Here’s a story you don’t read every day.
For starters, it’s about a suit. One that was made famous in 1969 in Tennessee by a band with a bizarre name — only to be stolen later that year out of the back of station wagon in Los Angeles. A suit worn a few years later by one of the most famous musicians of our time during a wedding in England (he had no idea it was stolen) and then seemingly lost to history before it resurfaced earlier this year.
It’s a tale about how this suit was returned to its rightful owner in New Mexico thanks to the efforts of … wait for it … a famous lawyer from New Jersey, who just happens to have a thing for old-time music and the entertainment industry.
Just so we’re clear: We’re talking about a suit.
But not just any suit, Riker Danzig attorney Charlie McKenna said. It’s a Nudie suit.
In their day, Nudie suits were considered works of art. Named after their designer, Nudie Cohn, they could be decorated with almost anything, such as poppy flowers, smiling suns, peacocks, roses or any other colorful décor. They used a lot of rhinestones. Think Elvis.
This particular suit was custom-made for Chris Ethridge, the bass player for the Flying Burrito Brothers, a short-lived but influential country rock band. And it appeared on the cover of the group’s iconic debut album, “The Gilded Palace of Sin.”
Months later (as detailed in a wonderfully reported story in Rolling Stone by David Browne) it was stolen out of the car of the band’s publicist, only to reappear — briefly — while being worn by none other than Elton John, who wore it to Bernie Taupin’s wedding and on the cover of the European single for “Rocket Man.”
Then, nothing. For decades. Despite a steady search.
When Ethridge died in 2012, his daughter, Necia Ethridge, took up the search — to no avail. That was especially apparent last fall, when the suits of the three other band members were featured in an exhibit in the Country Music Hall of Fame. (Some consider the Burritos’ album cover the Honky Tonk version of “Abbey Road.”)
At the ceremony, a seemingly desperate plea was made for the suit. Months later, it was answered. Kind of.
Earlier this year, Necia Ethridge got word that the suit was part of a vintage fashion offering by Kerry Taylor Auctions, a leading auction house in the U.K.
She immediately wrote to the auction house — telling them it was her father’s suit. The auction house pulled down the garment, but it was not as quick to give it up.
That’s when McKenna comes into the story.
Most people in Jersey know McKenna, a partner in Riker Danzig’s White Collar Criminal Defense and Investigations Group, for some of his other high-profile roles:
- Chief of the Criminal Division of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Newark;
- Director of the New Jersey Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness;
- Chief counsel to Gov. Chris Christie;
- CEO of the New Jersey Schools Development Authority.
They might not know this:
“I started my career as an entertainment lawyer,” he said. “I did a lot of First Amendment and artist’s representation. So, I come from that world. That’s how I got a call from the manager of Wilco (an alt rock band). They asked me if I could help.”
McKenna did not know Necia Ethridge. And, while he certainly knew the Flying Burrito Brothers — “That’s how old I am,” he said — he was more familiar with bandmate Gram Parsons, a frequent collaborator with another one of McKenna’s favorite artists, Emmylou Harris.
But, he understood what entertainment items can mean to those in the business, so he gladly took her call.
“Necia is a very nice woman who was just beside herself because she was so close to getting the suit back, but so far away — and she didn’t know what to do,” he said. “I said, ‘Let me see what I can do.’”
McKenna did enough research to ensure that the suit was, in fact, the one that once belonged to her father — but he knew proving proper ownership would be difficult.
So, McKenna connected the auction house and explained the situation.
Since there was a dispute about the owner of the suit, the auction house was not going to get what it expected for it. And, since there suddenly was little market for the item, Necia Ethridge was able to buy back a suit her family actually owned.
McKenna will not reveal the price, but said it was far below what would have been considered market value.
But, how do you put a value on this suit?
This crazy tale has many happy endings.
Necia Ethridge got back a family heirloom that she had heard so much about, but had never actually seen.
She then loaned it to the Country Music Hall of Fame, which is grateful to have the fourth part of an exhibit of a special slice of their history — a time when country music and rock ’n’ roll were first coming together.
And it all comes at a time when Nudie suits are getting another look.
Suits that were once made for Roy Rogers and Dolly Parton are getting a second chance. Both Lil Nas X and Post Malone have sported them recently.
Will they make a full-blown comeback? That may be as likely as McKenna returning to his roots as an entertainment lawyer.
That being said, McKenna said the blast-from-the-past experience was well worth the effort.
“This is a woman who lost her dad and lost a lot of his possessions,” he said. “And the suit is iconic. It was like her Holy Grail. To be able to assist her to get it back — and to see how incredibly happy it made her — was fantastic.”
“Of all of the things that I’ve accumulated in my career — all the plaques and awards — the one thing that is the most important to me is a letter that hangs on my wall which is written by a victim of a crime, thanking me for assisting her,” McKenna said.
“This is similar to that. This is a woman who was really close to getting something back that meant a great deal to her. Being able to assist her in doing that in some small way is incredibly rewarding.”
Reach Riker Danzig at: riker.com or call 973-538-0800.