A traditional blues song off Eric Clapton‘s 1992 Unplugged album for MTV is at the heart of a new lawsuit claiming the rock icon, his label and others have failed to properly credit the track for 24 years and counting.
“Alberta” is Clapton’s version of a famous 12-bar blues called “Corrine, Corrina,” which dates back to the late 1920s and has long been credited to the artist Armenter “Bo Carter” Chatmon. The original was registered with the U.S. Copyright Office in December 1929 in the names of Chatmon and his producer J. Mayo Williams.
The problem, as the complaint filed this month in U.S. District Court in Nashville asserts, is that Unplugged — from the original CD release to a 2013 expanded edition to the DVD of the TV special — credits the song to blues virtuoso Lead Belly and not to Chatmon. The complicating factor seems to have been that Lead Belly wrote a completely different song called “Alberta,” and that for unknown reasons, Clapton attributed his version of “Corrine, Corrina” (in which he sings “Alberta, Alberta” instead of the original lyric) to the more recognizable blues singer.
As a result of this case of mistaken song identity, Chatmon’s estate says it has received no royalties related to Clapton’s performance of it. The complaint points out that while all variations of Unplugged over the years credit Lead Belly, a version that Clapton performed on 2011’s Marsalis & Clapton Play the Blues — with jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis — correctly lists Chatmon as a joint author. It’s because of this that Chatmon’s estate believes Clapton and his co-defendants are fully aware that the Unplugged versions have been mislabeled all these years, with publishing royalties going to the wrong place.
The beneficiary of that misidentification has been Folkways Music, the publisher of Lead Belly’s “Alberta.”
In addition to suing Clapton, the estate lists several co-defendants in its claim for relief, including (among others) MTV and its parent company Viacom for designating Lead Belly as the song’s author on the TV special and subsequent home releases; Warner Music Group (Reprise) and Rhino for the 1992 album and its 2013 deluxe reissue; Folkways for its designation as the song’s publisher; and Hal Leonard for a sheet music version of Clapton’s Unplugged that credited the album’s “Alberta” to Lead Belly.
“Each of the Defendants has failed to account to Plaintiff for their unauthorized use of the Original Song, including without limitation sales of phonograph recordings/DVDs of the Original Song as part of the Deluxe Clapton Unplugged video/recording and the Songbooks, and Defendants have failed to pay any royalties to Plaintiff for such unauthorized sales or other uses of the Original Song,” the lawsuit states.
Chatmon’s estate, represented by Shrum & Associates out of Nashville, said it has made repeated attempts to correct the song mixup and fix the royalties issue with the various defendants “to no avail,” with many communications going unanswered. “This is a situation where you have the estate, the rightful owners of Bo’s intellectual property, just trying to get what’s rightfully theirs and get credit where credit is due,” said Barry Shrum, Floyd’s lawyer, in a statement to The Tennessean. “Bo created this song and started, in essence, a genre in music and influenced many performers in the future, and he deserves that credit.”
The estate is seeking $5 million in damages. The defendants have not responded to the lawsuit.
The estate has taken legal action over the song’s copyright before, having sued Rod Stewart in 2015 over the rocker’s inclusion of the song on his 2013 album, Time. The complaint pointed out that Stewart’s version and the Chatmon version were “nearly identical,” except Stewart changed the title slightly to “Corrina, Corrina.”
Clapton’s Unplugged remains the best-selling entry in the entire series, with 7.7 million sold, as measured by Nielsen Music. The album, notable for its heart-wrenching version of “Tears in Heaven,” about the death of Clapton’s 4-year-old son, Conor, topped the Billboard 200 for three weeks in 1992.