LOS ANGELES — A week after Michael Jackson died, his longtime lawyer and friend, John Branca, was summoned to meet with the singer’s family. He carried the pop star’s will, and with it, an answer to their eagerly awaited question:
Who was to benefit from the King of Pop’s estate?
“It was very difficult,” Branca recalled. “There were a lot of family members there, his sisters and most of the brothers and his mother, Katherine.”
He told them three things. Katherine would be guardian of Michael’s three children and receive 40 percent of the estate in trust. The children would also receive 40 percent. The remaining 20 percent would go to unspecified charities to benefit children.
Their reaction would seem to bode well for the days to come.
“Actually, they applauded three times when they were told who got the property,” Branca said. “They were thrilled.”
It is one reason why Branca, one of two special administrators named in that same will, says he’s surprised by the opposition that followed from lawyers representing Mrs. Jackson.
Her legal team has asserted that she should be given “a seat at the table” in executing deals for the estate. They’ve also been considering a formal challenge to the status of the special administrators, suggesting that conflict of interests and other factors may compromise the qualifications of Branca and co-executor John McClain.
Neither man is unknown to the Jackson family. During more than 20 years as the pop superstar’s lawyer, Branca, 58, was a principal architect of Jackson’s financial empire, having brokered the deal for the Beatles catalog of records; obtained the rights to master recordings of Jackson’s own songs, and negotiated the purchase of Jackson’s Neverland estate.
McClain, a childhood friend of Jackson’s, crafted a major recording career for Michael’s sister Janet, and is a successful record company executive.
Branca plays down any conflict with the Jackson family.
“Everything is going to be fine,” he said calmly during a wide-ranging interview with The Associated Press.
Branca and McClain have already won court approval for a deal that will bring the estate $60 million from a movie made of footage shot during rehearsals for the concerts Jackson was to have performed in London. A coffee-table book also was approved. But two multimillion-dollar projects, including a deal to market Jackson merchandise, have been stalled because of objections from Mrs. Jackson’s camp.
“We’re approaching the $100 million mark if those two deals in front of the court are approved,” said Branca. “That’s pretty remarkable — in six weeks as executors, to have brought $100 million into the estate.”
A wunderkind of entertainment law when he met a young Michael Jackson in 1980, Branca is now regarded as one of the three top entertainment lawyers in the country, a man who’s made millions for the Beach Boys, The Doors, Aerosmith, the Rolling Stones and countless other top rock acts. He represents 28 members of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
“I’ve been very fortunate,” Branca said. “Growing up, I had five idols and I wound up representing all of them. Elvis was No. 1. Then the Beach Boys, the Rolling Stones, the Doors and Michael and the Jackson 5.”
In high school he played keyboard, wrote music and formed a rock band, but music wasn’t his only passion: His uncle was famed Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher Ralph Branca, who made baseball history when he served up what became known as the “shot heard ’round the world,” Bobby Thomson’s home run that cost the Dodgers the 1951 National League pennant.
Branca’s father, who encouraged his interest in baseball-card collecting, became the New York State athletic commissioner. At one point Branca had one of the world’s most formidable baseball card collections, with major prized pieces including Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio and of course his uncle Ralph, who he’s proud to say was one of two white pallbearers at Jackie Robinson’s funeral (the other being Pee Wee Reese).
Branca spent his early years in Mount Vernon, N.Y., but later moved to Los Angeles with his mother, actress Barbara Werle who, coincidentally, had a role in the Presley movie “Charo.” At Los Angeles City College he first majored in music, but quickly realized he wasn’t good enough for the major leagues of rock.
He pursued law instead, seeking a music-related vein soon after graduating from UCLA School of Law. He started by setting up tours for Bob Dylan, George Harrison and Neil Diamond.
“I was in heaven,” he recalled. “And then I got the Beach Boys and started my own thing.”
He represented the Presley estate for a time, but in 1980 his world changed when an intermediary asked him to meet with Michael Jackson.
“Michael was either 21 or about to turn 21 when I met him and he had never had his own (legal) team,” he said. “‘Off The Wall’ had come out and it was a big hit.”
They bonded immediately.
“He said, ‘Do I know you?’ It was one of those things you have in life where you feel so comfortable with a person you actually feel you do know them. The conversation is easy and the connection is effortless.”
He met Jackson’s parents briefly, and remembers Mrs. Jackson saying, “Michael, I don’t know if he’s old enough to be a lawyer.”
They were both in their 20s and about to make rock ‘n’ roll history.
Branca shepherded Jackson through the phenomenal success of the “Thriller” album in 1982 and negotiated the groundbreaking “Thriller” video — as well as a video about the making of the video. And contrary to other versions of the story, he said it was Michael’s idea to buy the Beatles catalog after Paul McCartney told Jackson he was investing in buying copyrights to famous songs.
“Michael called me up and he said, ‘Branca, I want to buy copyrights.’ I said, ‘Great.’” He bought copyrights to such songs as “Runaround Sue” and “The Wanderer,” and the work of Sly and the Family Stone.
“And then came the mother lode,” said Branca. “I found out ATV was for sale and I told Michael. He asked what that was. I said, ‘You’re not going to believe it: 250 Beatles songs, the Little Richard catalog.’ He started screaming on the phone. I actually have a great note he wrote me. It said: ‘Branca, the catalog is mine. Don’t lose it by over-negotiating.’ I framed that note.”
Before bidding, he said he checked with Lennon’s widow Yoko Ono and McCartney’s lawyer and brother-in-law John Eastman to see if they were interested. They were not. It took a year of bidding against others — including British industrialist Richard Branson — before he closed the deal. In 1995, he merged it with Sony to create one of the largest such collections in the world.
In earlier years, Branca also helped Jackson obtain the rights to his recording masters and brokered the purchase of Neverland Ranch, originally offered for $60 million, for a final price of $17.5 million, including all furnishings.
Those deals helped transform Jackson from a rich pop star into a man of extraordinary wealth, and turned Branca’s career in the direction of buying and selling music assets. (He recently negotiated the sale of the Rodgers and Hammerstein catalog for $200 million.)
But life with Michael was not all about money, Branca says. At first they were friends, traveling to Disney World together, socializing at Branca’s home. Jackson was the best man at Branca’s first wedding, bringing with him his pet chimp Bubbles, who was clad in a tiny tuxedo. Little Richard was the minister.
“His personality,” Branca says when recalling the young pop superstar, “was just infectious.”
In 1990, Jackson tearfully told Branca he wanted to try different representation; though Branca wouldn’t confirm it, it’s been widely reported that Hollywood mogul and record company executive David Geffen advised Jackson that Branca’s influence in his affairs had grown too large. They remained apart for three years, while Branca moved on to other artists.
Branca returned in 1993, at a time when Jackson was being sued in a child molestation case he ultimately settled. But the relationship was different.
“Later on in his career he really had a line between his business and personal life,” said Branca. “As people get older, that’s not uncommon.”
Branca’s connections to Elvis would extend to Jackson when he introduced Michael to the King’s daughter, Lisa Marie Presley. Branca treasures a portrait of the two after their marriage, which is inscribed in Michael’s hand signed by the couple. It reads: “John: To the greatest lawyer of our time.”
In 1997 a will was drafted for Jackson — but not, Branca says, by him. Instead, he said he assigned it to a member of his firm who specialized in wills and trusts. It was redone in 2002 because one of Jackson’s children had not been born at the time of the first.
Branca said he played no role in advising Jackson on it, but knew the singer did not want a family member in control of his estate. Jackson also felt he did not have to take care of his brothers and sisters, Branca said.
By 2006, Branca says, his relationship with Jackson was troubled once again. The star was listening to an increasingly odd set of advisers — a revolving door of characters who Branca feared did not have the singer’s best interests at heart.
“He was surrounded and I had to resign,” he said. “He did not ask me to stay. I resigned amicably.”
And then, a little more than a month before Jackson died, the call came from Jackson’s former manager, Frank Delio.
“Michael wants you to come back,” Delio told him. “He wants you to give some thought to what you can do for him, what kind of deals.”
Branca drafted an agenda and met with Jackson on June 17 at the Forum in Los Angeles, where the King of Pop was rehearsing for his big comeback.
“I hadn’t seen him in several years,” Branca said. “We hugged each other. He said, ‘John, you’re back.’ It was very emotional. I showed him the agenda.”
It was what Jackson wanted, Branca said — including a concert movie, books and merchandising deals.
“That agenda is exactly what John McClain and I are doing now,” Branca said, “for the estate.”