The voice in the commercial is a pure blues wail, carrying all the pain of a hard, black life in the Delta. The words are plaintive and muddied: "I'm gonna find my baby--woooo!--before the sun goes down."
The face on the TV screen connotes pure success: It's Tiger Woods, golf genius and multimillionaire spokesman for American Express. He's duffing around Manhattan, smiling as he sinks a putt into a throwaway cup on the Brooklyn Bridge, while the bluesman wails.
The juxtaposition doesn't seem to make much sense, but odder still is the story of how a snippet of a blues song recorded on a liquor-soaked night 41 years ago in an Arkansas juke joint ended up pitching corporate plastic. As is often typical, the case involves a tangle of lawyers and copyright concerns, increased revenues for record companies and not a dime--so far--for the original performers.
The song in question is "Joe Lee's Rock," and it is part of a treasure trove of recordings made in the Deep South by the legendary folk music collector Alan Lomax. It was exhumed and sampled by a vegan techno musician named Moby--who titled his version "Find My Baby." The song helped push Moby's latest album to triple-platinum status (more than three million copies sold worldwide).
Riveting vocals from two other 1959 Lomax recordings are also showcased on "Play," Moby's Grammy-nominated CD. One spiritual, "Trouble So Hard"--which Moby retitled "Natural Blues"--is artfully combined with synthesizer riffs and figured in a Calvin Klein jeans ad campaign featuring the pale, bald pop star. But Lomax, who is now 85 years old and disabled from strokes, has received no proceeds, his family said.
Lomax's representatives are growing impatient: "I'm perplexed," Anna Chairetakis, Lomax's daughter and caretaker of his archives, said in an interview this week. Referring to Moby, his record company and his lawyers, she added: "I'd be surprised if they didn't want to share in their good fortune with Alan and with the performers."
For decades, Lomax regularly wrote royalty checks to the musicians he'd recorded--even the singers on prison chain gangs. They were typically small sums, sometimes just $5 or $15, because his folk music albums rarely sold in large numbers. Chairetakis said she was hoping to use the windfall from Moby's commercial success to undertake an extensive search for all the original performers on her father's recordings and their heirs--and thereby issue royalty payments.
"I feel very strongly that the artists should get something out of it--or their heirs, wherever they are," she said.
In recent days Moby--real name Richard Melville Hall, a distant relative of the author of "Moby-Dick"--and the Lomax family have been negotiating to head off a potentially nasty court fight. The amount of money at stake is not publicly known, but nationwide ad campaigns often pay six-figure sums for the rights to use a song.
Moby wasn't available for comment, but his manager, Barry Taylor, said: "We've acted responsibly. We haven't received any money ourselves for anything." He added that licensing fees for the Lomax samples were properly paid to a music publishing company, Warner-Chapelle.
"Moby has tremendous respect for the Lomaxes," Taylor said. "We're optimistic that we'll be able to sort this thing out very soon. We want everyone to get paid and feel good about the project."
He called himself Boy Blue, but his real name was Roland Hayes. He played harmonica and delivered the blues with a powerful rasp. The tune "Joe Lee's Rock" involved the misfortunes of his drummer, whose hard-drinking girlfriend evidently was a two-timer.
Boy Blue, Joe Lee, the girl--they all may or may not be long dead. For years, nobody had a reason to find them. But now, big money has entered the picture--and Lomax archivists, based at Hunter College in Manhattan, are combing through session notes, canceled checks and old letters, trying to find what became of them.
The mystery of the man who wails "Gonna find my baby" in the American Express ad begins at a bar called the Old Whisky Store in Hughes, Ark.--a small town in cotton country, 20 miles east of the Mississippi River levee--where Alan Lomax lugged his state-of-the-art Ampex stereo recording gear in search of singular American sounds. For months he had traipsed through the South, his efforts funded by Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegun, the brothers who had founded Atlanic Records.
"It's normally a tricky matter for a strange white man to go into the honky-tonk district of a Negro community," Lomax wrote in the liner notes to his original seven-album Southern Heritage Folk Series. "The white police don't like strangers who cross the race line. The Negroes are understandably often reluctant to make friends. But in Hughes things were different."
In Hughes, he was put at ease by a bluesman named Forrest City Joe, known for such tunes as "Drink On Little Girl." Joe invited Lomax to record him and his friends, and, as best as can be determined by Lomax archivists, that's where Boy Blue laid down "Joe Lee's Rock," a composition by his drummer, on Oct. 1, 1959:
"By nine o'clock the stereo machine was sitting on the bar," Lomax recalled. "Forrest City Joe and his two-piece orchestra, Boy Blue and his two accompanists, along with their girlfriends and other connoisseurs of the blues, were lapping up the liquor and the music. No New York technician would have approved of the acoustics. Between takes the place was a bedlam. . . . The crowd danced during all the playbacks."
"Think of James Brown at his peak, Louis Armstrong at his hottest," Lomax later wrote of that night's musical competition in his 1993 book, "The Land Where the Blues Began." "The tall talk and the cussing led to some loud and inconclusive fights."
This went on into the wee hours. "At three-thirty a.m.," Lomax recounted in the liner notes, "I could scarcely see the typewriter to type out the contracts with these young eager beavers of the Arkansas blues."
The contracts. Those pieces of paper could be crucial to any claims for royalties made by Boy Blue, his band or their heirs. According to Lomax's representatives, the contracts authorized the historian to "commercially exploit" the recordings and bound him to share the proceeds with the musicians. The family says that Lomax reserved rights for other uses of the music, such as in television and the movies.
"He had an agreement with everyone he ever recorded," said Jeff Greenberg, an attorney representing the Lomax family. "But the contracts were done in a folk way, not a traditional music-business way. . . . This was an academic making the recordings, not a [music] publisher."
Lomax learned his calling from his father, John Avery Lomax, who made field recordings for the Library of Congress. Over the years, both weathered controversy for how they packaged and presented folk culture, but Anna Chairetakis points out that her family never got rich--and history benefited from the preservation of the songs.
"Alan lived for the work," she said. "He made no money off this stuff; he lived on grants. He put the money back into the research. And he really believed if it was $5 he owed to a performer, it was his obligation to pay it. I'd see him writing the notes and letters."
Since 1995, when her father suffered two major strokes, she has been monitoring his affairs--he is now in an assisted living facility in Tarpon Springs, Fla.--and supervising the release of 150 albums of his work on Rounder Records.
When she first heard about Moby's project, Chairetakis assumed that fees for the samples would eventually reach her father and the performers--other Lomax recordings on the Moby album feature singers Bessie Jones and Vera Hall. Chairetakis says she praised Moby's deft handling of the material in a letter to the musician: "It was done in a way to really let these voices ring out."
In January, Chairetakis told the Sonicnet music site: "I'm glad, and I'm sure Alan would also be glad, that people are finding these songs."
Now she describes Moby's work as a wholesale lift. "Have you listened to the original recordings?" she asked a Post reporter. "They are identical."
Moby's most direct and lengthiest sampling is of Hall's mournful "Trouble So Hard." He added synths, a beat and a bridge to turn it into "Natural Blues," but Hall's vocals make the song. (On one Internet music site, Beatnik.com, you can remix "Natural Blues" yourself, stripping away Moby's accouterments to hear Hall's voice as Lomax recorded it in her kitchen in 1959.)
For music historians, the dispute over the Lomax material echoes longstanding controversies over penurious royalty payments to R&B pioneers, who often signed over their song copyrights to promoters and corporations--and ended up broke despite the widespread popularity of their work.
"Isn't it interesting that all of our systems are set up to protect copyright holders and not the people who do the composing?" noted Charlie McGovern, a historian of popular culture for the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. "We sure have a lot more impoverished artists than we have impoverished record companies."
Released a year ago by the label V2, Moby's "Play" album didn't find much of a home on American radio. But the label marketed it widely in other venues: network TV shows such as "Dawson's Creek" and "Party of Five," movies and commercials. Rolling Stone magazine packaged a special CD single of "Natural Blues" in one issue as part of the Calvin Klein campaign, which also put Moby on a Manhattan billboard.
Though Moby has enjoyed a measure of success since 1991, the "Play" album proved to be a breakthrough--for him and the electronic music genre. Critics lauded the work, often noting the important contribution of the Lomax samples.
The album enjoyed a five-week run at No. 1 on the British charts. And as it caught fire worldwide, all 18 tracks on "Play" were eventually licensed for commercial uses--an industry first, according to Moby. But he told MTV News that he didn't care about making money, he just wanted exposure for the music.
This summer Lomax's representatives began initial efforts to track down heirs. Bessie Jones is dead, but is known to have sons. No contact has been made with Hall or her heirs.
And Boy Blue? The Lomax Archives contain an old letter that hints at his fate. A friend of Forrest City Joe's wrote to Alan Lomax in April 1960 to thank him "for the check for the recordings," but conveying some sad news. Forrest City Joe had met his end, along with four others, in a car accident.
"They had been out all night playing at Negro tonks and juke joints," the letter recounted. Around 7 a.m., the driver lost control and the car flipped over--"knocked Joe's brains out on the highway--killing him instantly."
The other musicians with Forrest City Joe weren't identified in the letter, but blues historians suspect one of the crash victims was Roland Hayes, a k a Boy Blue.
"I hope some trace of him turns up," said David Evans, a University of Memphis professor of music and folklorist. "But I would suspect that he's dead, or retired, or got religion--because he hasn't been recorded by anyone since 1959."
Of course, his voice he lives on, especially since American Express began airing its enigmatic "Tiger Woods in Manhattan" spot.
"It's been very successful," said Desiree Fish, spokeswoman for American Express. "We're getting a million calls from people asking, 'What is that music?' "
They told people that it's Moby.
To compare the original 1959 field recordings by musicologist Alan Lomax to the samples used by Moby, dial Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and the use the following numbers:
For Boy Blue's "Joe Lee's Rock," press 8151; for Moby's "Find My Baby," press 8152.
For Bessie Jones's "Sometimes," press 8153; for Moby's "Honey," press 8154.
For Vera Hall's "Trouble So Hard," press 8155; for Moby's "Natural Blues," press 8156.