Friday, June 13, 2003

Canceled concert

Station takes on Etta James with lawsuit


Two weeks ago Etta James refused, at the last minute, to take the stage at a concert at the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden.

WCIN, the local, independent radio station that had sponsored her concert, had to eat the cost. It gave refunds to concertgoers, who'd been left waiting in a drizzle.

Then, two days later, WCIN sued James, a blues, R&B and soul legend, alleging fraud and breach of contract.

The lawsuit seeks $663,000 in actual and punitive damages. It pits an internationally known, Grammy-winning diva against a local, black-oriented radio station.

The case makes James sound petty, but it doesn't improve WCIN's image, either.

Station owner and general manager John C. Thomas Jr. still sounds depressed as he describes the embarrassment and disappointment over what could have been a crowning moment for WCIN.

A first for WCIN

The June 2 event was the first time WCIN had put together a concert of that size, the first time it had partnered with the Cincinnati Zoo's popular Wild Nights concert series.

WCIN, celebrating its 50th anniversary, had hosted a February banquet honoring 50 of Cincinnati's most influential black leaders. Other events are planned for the fall.

But this concert - with James and the gospel group the Blind Boys of Alabama - was the big deal.

Thomas says he picked James and the Blind Boys for nostalgia's sake; both acts started out about the time WCIN hit the airwaves.

Thomas also hoped the two acts would bring a diverse audience, a boon for Cincinnati.

"I thought it was an event that could bring back positive memories for everybody, both blacks and whites," he says.

Questions remain

Most of the 1,000 people paid $50. The crowd was a nearly even mix of blacks and whites.

But only a third of the tickets sold. After a rousing show by the Blind Boys, considered the granddads of gospel, James was supposed to perform but didn't.

A man who said he was her husband told Thomas that James wouldn't take the stage until she got her $20,000 - the remaining balance of her $40,000 fee - in cash.

Thomas had written her a check, but he returned to an office to get the cash. He said he was gone about 10 minutes. When he returned, Etta James' tour bus was gone.

Concertgoers got full refunds. But questions and ill feelings remain.

The lawsuit claims James and her managers didn't refund the $20,000 deposit WCIN paid in April. The suit also seeks reimbursement for hotel rooms for her and her band, as well as food, expenses and lost profits.

"It's had a dramatic effect on WCIN," Thomas says, refusing to discuss specifics. "We projected it to be fairly successful. It did not help us."

The lawsuit divulges some details of James' contract.

She required 30 free concert tickets as well as "a selection of regular and herbal teas with honey and lemon, Evian water, Classic Coke, Diet Coke, a variety of juices, non-fat cheese and whole wheat crackers (Ritz if possible), six small cans of tuna packed in water, not oil, and six small cans of Underwood chunky chicken spread (cans must be unopened - can opener provided if necessary) bananas, pears and grapes."

Eric Kearney, WCIN's lawyer, says the station complied with the requests.

James could not be reached for comment. Her spokesman, Bob Merlis, said her management company's attorney wishes to refrain from commenting on the lawsuit.

"Ultimately it will be shown that Etta has lived up to her obligations," Merlis said.

Merlis has said that James insists on cash because she has "been burned before."

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