[Dixielandjazz] Taking Advantage of Jelly Roll Morton

Stephen Barbone barbonestreet@earthlink.net
Sat, 28 Sep 2002 14:11:22 -0400

Nancy asks about musicians's being taken advantage of by publishers,
record companies, etc. Below is quoted from:
http://www.jazzitude.com/morton6.htm  and other pages on that site. This
quote relates to the expose on Melrose that 2 writers for the Chicago
Tribune uncovered.

Steve Barbone

"For almost the full time of his association with Jelly Roll Morton,
Walter Melrose was skimming money off the top by finding ways of
obtaining money that should have gone to Morton. Jelly didn't realize
this for some time, because in the mid-1920s he was flush with money,
and he showed it, covering himself with diamonds that covered his
fingers, watch, and his famous front tooth. He was the Elton John of the
roaring 20s.

When Walter Melrose submitted the copyright claims for Morton's tunes,
he added lyrics to the tunes that Jelly had written. This made him a
collaborator and he could claim songwriting royalties even though he had
never written a decent song in his life. When added to the publishing
royalties he already collected for the sheet music, this amounted to a
nice chunk of change.

But that wasn't all. Melrose also arranged the recording contract for
Morton with the Victor Talking Machine Company. The contract, signed in
December of 1926, specified that all monies would be paid to Melrose
Brothers Music rather than to Morton. Morton never saw or signed a
contract for these recordings. As far as Melrose and Victor were
concerned, Morton had no claim on the artist royalties for some of the
greatest recordings in the jazz canon. He was entitled to composer
royalties, but even those were going partially to Walter Melrose.

At the same time, Jelly Roll was fighting against ASCAP, the very
organization that was supposed to be protecting him and other musicians.
ASCAP was formed to collect royalties for public performances of musical
compositions, and had been formed by songwriters, including John Phillip
Sousa. The advent of radio enlarged
ASCAP's role so that it now collected large sums for its members.
Unfortunately, Morton had asked Walter
Melrose about joining ASCAP as early as 1925, but was told the
organization would not help him. By 1934, when Morton did apply, the
group required any application for membership to be seconded by an ASCAP
member. The group was clearly discriminatory, with only two black
members out of 200. Louis Armstrong was not accepted as a member until
1939 despite the fact that he was one of the biggest recording artists
of the 1920s and '30s. Morton was finally admitted in December of 1939,
but was relegated to the lowest classification by which royalties were
calculated. This made him eligible to receive $120 annually. Those in
the highest classification including Cole Porter and George Gershwin)
received $15,000 annually.

Ironically, Walter Melrose was an ASCAP member since 1927, and collected
royalties on the unknown lyrics he added to Morton's songs during the
entire time of Jelly's decline in Washington and New York. . . .

He wrote to the Justice Department (in 1939) regarding Walter Melrose
withholding royalties after letters to Melrose himself resulted in the
arrival of a paltry $86.94 check. Shortly thereafter, Walter Melrose
sold the music on which he owned copyright to Edwin H. Morris & Co. of
New York. This made it impossible for Morton to sue Melrose since the
company he had represented no longer existed. (Steve's Note: MELROSE HAD
JAZZ) Morris & Co. did begin to send Jelly regular royalty checks, but
they were very small due to the fact that Morton's music no longer
generated the kind of revenue it had a decade before."