When Rock Families Go To War

Gail, Diva and Dweezil Zappa
Family Portrait: Gail, Diva and Dweezil Zappa in happier times. Frank looks on. (Image credit: Dan Tuffs \/ Getty Images)

He may once have released an album called We’re Only In It For The Money, but when Frank Zappa passed away back in 1993 he probably hoped that putting his affairs in the hands of his wife Gail would mean his family never had to worry about such vulgar matters.

But Mrs Z proved to be a formidable and litigious businesswoman, who went as far as trying to copyright his iconic moustache and demanding removal of a statue of Frank that had been erected in a small town in Germany. She also didn’t like people playing Frank’s songs, suing tribute acts who tried it. When, on her own death last year, she gave the controlling share of the Zappa Family Trust to her younger son Ahmet and his little sister Diva (because they were ‘more business minded’, according to their lawyers), her eldest two children, actress Moon and guitarist Dweezil, also had to adhere to those rules.

However, Dweezil says that the reason why he has been able to perform ‘Zappa Plays Zappa’ tours for a decade or more is because Gail waived the no-covers rule for her so. Although he theoretically faced an exorbitant licensing fee for performing his late father’s songs (up to $150,000 per show), she made him an exception to the rule, and agreed also to reimburse him the profits from merchandise which she originally claimed all rights to. Since her death, however, Dweezil claims Ahmet and Diva have insisted on upholding their mother’s initial stance, meaning Dweezil has had to change the name of his tour and give all the merchandise profits to his siblings.

Dweezil points out that he is the only Zappa with the technical ability to play his father’s music (the others are not pro musicians) and the clampdown over any performance of Zappa songs jeopardises his ability to create and sustain an audience.

“Our mother did not understand this concept and seemingly neither do you or Diva,” he wrote in an angry letter shared on social media.

Further disputes are looming over an imminent Alex Winter documentary about their dad, which the younger Zappas endorse but the elder pair disapprove of.

Unseemly stuff, but this faintly surreal episode is only the latest in a long line of estate disputes surrounding dead rock musicians. What’s that sound? Oh just a few deceased icons shaking, rattling and rolling in their graves…

BB King

When the veteran Bluesman passed away last year at the age of 89, he left behind enough offspring to comfortably fill a luxury tour bus. Or at least they said they were his children, and the famously magnanimous, unmarried guitar legend never disputed paternity claims.

Despite claims from some quarters that BB confessed to having too low a sperm count to father children for much of his life’s latter period, a law suit was filed by no fewer than 15 offspring. The suit claimed that they deserved a bigger slice of his estate than had been granted by his long-time manager LaVerne Toney, to whom BB had given power of attorney. The row had been brewing for a while before his death, with family members claiming they were refused access to see the ailing BB in the weeks and months before his death, and alleging elder abuse (rejected by the courts) on Toney’s part.

The case rumbles on, but part of the problem may be that it’s nigh on impossible to work out exactly how much BB was really worth. He would regularly hand out envelopes of cash to his ‘family’, who would queue up by the stage door whenever he came to town, and like so many other musicians, wasn’t exactly one for rigorous accounting practices.

The King Family Celebrates The Life Of B.B. King In Las Vegas

The King Family Celebrates The Life Of B.B. King In Las Vegas (Image credit: Ethan Miller / Getty Images)

Jimi Hendrix

After Jimi bought the proverbial farm 46 years ago, his estate passed directly to his father Al, since the guitar wizard had made no will. Hendrix senior made no such oversight, however, and by the time he himself expired in 2002, Al had already handed control of Jimi’s archives and an estate worth a reported $80m to Jimi’s adopted sister Janie and cousin Robert, ignoring the claims of brother Leon, who had lived a rather less respectable life tainted by drug problems and spells in prison.

The latter sued for a bigger slice, arguing that Janie had manipulated Al to change his will in her favour, but a judge decreed that Leon deserved nothing more than the single gold record he was left in 2002, and his decision was upheld by the US supreme court in 2007. That didn’t stop Leon trying to make the most of his family ties, though, and his company Hendrix Licensing were later sued by Janie for using Hendrix trademarks in their merchandise. They settled out of court for an undisclosed sum in July last year, but don’t imagine this will be the last time they lock horns…

Jim Morrison

When the Lizard King passed away (or did he? Etc, etc) in Paris in 1971, his will was found to bequeath all his worldly goods to his long-time paramour and common-law wife Pamela Courson, providing she outlived him by at least three months. That much she managed, but before she could receive all Jim’s worldly goods, she had to wait for numerous other women sue for a slice, claiming they had borne the Doors frontman’s children, and for his erstwhile bandmates to claim for a larger share of the band royalties.

Despite a small retainer during probate proceedings, she fell on hard times, allegedly turning to prostitution and eventually dying of a heroin overdose in 1974. Then the plot thickened further, with Courson’s parents now becoming legal inheritors of Morrison’s estate via their late daughter, as she had died without making a will.

Jim’s own parents were naturally somewhat unhappy with this outcome, and took legal action themselves, during which process it emerged that Jim had also ‘married’ another companion, Patricia Kennealy, in a pagan ceremony in 1970, wherein their union was sealed by drinking one another’s blood.

Oddly enough, the law decided they didn’t regard this as a legally binding marriage, and in the end Morrison’s parents were forced to accept an out-of-court settlement, giving them 50 per cent of their son’s estate, while the Coursons, who had vocally disapproved of their daughter’s relationship with the leather-trousered lothario, got control of Morrison’s image and royalties. Jim’s brother and sister, meanwhile, who would have inherited the lot had Pamela passed away within three months of Jim, received nothing at all.

Buddy Holly

The bespectacled rock’n’roll pioneer had only been married to his wife Elena for six months when he died in a plane crash in 1959, and since he died intestate, his estate passed to her. However, she then handed over half of it to Buddy’s elderly parents, only to end up in dispute with them over ownership of effects such as his Fender Stratocaster guitar.

After Buddy’s folks passed away, Elena also claimed that the old folks had been wrongly advised to agree unfavourable royalty deals with MCA, and has since spent many years battling his old label for control over releases, as well as clashing with the city of Lubbock, Texas – Buddy’s hometown, which Elena prevented from holding events celebrating Buddy.

For now, there’s an uneasy truce between the Hollies and the various interested parties (who include Paul McCartney, who bought the publishing to Holly’s songs from Buddy’s erstwhile producer, Norman Petty, who slyly put his name on the songwriting credits when the records were originally made). We can only hope that continues.

Kurt Cobain

Kurt’s legacy may not directly be in dispute, as such, but the trust fund he set up for his daughter Frances Bean Cobain has arguably caused its own problems. The result of Kurt’s efforts to take care of his then toddler daughter once she grew up was that control of the Nirvana frontman’s image rights transferred to Frances Bean in 2010 – a year after his widow Courtney Love had lost custody of Frances for the second time due to, erm, personal issues.

That meant that Frances, not Courtney, had control of End of Music, LLC, the business that makes money from Kurt’s publicity rights, as she agreed to step down in return for a loan from Frances’ estimated $200m trust fund. The understanding was that she would not earn any money from her ex-husband’s estate until she paid back the loan. In possibly not unrelated news, mother and daughter were not seen together in public for five years after that, although recently they appear to have reconciled. We’re sure it’ll be plain sailing from now on. After all, it’s not like Courtney to fall out with people, right?

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Johnny Sharp

Johnny is a regular contributor to Prog and Classic Rock magazines, both online and in print. Johnny is a highly experienced and versatile music writer whose tastes range from prog and hard rock to R’n’B, funk, folk and blues. He has written about music professionally for 30 years, surviving the Britpop wars at the NME in the 90s (under the hard-to-shake teenage nickname Johnny Cigarettes) before branching out to newspapers such as The Guardian and The Independent and magazines such as Uncut, Record Collector and, of course, Prog and Classic Rock