Jay B. Ross in his West Loop office in October 2017 Credit: Ben Kolak / Scrappers Film Group

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The late Jay B. Ross created a lot of legends during his nearly five decades as an entertainment lawyer, not least because he went to bat for the likes of Muddy Waters and James Brown. But Chicago house-music institution Rachael Cain, aka Screamin’ Rachael, shares a story that’s less often told. In the late 70s and early 80s, Frankie Knuckles and Ron Hardy helped birth the city’s thriving and influential house scene, and in 1983 Cain herself cofounded pioneering dance-music label Trax Records. But in the centers of music-industry clout—which in the U.S. meant New York and Los Angeles—power brokers were slow to take house seriously.

Enter Ross, who befriended many Chicago house artists—among them Cain, Hardy, Farley “Jackmaster” Funk, and Steve “Silk” Hurley—and worked to get them the rewards and recognition he thought they deserved. “Him and his partner had brought seven journalists from the UK to Chicago to check out house music,” Farley told Vice electronic-music site Thump in 2013. In the late 80s—Cain thinks it was ’86 or ’87—Ross traveled to French music-industry conference Midem, bringing along Cain and a briefcase of music from other house artists. She credits Ross with getting her signed to Warner Brothers through German label Teldec.

“He always gave me the empowerment to realize that even though I was a woman, I could accomplish my dreams,” Cain says. “He stands as the most important mentor that came into my life regarding my career in this business.” The business, then as now, could be a confusing and treacherous place for artists, and Ross helped them navigate it. In a video interview last fall, which you can watch at the top of this story, he described one especially risky-sounding alternative to seeking contract advice: “In the old house-music days,” he said, “there were house-music artists who would sell the same song to all three major labels on the same day, and then let them fight it out.”

Jay B. Ross Celebration of Life
Featuring performances by Tony Wilson aka Young James Brown & the Platinum Band, Sol Kat, Curtis McClain, Robert Royale, and Joseph Morganfield. Sun 4/22, 6 PM, the Promontory, 5311 S. Lake Park, free, all-ages

Ross died of a heart attack at age 76 on Thursday, March 1. He specialized in trademark litigation, licensing, and contract law, and as conditions in the entertainment business evolved, he stayed up-to-date on sampling, streaming, and the use of music and voice talent in video games. His career touched some of the most important people and movements in Chicago’s musical history. In 1969 he became Muddy Waters’s first attorney, after working with his bandmates Pinetop Perkins and Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, who’d been in a car crash and were having trouble with their insurance company. In 1984 he loaned Farley “Jackmaster” Funk $1,000 to help launch a label called House Records, which he used to release his own early tracks.

When I met Ross in October 2017, he was reclining majestically behind his desk at his office in the West Loop. Born in Brooklyn on February 12, 1942, to Jewish parents who’d fled anti-Semitism in Russia, the erstwhile Bernard Rosenblatt was orphaned at age two and adopted by an aunt and uncle in Rockford, Illinois. He graduated from Rockford West High and the University of Wisconsin, then earned his law degree in 1967 from the University of Illinois College of Law in Champaign. After spending the first few years of his career struggling to get interested in tax law, he embarked on a different path—one that would lead him to befriend some of the greatest blues and house artists of all time.

On my visit, the walls of Ross’s office were adorned with what he called “assemblages” devoted to his favorite musicians—basically framed collages of photos and memorabilia, many of which he’d created himself. The most precious pieces of those assemblages—autographs from the likes of the Beatles, Prince, and Michael Jackson—he’d covered with Post-It notes so the ink wouldn’t fade in the light. It was a tangible metaphor for one of the most important lessons he tries to teach his music-industry clients: You can have it, but you’ve got to love it and protect it, and that doesn’t always look pretty.

James Brown with Jay B. Ross
James Brown with Jay B. RossCredit: Photo provided by Oliver Torres

Ross’s cousin Jeff Mandell shared an office with him when they both worked at a general-practice firm a few years out of law school. “He marched to his own tune, to his own drummer, and that manifested itself when he came to work with people very different from him,” Mandell says. Ross was one of a relatively tiny number of entertainment lawyers working in Chicago when he started—they were almost all based in New York or LA—and he brought a passion for the music and a drive for justice that Mandell says was unique. “He was not conventional in any sort of way.”

Ross represented an impressive roster of blues, gospel, and soul artists—not just Muddy Waters and James Brown but also Willie Dixon, Jerry “Iceman” Butler, Ray Charles, Albertina Walker, Koko Taylor, Syl Johnson, the Chi-Lites, Dinah Washington, Gene Chandler, Rufus, and many more. Most if not all of these musicians, despite their fame and success, had suffered from more than just the typical predatory business practices of the music industry—many began their careers during the Jim Crow era, and institutional racism made them more vulnerable to exploitation at every turn. Black artists were far less likely to have access to legal education or advice, and because they were disproportionately poor, they could more easily be manipulated into signing bad deals that gave them money up front but sacrificed their copyrights and royalties.

Willie Dixon with Jay B. Ross
Willie Dixon with Jay B. RossCredit: Photo provided by Oliver Torres

Ross took it as his mission to help right these wrongs—and not just on behalf of musicians who were already famous and well loved. Yes, he got James Brown one of the biggest payouts ever for a pay-per-view music performance in 1991. And he helped Willie Dixon, one of the greatest and most prolific songwriters in the blues, recover royalties on his work. But most of the people he worked for weren’t the kind whose names you’d recognize. Dixon’s granddaughter, songwriter Tomiko Dixon, remembers that Ross would buy up the back catalogs of forgotten artists, then sell them back to the artists when they could come up with the money. He charged them the same price he’d paid for them. “My grandfather and Jay worked together to help and support other artists that had been cheated out of their catalogs but couldn’t get the protection they needed because they were African-American,” says Dixon.

“I’m competing to get the crumbs,” Ross said in his video interview. “But people could live off the crumbs. Right now they get nothing.”

Ross with Lavon Pettis, granddaughter of Chicago soul-jazz pianist John Wright
Ross with Lavon Pettis, granddaughter of Chicago soul-jazz pianist John WrightCredit: Ben Kolak / Scrappers Film Group

Ross taught contract negotiation at Columbia College on and off from 1979 till 2009 (one of several such gigs he held), because he wanted to spread as widely as possible the basic tools to allow artists to fight for themselves. “He was one of the best strategists and negotiators that I have ever met in my life,” says Lavon Pettis. She’s the granddaughter of Chicago jazz pianist John Wright, aka “South Side Soul,” who started having royalty troubles with his classic early-60s Prestige recordings after the label was sold to Fantasy Records in 1971. In January 2017, Pettis got Ross involved, though, and Wright started getting his money before he died in December. The Jay B. Ross Foundation, launched several years ago, will carry on Ross’s mission through seminars, workshops, panels, and free negotiation classes—it’s now funded in large part by his estate. “He really wanted to make sure that the next generation of Chicago entertainers had access to that kind of information,” Pettis says.

A couple weeks before his death, Ross threw himself a birthday party at Greek Islands restaurant on South Halsted, calling it “The Spirit of ’76.” In the crowd that came out to celebrate were Cain, Gene Chandler (aka “the Duke of Earl”), and Muddy Waters’s son Mud Morganfield, among many other notables. “I think they’ll remember Jay as someone who can make a call and get things done,” says Ross’s former assistant Oliver Torres, aka DJ Fade. “He cared about everyone, from the street musician in the subway to the James Browns. He really believes in the art of creating, and he looked after creators.”

Ross and Gene Chandler, aka the Duke of Earl
Ross and Gene Chandler, aka the Duke of EarlCredit: Photo provided by Oliver Torres

The Promontory presents a free tribute to Ross on the evening of Sunday, April 22, hosted by Rachael Cain, Dana Devine, Dancin’ Man (aka Perry Kanlan), Nate the Baby, and Spike Dapper. Performers at the Jay B. Ross Celebration of Life include Tony Wilson (aka Young James Brown) with the Platinum Band, Sol Kat, Curtis McClain, Robert Royale, and Muddy Waters’s youngest son, Joseph “Mojo” Morganfield.

To Ross, music was one of the things that made life worth living, and he chose to spend his by giving back the best way he knew how—by protecting the people who made it.  v

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Jay B. Ross’s infamous “Rappin’ Lawyer” video