A stink over 'Think'

A local housewife-songwriter claims country hunk Collin Raye stole her song

There are 192 copyright registrations sitting in the Library of Congress for the song "I Think About You"--who says all of the good ideas are taken? There's a 1977 Patti LaBelle track titled "I Think About You"; another from 1989 by Michael Bolton; one more from 1979 by Sinatra knockoff Al Martino; and the Stylistics' 1977 album Wonder Woman features a song titled "I Think About You." But most of those copyrights belong to unknown would-be writers whose songs will never be appreciated by what would surely be an adoring public. Poor Hugo Peretti of Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, and Michaelangelo Nocentelli of New Orleans and Carl Dodson of Los Angeles--they have all filed copyrights on a song titled "I Think About You," but all they have to show for their hard work is a piece of paper from the United States Copyright Office and a few dashed dreams of becoming a somebody in this business they call show.

Add to their ranks a housewife from Carrollton named Suzane McKinley, who, in July 1992, registered three of her compositions with the Library of Congress: "Rock and a Hard Place," "Wishful Thinking," and, yes, "I Think About You." She was 38 at the time, the wife of an airplane mechanic and mother of three--and an aspiring singer-songwriter who longed to get her music heard. She says she has been writing songs since she was 16 and has "over a hundred" to her credit; Suzi McKinley also says she has entered her compositions into myriad contests, including a new songwriter competition held each year in conjunction with the Kerrville Folk Festival in the Hill Country. "I Think About You" is but one of the songs she sent to Kerrville--and, she claims now, to at least one producer in Nashville.

You can also count among those who have written a song titled "I Think About You" two of the best-known songwriters around Nashville. One is Steve Seskin, who has written for Waylon Jennings, Pam Tillis, Alabama, and John Michael Montgomery. The other is Don Schlitz--the author of 24 number-one singles and winner of two Grammys for Country Song of the Year as well as three Country Music Association Song of the Year nods. Schlitz is also a four-time winner of ASCAP's Songwriter of the Year award and a member of the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame since 1993. Listed among his Grammy-winning or nominated songs are Kenny Rogers' "The Gambler," Randy Travis' "Forever and Ever, Amen," Mary Chapin Carpenter's "I Feel Lucky," and Alabama's "Forty Hour Week"; his compositions have also been performed by the likes of Garth Brooks, the Judds, Reba McEntire, Alison Krauss, and Tanya Tucker. And, last but not least, Collin Raye, the soap-opera-handsome Greenville resident who, in 1995, titled his platinum-selling album I Think About You after the Schlitz-Seskin song and included it on his latest greatest-hits collection.

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But Suzi McKinley doesn't think it's Don Schlitz's song. Or Steve Seskin's. Or Collin Raye's.

No, she claims it's hers, and that all three men and Raye's longtime manager, Steve Cox, conspired to steal "I Think About You" from her when she innocently handed Cox a demo of the song five years ago--a song with different words, a different melody, almost a different everything. She claims they used her song to make Collin even more famous, even more successful--using her, just a housewife from Carrollton who waited her whole life for a shot at making a little money by making a little music.

So she has taken Raye, Schlitz, Seskin, Cox, and Sony Music Entertainment, Inc. to federal court in Dallas, where they are now battling over custody of the song. And it has turned into a fairly massive fight: McKinley filed the suit almost two years ago, on August 7, 1996, and the case is set for trial in February 1999. Meanwhile, all parties involved in the suit are warring over issues of damage-related discovery--that is, how much money did Raye, the songwriters, and Sony Music make from the song.

Don Templin, the Dallas-based attorney at Haynes & Boone who's representing all the defendants, says his clients prefer not to discuss the pending case; instead, he says, "the pleadings speak for themselves." Gerald Conley, McKinley's local attorney, also doesn't want to comment or have his client talk about her decision to file this suit. "That's what juries are for," Conley says.

But McKinley, properly frustrated by two years of litigation, decided to vent a little, even though it was against her attorney's advice. In a brief interview, she explains that she's no housewife with a hobby and that her songwriting means the world to her. "I play almost every weekend now," she says, listing Cafe Brazil, Java Jones, Routh Street Brewery, and a few other places where she and her husband have performed as Suzi and Rick. "I think they thought, 'This girl doesn't copyright anything,'" McKinley says--adding that she would have been happy to be a third writer on the song, "anything to get into Nashville. It's so unfair. I mean, the song won a lot of awards. It was a top-10 hit, it won [the Academy of Country Music's] video of the year award. I mean, I love music. I love to play it. But my favorite thing is to write. If I never entertained again, it would be fine. I just want to write."

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