KINGSTON, Jamaica — The tortuous legal saga over the multimillion-dollar estate of the late Bob Marley is heading toward a cliffhanging climax in a Jamaican courtroom today.
The island's Supreme Court is scheduled to decide among three bids for Marley's estate--one of them from the Marley family itself, determined to cling to what they regard as their rightful heritage.
Among the assets at stake in what music industry observers have described as a "reggae soap opera" are the lucrative rights to the hundreds of tunes, many of them international hits, that the dreadlocked, charismatic Jamaican wrote during a career that took him from the squalid shantytowns of Kingston to international superstardom.
As the courtroom showdown nears, alliances have been changing, a major Japanese-owned record label has appeared on the scene and a high-profile Caribbean musician has infuriated the Marley family by getting into the fray.
Contesting the estate are:
* Rita Marley, the singer's widow, and six adult Marley children: Ziggy, Cedella, Stephen, Karen, Rohan and Robert. Since Marley's death, three of the six--Ziggy, Cedella and Stephen, along with an adopted Marley daughter, Sharon--have themselves become international recording stars, performing as the Melody Makers. The family's $12-million bid, announced at a press conference in Rome last month, is being backed by a loan from Island Logic, a company controlled by Island Records' founder Chris Blackwell, the Jamaican multimillionaire whose label launched Marley on his international career in the early '70s.
* MCA, the record industry giant. MCA is owned by Japan's Matsushita Corp., and music industry insiders have been speculating that, if that bid is successful, Marley's reggae anthems, with their themes of peace, love, freedom and international morality, could be used as advertising jingles for Japanese products.
* Metro Media, a company that was thought to be U.S.-owned but that sources close to the Marley family now say is headed by Barbados-based Eddy Grant, a successful singer-songwriter--his "Electric Avenue" was a massive international hit a few years ago--who devotes most of his time to running his recording studios and business interests in Barbados.
The Metro Media bid is reported to be for $13.5 million, and members of the Marley family are said to be furious that a fellow Caribbean musician who was a contemporary of Bob Marley is trying to buy control of what they regard as their rightful heritage. Rita Marley, touring in Europe before flying back to Jamaica for the court hearing, told confidants that "we are completely incensed as a family at the idea of Eddy Grant trying to take our heritage away."
The Guyanese-born Grant, who is believed to have amassed a considerable fortune over the years by buying the lucrative rights to popular songs, could not be reached for comment at his Blue Wave studios in Barbados. A secretary at the studios said she knew nothing of the reported bid.
At the moment, the Marley family bid appears to be the lowest. But it has the backing of mega-rich record czar Blackwell, and Rita Marley has said that the family is prepared "to match any other bid."
If the Marley family gains control of the estate, Blackwell would continue to manage it for 10 years, after which control would revert to the six grown Marley children who are part of the offer. Four other children by various mothers--Kymani, Makeda Jahnesta (who was born several months after Marley's death), Damien (the singer's son by a well-publicized relationship with former Miss World Cindy Breakspeare) and Julian--would each receive a U.S. $1-million cash settlement, as would Rita Marley's juvenile daughter, Stephanie.
The estate has been the subject of complicated and expensive legal maneuvering since Marley died of cancer in May, 1981. In keeping with his Rastafarian beliefs, Marley did not leave a will. It was Rita Marley's admitted attempts to forge her husband's signature on backdated documents transferring ownership of Marley companies to her that led to her dismissal as an estate executor and the appointment of J. Louis Byles, a 79-year-old Kingston banker, as administrator. Rita Marley told Newsweek magazine in an interview she forged the signatures on the advice of her lawyers, saying, "How can I steal from myself?"