. That's not right.
The majority of his [Bolton's] work has been with black people's music, and it's paid off good for him. But you can't get to the point where you say, "OK, I'm going to start saying, 'Oh, whose song is that? Marvin Gaye's? Well, he's not living so we'll take that.'" No, it wasn't Marvin Gaye's song, it was mine. He picked the wrong person.
What's your advice to songwriters who may face this dilemma?
Stand up for what you know is right. If you wrote something, you deserve to get paid and recognized for your work. No one should take a bow with another man's hat. And that's what he did. A young songwriter shouldn't think he or she doesn't stand a chance because someone has big corporate people behind him. Never look at it like that. I also think a lot of record companies learned a lesson from this.
The Isley Brothers recently signed with DreamWorks. When will your first album for the label be released?
This album is going to be the biggest we've ever had in our career. Ernie's [his brother] is on it with me. It's mostly about my [alter ego] Mr. Biggs. The producers are people we've wanted to work with for years like Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis and Raphael Saadiq, who did three songs with us. And we're back once again working with R. Kelly. Angela also did some work on this project, most notably on a song called "Warm Summer Night."
We covered all the bases. It's definitely our best work. And I'm not just saying that lightly. A single will be out in March, while the album should drop in May.