The recent news from Atlantic Records -- that the company would recalculate the royalties due its original base of rhythm and blues artists, and would also fund a Washington-based Rhythm and Blues Foundation -- marked the end of a long campaign for a singer whose career started on the corner of Seventh and T streets and a local corporate attorney reared on rhythm and blues.

For Ruth Brown, it was the culmination of a 20-year struggle to correct royalty inequities.

For Howell Begle, it capped a five-year effort in which he represented not only Brown, but other Atlantic R&B stalwarts including the Drifters, the Coasters, the Clovers and the late Big Joe Turner.

Brown, 60, the most successful Atlantic recording artist of the '50s, and Begle, 44, counsel to the American Film Institute and the Kennedy Center and a specialist in newspaper acquisitions, are an unlikely pair, except that she was one of his idols when he was growing up in Arizona.

Begle, who owns several thousand 78s, describes himself as "a longtime fan, going back to playing guitar in a band in high school and listening to R&B at night. When I was 11 years old, I dragged my mother to see Ruth Brown, the Alan Freed show with Sam Cooke, everybody. This music was the love of my life.

"And to have gone to law school, worked for a Wall Street law firm, to have acquired all these skills and to have an opportunity later in life to apply these things to something I loved is wonderful. Too often in one's professional career, you don't get a chance to be on the right side of the right issue."

At the root of the problem: royalty wrongs that Brown had been trying to get redressed since the late '60s, wrongs centered on faulty bookkeeping and underreported sales as well as diminished foreign royalty rates, and deductions for packaging and advances not called for in her original contracts. By the time Begle met up with Brown in 1983 -- a media client informed him of her problems -- she'd been through four lawyers who'd had little luck penetrating corporate defenses. Atlantic's attitude was summed up in one letter telling Brown that "laches and statutes of limitations" barred her royalty claims.

It's not unusual for artists to try to undo bad deals made decades ago, often with small, independent companies that have long since folded or sold off their catalogues. Early rock 'n' roll history is a litany of primitive business practices that seldom favored the artists.

But Atlantic was a company apart, not only because it has grown into one of the industry giants (as part of the Warner Communications Inc. conglomerate) but because the label, through founder Ahmet Ertegun, had always been perceived as a nurturer of black music. Ertegun continues to head the 40-year-old company, so Atlantic couldn't claim a lack of knowledge about its past.

"I'm still here so I feel responsible for anything that has to do with Atlantic," Ertegun says. "We were fans. Most of the other people were businessmen. We were more like amateurs, though it seems to have worked out well."

Still, it took years of prodding, cajoling, negotiating and compromise to reach an agreement. Begle -- who had taken on the cases of another dozen artists with royalty disputes similar to Brown's -- started by examining old contracts and lucking into some documents that seemed to show patterns of questionable bookkeeping practices. He enlisted the aid of the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, and in 1985 persuaded CBS' "West 57th" to do a segment on royalty problems. A year later Brown was invited to testify about the issue before a congressional panel headed by Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich). Begle was also involved in a key 1986 meeting between Warner Communications Chairman Steven Ross and Jesse Jackson.

"I used every resource I had," says Begle, who ultimately chose to pursue a path of negotiation rather than confrontation.

There were small victories at first. In 1984 Begle was able to get $10,000 for Joe Turner and $3,000 for the Clovers, their first royalty payments in 25 years. But there was also discouragement.

"I had written {the disputed royalties} off," says Sam Moore (of Sam & Dave), another Begle client. "I felt like no one ever really cared, and I think we all felt that way. We didn't work that much, and even if we did, we couldn't afford to get attorneys to fight the thing so we just gave up." (Verner, Liipfert, the Washington law firm where Begle worked when he started the chase in 1983, wrote off some $60,000 worth of legal time and expenses, and all of Begle's work has been pro bono; his current media and entertainment law practice at Johnson & Swanson has been rewarding enough to make this possible.)

During the long negotiations, just as he had as a youngster in Arizona, Begle found his inspiration in Ruth Brown.

"I never would have succeeded had I not had such confidence that this was a matter of principle with Ruth," Begle says. "What scared me so much was that some of the people I was representing were in such tough financial straits. They had valid claims for very substantial sums of money, but I knew Atlantic could have put $30,000 in front of them and they would have taken it -- they couldn't have resisted. But Ruth was just rock solid. She was the one who kept me going, really."

Ironically, Atlantic's 14-record "Atlantic Rhythm and Blues" collection -- released in 1985 and intended as a celebration of historic achievement -- served as a checklist of potential plaintiffs. And at one point, Atlantic's corporate bookkeepers tried to bill both Brown and Joe Turner -- who was undergoing dialysis treatments at the time and depending on benefit concerts to pay his medical expenses -- for the mastering, editing and mixing done for that collection though they hadn't recorded for the label in 25 years. Begle protested, and when Ertegun heard about it, he immediately put an end to such practices; when Turner died soon afterward, Ertegun paid for his funeral and paid off the mortgage on his widow's home.

Such individual generosity was not new at Atlantic. In 1948, just after Ruth Brown signed with the label, she was on her way to recording sessions in New York when a car crash hospitalized her for nine months. "Atlantic paid my hospital bills and I had not recorded a note for them at that time, so they took a chance on me," she recalls. "In those days, we were all very close."

Still, almost all of Atlantic's original R&B roster had left the label by 1965 -- and almost all had left owing the label money for disputed packaging costs and advances. After a while, Atlantic simply stopped keeping up to date the accounts from which royalties are calculated, in essence writing these artists off the books because, Atlantic spokesmen say, they never envisioned recouping that money. Between 1969 and 1983, they even stopped mailing the quarterly statements demanded in contracts, claiming it was an administrative burden to post royalties and send out statements on closed accounts. No one envisioned the public's enduring interest in rhythm and blues, particularly overseas, or the popularity of reissues, or the development of CDs.

Yet compared with most of the other independent labels of the late '40s and '50s, Atlantic had an excellent reputation for fairness. Most labels "just knew they could beat black artists out of the money," says veteran songwriter Doc Pomus.

"It's a known fact," says Ertegun. "Independent record companies {then} were famous for not having good bookkeeping. I'd sometimes visit them and ask, 'Where's your accounting department?' They'd look at me and laugh."

Atlantic's royalty recalculations are based on post-1970 reissues and don't address the earlier period, in which the bulk of these artists' sales occurred.

The company says its records for this period are not complete, and that in any case, it has no legal obligation to audit such old accounts. Begle concedes that more is probably owed the people he represents, but says, "I don't know what's realistic to expect of corporate America at this point. Sometimes you have to temper action with reason."

That's probably why Atlantic took the extra step of committing at least $2 million, with another $150,000 for annual operating expenses, to the newly formed Rhythm and Blues Foundation (which Begle will head as unsalaried executive director). The foundation will make tax-free grants to pioneering rhythm and blues pioneers of the '50s and '60s as recognition for their artistic merit; initially, the artists will be drawn from the Atlantic roster, but if other companies kick in, as Atlantic hopes they will, that focus will expand.

"We hope people will follow our lead, but we can't force them to," says Warner's Ross. "We were always legally right, but we wanted to be ethically and morally right, as well."

Begle says the foundation will work to publicize the rhythm and blues genre in general and surviving artists in particular. Many of them, he points out, are still eager to perform publicly, but find opportunities limited.

"We're in good shape, in good mind," says Sam Moore. "What we should do now is put all of the past in the back, forget all the animosity and the hatred, and stick together and go back to work. We're good singers and performers. We had to be to keep the meals paid, the house rented."

And having served as counsel for the Kennedy Center Honors and AFI Tributes, Begle hopes he can put together some sort of television tribute, perhaps on a yearly basis.

"There's very few things in life I've invested as much time and energy in over such a long period of time," says Begle. "I'd love to have my legacy be watching this organization prosper."

"This is a fantasy really," says John (Buddy) Bailey, who sang lead on nine hits by Washington's Clovers. "It's a great feeling to know that someone was in our corner, especially Howell ... We were the pioneers but who in the hell cared? We had bad management, bad booking agencies, the whole nine yards. It was a complete rip-off and we didn't know it. We were just kids -- I was 17, you know how that goes. I just wanted to sing.

"I'm 55 now," Bailey adds. "That's the settling-down age." Thanks to Ruth Brown and Howell Begle, it may be the settling-up age as well.