For 30 years, eight boxes of reel-to-reel tapes bearing the label “George Jones albums” rested abandoned and forgotten in a bank vault in New Orleans.
Six years and a court battle spanning two states later, those same boxes now sit in a bank vault in Benton County, Tennessee.
Even now, no one knows if those tapes contain recordings at all, let alone if they are what the boxes’ label says they are: Master copies of live performances of George Jones and the Jones Boys recorded in 1966 by music producers who worked side gigs as drug dealers and used the recordings as collateral to post bail.
“I have no idea if there is anything on those tapes,” former Louisiana federal court clerk Bill Blevins told Knox News. “Will you let me know when you find out? That was one of those rare, interesting things I dealt with in my career … the George Jones’ tapes.”
Knox News has been investigating the discovery, conducting interviews and mining court records. The story that emerges has all the elements of a great country song worthy of the legend of George Jones: booze and drugs, late-night recording sessions, cheating hearts and shady deals.
Blevins didn’t know a single George Jones’ song when the newly appointed Clerk of Court for the U.S. District Court of Eastern Louisiana opened up that vault six years ago and saw the boxes.
‘What’s the deal with these tapes?’
“We had various things in storage that was being held in a safe deposit box at a local bank,” said Blevins, who went to the vault to inventory the contents as the new court clerk. “These tapes were in there. The question was, ‘What’s the deal with these tapes?’ It didn’t look like the court should have them.
“It was very puzzling as to why the court had these and that they were used as some sort of collateral,” he said. “It was a very unusual thing.”
As fate would have it, Blevins had met a fellow in his previous court post in Florida who knew the name George Jones quite well – his colleague had played with the Jones Boys.
Blevins quickly surmised from his pal that if the contents of the boxes were as described – “a very special radio thing done back in the day” – it could be worth a fortune.
“Where did it come from?” he puzzled. “Why is it here?”
He and court clerk Carol L. Michel set out to solve the mystery. Their first clue was written on the label: Case number 2:83-cr-541 USA vs David L. Snoddy and Donald E. Gilbreth.
Drug-dealing record producers
Snoddy and Gilbreth were partners in the music business and the drug trade, court records show. In 1983, federal agents in Louisiana came calling with handcuffs and a drug-trafficking indictment.
A judge offered freedom pending trial, but only if the pair could come up with a combined $1 million in bail. They didn’t have the cash, but Gilbreth told the court he had something even better: master recordings of a country music legend.
“Gilbreth does hereby pledge … master tapes of recordings of George Jones,” a court minute entry from 1984 shows.
Gilbreth claimed another music business partner, Jimmy Klein, partnered with him to produce the master recordings of Jones’ live performances in 1966 at Nugget Studios in Goodlettsville, Tennessee.
Jones was a hit-maker by then but broke just the same, struggling with alcoholism and addiction.
It’s not clear from the court record if Jones gave Gilbreth and Klein rights to the recordings, sold rights to them or traded them for drugs. Klein insisted in a 1982 affidavit that Jones – dubbed “No Show Jones” during his turbulent drinking years – surrendered all rights to him and Gilbreth but didn’t explain.
Gilbreth claimed the five reel-to-reel tapes he offered the court as collateral contained 35 songs performed live by Jones and his band and – in 1984 – were valued at $1.2 million.
“You need to keep in mind that these albums will continue to grow in worth because of the legend of George Jones,” an appraiser wrote on Gilbreth’s behalf. “As time goes on, he will not be recording forever but the legend lives on.”
The late U.S. Magistrate Ronald A. Fonseca took Gilbreth at his word. He didn’t even listen to the tapes, according to a handwritten note on the bond order.
“The above exhibits were not played by the undersigned magistrate and the … songs contained on said tapes were not verified,” the note says.
The tapes were boxed up, labeled and sent to the bank vault. Gilbreth and Snoddy were convicted in 1986 and ordered to prison. The presiding judge canceled their bond and ordered the tapes returned to Gilbreth.
A document in the court file says Gilbreth’s attorney, Michael Fawer, went to the vault in 1986 with a court clerk and retrieved the tapes. He even signed for them.
But when Blevins walked into the vault 28 years later, the tapes were still there.
‘They weren’t our tapes’
“They weren’t our tapes,” Blevins said. “The court had released them … We didn’t listen to them. I have no idea if there is anything on those tapes.”
Fawer has acknowledged in court records he didn’t take possession of the tapes but it’s not clear why. He has since claimed in court records he lied back in 1984 when he told Fenseca that Gilbreth was the sole owner of the tapes. He now insists Snoddy was a co-owner.
At the time Blevins’ discovered of the tapes, Gilbreth was dead, and Snoddy was still in prison. Louisiana U.S. District Judge Kurt Kurt Engelhardt appointed attorney Gregory Grimsal to locate Gilbreth’s heirs.
Grimsal would spend months searching. He found a brother in Big Sandy, Tennessee.; a widow at a bowling alley in Florence, Ala.; an obituary for another widow in Muscle Shoals, Ala.; and a stepson in Florence, Ala. Gilbreth’s brother said Gilbreth likely had biological children but never supported them.
Grimsal wound up running legal notices in a series of newspapers in Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and Tennessee. He didn’t mention the tapes. Instead, he wrote that the federal court in Lousiana was in search of heirs to claim “collateral” that had been abandoned in a criminal case involving Gilbreth and Snoddy.
Then, he waited.
Weeks later, William Yuille called him. Yuille said his mother was married to Gilbreth when Gilbreth went to prison and had been a “law-abiding, faithful” wife before he ditched her in 1994 for another woman.
Yuille’s mother was now dead, but Yuille insisted he could remember his mother and Gilbreth discussing the tapes.
“Gilbreth possibly had drug-induced memory … issues but for whatever reason he failed to remember what he had done with the tapes,” Yuille wrote in an affidavit.
Yuille insisted he should be awarded the tapes. But the woman Gilbreth left Yuille’s mother to marry – Jean Collett – had other ideas, as did Snoddy, newly released from prison.
Collett would later tell a judge Gilbreth died without a will. The house was in her name, and Gilbreth was largely broke, so she never sought appointment as the administrator of his estate. She told Engelhardt in 2017 that she planned to file the necessary paperwork but never did.
Snoddy wasn’t so hesitant. He filed probate action in Benton County, Tennessee – where Gilbreth died – to try to win custody of the tapes. Yuille filed a probate claim, too, though his claim was later dismissed. Attorney Dwayne Maddox was appointed by the probate court to handle the case.
In mid-2018, Louisiana Judge Engelhardt washed his hands of the matter, ordering the tapes turned over to Maddox for safekeeping.
Tapes in a back seat
Maddox and his wife headed to New Orleans and met a host of court officials at the bank vault, records show. Maddox showed his identification, signed a form and walked out with the boxes.
“We had no idea if we had a million dollars worth of tapes in our back seat,” Maddox told Knox News.
So, he and his wife decided to pay a visit to the George Jones Museum in Nashville on the way back to Benton County.
“There was a box that looked just like these reel-to-reel tapes in the museum,” he said.
Maddox ultimately locked the tapes away in a bank vault near his office. They remain there today. A Tennessee appellate court issued a ruling earlier this month that paves the way for Snoddy to assert his claim of one-half interest in the tapes.
Maddox said he thinks Gilbreth was married when he died, and had children by another woman, but he doesn’t have anyone asserting a claim to the tapes. The case is currently on hold because of the COVID-19 shutdown of in-person hearings in Tennessee.
“More than likely, (the court ruling is) going to be the end of it,” Maddox said. “I represent unknown heirs. I don’t have any clients at this point.”
Snoddy’s attorney didn’t return a phone message.
“We don’t know if there’s anything on those tapes or not,” Maddox said. “It could be a hoax or a fraud. They could be damaged. We just don’t know. But they were appraised at over $1 million in 1984, so if they are real, I can’t imagine the value.”
George Jones, of course, died in 2013, just weeks after a performance at the Knoxville Civic Coliseum as part of his farewell tour.
Email Jamie Satterfield at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @jamiescoop. If you enjoy Jamie’s coverage, support strong local journalism by subscribing for full access to all our content on every platform.
This article originally appeared on Knoxville News Sentinel: Real or fake? Drug dealers put up George Jones recordings as bail