John Fogerty Interview: Finally Controlling His Classic Creedence Songs
PRESS RELEASE SOURCE: VARIETY (CHRIS WILLMAN)
Cover Image: Getty Images
For more than half a century, John Fogerty stood as the poster boy for all musicians who’d ever signed away rights to their publishing or master recordings and been unable to buy them back. Over time, Paul McCartney and then Taylor Swift came to be symbols, as well, of artists who tried and failed to win full ownership of their own music. But even Swift’s radical decision to re-record all her old albums, to do an end run around her former label selling her masters, may not count as quite as bold as the stance Fogerty took for several decades, during which he refused to perform any of his classic late ’60s and early ’70s Creedence Clearwater Revival songs in protest of his inability to purchase publishing rights for that material.
That poster boy for disenfranchisement is now a happy man, from all indications. In early January, Fogerty announced that he had made a deal with Concord Music Group to purchase a majority interest, worldwide, in the Creedence catalog. His U.S. rights were about to revert to him anyway, after 56 years since the signing of his original contract, per American copyright law, but he wanted to control the catalog globally, as well, which was not in store for him. That is, not until his wife and manager, Julie Fogerty, and a very high-profile advisor, Irving Azoff, came up with the idea of negotiating a deal that would leave the singer-songwriter as the primary owner while still letting Concord (parent company of Fantasy Records) maintain a vested interest.
“Finally getting ownership of my songs now, you can see it’s correcting something that has been wrong in my life for most of my life —you know, since my early twenties,” says Fogerty, now 77.
The story of Fogerty’s epic battle with Fantasy Records’ former owner, the late Saul Zaentz, has been oft-told over the years, but only now can it be recounted in full with the happy ending the performer long wished for. Fogerty laid the whole journey out for Variety, from purgatorial beginning and middle to near-fairy-tale ending, so that the tale can finally been seen in its full arc… and serve as a cautionary tale for any musicians too eager to sign on a dotted line.
You must have considered the irony of how other veteran singer-songwriters are jumping over each other to sell their song catalogs for big bucks, and here you are, seemingly the lone guy working to buy yours back.
It is ironic, certainly, that everybody else is selling and I end up buying my songs, but of course it makes perfect sense. It has been such a wrong use of music business law, all these years. To finally own “Proud Mary” is a big deal. I understand other people, especially older people, wanting to sell. But that’s not my frame of mind, certainly at the moment, anyway.
You take songwriting very personally, maybe even more so than a lot of other writers. Why did it mean so much to you?
My mother sat me down when I was 3 and a half and played me a Stephen Foster record — one side was “O Susanna” and the other side was “Camptown Races” — and explained to me that Stephen Foster was the songwriter of both songs. That little gesture, I think, instilled sort of a sense of what we now call Americana in me, and it also made me, a 3-and-a-half-year-old, aware of songwriters. That’s such an unusual thing for any mom to do. She had guessed already that I was pretty musical, because I would dance around and hum songs and learn the words, but it’s still a remarkable thing that happened in my life. It certainly had a lot of effect on the rest of my life, just because of that one little thing.
I tried to write songs as I was growing up, and when I say try, I’m sheepishly admitting that they weren’t very good. That’s why writing “Proud Mary” was such a big deal in my life, because I understood what it was immediately. I had sort of an epiphany, and I ended up writing most of that song within an hour’s time. Sitting there in my living room with the piece of paper that had the words on it, I was literally shaking with the understanding that this was really a classic. I thought in those terms, perhaps like Hoagy Carmichael or maybe Leiber and Stoller or, God knows, Lennon and McCartney. I recognized that with “Proud Mary” I had crossed some sort of line into another dimension — I knew it at the time.
Can you describe the circumstances of signing the contract that took your publishing rights to the Creedence songs away from you for 55 years?
I never had my songs, so I can’t say “getting them back,” the phrase that most people say. I signed a contract as a 22-year-old on Jan. 8, 1968. And within the language of that contract, not only did they own my musical rights for far more years than I would’ve ever understood at the time, but also any songs that would be written by members of the band.
The band had been named the Golliwogs by Fantasy Records, which we never liked and never appreciated. Saul Zaentz called us to his home somewhere around October 1967 and explained to us that he had just purchased Fantasy Records, which we knew as a little jazz label. Somewhere near the end of the year, he gave us a contract, but we didn’t sign it right away. I certainly had tried to read it, but I didn’t understand the words. We decided that we should have a lawyer look at it. Well, Stu Cook, the bass player’s dad, was Herman Cook, an entertainment lawyer. So the band gave the contract to Stu and said, “Have your dad read this, and see if it’s all right.”
Some weeks went by. We were getting ready for a gig one evening, loading up. Somebody suddenly shouted out, as we’re passing each other with drums and guitars, “Hey Stu, what did your dad say?” And Stu says something like, “What did dad say about what?” Somebody else says, “The contract, what did he say about the contract?” There was a little pause, and then Stu says, “Oh, he said it’s OK to sign.” We all jumped up and down— “Yay!” That was what we were waiting for. Certainly more than one time over the years have I woken up in the middle of the night and thought about that incident. I dare say I kind of feel Stu maybe never actually even took it to his dad to ask professional advice.
Do you remember when you first felt like you had been had?
It was pretty quickly toward the end of 1968.
And then things really came to a head for you when Creedence split in the early 1970s?
When the band broke up, I thought that that meant we were no longer under contract. Over the years, I’ve read lots of biographies of different bands and musicians — probably more than 20 just in the last six months or so — and a lot of them had the strategy of breaking up so that they could break their contract, and they were successful. Somehow, in my case, when the band broke up, I was still under contract as an individual to Fantasy Records. Fantasy then turned around and let the other three members out of their obligation almost immediately. Doug (Clifford) and Tom (Fogerty) made albums as solo artists, and I think (Fantasy) discovered that they probably didn’t want to have to pay their recording costs going into the future. But they didn’t let me go, and the more I researched my obligation, it turned out I owed them in excess of 180 tracks — something like 186, I believe. And there was no time limit! My obligation kept sliding over into the next year if I didn’t fulfill this year’s obligation. This was about 1973; I discovered it was going to take me more than 20 years to be able to do it. And when you discover you’re a prisoner, you tend to start losing even the incentive to want to do it, you know? You realize you’ve been snookered. It turned my youthful enthusiasm into something else.
You’ve said that you were surprised that no one seemed interested in offering you incentives to fulfill the contract, even though you were the cash cow.
I made an album called “Blue Ridge Rangers” [his first solo release, a 1973 album of cover songs]. I was having trouble creating new original songs. My mind was just completely blown up. It’s hard to be so mistreated over here on this hand, and yet somehow trick your mind into feeling like creating more music and give it back to those same people. So I went and had a meeting with Saul and all the cronies and officers of the record company. There were five or six people representing them, and I went there by myself, representing myself. We sat down and there was about a minute of chit-chat, then I came right out and stated my problem.
I said, “I’m having this meeting because I’m looking to get some relief of the depression that’s on me. This obligation that I have is so immense that I’m having trouble creating a new song, let alone feeling like going and recording new musical tracks.” And immediately Saul Zaentz says, “That’s not true!” — as I’m telling them how I feel. Then he says, “The whole history of art shows that the greatest art is created under conditions of oppression and depression.” That staggered my mind, as if you had blown up a mortar shell right in front of my face. I looked at the faces of the other five people, trying to get some sort of understanding. None of them said a word, including Saul after that statement. I didn’t know what to do, but I knew that probably I needed to do something here, rather than just be a slave or an idiot with no brains and no self-awareness.
So I said, “Look, if nobody is able to offer some kind of a plan here, I’m gonna go out that door and I’m never gonna come back.” I got up, waiting for some “Well, no, no, no, John, sit down” or whatever, and it didn’t happen. I walked toward the door, going as slow as I could, then turning the knob on the door… It was comical. I kept waiting for a voice to say, “Oh, it’s all a misunderstanding.” That didn’t happen. I went out the door, and I never went back.
Was that the last time you saw anyone from the label until you and Saul Zaentz were in court a decade and a half later?
Correct. I saw Saul in court in 1988, when he was suing me for sounding like myself. [The lawsuit was over “The Old Man Down the Road,” a hit song from Fogerty’s first album for Warner Bros; Zaentz contended it was self-plagiarism of Creedence’s “Run Through the Jungle.”] And I prevailed in that lawsuit.
Remind us how you got free from Fantasy to record for Warner Bros. in the ’80s?
In 1980, I gave up my artist royalties [not to be confused with publishing royalties] from the Creedence-era tracks in order to get away from Fantasy and not have to give them any more music. If I had not done that, they would’ve owned [the Warner-era albums] “Centerfield,” “Eye of the Zombie” and “Blue Moon Swamp.” Obviously, getting away from Fantasy was a big deal to me and triggered my creativity, which resulted in finally being able to record “Centerfield,” which came out around the first week of ‘85. I did not receive artist royalties all the way from 1980 until 2005, when I reestablished a relationship with Fantasy, which was owned by Concord. So there was a long stretch of time when I was not being paid for that (Creedence) music, at all. When things had gone against me, they were pretty big things.
Before this latest development, you had pretty well resigned yourself to the fact that getting ownership of your publishing would never happen, right?
Well, there was a time in 1989 when I said, “OK, I’m gonna try and resolve my differences with Saul,” so I enlisted [famed concert promoter] Bill Graham to help me with that. It resulted in two meetings I had with Saul, Bill Graham and Bill’s assistant, Nick Clainos. Saul said he would sell me the publishing — at a fair price, not a gouging price, in deference to who I am. He made it sound like I might even get somewhat of a discount. He said, “We’re not gonna give away the store, but knowing what John means to the company, we’ll sell him the songs.” Well, that turned into another five years of agony for me while he twisted the knife. He never did do that, and I finally came to the realization that he was avoiding me. Even his underling wouldn’t take my calls. It dragged out literally five more years, while I was emotionally hanging on. You’re invested, until the moment when your brain finally realizes: He’s never going to do this. You might as well try to get healthy, because all you’re doing here is laying on the ground in a state of illness, with an open wound.
The quid pro quo was, I had made a song called “Zantz (sic) Can’t Dance” [which Zaentz had sued over, arguing the the track was defamatory]. The settlement was where I enlisted other folks — Warner Bros. and myself — to pay up a bunch of money. There were three parties that paid altogether $600,000. That’s what Saul demanded at those two meetings I talked about: “Non-negotiable!” — and he slammed his fist on the table. So he had made a promise, but in classic Saul Zaentz style, he gave his word and a handshake but nothing else. So, resolving that lawsuit… On one hand, yeah, it saved a lot of money for each party that was gonna get sued. But emotionally, I’m sure everybody that was involved in that wanted to go to court and do battle with Saul Zaentz.
Bill Graham was supposed to be a fair witness, an arbitrator, a guy in the middle. But as time wore on, Saul’s behavior was so outrageous that Bill ended up kind of taking my side. He’d call up Saul and — in the best Bill Graham behavior you’ve probably seen on television or on YouTube — he would berate him, and Saul would isten for a minute or two and then hang up. At one point, Bill called me right after he’d had one of those phone calls, and he said, [imitating Graham’s memorable New York accent] “John, I just told Saul this story. I said, ‘Saul, one day I’m gonna be crossing the Sahara Desert in a camel train, and I’ll have many men and many supplies with me. And Saul, it’ll be 125 degrees out there. And I will come upon you, buried up to your neck, in the sand of the desert and unable to free yourself. And you will say, “Bill, please, kind soul, give me some water.” And I will say, ‘”Saul, how much money do you have?” “I have $8!” “The price is $9.”’
That’s the story. Saul left this world owning my songs and all the money he collected. [Zaentz died in early 2014.]
For all these years, you’re not doing your old Creedence songs, just your solo material from after you signed to Warner Bros.
I was not performing the Creedence-era songs that I had written because I was angry about what had transpired, and that was my way of trying to have a standoff and at least hopefully maybe get to some sort of negotiation. You know, it didn’t work, but I was trying. And it also had to do with just my own emotional content as a man. I mean, most people just kind of cave in all the time. Even when they find out they’re a slave, you know, somebody throws them a tiny little bone. Like, “We have no budget for your record, but if you could get your record recorded somehow, maybe we’ll put it out,” and people go ahead and do that.
You were a hard-liner, but there was a night in North Hollywood some time in the late ‘80s when Bob Dylan talked you out of your stance… at least for a night, right?
I had gone to the Palomino to see Taj Mahal and I found out rather quickly that Bob Dylan and George Harrison were there in the audience. Eventually Bob and George are up on stage, and it was one of the very few times I’ve ever kind of thought, “Gosh, I hope they have another guitar, because I wanna be up there too.” George does “Honey Don’t,” which was amazing. Then Dylan sang one of his songs; I can’t quite remember which one. Then somebody in the audience shouts, “John, do ‘Proud Mary’!” I’m shaking my head, going, “Nah, I’m not singing those songs.” Bob Dylan is right next to me and he turns to me and says, “Uh, John, if you don’t do ‘Proud Mary,’ everybody’s gonna think it’s a Tina Turner song.” And having Bob Dylan’s face right in your face, explaining irrefutable logic to you… You know, I enjoyed Tina Turner’s version, but I wanted everyone to know that this is my song. And he was using the compelling argument of a songwriter, standing up for his rights. Anyway, it worked. I certainly did “Proud Mary” right then and there. I did not give up my stance, by the way. I continued to not perform those songs publicly for years. But I bent my own rule, that night, at least, for Bob Dylan.
Wasn’t it some kind of epiphany at Robert Johnson’s alleged grave that finally turned you around for good on doing the old songs?
Yeah, and this is a true story. Going on the best information I had about where Robert Johnson was buried… There was no gravestone, just this area below this enormous tree, which I wanted to touch. The ground was under about four inches of water because there’d been torrential rains out in Texas and Mississippi, like what we’ve had here in California recently. It probably took me a half-hour, all told, getting through the bramble bushes, while it was hot and humid, probably 120 degrees. I was feeling satisfied that I’d done my mission to find the place where Robert Johnson is buried. Right under that tree was the first time I thought: “I wonder who owns those songs?” They had just released a boxed set of Robert’s 29 recorded tracks, and so there was a resurgence; now there was activity, whereas before it didn’t really matter too much, because Robert was obscure. I’m thinking, “Well, it’s probably the usual story that the songs are owned by some wise guy lawyer up in a tall building with a cigar.”
And I literally brushed the tree with my hand and was like, “It doesn’t matter, Robert!” Now I’m talking out loud, kind of like a crazy person. “The whole world knows those are your songs, Robert! It doesn’t matter that the lawyer probably owns them.” And the minute I had that thought in my mind, my own situation came into my consciousness. I thought, “Wow, John, that sounds just like you. Regardless of the contracts, everybody knows those are your songs. You gotta start singing ‘em again before you’re laying in the ground like Robert.” And that was the moment when I gave myself permission to get out of my own very strict proclamation that I wasn’t gonna do the songs anymore, even though I usually keep my own promises. That happened in August 1990.
Let’s talk about when things started going right for you with getting royalties for the Creedence material. When you re-signed with Fantasy Records’ new regime in 2004, they restored the artist royalties you had willingly given up as a condition of getting away from the label in ‘73. Was that something they did just as an act of good faith?
I walked into the meeting and it was a pretty joyful thing. Norman Lear [then-chairman of Concord, which bought Fantasy that year] was there, and a fellow named Gene Rumsey who ended up being the point man that Julie and I talked to the most by far over the years. As we walked in, Gene had this way about him that seemed very sincere, almost humble. Just about the first thing he said was, “John, we’re going to reinstate your artist royalties. That never should have happened, and we’re going to correct that.” It gave us a really good feeling about our new relationship.
I think the principals around that first meeting had a very charitable sense. But by the time I was getting to actually sign the contract to be an artist on their label a few months later, my attorney, John Branca, called me up, very upset. Apparently the attorney for their side had instated a little clause that said my reinstated artist royalties will only last as long as I am signed as an artist to Fantasy or Concord. In other words, they were put pulling a little trickster move. And it was just totally unlike the meeting that we’d had. I must stress, it was a lawyer, I’m sure, acting like a lawyer, doing that. Branca spotted that on in my behalf, of course. Imagine how you get offered something and then you find out it didn’t get offered. You need a guy with a microscope looking at every word.
In making this latest deal happen, we know your wife, Julie, was very involved in figuring out a path to do it, and Irving Azoff got involved. How did it happen?
The way U.S. copyright law works is, [songwriters get full rights] after a period of two terms of 28 years. I’m saying that because somebody could actually have their songs become free after 28 years, but if the owning party exercises an option, then it goes for another 28 years, so you’re dealing with 56 years. We did all that (preparatory) stuff 10, 11, 12 years ago, so the songs were going to revert back to me by U.S. copyright law. The part I didn’t understand, till recently, was that I thought I was getting rights to my songs all over the world. Well, I was mistaken and I got informed by my own lawyer, maybe six years ago: “Well, John, you don’t understand. It’s only the U.S. It isn’t the rest of the world.” That was another huge shock. It becomes sort of a pyrrhic victory: You’re gonna win something, but what you’re not winning is far larger.
So Julie, a few years ago, started talking about maybe not waiting until the songs revert back. What if we could buy them? And she was told a few years ago that they’re not for sale. Then, of course, all these artists are sellingtheir musical works, and that kind of brought the subject back up again with all these people getting millions of dollars. So she began having conversations with people about it again, maybe a year ago.
You know, I’m in my seventies. I’m 77. I have just kind of been fatalistic about it — not sad, but fatalistic. And she’s going, “Well, why should you have to wait? I mean, you’re gonna wait till you’re 80 years old and be like, [doddering voice] ‘Hey, I got my song back!’” So she started thinking about figuring out a way to make this happen sooner rather than later.
And in the past several months … Irving Azoff is a friend and an acquaintance, although we hadn’t really been in close contact since about 20 years ago [when Azoff briefly managed him]. This is all Julie. She manifested a meeting with Irving and herself, and she had me come along too. It was great to see Irving, but she had a specific goal. She was trying to figure out if there was a way to have me gain ownership of my songs sooner rather than just waiting around. Of course, Irving is a very creative person with a lot of insight. We went to dinner, and he was full of emotion about how poorly I’d been treated: “Those contracts are horrible, and the way you’ve been treated is the worst in the music business.” He had empathy for Julie and me. I marveled at the two of them starting up a friendship. Over the months since then, what a great team they made together.
What eventually happened was, rather than wait for the reversion to happen, I was gonna be allowed to purchase and own my U.S. copyrights sooner. But then Irving came up with the concept: “Why don’t we figure out a way where there’s a majority percentage of the whole thing for you, so that you own the worldwide majority, and you are the one who gets to steer its destiny.” Because the owner of the copyright is the person that [approves sync rights] and puts those songs in, let’s say, poor movies or commercials for cigarette commercials… or maybe napalm. [Laughs.] It’s that owner that has the right to decide. And those conversations with Julie and Irving finally came to fruition. This took a lot of figuring out. As I’ve just talked about how poor my early contracts were, you can imagine how many lawyers had to look over all this new stuff to make sure they got it all right.
So you have a majority share of your publishing catalog now, internationally as well as domestically, and since you’re able to control how it gets used, that’s good enough — it doesn’t have to be 100% for you to be satisfied, at this point?.
That’s correct. I own the majority share of everything that I wrote — what we loosely call my songs — for the whole wide world. Because otherwise that was never gonna change. And I mean, it’s a profound benefit and blessing to me. I really want to stress this part.
Having gone through the period of time I went through after “Centerfield” came out, I was the toast of the town, and a big, big success. I had overcome a lot of adversity at that time. But a really weird, human thing happened to me that I wasn’t prepared for. In 1985, “Centerfield” comes out. I’m starting to make touring plans; three singles become hit songs on the radio and all that. And for some reason, all this bitterness and bad stuff started coming up out of me, and I became very angry, instead of being a happy guy that had just won the Olympic gold medal. All that depression and those emotions that I had been squelching inside of me, so that I could get ”Centerfield” out and write new songs, all that stuff just came out. I became very, very angry, and it was not a happy time. I was bitter and kind of lost. I documented that pretty well in my book. You know, human beings are a lot more complicated than we understand.
Anyhow, I am now, at this point in my life, looking to all the positiveness of this blessing, and I’m not turning around and looking at the horror that was the past. It is a blessing, for sure — it could have been a situation that never changed, but it did change, and I’m really happy… Saul Zaentz is long gone and Fantasy Records as a separate entity is long gone. These are all new people and I don’t have to worry that they were the ones responsible for doing this to me in the first place, so it’s easy to let that emotional baggage go… I mean, [in promoting the song catalog], I’m the guy. I’m the best ambassador for this music, the man that wrote all these songs and sang them too. I’m really looking forward to getting out in the world and celebrating my songs and having people feel happy about what has transpired. I don’t know what simple phrase would work here. “Good things come to those who wait” — maybe that’s one.
The laws and the contracts that are created around publishing music defer almost always, like a good old boys’ club, toward the people that own labels or that own publishing companies. Those publishers and record companies would be nothing without the musical artists that create the music and the writers that create the songs. Yet they’ve managed for over a hundred years to wield that kind of power. It’s probably not going to be me going up to Congress and getting the law changed, but they’ve certainly gotta be made more fair. I think in France, if a person writes a song, it immediately is owned by them, the creator, and it can never be taken away from that person. That’s a good law.