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Tribune News Service

Funk legend George Clinton at center of music battle in Detroit court

DETROIT — Funk legend George Clinton deceived keyboardist/songwriter Bernie Worrell and failed to share millions of dollars generated by dozens of their songs and seminal hits, according to a federal court lawsuit.

The lawsuit filed Tuesday in Detroit's federal court by Worrell's estate asks a federal judge to declare that the late keyboardist co-owned dozens of songs, including "Give Up the Funk," "Flash Light," and "Maggot Brain," recorded during a hall-of-fame career rooted in Detroit.

The lawsuit describes an alleged pattern of deceit, manipulation and bitter fallout from a pioneering musical relationship that once led to Clinton, Worrell and other members of Parliament-Funkadelic being inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1997. The court filing also marks the latest legal challenge by Worrell's estate since the keyboardist and producer died in June 2016 following a cancer diagnosis. He was 72.

"All of Clinton’s conduct illustrates a continued pattern of deceit, and manipulation which has resulted in Mr. Worrell, his estate, and the majority of his fellow bandmembers receiving minimal or zero compensation for the years of work they performed as members of Parliament, Funkadelic, or Clinton’s other acts," estate lawyer Daniel Quick wrote in the lawsuit.

Worrell's estate filed the lawsuit one year after a breach of contract claim ended in a New York state court when a judge ruled Clinton and his company, Thang Inc., did not have a contract with Worrell. But if there was no contract, that means Worrell co-owns the master recordings, Quick wrote.

A lawyer for Clinton is not listed in the federal court filing.

The lawsuit, assigned to U.S. District Judge Shalina Kumar, seeks unspecified damages, a declaration that Worrell’s estate co-owns the songs and is entitled to a share of performer and producer royalties. Worrell’s estate also wants to prevent Clinton from authorizing the use of the late keyboardist’s name, image and likeness.

The estate also wants a full accounting of money generated by the recordings and a preliminary injunction requiring the company that collects royalties to deposit all of the money into an escrow account.

The nature of the dispute dates to the mid-1960s when Worrell met Clinton backstage at the Apollo Theater in New York City. Worrell agreed to work for Clinton for $200 a week for live performances and a percentage of royalties from band recordings.

Worrell became an integral partner, forging a long career with Clinton, writing, producing or performing on almost all of Clinton's albums.

"Worrell’s virtuosic instrumental commentary, encyclopedic command of musical styles, contagious bass lines, in combination with the extra-terrestrial soundscape he pioneered with his Moog synthesizers, not only created P-Funk’s signature sound, they functioned as the glue holding the multifarious ensemble together," Ellen Exner of the New England Conservatory of Music wrote in an essay excerpted in the lawsuit. "The infusion of classical idioms into P-Funk's eclectic blend, although seldom described, was among Worrell’s essential contributions."

Clinton lived in Brooklyn, Michigan, and the duo recorded from 1969 to 1980 at several Detroit studios, including United Sound Systems.

The lawsuit Tuesday lists dozens of recordings that Worrell played an "integral" role in creating. That includes tracks from albums recorded at United Sound Systems, including “Free Your A—, And Your Mind Will Follow” (1970), “Cosmic Slop” (1973), Parliament’s “Mothership Connection (1975), “Chocolate City” (1974) and “Up for the Down Stroke” (1974).

"The works have sold millions of copies worldwide and have been reproduced and commercially exploited by defendants and others, in many formats and media," Quick wrote. "On information and belief, the works have generated millions of dollars in revenue."

In 1976, Worrell signed a recording contract offered by Thang that would give the keyboardist and songwriter royalties and earnings from numerous recordings that Worrell wrote, recorded and produced, including "Atomic Dog," "Flash Light" and "Aqua Boogie," according to the lawsuit.

"When it came to royalties for the records, Mr. Worrell and Clinton’s other fellow band members never received payment or accounting statements. Without royalty statements, Mr. Worrell and the band members had no way of knowing how much money was actually coming in and how much they should be owed," Quick wrote. "Clinton used Thang to funnel the money to himself where he could spend it how he pleased. He would make oral promises to band members or manipulate them into giving up rights in order to receive payment."

In the New York lawsuit, Clinton denied signing the recording contract, the lawsuit alleges.

“The alleged agreement is dated 44 years ago and to the best of my knowledge and recollection, I did not sign the original or a copy of the document either on behalf of Thang, Inc. or for myself,” Clinton wrote in an affidavit filed in the New York state lawsuit. "I also have no knowledge of anyone else having signed this purported agreement for or on behalf of Thang, Inc."

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