Its a Nashville saga worthy of its own country music song.
Gentleman Jim Reeves was a velvet-voiced country crooner famous for his tuxedos, his clean-cut good looks and lovelorn lyrics such as: Put your sweet lips a little closer to the phone.
He died in a fiery Brentwood plane crash in 1964 at the age of 39.
Today, the fate of potentially millions of dollars in current and future royalties from his singing career remains in question.
For most of the past 20 years, distribution of them has been stalled by court battles between heirs and an oddball cast of characters who have included: a onetime Baptist minister charged with animal abuse, a carnival operator convicted of bank fraud and later pardoned by President Bill Clinton, and a professional Jim Reeves-cover singer.
The case has bounced among probate court, bankruptcy court, the Tennessee Court of Appeals and the Tennessee Supreme Court, which have had to sift through evidence that included a disputed prenuptial agreement, a home with 114 dead cats in the freezer and a museum devoted to the singer that was overrun by wild dogs.
Now, it appears the fate of Jim Reeves royalties is nearing a final resolution. Earlier this month, Nashville Seventh Circuit Court Judge Randy Kennedy ruled that the dispute would be narrowed to the interpretation of a 1976 will written by Reeves widow. A trial is tentatively set for October.
Messy legal battles
While its a case that offers more oddities than usual, estate lawyers and copyright experts say the issues it involves how to fairly divide the proceeds of intellectual property that lives on long after a songwriter or musicians death are all too common.
Currently, heirs of Paul Williams, one of the original members of the Temptations, gospel songwriter Albert E. Brumley (Ill Fly Away) and interested parties linked to the late Bo Diddley are all in court fighting about the correct distribution of inherited royalties.
This case isnt like any Ive ever been a part of before, said Ames Davis, a partner with Nashville law firm Waller Lansden Dortch & Davis and administrator for more than a decade of the still-disputed estate of Reeves widow, Mary Reeves Davis.
Its been never ending. It has involved half the attorneys in Nashville. But its not uncommon when you have a dispute among heirs about significant sums of money.
Even the exact sums of money involved are sometimes difficult to determine. Given the complex world of music royalty collections, and the ever-expanding ways that technology allows consumers to listen to music, substantial royalties can get lost in the legal wrangling.
For example, SoundExchange, which collects royalties for music streamed online or through satellite radio, said it has been collecting royalties for Jim Reeves for 10 years but hasnt found anyone to give them to up to now.
Reeves has a very significant (five figures of) royalties waiting here, said a spokeswoman who asked The Tennessean for help in locating beneficiaries.
In the meantime, as with many long-running estate disputes, attorneys fees are taking a bite as unresolved inheritance questions linger.
In the past five years, for instance, annual royalties from the sale of Jim Reeves CDs and song play have ranged from $100,000 to $400,000, according to court documents. During the same time period, attorney and administrator fees have ranged from $40,000 to $285,000 per year.
Career cut short
Jim Reeves was piloting the single-engine private plane when it disappeared above Brentwood airspace on July 31, 1964. He had had a pilots license a little more than a year.
His piano player, Dean Manuel, was his only companion. The country music world sprang into action. Singer Eddy Arnold immediately chartered a helicopter to conduct his own search while producers, DJs and songwriters fanned out across fields, yards and creek beds. When Nashville radio stations broadcast two days later that the search had ended in a Brentwood field littered with wreckage, fans rushed to the crash site to snatch up pieces of the plane as souvenirs. There were no survivors.
Reeves, who had been taught to fly by the same instructor who taught Patsy Clines manager to fly that doomed aircraft, was identified by the ID in his wallet. (Cline had died in a plane crash about 17 months earlier.)
In his 11 years as a Nashville musician, Reeves had 11 No. 1 hits in the U.S. A staple of Voice of America broadcasts, he also developed a huge fan base overseas, particularly in northern Europe, where devoted Jim Reeves fan clubs still operate. Today, there are also active fan clubs in India, Sri Lanka and South Africa.
Reeves was an ambassador of the Nashville Sound a pop-influenced smooth-voiced country style that emerged during the late 1950s and early 1960s. Hits included Four Walls, Welcome to My World and Hell Have to Go (with the refrain Put your sweet lips a little closer to the phone.)
Success continues after death
Reeves musical fame and the money that generated only grew after his death.
His widow, Mary Reeves, took over managing Reeves posthumous career, judiciously releasing over the years a portion of the 100 demos that Reeves had recorded and stored away during his lifetime.
Between 1964 and 1967, when Reeves was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, the late singer had six hit songs. Between 1970 and 1984, there wasnt a year when a Reeves single didnt find a place on the charts.
In all, Reeves had at least 29 hits after his death, including a beyond-the-grave duet with Cline (Have You Ever Been Lonely?) that reached No. 5 in 1981.
I dont think theres any end to it, his widow told the Nashville Banner newspaper in 1982. We still have some songs which have not been placed on the market, and we have the option to go back and take some of his older songs and redo them in different ways.
As Reeves widow, Mary earned all the royalties from the music, including mechanical royalties for the reproduction of recordings in CD and album sales; performance royalties for the airing of Reeves recordings on the radio; and writer royalties payable on songs written or co-written by Reeves that are performed by other artists.
When she remarried a onetime Baptist minister named Terry Davis in 1969, a prenuptial agreement specified that Mary (who became Mary Reeves Davis) would retain all rights to the royalties and intellectual property going forward from that time.
Roots of controversy
Then in the mid-1990s Mary signed away her late husbands entire catalog of songs in exchange for $7.6 million in two promissory notes from United Shows of America, a Smyrna-based company that operated state fairs and carnivals across the country.
The company was owned by Ed Gregory Jr., a former bank official convicted in the 1980s-era savings and loan scandal only to be pardoned by President Bill Clinton several years later.
Gregory also employed Marys nephew, Bill White, a Baptist minister and singer, who was paid to cover Jim Reeves songs at Gregorys venues.
Around the time Davis signed over all royalty and intellectual property rights, the Tennessee Department of Human Services investigated a complaint she was living in unsanitary conditions with Terry Davis and 200 cats on a Rutherford County farm. Davis was moved to a West End Avenue nursing home, and Jim Reeves niece Lani Arnold contested the sale, questioning her aunts mental capacity at the time. Mary, suffering from dementia, died in 1999.
Disputes heat up
By the time Gregory, the carnival operator, declared bankruptcy in 2002, the royalty dispute among the Reeves heirs and Davis had really heated up.
By then, Gregory had sold much of Reeves memorabilia and still owed more than $6 million in payments for the sale that had taken place in the mid-90s. It emerged during court proceedings that Marys nephew, Bill White, had a role in allowing the outstanding debt.
White had been appointed Marys conservator during her last few years of life and had lifted conditions for collateral as part of Gregorys purchase, even while he worked as a carnival singer for Gregory. The promissory notes were essentially worthless.
The administrator of Marys estate had filed suit in 2001, challenging the transactions among Gregory, White and Terry Davis. The Tennessee Court of Appeals agreed with the estate. And in 2006 the bankruptcy court approved a settlement returning the royalty rights to Marys estate in exchange for a $400,000 payment.
By then the annual royalties from Jim Reeves music were valued at about that amount, an average of $400,000 a year.
But then there came a wholly unexpected turn.
A mysterious new will surfaces
Marys will, signed in 1976, specified all her major assets, including royalties, would be distributed equally among her siblings, nieces and nephews, and those of her late husband, along with a portion directed to create a foundation dedicated to promoting country music as an art form.
Her second husband, Terry Davis, was to receive $100,000 and some property.
Then, in 2005, Terry Davis made a startling claim. He had discovered in an old safe a one-page, handwritten will that Mary allegedly had written years before, leaving Davis the bulk of her estate, including all rights to Jim Reeves music, royalties and legacy.
My clients were surprised, said Frank Horton III, the Nashville attorney who represents a group of Jim Reeves heirs. They doubted the will was authentic and doubted the will represented what Marys true intention was.
So for the next six years, the dispute raged on with the Reeves family consulting handwriting experts and deposing witnesses to prepare for a trial to dispute the validity of the handwritten will.
A day after the trial began in June, however, Terry Davis now 80 years old agreed to waive all claims that the handwritten will was a valid one. Instead, the heirs will go to court in October to decide how to interpret Marys original 1976 will.
Coming legal battle
Its a case thats long overdue for conclusion, and we hope to bring that about, said Murfreesboro attorney John Price, who agreed six months ago to represent Davis. Price is Terry Davis fifth attorney in the complex case.
But the dispute between Davis and Reeves other heirs in addition to Reeves niece Lani Arnold and nephew Bill McNeese will not be resolved smoothly or easily, according to Price.
Davis will claim a far more significant share of Mary Reeves assets, including royalties, than is specified in the 1976 will, his lawyer said.
He is entitled to 40 percent of Mary Reeves Davis estate, Price said, under estate law, which gives surviving spouses the right to elect to claim a bigger share of an estate than a will specifies, depending on the amount of time the couple had been married.
Thats likely to be disputed by Reeves heirs, who believe that Davis has already received his inheritance in its entirety and is not entitled to any claim on the music rights, royalties or future decisions on how to control the legacy of Jim Reeves.
They believe strongly it was Marys dream to preserve and promote the legacy of Jim Reeves, and the reason they have engaged in this litigation is to try and realize that dream for her, said Horton, their attorney.
Thats why theyve worked so hard to try and get the copyrights and royalty rights and Jims intellectual property back into Marys estate.
If Davis does prevail, attorneys say, there are two ways the estate could be carved up.
The most recent appraisal of the catalog is $1.2 million, Price said. The catalog could be sold and the proceeds divided. Or the parties could agree to have the catalog managed and divide ongoing payments.
It looks at this point like the catalog will be sold, either a private sale or through (court) action, Price said.