Paul McCartney, shown with Linda & family in a November 1969 Life magazine cover photo taken in Scotland to dispel popular rumors that Paul was dead.
In 1969, the Beatles were at the height of their fame, their music still wildly popular. However, behind the scenes, unbeknownst to most people, the Beatles were falling apart as a group. Their business interests were then in some turmoil as well, with struggles over music publishing rights, some slipping away into non-Beatle ownership. But amidst all of this came a “pop rumor” that Beatle Paul McCartney was dead; a rumor that ran wild for time all around the world. As the story went, McCartney was supposedly killed in a 1966 car crash and had been quietly replaced by a look-alike to spare Beatles’ fans the grief and keep the group on track. It all proved to be a giant hoax, of course – a big false story – as the November 7, 1969 Life magazine cover story at right indicates.
The Life story was one of the more mainstream reactions that emerged during that time to help investigate the rumor, and finally dispel it as a hoax. Yet the tale about Paul’s demise, still to this day, survives in some corners as urban legend. But as the story unfolded at the time, the whole affair helped raise the Beatles’ “mystical” appeal and also, no doubt, to sell a lot more of their music – not that they were having a hard time doing that. What follows below is a recounting of the “Paul-is-dead” story. But first some Beatles’ context at that time — which is probably the more interesting story – occurring roughly during calender year 1969 and into early 1970, leading up to the “Paul-is-dead” rumor, including some of the group’s final recording sessions, and in 1970, the break-up of the Beatles.
Soundtrack for Beatles' 1968 film, "Yellow Submarine," was released in January 1969.
In January 1969, there was plenty of Beatles’ music in the air, and plenty of Beatles’ recording activity going on in various London studios. This, despite the fact that the group was having serious internal difficulties. The strains had begun upon their return from India in 1968 (see “Dear Prudence” story), and continued through their 1968 recording sessions for the “White Album.” By1969, despite the output of what would prove to be quite incredible music, the band was barely operating as a group. After arguments and frustrations, there had been walkouts by Ringo at one point in 1968, and George in 1969 – although both returned. At other times, each member did parts of songs or played instruments separately that were later combined in the studio. For the adoring public, however, the Beatles’ discord was largely out of sight, and for the most part, unknown. Beatles’ music, meanwhile, was all over the airwaves then and frequently riding high on the pop charts.
The Beatles at January 1969 London rooftop jam session (Ringo obscured; Billy Preston not shown).
The “White Album,” released in November 1968, was played heavily through early 1969 and was a huge success at the time, selling more than four million copies in the U.S. in one month. Music from the Beatle’s 1968 animated film, Yellow Submarine had also been released as a separate album in January 1969. It rose to No. 2 on U.S. album charts. Also that month, much of the music that would be used for the Let It Be album was being recorded by the Beatles, though the album itself would not appear for another year or so, as it would be shelved and reworked. Other studio recording was also occurring. In late January 1969, the Beatles were filmed in a rooftop jam session – in what would prove to be their last public “concert” together – performing several songs on the roof at Apple’s building on 3 Savile Row, London. The 42-minute session of songs was filmed for the Beatles’ movie, Let It Be
Business agent Allen Klein at left shown with Yoko Ono and Beatle, John Lennon. Klein became a source of some internal Beatles’ discord in 1969 and a later lawsuit.
During 1969, there had also been some turmoil within the group over their business interests. In early February 1969, John Lennon, George Harrison and Ringo Starr hired Allen Klein to be the Beatles’ new business manager, against the wishes of Paul McCartney, who would not sign a contract with Klein. McCartney, meanwhile, had hired the law firm of Eastman & Eastman – owned by the father of his wife-to-be, Linda Eastman — as general legal counsel for Apple.
A stock struggle also ensued about this time over the Beatle’s Northern Songs music catalog, as their music publisher, Dick James, had sold his shares of Northern Songs in March 1969 to Associated Television (ATV). This would become the much-publicized “Beatles music catalog” that Michael Jackson would acquire some years later. But that’s another story (see “Michael & McCartney“).
The Beatles at work in London studio in 1969 with keyboard player Billy Preston, lower left.
In March 1969 both Paul McCartney and John Lennon had married their respective lady friends – Paul married American, Linda Eastman of Eastman-Kodak business fame in London, and John Lennon married Japanese artist Yoko Ono in Gibraltar. In April, the Beatles’ single “Get Back” with “Don’t Let Me Down”on the B side, was released and rose to No. 1 in several countries. Meanwhile, through much of that year, the Beatles continued to work in the recording studio on music and lyrics for their Abbey Road album. This work generally ran between February and August 1969 at three London studios, with keyboardist Billy Preston brought in to help out on electric piano and organ for some of the sessions. Also during this time, in the middle of the Abbey Road work, around July 4th, 1969, John Lennon and Yoko Ono, released a solo recording, “Give Peace A Chance” in the U.K and the U.S. This song, credited to the Plastic Ono Band, became the first solo single by a member of the Beatles, and a clear signal of where things were headed.
The back cover of the Beatles’ 1969 album, “Abbey Road,” listing 17 tracks.
Abbey Road, meanwhile, was nearing completion in August 1969. The track, “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” was recorded on August 20, 1969. It was the last time all four Beatles were together in the same studio. In late August, John, George and Ringo went to Isle of Wight festival. Paul stayed in London as his wife Linda gave birth to their daughter, Mary.
A few weeks later, the group’s demise began, as John Lennon told Allen Klein on September 11th, he was planning to quit the Beatles. Lennon would later announce his departure to the group on September 20, 1969, but agreed that no public announcement would be made until a number of legal matters were resolved. Paul and his family meanwhile, went to their farm in Scotland. The Abbey Road album was released in U.K and U.S. in the late September-early-October 1969 time frame. This was about the time the “Paul-is-dead” rumor began to take hold.
A collage of news stories on the "Paul-is-dead" rumor, 1969.
On September 17, 1969, just as the Beatles’ Abbey Road album was hitting the airwaves, an article entitled, “Is Paul McCartney Dead?” appeared in the Drake University newspaper, The Times-Delphic. The article, written by undergraduate student Tim Harper, began the conjecture and the crafting of “clues” suggesting that McCartney was dead. He included, for example, imagery from the Beatles’ Sgt. Peppers album. Here’s a sample:
“…This album also started the hints that all was not right with the Beatles, especially Paul. On the front cover a mysterious hand is raised over his head, a sign many believe is an ancient death symbol of either the Greeks or American Indiana. Also, a left-handed guitar (Paul was the only lefty of the four) lies on the grave at the group’s feet…
“…On the back of the same album…George is pointing toward a phrase from the song “A Day in the Life” pertaining to a certain Wednesday morning at five a.m. when some famous but unnamed person “blew his mind out in a car.”…
Clue hunters in 1969 thought the hand over McCartney’s head on the “Sgt. Peppers” album was an Eastern symbol of death.
And on it went, citing other Beatles albums, such as Magical Mystery Tour, clues in its songs, and even a revelation about a phone number when the album cover was held up to a mirror.
Then on October 12th, a caller to WKNR-FM radio station in Detroit, Michigan from Eastern Michigan University also announced that Mc- Cartney was dead and that the DJ should play the Beatles’ song “Revolution 9″ backwards ( a technique also known as “backmasking,” which interestingly, was first used by the Beatles in 1966). The Detroit radio DJ, Russ Gibb, did that, reporting on the airwaves that he thought he heard phrases to the effect of, “turn me on, dead man.” Soon, Gibb was telling his listeners what he had found and was also adding to the list of clues.
Meanwhile, on October 14, 1969, college students at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor published a satirical review of The Beatles’ Abbey Road album in The Michigan Daily. This story stoked the “McCartney-is-dead” claim with “new evidence,” offering various “clues,” some supposedly found in any number of Beatles’ songs and/or album covers. This story, in turn, was picked up by various newspapers across the U.S. and escalated nationally. On October 21, 1969, helping to spread the rumor nationally, a radio disc jockey at New York radio station WABC, discussed the “Paul-is-dead” rumor at length for over an hour. This occurred during the very early morning hours of WABC’s broadcasting reach, when the station’s signal could be heard in 38 states and beyond. At this point, the “Paul-is-dead” rumor was spreading like wildfire. Fans at Hofstra University even formed a special group named: “Is Paul McCartney Dead Society.”
Beatles’ "Magical Mystery Tour” album (1967) became part of the hunt for clues in ‘Paul-is-dead’ rumor. Black walrus was Paul, a bad omen?
As the story grew, hundreds of supposed clues to McCartney’s death were being reported by fans – some found while listening to various Beatles songs, and others from interpretations made of cover art on various Beatles songs and albums – song-by-song in some cases, with recordings slowed down, taped backwards, and even scientific sonograms made of Paul’s voice on earlier tunes to compare for possible imposters. John Lennon, in the final section of the song “Strawberry Fields Forever,” was supposedly heard saying in the background something like, “I buried Paul,” when actually the suspect phrase was either “I’m very bored” or “cranberry sauce,” according to various reports.
More “Paul-is-dead” imagery from Beatles’ “Abbey Road” album, from left: George as gravedigger, Paul the corpse, Ringo mourner, and John the preacher.
Abbey Road’s now-iconic album cover, shown at left, was also implicated in the rumor– supposedly depicting a funeral procession with Lennon in all white as preacher; Ringo in black as mourner; George in denim as gravedigger, and barefoot Paul as corpse. The Beatles’ press office, meanwhile, besieged with calls, issued a press statement on October 21, 1969, denying the rumor and dismissing it as “a load of old rubbish.” Still, the rumor persisted. Abbey Road, meanwhile – quite apart from its supposed “Paul-is-dead” clues – is regarded as one of the Beatles’ finest albums musically, also becoming one of their all-time best sellers at more than nine million sold and counting.
Paul McCartney getting a kiss from wife Linda as they sit on bumper of Range Rover with baby Mary and Linda’s daughter Heather at their farm in Scotland. Photo, Life, 1969.
In 1969, of course, there was no “always-on media” — no internet, no People magazine, no TMZ, or TV-equivalent Access Hollywood or Entertain- ment Tonight. Under such media-deprived circum- stances, more traditional journalistic sleuthing tech- niques were used to investigate the rumor. Life mag- azine, a much-respected, photo-journalist-styled news and culture weekly, dispatched a team from London, including reporter Dorothy Bacon, to track down McCartney in Scotland (see sidebar story below). It was this London team, with photographer Robert Graham, that found McCartney at his farm, photographing him with his family for the Life magazine cover story of November 7, 1969 (shown at top of this article).
When McCartney was contacted by Life’s reporter, he speculated that the rumor might have started because he, McCartney, had been out of contact for a time and hadn’t been in the press much, which he didn’t regret. “I have done enough press for a lifetime,” he told the Life reporter, “and I don’t have anything to say these days. I am happy to be with my family…” He also added that he was essentially chilling out, taking some serious down time: “I was switched on for ten years and I never switched off. Now I am switching off whenever I can. I would rather be a little less famous these days.”
NY TV guide listing the F. Lee Bailey TV special on the ‘Paul-is-dead’ hoax story.
But the Life magazine story did not end the rumor; as the “Paul-is-dead” story persisted even though Paul was very much alive. In fact, F. Lee Bailey, a famous, high-profile U.S. trial attorney known for defending controversial clients including the Boston strangler, became involved in the action with an hour-long TV show cross-examining some of the students who first offered the claim.
RKO produced the television special, titled: “Paul McCartney: The Complete Story, Told For the First And Last Time.” The show was broadcast on WOR-TV station in New York on November 30, 1969 in which Bailey cross-examined some of the college newspaper authors and other “witnesses” about the rumor. Bailey, who used a court room setting to interrogate his subjects, left it to his TV viewers to draw their own conclusions.
“Life Finds McCartney” Fall 1969
Life magazine sent a team of London correspondents and a photographer to the remote reaches of Scotland on an un- announced visit to Paul McCartney’s farm. Hoping to avoid detection, the Life team hiked four and a half miles across cold moors and muddy fields until they approached the farmhouse of the missing Beatle. However, McCartney’s sheepdog, “Martha,” soon began barking at the interlopers. Paul then ran outside and began yelling at the reporters, charging them with trespassing. The photo- grapher in the group, Robert Graham, began snapping pictures of an enraged McCartney, and for his efforts, Graham was drenched with a bucket of water. The Life team then retreat- ed down the road. McCartney meanwhile, back in his kitchen, reviewing what had just happened, realized he had been perhaps a bit too harsh. He then jumped into his Land Rover, caught up with the group, and invited them back to his house for a cup of tea. After some discussion, a bargain was struck. Paul agreed to give the Life correspondents an exclusive interview. In return, Robert Graham agreed to give Paul the film in his camera. And Paul, in remarks to journalist Dorothy Bacon, said in part, “…Can you spread it around that I’m just an ordinary person who wants to live in peace?…”
The “Paul-is-dead” hoax lasted for about two months in its most heated form – from about September through December 1969. If nothing else, the rumor probably helped fuel the sales of Beatles’ albums, including all of those with supposed “Paul-is-dead” imagery or symbol- ism. The episode proved a big enough event that it became the subject of several books, articles, lectures and academic papers. Among the books, for example, are American jour- nalist Andru J. Reeve’s 1994 book Turn Me On, Dead Man, and another in 1997 by English author Benjamin Fitzpatrick, Rumours From John, George, Ringo and Me.
By mid-January 1970, in any case, it was the Beatles’ group that was dead – not Paul McCartney. At that point, each of the four Beatles separately began planning or beginning their solo careers. John and Yoko had already been recording. On April 10, 1970, Paul McCartney released his first solo album, McCartney. A few days later, Paul publicly announced the end of the Beatles. At about the same time, the Beatles’ previously-produced and recorded Let It Be album was released, followed by Let It Be the movie. That album became the Beatles’ 14th No. 1 album. Two singles from Let It Be – “The Long and Winding Road” and “Let It Be” – also became No. 1 hits.
Documents filed on December 31, 1970 officially ended the legal entity known as The Beatles. Three years later, John, George and Ringo split with Allen Klein and sued him. Still, during this tumultuous year of 1969 – marking their final disintegration as a group – the Beatles still managed, with help from their producer, George Martin, to turn out some of their most enduring and most loved music. For more stories at this website on the Beatles please visit the Home Page, the Annals of Music category page, or the archive. Thanks for visiting. - Jack Doyle
Andru J. Reeve, Turn Me On, Dead Man: The Beatles and the ‘Paul Is Dead’ Hoax, Popular Culture Ink., 1994
Benjamin Fitzpatrick, Rumours From John, George, Ringo and Me, 1997.
Brian Moriarty, “Who Buried Paul?,” Illustrated Transcript of a Lecture at the Game Developers Conference, San Jose Convention Center, March 17, 1999 on St. Patrick’s Day 1999, as a featured lecture, Ludix.com, detailed accounting of “Paul-is-dead” hoax.
Gary R. Patterson, The Walrus Was Paul: The Great Beatle Death Clues, Prentice Hall, 1998.
Mark Lewisohn, The Complete Beatles Chronicle, London: Pyramid Books, 1992.
“The Get Back Rehearsals,” Four Parts: The Twickenham Sessions; The Apple Sessions; The Rooftop Concert; and, The Apple Studio Performance.
Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson in studio during their early 1980s’ collaboration. Photo, Linda McCartney
After the Beatles had broken up in 1970, they each went their separate ways musically. Paul McCartney, John Lennon, Ringo Starr, and George Harrison each began careers making music on their own, and sometimes with other artists. After John Lennon was killed in 1980, the three remaining Beatles came to- gether briefly for George Harrison’s song, “All Those Years Ago.” But for the most part, they each continued working solo, with occasional col- laborations. In the early 1980s, Paul McCartney and pop star Michael Jackson came together briefly to produce a few songs and videos, projects undertaken jointly between 1981 and 1983. McCartney by then already had a decade of success with his group Wings, releasing a number of singles and albums between 1971 and 1981. Michael Jackson at that time was just hitting his stride, having released his first solo album Off the Wall in 1979, and then his blockbuster, Thriller, in 1982. In the McCartney/Jackson collaboration of the early 1980s, the two artists produced a few singles together that were also used on each other’s albums and for music videos. However, this collaboration became a very interesting pairing given what would later transpire between McCartney and Jackson in terms of their respective business interests. More on that in moment. First the music.
Cover of 1982 single ‘The Girl is Mine,’ featuring a Paul McCartney-Michael Jackson duet.
“The Girl Is Mine”
The first single released jointly by Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson was “The Girl is Mine,” a 1982 duet by the two artists. The song was written by Jackson and produced by Quincy Jones for Jackson’s epic Thriller album, his sixth studio album. “The Girl is Mine” was recorded in Los Angeles in April 1982. It was released as a single on the Epic label in mid-October of that year with “Can’t Get Outta the Rain” on the B side. It soon topped the R & B singles chart, peaking at No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100, and rising to No. 8 in the U.K. By 1985, it had sold 1.3 million copies, and was later certified platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America for shipments of at least two million units. Jackson stated at one point that the recording of the song was one of his most enjoyable moments in the studio. “One of my favorite songs to record, of all my recordings as a solo artist, is probably ‘The Girl Is Mine,’ because working with Paul McCartney was pretty exciting and we just literally had fun. It was like lots of kibitzing and playing, and throwing stuff at each other, and making jokes. We actually recorded the track and the vocals pretty much live at the same time, and we do have [film] footage of it…” The footage of the pair recording the song was later shown at The Paul McCartney World Tour.
Visit With Paul
The second song released jointly by McCartney and Jackson was “Say, Say, Say,” which would also appear on McCartney’s fifth solo album, Pipes of Peace, released in 1983. The history of this Jackson/McCartney collaboration actually predates “The Girl is Mine” single of 1982. And it was during this recording visit that Jackson would be introduced to the financial value of the music publishing business. “Say, Say, Say” was recorded at Abbey Road Studios from May to September 1981. During one of Michael’s visits to the McCartney home in 1981, Paul pro- duced a thick booklet of song publishing rights he owned. “This is the way to make big money,” he told Jackson. Michael Jackson had come to the U.K. as a guest of Paul, as the two had agreed to explore joint music projects. While there, Jackson stayed at a nearby hotel, but often had dinner at the home of Paul and Linda McCartney, a Tudor estate on hundreds of acres about an hour’s drive from London. During these visits, Jackson and the McCartneys developed a friendship, sometimes hanging out in the McCartney kitchen for informal conversation. One night at the McCartney dinner table, Paul produced a thick booklet displaying all the song and publishing rights he owned, such as those of 1950s’ rocker Buddy Holly and others. “This is the way to make big money,” he told Jackson. “Every time someone records one of these songs, I get paid. Every time someone plays these songs on the radio, or in live performances, I get paid.” McCartney was then reportedly earning about $40 million a year from other people’s songs. Jackson became quite interested as McCartney paged through his booklet. He wanted to know more about owning songs, and how they were acquired and put to use. This dinner-table vignette of Paul advising Michael on the lucrative world of music publishing and song ownership, would later play out in a somewhat ironic way, as Jackson would come to own a number of Beatles songs.
Cover art for the Paul McCartney /Michael Jackson single, ‘Say, Say Say’, 1983-1984.
Meanwhile, the McCartney/Jackson recording of “Say Say Say” was completed in February 1983 with former Beatles’ producer George Martin helping with its studio production. “Say, Say, Say” proceeded to have a good run on the music charts, hitting No.1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and staying there for six weeks in late 1983 and early 1984. A fairly elaborate music video for “Say Say Say” was also produced, at a cost of $500,000, which featured Jackson and McCartney, with appearances by Linda McCartney, LaToya Jackson, and Mr. T. Another McCartney/ Jackson song that appears on McCartney’s Pipes of Peace album is “The Man,” co-written by Paul and Michael, but not released as a single. Paul and Michael, meanwhile, continued their friendship and musical relationship through the 1980s – that is, until some mutual musical and financial interests came between them.
Among the first catalogs Michael Jackson acquired in the mid-1980s was one with the songs of Sly & the Family Stone such as ‘Everyday People.’
In 1983-84, having taken Paul McCartney’s advice to heart about making money with music publishing rights, Michael Jackson was soon on the hunt to buy music catalogs and song copyrights. Within a year or two, he spent about $1 million buying up some available collections – the Sly Stone collection, which included songs such as, “Everyday People”(1968) and “Everybody Is a Star” (1970). He also acquired Len Barry songs such as “1-2-3″ (1965), the Soul Survivors’ “Expressway to Your Heart” (1967), as well as two 1961 songs by Dion DiMucci – “The Wanderer” and “Runaround Sue.” Jackson continued his search for more music catalogs to buy, but only those with songs that meant something to him. He was shown dozens more catalogs, approaching 40 or so, but he only bid on a handful of these. Then came the prize he wanted badly: a catalog of Beatles songs. First, a little history.
Early Beatles’ songs -- such as those from their early 1960s albums -- became part of the ATV music catalog that Michael Jackson acquired in 1985.
In 1968-69, a U.K. company named ATV Music Publishing, a subsidiary of Britain’s Associated TeleVision, had become the owner of 250 or so Beatles’ songs – many of which were the most important “Lennon & McCartney” compositions from the 1960s. How the Beatles’ songs made their way to these owners is a bit of another story which is covered at length elsewhere. But essentially, for tax reasons, the Beatles put much of their music publishing rights into a public company, which they later lost control of. ATV became the owner. ATV Music Publishing had formed in the late 1950s after it acquired Pye Records, one of the major U.K. record companies at the time. ATV and Pye were at the forefront of the 1960s music explosion in the U.K. Among artists then on the Pye label were The Searchers, The Kinks, Donovan, The Moody Blues, and Petula Clark. Through the 1970s, ATV remained the owner of the Beatles catalog and expanded its holdings to other songs. By 1984, however, the ATV Music Publishing became the property of a new owner – an Australian investor and corporate raider named Robert Holmes a Court. Holmes a Court was interested in turning quick profits on his investments and he soon let it be known that the ATV music catalog – then comprised of some 4,000 songs including those by the Beatles – was up for sale. That’s when Michael Jackson entered the bidding.
In the mid-1980s, Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney both wanted the Beatles songs in the ATV music catalog.
Paul McCartney, meanwhile, was also keenly aware of the ATV holding. One account claims that McCartney had made it known to the owners that he would be willing to top any best offer by 10 percent. However, McCartney is also on record saying that at one point he was offered the catalog for a price of £20 million (pounds). But McCartney was hesitant to make that deal on his own, since it might be perceived by Beatles fans as a “Paul McCartney grab” of John Lennon’s property, and he didn’t feel comfortable with that. So he called Lennon’s widow, Yoko Ono, and asked her if she wanted to split the bid at £10 million each. That arrangement did not work out for whatever reason, and McCartney appeared to drop out of the process. Michael Jackson, however, really wanted the catalog, and especially the Beatles’ songs, and he set about on a careful and thorough business course to acquire it.
Jackson was first informed of the availability of the ATV catalog in September 1984 by his attorney John Branca, who put together the earlier catalog acquisitions that Jackson had already made. That September, Branca, Jackson, and his manager, Frank Dileo, were in one of their regular business meetings during Jackson’s Victory tour with his brothers in Philadelphia. Jackson was very excited at the news of the ATV/Beatles catalog becoming available, but Branca warned him it would be a tough fight as other investors were also interested, and Holmes a Court was a tough negotiator. Branca also reportedly contacted an attorney for McCartney, who said McCartney was not interested in bidding for the catalog as it was “too pricey”. Branca and his associates then set out on a careful course of “corporate due diligence” checking out their quarry and later spending $1 million over some months to verify the validity of ATV’s claims about earnings and song ownership.
Attorney John Branca became key Jackson aide.
By November 20th, 1984, Jackson and Branca sent a Telex to Holmes a Court with a $46-million bid for the ATV catalog. They were aware of another bid of $39 million, and had spent time determining the value of the ATV catalog. They believed their $46 million was a good bid, and that it had cushion enough to be above the rest. In addition to McCartney as a possible rival in the contest, the other investors and music industry executives competing for the ATV catlog were: Charles Koppelman and Marty Bandier’s New York-based The Entertainment Co., Virgin Records of London; New York real estate tycoon Samuel J. Lefrak, and financier Charles Knapp. John Lennon’s widow, Yoko Ono, had been contacted but did not enter the bidding.
“We Are The World” 1985
During the time Jackson’s team of lawyers and music specialists were trying to acquire the ATV/Beatles music catalog, Jackson was also involved with his music for a good cause. He teamed up with fellow singer Lionel Ritchie to write a song for Ethiopian charity relief that became “We Are The World.” The song was produced and conducted by Quincy Jones and became notable for the “supergroup” of 45 popular musicians who performed it – from Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, and Diana Ross, to Paul Simon, Stevie Wonder and Ray Charles – and dozens of others. The charity single was intended to raise funds to help famine-relief efforts in Africa, which had unusual drought in 1984/1985. The recording was produced in January 1985 and released in March 1985. It became one of the fastest- selling singles in the modern pop era, reaching No.1 on the Billboard Hot 100 on April 17, 1985 and remaining there for four weeks. The single eventually sold 7.5 million copies in the U.S. and also spawned an album and a video – all of which raised over $63 million for famine relief. The song also inspired millions of people to help, and many lives were saved. The song went on to win four 1985 Grammys. Michael Jackson performed the song at the World Music Awards in November 2006.
In the end, Jackson would win the prize – but only after a long and protracted chess game with Holmes a Court that went on for some 10 months or more, and who for a time, erroneously suspected that Jackson was a front man for a Paul McCartney purchase. In any case, for Jackson’s camp, the process of putting the deal together, and verifying the assets, businesses, and copyrights, etc. was not a casual process, as Los Angeles Times reporter Robert Hilburn explained in 1985:
…One team of Jackson’s lawyers was sent to the United States Copyright Office in Washington to check on the authenticity of every significant composition in the nearly 4,000-song catalogue. Meanwhile, other teams were at work in London and at ATV offices around the world to certify legal documents in those countries. In total, an estimated half a million to a million pages of contracts were examined.
At the same time, the L.A.-based accounting firm of Gelfand, Rennert & Feldman was overseeing a team of 20 people who were checking ATV books in London, Los Angeles, Toronto, Sydney, Munich and Amsterdam.
The contract for the prospective deal had gone through eight drafts. But then, negotiations broke off for a time and the deal seemed doomed. In June 1985, Branca and Jackson learned that Holmes a Court had signed a tentative $50-million deal with Charles Koppelman and Marty Bandier’s Entertainment Co. Talks then resumed between the Jackson and Holmes a Court negotiating teams. Jackson raised his bid to $47.5 million. Holmes a Court accepted Jackson’s bid over the higher $50 million from Koppleman/Bandier presumably because Jackson’s was more liquid and could be consummated quicker. Jackson also reportedly threw in a charity concert in Perth, Australia. An announcement was made in mid-August 1985 that Michael Jackson had acquired the ATV music publishing catalog with the Beatles songs. Michael Jackson was a happy camper.
Michael Jackson said ‘Yesterday’ was his favorite Beatles song. Released as a single in the U.S. in Sept 1965, it stayed at No.1 for the month of October and sold 1 million copies in five weeks.
With the deal done, Jackson spoke with Los Angels Times reporter Robert Hilburn in September 1985 at the Jackson family house in Encino, California. He was quite excited about the Beatles’ songs he now owned. “The melodies…are so lovely…(and) structured so perfectly,” he said. Coaxed to name some of his favorite Beatles songs, Jackson said “Yester- day” was his favorite, though he quickly ticked off others — “Here, There and Everywhere,” “Fool on the Hill,” “Let It Be,” “Hey Jude,” “Eleanor Rigby” and “Penny Lane.” He couldn’t name just five; he liked them all.
Meanwhile, Paul McCartney, who had wanted the ATV Beatles’ songs, apparently was unable or unwilling to raise enough money or pay for the entire 4,000 song ATV catalog. As noted earlier, McCartney at one point urged Yoko Ono to join him in a joint bid, but she declined. Ono did comment upon hearing that the rights were acquired by Jackson. “Michael Jackson is a fellow songwriter,” she said, “so I just think it’s a nice thing to happen.” McCartney, however, did admit to feeling somewhat undercut by his one-time friend and collaborator. “I think it’s dodgy to do things like that,” McCartney reportedly said, “– to be someone’s friend and then buy the rug they’re standing on.”
The publisher’s rights that Jackson acquired were distinct from those of the songwriter. McCartney still had those, of course, as royalties for “Lennon & McCartney” songwriting still flowed to McCartney and to John Lennon’s estate regardless of who held the publisher’s rights. Still, publisher rights could be quite lucrative – as Paul had shown Michael back in 1981. The Beatles songs, in particular, would be especially valuable resources that could be mined for years with possible uses in film, television, advertising, stage productions, video games, and more. The prize that Jackson had won would become a very valuable asset indeed. In fact, it would prove to be one of the best investments Michael Jackson would ever make.
Nike ad with Beatles music & joggers,1987- 88. Click to view in new window.
The first unpleasantness between McCartney and Jackson over the use of Beatles music came in 1987 when Nike struck a deal to use the Beatle’s song “Revolution” in one of its athletic shoe television commercials. At the time, Nike reportedly paid $500,000 to use the song, half to EMI-Capitol Records and half to Jackson. The three surviving Beatles, along with their record label, Apple, filed a lawsuit objecting to Nike’s use of the song. The suit was aimed at Nike, its ad agency, and Capitol-EMI Records – not Jackson. The Nike TV ad with the Beatles music – and there were at least three versions – ran from 1987 through early 1988, even as the litigation proceeded, with former Beatles George Harrison and Paul McCartney objecting in the press.
Michael Jackson & Paul McCartney together in 1990, reportedly to dispel rumors about their falling out over the Beatles song catalog Jackson then held.
By March 1988, although still in court, Nike decided to discontinue airing the ads as its music right for using the song expired. In November 1989, although the case had spawned more lawsuits by then, an undisclosed out-of-court settlement was reached among all parties. McCartney, meanwhile, had reportedly asked Jackson to increase the share of his writer royalties for the Beatles’ songs that Jackson held as publisher, but Jackson refused. In 1990, McCartney and Jackson appeared together in a photograph to allay fears – publicly at least – that there was no bad blood between them. Jackson was soon confronting problems of a different kind, as charges against him for molesting a 13-year-old boy were settled out of court in 1994.
Then in early November 1995 George Harrison and Paul McCartney made comments in the U.K.’s Elle magazine about Jackson’s use of Beatles songs in advertising. Harrison made remarks similar to those he had made during the 1988 fight over Nike’s use of “Revolution” in their TV ad. “Unless we do something about it,” said Harrison, referring to the merchandising of their songs, “every Beatles song is going to end up advertising bras and pork pies.” McCartney added that Jackson had “cheapened” the songs released.
Michael Jackson was at the top of his game in the 1980s, on the cover of Time, March 19, 1984. By the mid-1990s, things began to slide, with mounting debt by the late 1990s.
Jackson by then was beginning his descent into serious financial difficulty as he began to leverage his assets for cash and credit. On November 9, 1995 it was reported that Jackson had sold a 50 percent stake in the ATV/Beatles song catalog for about $100 million – money used by Jackson, according to one adviser, to help shore up his “wobbling accounts.”
Although Jackson was a smart guy when he wanted to be, and was on top of his financial situation for a good part of his career – and actively involved with his business interests – by the mid-1990s things started to slip pretty badly. Jackson’s exorbitant and quirky life style — coupled with legal battles and lower music revenues – would soon eat away at his assets and push him into big-time indebtedness. In the 1980s, he had made a ton of money, with top-selling albums and concert tours. But he spent it as fast at it came in, and then some, often in bizarre ways, chartering jets and renting hotel suites for his entourages, or traveling with a pet chimpanzee. In his work too, Jackson spared no expense, hiring the best at premium rates. In 1987, for example, he hired noted film director Martin Scorsese for $1 million to direct a video for his album Bad.
Michael Jackson’s quirky and expensive life style in the 1980s and 1990s, helped push him into big-time debt.
Jackson’s Santa Barbara County, California estate, “Neverland” – which he had purchased in 1987 for $19.5 million – was a continuing and considerable expense. Neverland – named for the island of Peter Pan and the Lost Boys who never age – covers some 2,600 acres. Jackson spent $35 million making it a wonderland complete with amusement park, small-car race track, miniature railroad, a pet zoo, ornate landscaping and flower beds, a 50-seat cinema, and two helicopter landing pads. At its peak, Neverland had a staff of 150, and cost $10 million a year to maintain.
People magazine cover story on Michael Jackson in Feb 1994 asked if his settlement with a young accuser might cost the pop star his credibility – and his future.
In 1993, Jackson was accused of sexually abusing a 13-year-old boy. An out-of-court settlement was reached in 1994, reportedly in the neighborhood of $20 million. However, Jackson’s reputation – and some say his earning power as well – began taking big hits in the media and the tabloids. Headlines such as, “Peter Pan or Pervert?”, run by the New York Post in August 1993, hit Jackson hard. Some close to Jackson say the incident marked beginning of a downward spiral for him – emotionally, financially, and legally. In the mid-1990s, Jackson undertook to answer his critics in part with feisty song lyrics and a $30 million publicity and promotion campaign for his 1995 HIStory album, part of which included the use of nine giant Michael Jackson statues, one of which was floated down the Thames River through London. In the 1990s Jackson was also married twice and divorced twice, with costly settlements – first to Elvis Presley’s daughter, Lisa Marie Presley, and then his dermatologist’s secretary, Debbie Rowe, who bore two of his children. Meanwhile, music sales for Jackson in the 1990s, although still formidable, were not at the level they were in the 1980s.
By the late 1990s he had taken out hundreds of millions of dollars worth of loans. He used some of the loan money to invest in risky ventures. “The leading drain on Mr. Jackson’s ample resources may have been monumentally unwise investments that apparently produced equally colossal losses,” wrote New York Times reporters Jeff Leeds and Andrew Ross Sorkin in a later story on the evolution of Jackson’s financial troubles. Among the unwise investments was $50 million or so for deals that never panned out – amusement-park ideas and global-scale entertainments featuring giant Marvel comic-book type characters. Jackson was getting bad advice. By early 2000, Jackson’s biggest burden began shifting to his enormous monthly interest payments on his debt. At one point in 2000, Jackson’s finances were so shaky that one of his financial advisers warned that Jackson’s control of the rights to his own music catalog and that of the Beatles was at risk.
Sell The Beatles?
In early 2001, there had been rumors that Jackson was putting the ATV/Beatles catalog up for sale to cover the maintenance of his Neverland ranch in California as well as legal bills relating to cancelled concert tours. Jackson then made a statement to the press in May 2001 about the status of the Sony/ATV/Beatles catalog. “I want to clarify a silly rumor,” he said in a May 9, 2001 statement, “the Beatles catalogue is not for sale, has not been for sale and will never be for sale.” Still, the catalog was becoming less and less his to control as he diminished his share to hold off his creditors.
Comeback In 2001?
In the fall of 2001, it appeared there might be a re-emergence of Michael Jackson. In September he made a surprise appearance at the 2001 MTV Video Music Awards, as he joined ‘N Sync on stage near the end of their act and performed some of his dance moves. At the end of October 2001, Jackson’s new album, Invincible was released, rising to the top of the charts.
In November 2001, Michael Jackson appeared on the cover of TV Guide. The Guide touted his upcoming TV special on its cover — “Michael Jackson: The Star Studded TV Special, The New Album (at last), The Famous Friends, The “Wacko Jacko” Image – Does it Add Up to Comeback?”
In 2002, however, Jackson had some legal troubles. His longtime concert promoter Marcel Avram, sued Jackson for $21.2 million for canceling two Millennium concerts. A court ordered Jackson to pay Avram $5.3 million in damages.
Meanwhile, there appeared to be little change in Jackson’s spending habits. In September 2001, he paid a $1 million fee to Marlon Brando to appear at a Madison Square Garden event and in a video honoring Jackson. In the spring of 2002, he racked up a $100,000 hotel bill on a brief trip to New York. And he could still drop $1 million at a time on any number of shopping expeditions, for antiques, automobiles, paintings, or other luxuries. Forbes scored him as owing a Beverly Hills jeweler $2 million for a watch, and once on a whim he spent $10,000 on a bottle of perfume for his friend Elizabeth Taylor.
By November 2003, it didn’t appear that Jackson was in imminent danger of going broke, as Forbes magazine placed his net worth at $350 million. But he then had heavy liens against his property and his spending was characterized as “out of control”. Forbes also noted of Jackson: “for the first time in four decades, he finds himself without a record contract.” The magazine described him as “a franchise in decline.” Number Ones, a Jackson greatest-hits album, released in 2003, would sell about 1 million copies, considerably less that other Jackson albums.
By 2005, a turn for the worse occurred, especially with Jackson’s very public trial on charges of molesting a young boy. Although acquitted, more of Jackson’s financial turmoil surfaced in the trial. An accountant testified that Jackson spent up to $30 million per year more than he earned. His loans were soon becoming his major liability, with crushing interest payments. By 2005, Jackson was reportedly making monthly payments of about $4.5 million on $270 million in debt, which works out to an annual interest rate of about 20 percent, a rate that usually signals high risk.
Sony Steps In
Logo for Sony/ATV Music Publishing.
Jackson’s partner in the ATV/Beatles catalog, Sony, was now concerned about the prospect of a Jackson bankruptcy. They also wondered who they might have to negotiate with as their partner, especially since Jackson by then had established that his share would be represented by a trust. For Sony, that added to the uncertainty, and they remained attentive to Jackson’s situation.
By April 2006, Jackson was living temporarily in Bahrain after his child molestation trial. Needing money, Jackson again turned to the Sony/ATV/Beatles catalog to help with creditors. It appeared he would have to sell some portion of his share in the catalog to raise funds. Instead, Sony came to the rescue and sent two executives to Bahrain. The Sony executives negotiated a deal for Jackson that resulted in Jackson getting a lower interest rate on his $300 million debt through a refinancing arrangement. In return, Sony gained more authority to operate Sony/ATV/Beatles catalog, and also retained an option to buy a further half of Jackson’s share. This meant, if the option was exercised, Jackson would then only retain a 25 percent share of the Sony/ATV/Beatles catalog.
Michael Jackson in more recent years.
There were also a few wealthy patrons who came to Jackson’s aide during his financial troubles, each also looking for a piece of business from Jackson or his related assets. Abdulla bin Hamad Al Khalifa, the second son of the king of Bahrain, who took Jackson and his family in for a time following his trial, also helped Jackson keep the lights on at Neverland and paid some of his legal bills in 2005. Al Khalifa thought he had made a business deal with Jackson to do an album and write an autobiography; Jackson claimed the $7 million he received was a gift. Al Khalifa sued. Thomas Barrack, chairman and CEO of Los Angeles-based real estate investment firm Colony Capital set up a joint venture with Jackson to take ownership of Neverland, yielding a $23 million loan. Barrack believed a spruced-up Neverland could fetch as much as $80 million. Colony and Barrack – also involved in Las Vegas nightclubs and casinos – had been talking with Jackson about repackaging his image and beginning a comeback, with the prospect of multiple-year, Céline Dion- type performances in Vegas ( she had grossed $400 million in 4 years), and/or a Cirque du Soleil- type musical production like the Beatles Love production. Then there was Philip Anschutz, whose concert promotion company, AEG Live, had started work with Jackson, planning to do 50 shows featuring him in London beginning in July 2009. AEG also hoped to generate a further $400 million in business with Jackson through tours and merchandizing over the next few years.
Michael Jackson’s Neverland faced fore- closure in 2008.
Jackson, meanwhile, had laid off workers at Neverland by 2006. In 2008, he defaulted on a $24.5 million loan and narrowly escaped foreclosure there. By early 2009 an auction had been scheduled to sell off some of Jackson’s personal property to raise funds. Nearly 1,400 items from his Neverland Ranch were assembled by Julien’s Auction house and set for a sale in April 2009, but the auction was cancelled. A five-volume, 900-page catalog of items had been prepared by Julien’s and was posted at their website for a time.
Through all of Jackson’s difficulties and financial woes, however, his music publishing interests were a key asset, anchored by the 251 Beatles songs. He was personally involved with that business, and the idea of doing more with it in the future appealed to him. In addition to his share of the Sony/ATV/Beatles catalog, he also held his own publishing catalog, called Mijac. That catalog is estimated to be worth $50 million to $100 million, but it too has an unknown amount of debt attached.
The Sony/ATV/Beatles catalog, meanwhile, had grown significantly in size and value since Jackson first acquired it in 1985, especially in recent years. Between November 2001 and May 2007, Sony/ATV had made at least four acquisitions of other music catalogs. There were now more than 500,000 songs in the Sony/ATV catalog – including tunes by Elvis Presley, the Drifters, Little Richard, Hank Williams, Roy Orbison, Taylor Swift, and the Jonas Brothers. At Jackson’s death, the Sony/ATV/ Beatles catalog was said to be worth $1 billion and held more than 500,000 songs. Among songs now found in this catalog, for example, are “Blowin’ in the Wind” by Bob Dylan, “Sweet Caroline” by Neil Diamond, “E-Pro” by Beck, “Crazy” by Willie Nelson, and “No Such Thing” by John Mayer. The works of a number of songwriters are also included, among them: Stevie Nicks, Sarah McLachlan, Destiny’s Child, Garth Brooks, and Richie Sambora of Bon Jovi. Still, in terms of earning power, the 251 Beatles songs are the most significant group, whether in terms of generating regular or “mechanical” royalties from CD sales, or future use in advertising and other commercial ventures. Bachman Turner Overdrive’s “Takin’ Care of Business,” is one example of a Sony/ATV song licenced for a major advertising campaign, in this case, for Office Depot.
At Jackson’s death in June 2009, the Sony/ATV/Beatles catalog was said to be worth $1 billion. How much of that would accrue to the Jackson estate, however, was unclear given his indebtedness and other possible liabilities.
Paul McCartney, at premiere of the show 'Love' by Cirque du Soleil, Las Vegas, June 2006.
Paul McCartney, of course, had not forgotten about his old friend’s ownership of the Beatles tunes. In recent years, it still bothered McCartney that someone else held the publishing rights to the Beatles’ songs, and he said as much in 2006. “You know what doesn’t feel very good, is going on tour and paying to sing all my songs,” he said. “Every time I sing ‘Hey Jude,’ I’ve got to pay someone.” That someone, of course, was Michael Jackson/Sony/ATV.
After Jackson’s passing in June 2009, McCartney publicly offered his respects and condolences, commenting on his time working with Jackson. “I feel privileged to have hung out and worked with Michael,” McCartney said, calling him “massively talented” and a person with a gentle soul. “His music will be remembered forever and my memories of our time together will be happy ones,” he said. With Jackson’s passing, there had come rumors that Jackson had planned to give the rights back to the Beatles. In fact, it was rumored that Jackson had intended to do so in his will, in order to make amends with Paul McCartney. But when the will surfaced, there was no mention of such a transfer. And Sony stepped in to say that the Beatles portion of the Sony/ATV catalog was going nowhere and would remain in their custody. McCartney, for his part, seemed to be mellowing somewhat on the whole matter, explaining that with time, certain rights would revert to him anyway.
Logo for McCartney Productions, Ltd., Paul McCartney’s music business.
McCartney, in any case, was doing pretty well for himself without the Beatles tunes that Jackson had acquired. Since the Beatles broke up in 1970, McCartney had become a major music publisher himself, going well beyond what he showed Jackson at the McCartney dinner table back in 1981. McCartney’s music publishing business uses the name MPL Communications and has bought or secured publishing rights to hundreds of songs, including a few early Beatles songs issued as singles that were separate from the others – such as “Love Me Do,” “P.S. I Love You,” “Please Please Me,” and “Ask Me Why.” He also holds other rock ‘n roll songs such as those by Buddy Holly.
MPL stands for “McCartney Productions Limited,” the company that operates out of London and New York. MPL has grown over the years and is now comprised of 25 subsidiary companies, some with names such as Desilu Music Corp, ARKO Music Corp., and others. MPL owns a wide range of copyrighted material stretching over 100 years, including songs such as, “Rock-a-Bye Your Baby With a Dixie Melody” made famous by Al Jolson, to show tunes, pop music, and rock ‘n roll songs such as 1960s classics from the Four Seasons, “Sherry” & “Big Girls Don’t Cry.” There are also standards in the MPL collection such as “Autumn Leaves,” “Sentimental Journey,” and “Stormy Weather.” MPL also represents musicals and their songs such as: “How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying” by Frank Loesser, and “A Chorus Line” by composer/arranger Marvin Hamlisch and lyricist Edward Kleban.
The Jackson Legacy
Promo for Michael Jackson concerts that had been planned for London in July 2009.
Michael Jackson’s own music catalog, meanwhile – including previously unreleased material – is likely to become one of the all-time most valuable music catalogs in modern music history. Given the popular reaction to his music since his death, with his past albums dominating the charts in June and July 2009 – plus the prospect of all kinds of uses for his music in the years ahead — it is expected that a music business legacy equivalent to, or exceeding that, of Elvis Presley, Rodgers & Hammerstein, Frank Sinatra, the Beatles, and other famous music names will be quite possible. Only time will tell, of course, with history as the final judge.
A former YouTube video (since taken down), “Michael Jackson …How He Came to Own The Beatles Songs,” included a Paul McCartney press conference in 1990 in which he discussed how Michael Jackson came to own the lion’s share of The Beatles’ Lennon & McCartney song catalog. That press conference was held during a Paul McCartney tour, April 14, 1990, at Joe Robbie Stadium in Miramar, Florida. See related audio clip and transcript of McCartney’s remarks at: MJJinfo.Blogspot.
Brian Southall, Northern Songs: The True Story of the Beatles Song Publishing Empire, Omnibus Press, 2008.