Donald S. Engel, Persistent Contract Lawyer to the Stars, Dies at 84
Donald S. Engel, a lawyer who helped pop stars like Olivia Newton-John, Donna Summer and the Dixie Chicks wrest greater control of their careers from their record companies, died on Jan. 15 in Redwood City, Calif. He was 84.
The cause was complications of leukemia, his son Gregory said.
A litigator specializing in contract disputes, Mr. Engel had an especially starry client list that also included nonmusicians, like the actors Robert Wagner and Farrah Fawcett, the potboiler author and sitcom creator Sidney Sheldon, the comic book creator Stan Lee and the estate of W. C. Fields. But his biggest footprint was in music.
At various times he represented a whole record store’s worth of musical performers, among them Frank Sinatra, Tom Jones, Cher, Rod Stewart, Meat Loaf, Luther Vandross, Sammy Hagar, the Beach Boys and Don Henley.
For more than 30 years he was so fearsomely litigious that he became known in the music business as a contract buster — or, as one music magazine referred to him, “Busta Kontract.” His view was that record companies habitually and unethically underpaid their artists and that for the most part, through the 1970s, the lawyers who represented artists were too timid to challenge the status quo.
“When we came out here we found the caliber of attorney in the entertainment business to be far below what we were used to,” Mr. Engel, who moved to Los Angeles from New York in the 1970s, said in a 1985 interview with The Los Angeles Daily Journal.
Mr. Engel handled cases that helped shift the balance of power away from companies and toward the artists. In the early 1980s he engineered moves by Mr. Hagar, who had been recording for Capitol, and Ms. Summer, who was at Casablanca, to a new company, Geffen Records. In 1982, he helped Teena Marie disengage from Motown and sign with CBS. And in 1983, when the rock band Boston found itself in a breach-of-contract suit-countersuit imbroglio with CBS, Mr. Engel negotiated a new contract for the band with MCA.
In 2001, in a suit against Sony, he represented the Dixie Chicks, who claimed the record company had cheated them on royalty payments; Sony settled the suit the following year.
His most celebrated case involved Ms. Newton-John, who sued — and was sued by — MCA Records in the middle of a five-year contract she signed in 1975. The case reached a California Court of Appeal, where Ms. Newton-John and Mr. Engel won a partial but important victory. She was restrained from recording for any company but MCA for the five-year duration of the contract, but not beyond. The ruling undermined the previously assumed power given to record companies by a state statute, allowing them to control artists under contract for up to seven years.
“We were, all of us, working together — Olivia, Don and myself — able to do something not just for Olivia, but advantageous to all artists,” John Mason, a lawyer who brought the case to Mr. Engel for litigation, said in an interview on Thursday.
Donald Seymour Engel was born in the Bronx on Dec. 11, 1929. His mother, the former Peggy Sperling, was a milliner; his father, Irving, was a Broadway ticket broker.
Donald graduated from City College and served in the Army in Germany during the Korean War. After graduating from New York University Law School, he worked in the antitrust division of the Justice Department. During the 1960s he was special counsel to Gov. Richard J. Hughes of New Jersey and taught at Rutgers and New York University.
Mr. Engel’s first marriage ended in divorce. In 1970 he married Judy Edelman, who survives him. Also a lawyer, she had been his student at N.Y.U., and together they went into private practice in 1972, establishing the firm Engel & Engel, which they later moved to Los Angeles.
In addition to his son Gregory and his wife, he is survived by another son, Stephen; two daughters, Jacqueline Leibsohn and Laura Engel; and seven grandchildren.
Mr. Engel was not one to pull his punches, even on the record.
“This is not a gentleman’s business; this is a cutthroat business where nobody gives you anything,” he said in 1985, though he would go on to win the grudging respect of many of his adversaries in the music industry. He even jumped the fence to represent recording companies from time to time. And his attitude did soften a bit, sort of.
“If I couldn’t sue my friends in this business,” Mr. Engel told Los Angeles magazine in 2000, “I wouldn’t have a business.”