Attorney Donald Engel, whose groundbreaking legal victories for Olivia Newton-John and other musical acts snapped a record-industry stranglehold by freeing artists from their contracts, has died. He was 84.
Engel, who also successfully represented Donna Summer, Teena Marie and Boston’s Tom Scholz in key court cases, died Jan. 15 in Redwood City, Calif., after a long battle with leukemia, attorney Mark Passin of Los Angeles-based Robins Kaplan Miller & Ciresi told the Hollywood Reporter.
Engel specialized in representing performers who were reeling from their contracts, and record companies often chose to settle rather than litigate when they were informed that he was hired.
His clients also included musical artists Don Henley, the Beach Boys, Frank Sinatra, Michael Jackson, Cher, Dixie Chicks, Rod Stewart, Van Halen, Leiber & Stoller; and managers Doc McGhee and Jay Bernstein. Engel also represented Interscope, Motown, MCA, Disney, Lorimar and Paramount, among other major corporations.
Engel’s legal wins caused headaches for record companies and were often the impetus behind furious industry lobbying and changes in law. In his most famous case, when Newton-John wanted to leave MCA and the label went to court to enforce the contract, the court decided MCA couldn’t extend her contract, due to “California’s Seven Year Rule,” which protected artists from being tied up in long-term contracts. After Newton-John prevailed, California lawmakers carved out new rules for record contracts whereby artists who didn’t fulfill their commitment during the term of a deal could be sued for “lost profits” on uncompleted albums.
“He was definitely not scared of the establishment,” says attorney Larry Kenswil, who was head of business affairs at MCA/Universal Music Group in the 1990s. “He was one of the lawyers labels were scared of when he represented artists in an antagonistic lawsuit. He ruthlessly represented his clients, although personally he was always a gentleman and well-liked.” Well-liked enough, Kenswil notes, that Engel was able to represent both artists and companies.
“Don Engel was the premiere litigator on the West Coast for many years of his very dynamic and eloquent career,” says Joel A. Katz of Greenberg Traurig, who represents Justin Timberlake, Kenny Chesney, Scooter Braun and Troy Carter, among others. “He was a champion of artists’ rights, and he was at the forefront of true combat followed by comprehensive negotiation to achieve results.”
Born Dec. 11, 1929, in the Bronx, Engel graduated from City College of New York.
In 1972, he opened his own private practice with wife Judy, Engel & Engel. Three years later, the firm relocated to Los Angeles.
In addition to Judy, his wife of 43 years, Engel is survived by children Gregory, Jacqueline, Laura and Stephen.