Detroit— Kenneth Williams went to prison for strangling his great-aunt with a telephone cord in 1989, the same year his father was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Before entering prison, the younger Williams asked his sister to save his share of royalty checks he inherited from his dad, Paul Williams, one of the original members of the Temptations, the superstar Motown group known for the hits “My Girl,” “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” and “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone.”
“I figured I was well off,” Kenneth Williams, 49, told The Detroit News.
The Redford Township man was released from prison in July after serving more than 20 years and discovered the money — estimated at more than $200,000 — was gone. His sister, Paula Williams, spent it, according to a complaint he filed against her in federal court in Detroit.
The accusation serves as another sad footnote to the legacy of Motown legend Paul Williams, the baritone singer who choreographed the group’s stylish dance moves, and who died in 1973 under murky circumstances. And it is the latest in a long line of fights over one of the most consistently lucrative commodities to come out of Detroit in 51 years: Motown royalties.
The accusations add a new layer of drama to one of the most successful, and tragic, acts in the Motown Records stable. It is a stable filled with stars whose success and tragedies — including premature deaths, murder, drug addiction and legal woes — have inspired Broadway musicals, TV movies and reams of tell-all books.
Federal and Wayne County court records expose a fight within a family dogged by disaster in the decades after Paul Williams and four friends topped the charts.
Thanks to all those hits, Williams’ heirs split about $80,000 a year in Motown royalties based on sales of the group’s music, Paul Williams’ likeness and other rights. The royalties were paid out twice a year.
Motown money fights, which are not unique to the Williams family, are somewhat ironic, said Peter Benjaminson, author of “The Lost Supreme: The Life of Dreamgirl Florence Ballard.”
“When Motown started, there weren’t any significant royalties for most people,” he said. “The average rock star had one hit, then tried for another one, failed, and went to work at a factory.
“One of the big surprises for Motown and everyone who worked for it is how long the songs have lasted and sold.”
It’s hard for Paul Williams Jr., who was 7 years old when his father died, to say whether the royalties are a blessing or a curse.
“Money, ugh,” Paul Jr. said. “What money does to people, I don’t understand.”
His sister Paula declined comment through her lawyer.
The Williams family has been fighting for Motown royalties since Aug. 17, 1973, the day Paul Williams died at age 34 of what police said was a self-inflicted gunshot wound. He had left the Temptations in 1971.
He was coping with health and personal issues at the time and was estranged from his wife, Mary Agnes Williams. A divorce was pending.
In 1987, 14 years after he died, the family reopened Paul Williams’ estate to pursue royalties owed by Motown and determine his rightful heirs, a complicated task because Williams died without a will.
Williams’ family accused Motown of not paying any royalties after the singer died.
The family claimed it was owed $195,000. But Motown said the family could not pursue royalties that were more than 6 years old.
The family eventually settled in March 1988 for $96,520. That covered the years 1981 through June 1987.
Next, Wayne County Probate Judge Joseph Pernick had to divide the royalty pie and determine shares and heirs.
Williams had three daughters and two sons — Sarita, Paula and Mary and Kenneth and Paul Jr. — with wife Mary Agnes.
Before he died, Paul Williams acknowledged fathering a sixth child, son Paul Williams Lucas.
The royalty pie was about to be divided — when a seventh child surfaced, a son born in 1968 to one of Paul Williams’ girlfriends.
Derrick Vinyard, who was 5 when Paul Williams died, wanted a share of the Motown royalties.
Paula Williams denied that Vinyard was an heir.
The Motown star’s brother, however, disagreed.
Johnny Williams said his brother never denied being Vinyard’s father, according to a 1988 deposition transcript filed in the probate case.
Johnny Williams said he saw Paul and Vinyard’s mother on dates at the Fox Theatre and the Twenty Grand nightclub. And there were rumors Paul Williams had fathered twins in Cleveland.
“He’s a breeder,” Johnny Williams said of his brother during the deposition.
The judge concluded Vinyard was an heir — and divided the late Motown star’s past and future royalties.
Paul Williams’ widow would get one-third. The seven children would split the rest equally.
In January 1989, the family agreed to have Paula parcel out the royalty checks to her four siblings and mother twice a year.
The two half siblings receive their money directly from the record company.
‘Prison saved my life’
Kenneth Williams didn’t have long to enjoy the windfall.
On July 18, 1989, he killed his 81-year-old great-aunt Mary Bryant inside her bungalow on Detroit’s northwest side. She was shot in the head and strangled with a telephone cord, which a neighbor found wrapped three times around the woman’s throat, according to a published report.
Kenneth Williams was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 15 to 30 years in prison.
“I was out of my mind on crack cocaine,” Williams said. “I was out of control. Prison basically saved my life.”
Young Kenneth had lived a charmed life before the death of his father.
Kenneth spent nights on the road with his father and the group in Las Vegas, Miami and Atlanta.
“Where the show went, I went,” he said.
Kenneth, nicknamed “Bossman” by his dad, spent afternoons learning from Temptations frontman Dennis Edwards how to make paper airplanes, which he threw out a window from an upper floor of Motown headquarters along Woodward.
Kenneth was 11 when his father died. The outgoing youngster turned angry, rebellious and “was put out of every school in Detroit.”
“I was lost,” he said. “I lost my best friend.”
At 19, he smoked his first joint.
At 25, he tried cocaine.
At 27, “that —- took me to another place,” he says.
That’s how old he was when he strangled his great-aunt. He turned 28 just before heading to prison.
“I was trying to deal with why I was in prison and what made me go there,” he said. “The money? I wasn’t even thinking about it.”
He thought the cash was safe during the 7,536 days he spent in prison. He was released July 23, after serving more than 20 years.
Money was gone
He soon learned his cash was gone and confronted his sister, who admitted spending the money, he alleges in a court filing.
“She thought he was never going to get out of prison,” his lawyer Kenneth Burger wrote in a lawsuit.
Paul Williams Jr., told The Detroit News he hasn’t received his full share of royalties in years from Paula.
“She’s doing it to all of us,” Paul Jr. of Sterling Heights said. “She did right by us for 10 years, but she’s been slipping since then. It’s greed.”
Kenneth, meanwhile, works 15-hour days at construction sites while his lawsuit against his sister and Motown successor Universal Music Group is pending in federal court. He alleges breach of contract, negligence, fraud and conspiracy, among other charges, and wants unspecified damages.
It’s a complicated fight because his sister filed for Chapter 13 bankruptcy in Detroit in December.
The bankruptcy filing provides rare insight into the value of Motown royalties because Paula had to list how much she received in recent years.
She received $40,594 in 2008. A year later, the Motown royalties rose to $58,036, according to the filing.
Kenneth Williams has asked Universal to send future payments directly to his house.
He refuses to be bitter or angry despite the fight with his sister.
“I’m still there for her if she needs me,” Williams said. “But I don’t trust people after what I’ve been through. We live in a wicked world.”