Litigants Battle Over Photos Of Legendary Bluesman

A legal battle over profits from the only two known photographs of legendary Delta bluesman Robert Johnson – who is said to have sold his soul to the devil for prowess on the guitar – now rests with the Mississippi Supreme Court.

Johnson, whose songs have influenced a host of famous musicians, was destitute when he died in Mississippi in 1938 at age 27. His estate is valuable, partly because of a collection of his recordings that won a Grammy in 1990.

Photo: The Clarion-Ledger, Greg Jenson/AP
Claud Johnson, seated, with his son Michael next to a poster of one of the rare photographs of his father, Robert Johnson.

Three justices heard arguments Monday in the dispute about the photos, one of which is a studio portrait taken of the Mississippi bluesman by Hooks Brothers Studios in Memphis, Tenn. The other photo, known as “the dime store portrait” or “the photo booth self-portrait,” was taken by Johnson himself.

Presiding Justice Jess H. Dickinson said he and his colleagues will take time to consider the case. He didn’t say when they will rule.

On one side are descendants of Johnson’s late half-sister, Carrie Harris Thompson. Their attorney, Stephen E. Nevas, argued the photos were Thompson’s personal property but others profited from them.

On the other side are Sony Music Entertainment Inc.; Johnson’s only heir, his son Claud Johnson; and Stephen C. LaVere, a promoter whose Delta Haze Corp. had a 1974 contract with Thompson.

Anita Modak-Truran, a Jackson attorney representing Sony Music Entertainment, said Monday that court battles over Johnson’s estate have dragged out nearly a quarter century — almost as long as the blues legend lived.

“This case plays like a broken record and the needle is stuck on ‘Crossroads Blues,'” Modak-Truran said.

On Nov. 20, 1974, Thompson signed a contract with LaVere to assign all her rights to Johnson’s work, photographs and any other material concerning Johnson that she might have. In return, LaVere was to pay Thompson 50 percent of all royalties he collected in his efforts to capitalize off Johnson.

LaVere signed a deal with CBS Records to release a collection of Robert Johnson’s 29 recorded songs. CBS, later acquired by Sony, released a boxed set of Johnson’s recordings. It sold more than a million copies and won the 1990 Grammy for Best Historical Album.

Nevas argued that without the photographs of Robert Johnson, the collection of his recordings would not have been issued and nobody on the other side of the dispute “would have collected the millions they have reaped.”

Thompson died in 1983 and her heirs, Annye C. Anderson and Robert M. Harris, argue that they are entitled to royalties. Anderson is Thompson’s half-sister, but is not related to Robert Johnson. Harris is Thompson’s grandson.

Claud Johnson, whose parents were not married, found out about his father’s estate in the early 1990s, after Thompson’s death, and went to court. In 2000, Claud Johnson was declared the musician’s sole heir.

Leflore County Circuit Judge Ashley Hines ruled in 2001 that when Claud Johnson was declared the musician’s sole heir, the royalties specified in the 1974 contract were to go to him.

The Supreme Court found in 2004 that the question of whether the photos were the personal property of Carrie Thompson was never litigated. It directed Hines to rule on the issue.

Hines, without a trial, found in 2012 there was no triable issue of fact on the plaintiffs’ arguments for royalties and breach of contract. Nevas on Monday asked the Supreme Court to send the case back to the lower court to let jurors decide the issue.