When producer/arranger Wardell Quezergue was given an honorary Doctor of Music degree from Loyola University this spring, Dr. Jerry Goolsby of the Music Industry Studies program said in his introductory remarks, “What he does to a song can only be compared to what a sculptor does to a piece of stone—he adds the depth, texture, complexity, the dimensionality, the harmony, and the beauty to the music.” Quezergue received OffBeat’s Lifetime Achievement Award for Music in 2008 for his role in shaping the classic era of New Orleans R&B, was honored by Xavier University, and he’ll be celebrated by the Lincoln Center and the Ponderosa Stomp in New York City July 19 at Alice Tully Hall in the Starr Theatre.
Unfortunately, Quezergue’s years of acclaimed work made money for others but not him, and the now-81 and blind composer lives in an assisted-living home with his rent paid by relief organizations in town. He did, however, co-write the classic “It Ain’t My Fault” in 1964.
“Smokey (Johnson) came up to me and said, ‘Quiz, ‘I have something I want you to hear. I want you to record this on me.’ ‘Okay, let me hear it.’ He started to diddle with his hands on my desk. I said, ‘That’s a good beat.’ Where’s the melody?’ He said, ‘That’s where you come in!’”
Besides being one of the most recognized songs in New Orleans, “It Ain’t My Fault” has proven to be a valuable commodity. No Limit soldier Silkk the Shocker sampled the song three times, and Mariah Carey’s “Did I Do That” on 1999’s Rainbow samples Silkk repeating the phrase, “It ain’t my fault.” Sony has acknowledged that Carey’s use is worth almost $300,000 to the copyright holders of “It Ain’t My Fault,” but so far, copyright co-holder Tuff-N-Rumble Management has only collected $150,000 of it. Unfortunately, neither Quezergue nor Johnson, who’s also in poor health after suffering the debilitating effects of a stroke, have seen a royalty check yet based on that activity, and they filed suit against Aaron Fuchs’ Tuff-N-Rumble Management in May 2002 because Fuchs holds 50 percent of the song’s copyright and is contracted to be Quezergue and Johnson’s agent where the song is concerned. In July 2009, they’re still in court with no end in sight.
According to Johnson, Fuchs approached him in 1997 after an awards show and offered him $500—$100 up front—in exchange for a 50 percent share in the copyrights to many of his compositions and the ability to act as Johnson’s agent. Johnson considered the offer an insult and tore up the contract. “I was so mad, I just wanted to give the money to the church,” he says. In fact, he did sign the initial check over to Asia Baptist Church, but as the contract he tore up stipulates, “Deposit of the check will constitute an agreement,” so the deal was made without his signature.
Quezergue signed with Fuchs willingly. “I was never getting royalties before that anyway,” he says, and he hoped this time something might work out.
He had reason to be optimistic. Fuchs runs Tuff City Records and Night Train Records, labels that specialize in reissues of R&B. In 2000, he released It Ain’t My Fault, an album of tracks on which Johnson had played in the 1960s, and Don’t Be No Square, Get Hip to Quezergue in 2003. Fuchs also had made money by licensing samples for hip-hop. Tuff City Records began as a hip-hop label, and Fuchs was the first to sue for unauthorized sample use when he took LL Cool J to court in 1992 over a sampled drumbeat from “Impeach the President” by the Honeydrippers. He has amassed a significant library of rare soul, R&B, dance music and hip-hop, and he defends the songs in which he has an interest.
Johnson and Quezergue were soon dissatisfied, though, because royalty statements came sporadically, and when they did, they found it hard to be sure what royalties were coming in and what was being charged to their account. Lawyers Ashlye Keaton and Greg Eveline, who represent Johnson and Quezergue, have also questioned the royalty statements. As a result, Johnson and Quezergue sued Fuchs’ Tuff-N-Rumble Management for, among other things, breach of contract.
According to Fuchs, Tuff-N-Rumble doesn’t owe Quezergue and Johnson money because of their share of the legal fees for a suit against No Limit, which was necessary to compel it to pay royalties for Silkk the Shocker’s use of the song. In a letter to Quezergue from 2002, Fuchs wrote, “$22,000.00 has been credited for the writers’ share of ‘It Ain’t My Fault.’ At the same time, we had legal fees in excess of $100,000 which resulted solely from your case, as well as legal fees of close to $100,000 for our dealings with No Limit and Joe Jones,” the latter of which also claimed to own a piece of ‘It Ain’t My Fault.’” Fuchs continued, “For you to actually be due further income, you would need to recoup the amounts spent in legal fees, etc., of which your share currently stands in excess of $100,000.”
An email from Fuchs and his lawyer, Dino Gankendorff says: “We view this suit as a simple royalty accounting case. We have invited the plaintiffs on numerous occasions to sit down at the table to try to address their concerns, work out our differences in order to amicably resolve this case, and the plaintiffs have consistently refused.”
Neither Johnson nor Quezergue’s one-and-a-half-page contract stipulates that they bear the burden of lawyers’ fees, but the law does allow agents to charge some work done back to their clients. Currently, the question at hand is the legal fees. Last September, Johnson and Quezergue’s lawyers filed a motion for partial summary judgment on attorneys’ fees, questioning Fuchs’ legal costs, which were initially documented by a sheet of paper with three columns—dates, amounts and “QNOLA”—with no indication of work done. They contend that a QuickBooks summary report provided substantially similar information and turned up an occasion when Tuff City seemed to pay an invoice before the invoice was issued, throwing a cloud of suspicion over the documentation. On December 29, 2008, Judge Ethel Simms Julien found for Johnson and Quezergue, writing, “the Defendants [Tuff-N-Rumble] have failed to submit any credible evidence for said attorney fees.” Tuff-N-Rumble filed for reconsideration, which the judge rejected March 6, 2009. Since then, Tuff-N-Rumble has appealed the decision.
“One of the issues before the court is that now plaintiffs are refusing to give Tuff City credit for the attorneys’ fees payments it made in defense of the copyright,” Fuchs and Gankendorff write.
The case has gone on for over six years now, and both sides accuse the other of stalling. In a motion opposing reconsideration, Keaton and Eveline presented what they saw as a pattern of delay tactics on Tuff-N-Rumble’s part, while Fuchs and Gankendorff say, “Plaintiffs have not taken one deposition to date in this case.
They have issued one combined set of discovery. To date, they have never asked the court to set the matter for trial. Plaintiffs have the burden in this case. I’m not sure how anyone could accuse Tuff City of stalling.” Meanwhile, Johnson and Quezergue aren’t getting any younger, and they’re on fixed incomes. “I got a lot of bills,” Johnson says, including $700 a month in health care.
“Is this going to be our year?” Quezergue asks.