Don Engel had only a small law firm in Los Angeles — just two or three attorneys in addition to him and his wife. But a phone call from Engel could strike fear among the loftiest executives in the music business.
Engel, who represented some of the biggest pop stars of the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, was a fierce, tireless and some say overbearing fighter on behalf of clients who wanted to revise or cancel their recording contracts. Among his clients were hit makers Olivia Newton-John, Donna Summer, Don Henley and the band Boston.
“He was a force,” said entertainment industry lawyer Russell Frackman, who went up against Engel several times in legal fights. “There are not many lawyers in this area, or any area, where just the fact that one man was involved would cause anxiety on the other side. He was fearless.”
Engel, who later in his career represented artists such as Luther Vandross, Frank Sinatra, Tom Jones and the Dixie Chicks in various battles, is credited with helping change the balance of power in the industry, giving more of it to artists.
“In many important ways, what we have come to call the artist rights movement in the U.S. started with Don Engel’s representation of artists against record companies who overreached,” said entertainment attorney Chris Castle. “Just knowing that Don Engel was a phone call away had a certain civilizing effect on our business. Whether they know it or not, both superstars and new artists alike benefit from his groundbreaking representation.”
Engel, 84, died Jan. 15 in a hospital in Redwood City, Calif. He had been battling leukemia for 17 years, said his wife, Judy.
The Engels had moved to Northern California so their physician son, Gregory, could oversee his father’s care. Until about two years ago, Don Engel was still representing clients.
Despite his pugnaciousness, many of the lawyers who did battle with Engel ended up not only admiring him, but also becoming good friends. “It was clear Don loved what he was doing,” Frackman said. “It’s one of the reasons he was so good at it.”
Friendship with Engel was probably not as popular among industry executives or judges who had to deal with him in court. “He would never back down in the face of any judge,” said attorney Mark Passin, who joined the Engel firm just out of law school. “There was one case where the judge told him to bring his toothbrush the next morning, implying that if he didn’t stop arguing a point, he would be found in contempt of court and go to jail.”
Engel didn’t make excuses for his work demeanor. “This is not a gentleman’s business,” he told the Los Angeles Daily Journal in 1985. “This is a cutthroat business where nobody gives you anything.”
Donald Engel was born Dec. 11, 1929, in the Bronx. He graduated from City College of New York and served as an intelligence officer in the Army during the Korean War. He enrolled in New York University’s law school upon his return.
He established a practice in New York focusing on the publishing industry before moving to Los Angeles in the mid-1970s and switching to show business law. He viewed the situation in his new home city with typical candor.
“We found the caliber of attorney in the entertainment business to be far below what we were used to,” he told the Daily Journal. “We don’t even want to be called entertainment attorneys, because most of their emphasis is on the entertainment rather than the attorney part.”
In L.A., Engel earned a reputation for using novel tactics to spring pop artists from their contracts. One of his arguments was derived from the so-called seven-year-statute in California law that states some contracts can’t be extended past seven years. It was used successfully in the 1944 court case that allowed actress Olivia de Havilland to break her contract with Warner Bros. Engel argued, successfully at times, that it should also apply to record contracts.
Engel’s business got a boost in the early 1990s when superstar contracts skyrocketed, including a $40-million deal for Janet Jackson and $65 million-plus for her brother Michael. Performers who wanted to keep up with the Jacksons called Engel.
“I’m swamped,” he said in a 1991 Los Angeles Times interview. “In the last couple of months, I’ve been retained by eight artists and entered discussions with about 10 others. What we’re talking about here is major artists trying to break contracts.”
The extra work probably didn’t much faze him — Engel was known widely as a workaholic. “If you sent Don a letter that was one page long,” Frackman said, “the next day you might get a five-page reply. Nothing got past him.”
The onset of leukemia eventually forced him to slow down. The music industry changed greatly from when he was most active, in large part because of the Internet. But Judy Engel said he would have embraced the digital challenges. “I told him,” she said, ‘”you would have really enjoyed this.'”
In addition to his wife and son Gregory, Engel is survived by another son, Stephen; daughters Jacqueline Leibsohn and Laura Engel; and seven grandchildren.