Let's Get Together and Deal All Right

It's early afternoon, only hours before the opening bash at the newly restored Marlin Hotel on Miami Beach, and the place is alive. The traffic outside on Twelfth Street backs up behind semi-trucks unloading sound and stage equipment, and young, suave workers from Jamaica, Britain, New York, and Miami bustle around making final arrangements for the party, securing adequate booze supplies, coordinating a guest list chock-full of Very Important People.

And everyone wants to say hello to Chris Blackwell. The founder of Island Records, director of the Island Trading Company (which owns the Marlin), international music-industry giant, has just awoken, having jetted in on the redeye from New York and partied at the Warsaw Ballroom until well after dawn. But he's already holding meetings and reveling in the festiveness of the new hotel, the first of several renovation projects he's planned for South Beach. Besides celebrating his arrival on South Beach, Blackwell also uses the occasion of an interview to declare an end to a decade of legal skirmishes that have tied up the estate of reggae great Bob Marley. "That's all gotten resolved," Blackwell remarks curtly. "That was settled last December."

It's not quite that simple, however, nor has it ever been.
When he died on May 11, 1981, Marley left behind at least eleven children by seven different women, but no will. He also left behind an extraordinary musical legacy. Roger Steffens, a reggae historian and Marley expert, says it's difficult to gauge the size of the Marley musical library because the musician scattered his work among several production deals with several different producers during his career. "Nobody really knows because it's never been under one roof," Steffens explains. "Between the uncollected singles and the unreleased materials, I would say conservatively that there's enough for at least a dozen new albums." In addition, Steffens says, many videotapes of live performances await release. There's no telling exactly how much all this is worth, although appraisers last year valued the estate between $10 million and $12 million.

With no will to divvy the assets, Marley's death provoked an endless series of claims and counterclaims for his fortune, involving feuding family members, former bandmembers, record companies, and a battalion of lawyers and accountants. In 1987 the courts ordered that the estate be sold, with proceeds to be split among the beneficiaries (who, according to Jamaican inheritance law, include the eleven children and the singer's widow, Rita Marley).

Blackwell, who signed Marley to Island Records in 1973, beginning a business relationship that lasted until Marley's death, has been intimately involved in the estate tug-of-war. In 1988 Island Logic, another of Blackwell's companies, made an $8.2 million bid for the estate, which the Jamaican courts had placed under the auspices of the Mutual Security Merchant Bank and Trust Company, Ltd. of Jamaica. With its bid, Island Logic offered to buy Marley's song catalogue, recordings, writer's royalties, record royalties, record distribution rights, and all rights to his name, likeness, and biographical materials.

A Jamaican court approved the sale, but all of Marley's beneficiaries appealed the decision. The Jamaican Court of Appeals upheld the sale with some modifications, but the beneficiaries again appealed, this time to the Privy Council in England, the final authority over Jamaican matters. Opposition to Blackwell's offer was led by Marley's mother, Dade County resident Cedella Booker, who at the time was the legal guardian of one of the Marley children. "Mrs. Booker, through her attorney, kept trying to delay it [the sale to Island Logic], saying she had a better offer," explains Miami attorney J. Reid Bingham, the ancillary estate administrator in the United States. "She didn't want to see the assets go out of the family." Moreover, those who opposed the sale to Blackwell thought the purchase price was too low.

In the summer of 1990, the Privy Council finally heard the case, and sent it back to the Jamaican courts with an opinion that the courts should consider soliciting new bids and reappraising the estate. The estate administrators advertised the estate and attracted a handful of new bids, all but two of which quickly dropped out. A Jamaican judge weighed those two offers - one by MCA Music Publishing, the other a joint bid by Island Logic and Marley's adult beneficiaries - last fall.

"It has always been Chris Blackwell's intention that the assets be acquired and managed in a way that would keep alive the memory of Bob Marley and which would help take care of the family members and also provide money for charitable purposes in Jamaica," says Charles Ortner, attorney in the U.S. for Island Logic. "This new structure was worked out to be sure that the assets would be controlled by the family and those closest to the family instead of allowing them to get into the hands of MCA."

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Kirk Semple