Howell Begle, who helped R&B stars recover royalties, dies at 74

Mr. Begle with singers Carla Thomas, Ruth Brown, and Bonnie Raitt at the W.C. Handy Blues Music Awards in Memphis in 1990.
Mr. Begle with singers Carla Thomas, Ruth Brown, and Bonnie Raitt at the W.C. Handy Blues Music Awards in Memphis in 1990.

Since boyhood, Howell Begle had been a fan of Ruth Brown, a popular rhythm and blues artist whose 1950s hits such as “Teardrops From My Eyes” had earned her the nickname “Miss Rhythm.”

So he welcomed the chance to meet the singer in the early 1980s, when she performed at a birthday party for an acquaintance he knew through his law practice. He even brought along albums for her to autograph.

“They were, he said, very expensive,” Brown would later recall. “I told him I didn’t get a cent of the money. I hadn’t had a royalty statement in decades.”


Astonished to hear she had been denied royalties, and had worked as a domestic to make ends meet, Mr. Begle launched an unlikely crusade to secure compensation for Brown and other musicians. Though by day he was a top lawyer at a Washington, D.C., firm, for years he provided pro bono services to black musicians who had not received royalties from record sales because of unfair contracts they signed decades ago.

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“Not only did he fight for them legally, but he hired them and arranged for concerts, and helped them if they had financial trouble,” said the singer and songwriter Bonnie Raitt, who added that “the whole industry benefits from the work these pioneers did. All of us owe a great debt to these artists.”

Mr. Begle, who relocated to Boston in 2007, died Dec. 30 in Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, N.H., of injuries from a skiing accident a week earlier. He was 74 and had divided his time between the Back Bay and Martha’s Vineyard.

“Howell was a heroic figure. He was a remarkable combination of patience and passion,” said the music writer Peter Guralnick, some of whose books have focused on blues artists.

“He never gave up. He was dedicated to a cause that he had really uncovered by himself,” added Guralnick, who is known for his two-volume biography of Elvis Presley. “Howell was never self-promoting. He was always promoting the cause. Right up to the time of his death, he was still working on things that would benefit the estates of Charles Brown and Jimmy Scott in particular.”


Mr. Begle’s decision to work for free on behalf of many older musicians meant taking on music industry executives who were accustomed to getting their way.

“The people who started many of these companies were hustlers,” he told the Washington City Paper in 1995. “These were not the greatest people in the world. Any black artist negotiating with any white was going to have a difficult time of it.”

Initially, he added, “people didn’t return my phone calls. They were hoping I’d go away.”

He didn’t. Mr. Begle persuaded a congressman to hold hearings about the lost royalties, and then convinced record companies to pay tens of thousands of dollars in back royalties to musicians he represented. He also got a record company to donate money to found the Rhythm and Blues Foundation, a nonprofit preservation organization, with Mr. Begle serving as its first leader.

While his successful fight to secure lost royalties made him a hero to musicians, Mr. Begle’s work as a top media mergers and acquisitions lawyer gave him added legal clout in any battle.


For much of his career, he was an attorney at the Washington firm Verner, Liipfert, Bernhard, McPherson and Hand, where one of his most important clients was William Dean Singleton, the founder and retired longtime chairman of MediaNews Group.

They met more than 40 years ago, when Singleton was taking early steps toward establishing what would become one of the nation’s largest chains of media properties.

“By my count, Howell and I completed well over 300 transactions together in purchasing newspapers, radio, and television stations,” Singleton said, adding that those deals had a combined value of “about $6 billion.”

“Howell did virtually all the transaction work both when we were buying newspapers and selling newspapers,” Singleton said.

The skills Mr. Begle brought to bear on reluctant record company executives were on full display during those years of media deals.

“I’ve heard many people across the table from us say, ‘Hey, we finally gave in to your wishes because we knew there was no hope to win.’ And that was Howell. He was a tenacious negotiator,” Singleton said.

“Howell did not know the word ‘no,’ Howell did not know the word ‘can’t,’ ” he added. “If Howell set out to achieve something, he didn’t stop until he achieved it.”

Born in Detroit in 1944, Howell Edward Begle Jr. was the only child of his parents’ marriage, though he had half-siblings from his father’s other marriages.

His parents divorced and Mr. Begle was raised by his mother, Lucille Beall, who over the years worked in sales at high-end boutiques and ran her own travel agency.

They had lived in Arizona and settled in Stuart, Fla., where Mr. Begle attended high school. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree from the University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn., and from University of Michigan Law School.

During the Vietnam War, Mr. Begle was drafted and served as a lawyer in the Army, stationed in Japan.

Afterward, he spent most of his career at Verner Liipfert. His work included dealing with entertainment legal matters for the Kennedy Center Honors and American Film Institute tributes, and for two presidential inaugurations — for Ronald Reagan in 1985 and George H.W. Bush in 1989. “Maybe they couldn’t find a Republican entertainment lawyer,” Mr. Begle joked in the 1995 Washington City Paper interview.

Mr. Begle, whose first marriage ended in divorce, met Julie Eilber when he was working on a Kennedy Center Honors program and she was a writer for the “CBS Morning News.”

“He was this person who had this huge appetite for life,” she said.

Mr. Begle, who had operated his own law firm in Boston, spent part of his college years studying in Aix-en-Provence, in southern France, which gave him “an appreciation for the finer things in life,” she said. Impromptu visits to Paris were not uncommon, and the couple traveled annually to the French Alps to ski — a pastime he also shared with Singleton.

Julie added that her husband was devoted to being a father. “Since he was raised by a single mother, and he really didn’t see his father for 10 years,” she said, “creating a family and taking care of a family was very important to him.”

A service will announced for Mr. Begle, who in addition to his wife leaves his four children, Charles of Boston, Kristin Edwards of Bingen, Wash., Mark of Martha’s Vineyard, and Matthew of Olympia, Wash.; and three grandchildren.

For Mr. Begle, the musicians he assisted as a lawyer became family, too.

“He was so honored and pleased to be able to help them because he loved their music so much,” his wife said. “His payback was getting to hang out with them and be their friends.”

By bringing economic justice to R&B pioneers, Mr. Begle “made a difference for those of us who make our living in the music business,” said Raitt, who added that “on so many levels we owe him a tremendous debt.”

Bryan Marquard can be reached at