Dion DiMucci – better known simply as “Dion” from his 1950s doo-wop fame – is a highly successful recording artist much loved by Baby Boomers. Dion flourished first with The Belmonts and then alone, scoring a series of hit songs in the 1950s and 1960s. Among the more famous of his Top Ten hits are: “A Teenager in Love” (1959, with the Belmonts), “Runaround Sue” (1961), “The Wanderer” (1961-62), “Ruby Baby” (1963), and “Abraham, Martin and John” (1968). But in later years, as he continued recording, Dion took on new musical genres – folk, Christian music, blues, country, and back to rock. During these years, he did not always have the commercial success he once had. And sometimes he was dismissed by critics as being defined by his teen idol years. But reassessments of his work found value in his later recordings, with a range of artists – including Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen, Lou Reed, Bob Dylan and others – citing his influence.
As a teenager growing up in the Bronx, Dion DiMucci began singing on street corners. In those years, he also picked up a drug habit that would lead to heroin addiction – something he would struggle with for years. After dropping out of high school, he recorded a demo that made its way to the producers of the Teen Club TV show in Philadelphia, where he made a performing debut in 1954 and released a few early songs with a group called the Timberlanes. But by 1958 Dion joined another neighborhood group called The Belmonts – named after Belmont Avenue in the “Little Italy” section of the Bronx. This group became “Dion and The Belmonts.”
1959: From left: Carlo Mastrangelo, Freddie Milano, Dion DiMucci, Angelo D'Aleo – Dion & The Belmonts.
Dion & The Belmonts included Dion singing lead and three others singing background – Carlo Mastrangelo, bass-baritone; Fred Milano, second tenor; and Angelo D’Aleo, first tenor. With their second recorded single released in April 1958 – “I Wonder Why” – they nearly broke the Top 20, peaking at No. 22. The song remained in the U.S. Top 40 for ten weeks. “I Wonder Why” was classic doo-wop, described by Bob Hyde in a 1993 booklet for the Doo Wop Box as follows: “…[T]he song opens with bass Carol Mastrangelo’s masterpiece of nonsense syllable-stringing, and just rolls from there. The Belmonts had a highly recognizable sound to compliment Dion’s voice…” After this song hit, Hyde wrote, “it was Katie-bar-the-door for white, predominantly Italian-American groups singing in what [was] called a ‘new-doo-wop’ style.”
“I Wonder Why”-1958
Dion and The Belmonts soon rose to the national scene, appearing on the American Bandstand TV show August 7, 1958, performing their hit song, “I Wonder Why.” They would also perform “No One Knows” on Bandstand, a song that would break the Top 20, hitting No. 19 on the U.S. charts.
Years later, “I Wonder Why” would find subsequent use in film and television soundtracks, including the 1983 film adaption of Stephen King’s novel, Christine; the 1993 film, A Bronx Tale; and the January 1999 pilot episode of The Sopranos TV series. Nicolas Cage also did a cover version of the song in the 1983 film, Peggy Sue Got Married.
London American Recordings 45 rpm label for Dion & The Belmonts’ 1959 hit, “A Teenager in Love.”
While visiting his old Bronx neighborhood some years later, Dion would recall the first time he and The Belmonts heard their song being played: “I remember the night that they first put ‘I Wonder Why’ on the radio… Everybody on the block turned their radios up loud and stuck them out the window….” Back in the late 1950s, meanwhile, Dion and The Belmonts released a couple of other songs after “I Wonder Why.” But their big hit came in March 1959 – “A Teenager in Love”– hitting No. 5 of the Billboard chart. That song remained on the U.S. Top 40 list for 13 weeks, became a million-seller, and was also an international hit, reaching No. 28 on the U.K. charts. The song was written by Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman, and is ranked among the great rock `n roll classics. About the trials and tortures of adolescent love, “A Teenager in Love” was actually the antithesis of an earlier Pomus/Shuman song – “Great to Be Young and In Love.”
“A Teenager in Love”-1959
“A Teenager in Love” was followed by the group’s first album, Presenting Dion and the Belmonts. “Teenager in Love,” meanwhile was later covered by a number of other artists, including: The Fleetwoods, Helen Shapiro, Simon & Garfunkel, Bob Marley & The Wailers, Less Than Jake, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. The song is also used in a Nintendo video game.
Dion & The Belmonts toured with Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens in early 1959, but fatefully did not take a tragic plane flight that crashed and killed Holly, Valens and two others.
As Dion and The Belmonts’ songs rose nationally, they began touring in the U.S., beginning in 1958. On one tour in early 1959, they were part of the “Winter Dance Party” featuring Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper. On February 2nd 1959, after playing the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa, Buddy Holly had arranged to charter a plane to fly the performers to their next gig. Dion, however, decided not to ride with the group because of the expense. Shortly after midnight, however, on February 3rd 1959, the plane carrying the other members of the tour crashed not far from Clear Lake, Iowa, killing Holly, Valens, the Big Bopper, and the pilot – a tragedy which hit popular music hard, taking some of the era’s rising young stars.
Later that year, in November 1959, Dion and the Belmonts released another song that rose on the charts, a remake of a Rodgers & Hart standard, “Where or When,” which actually did better than their previous hit, “Teenager in Love,” rising to No. 3 on the charts. The popularity of this song helped bring the group back to American Bandstand for another national appearance. At about this time, however, Dion’s drug dependency worsened, and reportedly he was in the hospital detoxifying as “Where or When” peaked.
1963: Dion DiMucci with guitar.
Before he ever came to singing on the street corner with the guys, Dion DiMucci as a young boy created his craft from what was around him at his home and growing up on 183rd Street. His uncle bought him an $8 guitar.
At home, Dion would sometimes hear songs on the family radio that got his attention. In 1949, when he was about 11, he heard Hank Williams singing “Honky Tonk Blues” on Don Larkin’s country music radio show broadcast out of Newark, New Jersey. “I had no idea what a honky-tonk … was,” he would later say. But he liked what he heard. He liked the way Williams sounded so committed; how he pronounced and dug deep into the words of his songs.
But family life wasn’t always the best then for young Dion, but he turned inward toward his music, as New York magazine writer John Lombardi explained in a 2007 interview incorporating some of Dion’s recollections of those years:
“…There was a lot of unresolved conflict in my house… My pop, Pasquale, couldn’t make the $36-a-month rent on our apartment at 183rd and Crotona Avenue.” He was a dreamer, a failed vaudevillian, and sometimes Catskills puppeteer. He’d talk big and lift weights he’d made from oilcans, while Frances, Mrs. DiMucci, took two buses and the subway downtown to work in the garment district on a sewing machine. “When they’d start yelling, I’d go out on the stoop with my $8 Gibson and try to resolve things that way.”
Apollo Theater marquee, Dec 1955.
Then there were also the local haunts where Dion would watch and learn from other musicians. At around age 14 or so, hanging out at the stage door of 125th Street Apollo Theater, he learned a few things about harmony and choreography. “In those days,” Dion explained to New York magazine’s John Lombardi, “it was the Cleftones, the Cadillacs… You could say we copped some moves from the brothers…”
Dion would first succeed in doo-wop and rock `n roll, but in his later years he would explore the roots of this music more deeply. After he joined Columbia Records in 1962, Dion met John Hammond, a famous producer and talent scout at the label who introduced Dion to older blues recordings from artists like Robert Johnson. Dion would record some of this music at Columbia, but it would not be released until later years.
Dion's No.1 hit of 1961, "Runaround Sue," shown on its Laurie Records 45 rpm label.
In October 1960, Dion quit The Belmonts and started a solo career. By the end of the year he released an album on the Laurie label, Alone with Dion, and a single “Lonely Teenager,” which rose to No. 12. Follow-up recordings had less success until he began working with the Del-Satins as an uncredited backup group.
In September 1961, “Runaround Sue” was released and became the No. 1 song on the Billboard Hot 100 from October 23 through November 5, 1961, overtaking “Hit the Road, Jack” by Ray Charles. It spent 12 weeks in the Top 40. “Runaround Sue” went on to sell over a million copies, and also rose to No. 11 in the U.K. Dion wrote this song with Ernie Maresca, who had written the earlier song, “No One Knows.” Maresca would partner with Dion on a few of his other songs as well.
Music Player “Runaround Sue”-1961
Dion later described “Runaround Sue” as a song about a girl “who loved to be worshiped, but as soon as you want a commitment and express your love for her, she’s gone. So the song was a reaction to that kind of woman.” More than 40 years later, in 2004, the song was ranked at No. 342 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.”
1961-62: Laurie Records single sleeve with Dion’s hit song,“The Wanderer,” which peaked at No. 2.
For Dion’s next single, Laurie Records of New York had two new songs lined up for December 1961 – the “The Majestic,” which was featured on the “A” side of the 45 rpm disc, and “The Wanderer” on the flip side. Despite Laurie’s hope that it would be “The Majestic” that would take off, radio DJs instead played “The Wanderer.”
The song entered the U.S. charts in December 1961 and rose to No. 2 in February 1962. “The Wanderer” also hit No. 10 in the U.K. and No. 1 in Australia. The uncredited background singers with Dion on the song were the Del-Satins, a Laurie Records contract group at the time who later formed the core of another doo wop group, Johnny Maestro and the Brooklyn Bridge.
Music Player “The Wanderer”-1962
Dion, later offering his interpretation of “The Wanderer,” would say of the song:
…At its roots, it’s more than meets the eye. ‘The Wanderer’ is black music filtered through an Italian neighborhood that comes out with an attitude. It’s my perception of a lot of songs like ‘I’m A Man’ by Bo Diddley or ‘Hoochie Coochie Man’ by Muddy Waters. “The Wanderer” is really a sad song. A lot of guys don’t understand that. – Dion DiMucci But you know, ‘The Wanderer’ is really a sad song. A lot of guys don’t understand that. Bruce Springsteen was the only guy who accurately expressed what that song was about. It’s ‘I roam from town to town and go through life without a care, I’m as happy as a clown with my two fists of iron, but I’m going nowhere.’ In the fifties, you didn’t get that dark. It sounds like a lot of fun but it’s about going nowhere.
A CD of 1962's top hits by Billboard includes “The Wanderer” on its cover at No. 7.
In any case, “The Wanderer” – which came to be owned by Michael Jackson’s Mijac publishing – was ranked at No. 239 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.” In 1962, it was followed by a string of other Dion singles, each of which broke the Top Ten, including: “Lovers Who Wander” (No. 3), “Little Diane” (No. 8), and “Love Came To Me” (No. 10). Two albums were also produced – Runaround Sue and Lovers Who Wander. Dion by this time was a major star, touring worldwide and also making an appearance in Columbia Pictures’ 1961 film, Twist Around the Clock
At the end of 1962, Dion had changed his recording label, moving to Columbia Records. His first single there was a 1956 song, “Ruby Baby,” originally written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, one of those teams of songwriters from New York’s fabled Brill Building music center. The Leiber/Stoller song was first recorded by The Drifters in 1956 who had a No. 10 R&B hit with it. But “Ruby Baby” also became a big hit for Dion, reaching No. 2 in 1963 for three weeks, and remaining in the Top 40 for 11 weeks.
Dion's "Ruby Baby" album of 1963 also hit No. 20 on the albums chart.
At Columbia, Dion also had Top Ten hits with “Donna the Prima Donna” – which was recorded in Italian as well – and “Drip Drop,” another earlier Drifters hit. Both of the remakes by Dion rose to No. 6 in late 1963.
Music Player “Ruby Baby”-1963
The subject matter of Dion’s hit songs in the 1960-1963 period, was, by some accounts, type-casting him, as Richie Unterberger of AllMusic.com, observed – “as either the jilted, misunderstood youngster or the macho lover, capable of handling anything that came his way…”
Dion’s other Columbia releases in the period were less successful as changing tastes in music had arrived with the Beatles and other British groups, bringing a period of commercial decline for the doo-wop and street rockers of the early 1960s. Dion also had recurring problems with heroin. In 1966, there was an attempt to reunite Dion and the Belmonts, but the reunion did not work out as their joint album, Together Again, was unsuccessful.
Cover of 1980s album issued in Germany by Ace Records featuring “Abraham, Martin & John” by Dion.
Abe, Martin & John
In 1968, Dion had what he would later describe as a powerful religious experience. After getting clean from heroin addiction once again, he approached Laurie Records for a new contract. They agreed on condition that he record a new song written by Dick Holler.
The year 1968 was a tumultuous period of political and social upheaval in the U.S., made stark by the assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King in April 1968, followed by a second assassination of Democratic U.S. Senator and presidential hopeful, Robert “Bobby” Kennedy in June 1968.
Music Player “Abraham, Martin & John”
Commemorating these tragedies, songwriter Dick Holler was moved to write the song “Abraham, Martin & John,” which became a tribute to the memory of four assassinated Americans, all icons of social change – Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., John F. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy.
“Abraham, Martin & John” Dick Holler / Songwriter
Has anybody here seen my old friend Abraham?
Can you tell me where he’s gone?
He freed a lot of people,
But it seems the good they die young.
You know, I just looked around and he’s gone.
Anybody here seen my old friend John?
Can you tell me where he’s gone?
He freed a lot of people,
But it seems the good they die young.
I just looked around and he’s gone.
Anybody here seen my old friend Martin?
Can you tell me where he’s gone?
He freed a lot of people,
But it seems the good they die young.
I just looked ’round and he’s gone.
Didn’t you love the things that they stood for?
Didn’t they try to find some good for you and me?
And we’ll be free
Some day soon, and it’s a-gonna be one day …
Anybody here seen my old friend Bobby?
Can you tell me where he’s gone?
I thought I saw him walkin’ up over the hill,
With Abraham, Martin and John.
Each of the first three verses of the song features, respectively, Lincoln, King and JFK, with the fourth and final verse describing “Bobby” walking “over the hill” with the other three.
“Abraham, Martin and John” was a major American hit single for Dion in late 1968, reaching No. 4 on the U.S. singles chart, remaining in the Top 40 for 12 weeks, and selling more than a million copies.
The song became a folk-pop standard known worldwide. In Canada, it topped the charts, reaching No.1 there in late November 1968. Some years later, in 2001, the song would be ranked No. 248 on the Recording Industry Association of America’s “Songs of the Century” list.
The success of “Abraham, Martin and John” also resuscitated Dion’s career, leading to appearances on TV shows such as The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour to perform the song. Some years later, reflecting on the reaction he received from fans regarding this song, he noted: “I must have gotten 4,000 letters at the time, which was odd because I never got letters from college students before. If I had an e-mail address, I probably would have gotten a million.”
In the early 1970s, Dion shifted his musical style somewhat, focusing on more mature, contemplative and folk-rock type material. But Dion’s period with folk music ran its course within a few years.
Over the years, Dion DiMucci has changed his style, and experimented with new genres.
In 1972 he reunited with The Belmonts and they did a live reunion show at Madison Square Garden in early June that year, releasing an album from that concert. A year later, in 1973, Dion and the Belmonts performed once again at a sold out concert at the Nassau Coliseum on Long Island. This was followed in 1975 by the album Born To Be With You, produced by Phil Spector, which initially did poorly, but later found praise among some artists, including Pete Townshend of The Who. In 1978 Dion released another album drawing on his earlier successes, titled Return of the Wanderer, which did not do well.
Beginning around December 1979 Dion began recording contemporary Christian music, releasing five albums on the Dayspring label reflecting his born-again Christian convictions. A few singles in this period also did well on Christian radio, and he won the Dove Christian music award for one of his albums, I Put Away My Idols, which was also Grammy nominated for best male Gospel performance.
Dion’s “Bronx Blues” of 1991 includes 20 songs recorded with Columbia Records in the 1960s – half “Dion” style and half blues.
By the late 1980s, Dion returned to rock ‘n roll with a series of sold out concerts in June 1987 at Radio City Music Hall in New York. The following year, he published a book with writer Davin Seay titled The Wanderer: Dion’s Story, and in 1989 he was elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. That year he also released the album Yo Frankie, and after hearing him perform in a 1989 concert, New York Times writer Stephen Holden was reminded that Dion was:
“…an innovator who took the black street-corner styles of the late 1950’s and, in songs like ‘’The Wanderer,’ fashioned a white urban blue-collar style of rock-and-roll that influenced not only [Lou] Reed but also Billy Joel and to a lesser extent Bruce Springsteen. Even though the lyrics of hits like ‘The Wanderer,’ ‘Runaround Sue’ and ’Ruby Baby’ seem quaint today, the songs helped define blunt, streetwise machismo that has long since become a classic rock music attitude.”
Dion DiMucci in more recent years.
In the 1990s, Dion appeared on a few occasions at concerts or for limited club dates. In July 1997, he headlined at Tramps club in the Chelsea section of New York for a rare small club performance – his first New York club date as a headliner in more than 35 years. That show, which sold out to stranding-room capacity, brought out old Dion fans in the New York region, where the doo-wop memory runs deep. One such fan who came out to Tramps was Harvey Weinstein, then a 42-year-old Social Security clerk from Coney Island. “When I was growing up,” he told New York Times reporter Rick Lyman, “there would be guys singing outside the shops and on the street corners. You’d hear the music on the trains. I don’t go to concerts all that often, but when I saw Dion was playing a club in Manhattan, I had to come.”
Bobby Jay, a black disk jockey who still played Dion and The Belmonts music on WCBS-FM, also spoke to Times reporter Rick Lyman in July 1997. Dion and The Belmonts, he said, “had that indescribable element that set them apart, that street attitude.” The teen idols of the late 1950s and early 1960s, he said, “were so clean-cut, almost nonregional.” But Dion, he explained, was different: “he had a New York swagger, a New York walk, a New York way of talking, that New York style that no one else had.” To this day, Dion still has a loyal New York following.
Dion DiMucci on the cover of a 2011 book he wrote with author Mike Aquilina.
Through the 2000’s, Dion continued making music, earning a second look from critics who earlier dismissed him as a teen idol. In early 2001, Dion: King of the New York Streets was released, a three-disc, 6o-track boxed set that included a 50-page booklet with comments by Dion and other muscians, plus an essay by music critic Dave Marsh.
Other Dion albums during the decade included: Déj Nu in 2000, Under the Influence in 2005, Bronx in Blue in 2006, Son of Skip James in 2007, Heroes: Giants of Early Guitar Rock in 2008. In 2011, Tank Full of Blues was released, with Dion producing and playing the guitars on the recording and writing or co-writing most of the songs. He also published a book in 2011, The Wanderer Talks Truth, a biographical and spiritual memoir written with Mike Aquilina.
Also in 2011, Dion began working with playwright/ director Charles Messina on a proposed stage play with the title, “The Wanderer — the Life and Music of Dion.” The play will cover the years 1957 through the late 1960s and feature more than 20 songs from that era as well as new music. It will weave the songs through a plot centered on Dion’s life from that period – a time that brought him his greatest success and his biggest tragedies.
New York Times reporter David Gonzalez described the play as “sort of a deeper version of Jersey Boys, the musical about Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons.” Discussing the play and playwright with Times reporter David Gonzalez in December 2012, Dion explained: “You know, I always saw my story as a young ‘Sopranos’ with great music and a Rocky Graziano ‘Somebody-Up-There-Likes-Me’ ending. It’s a story of redemption. A rock and roll redemption story!”
Cover of 1988 book Dion wrote with Davin Seay, “The Wanderer: Dion’s Story.”
Indeed, Dion took his lumps over the years, sank into drug and alcohol abuse, but he did redeem himself – with help from his wife Susan and others. Dion has traced his troubled times back to his early teen years. There was a rocky home life, mean streets gang involvement, and drugs. Then, all of a sudden, came fame and fortune. “One minute we were four mooks on the street,” he recounts of his Dion-and-The-Belmonts rise in his 1988 book, The Wanderer, “the next, everyone wanted to get close to us… You never wanted it to stop, and the only way to keep it going, it seemed to us, was to smile, sing and try to sort it all out later.”
Eventually, Dion confronted some truths about himself. “There was never a word of praise in my house… A lot of demeaning talk and criticism,” he would later explain. “I never felt good about myself – and the success didn’t change things.” But by the mid-1960s, he was living large in the fast lane. In 1962, Columbia Records had signed him to a $500,000 five year contract. “I made $2 million by the age of 22 . . . had 10 Top Ten records… was at the height of my profession,” Dion recounted in one interview. “I had all the bases covered… Fame, fortune and romance. I had even married my childhood sweetheart. But I was empty. I was looking out the penthouse window and saying, ‘What the hell is wrong?’ What I finally discovered was that I had others’ esteem, but I didn’t have self-esteem.”
Dion DiMucci visiting his old New York neighborhood in 2012. Photo, Librado Romero / New York Times.
Dion’s 1960s stage swagger was part pretense and part compensation, which he wrote about (with Bill Tuohy) years later in a song titled “King of the New York Streets.” One verse in that tune goes: “Well, I was wise in my own eyes/I awoke one day and I realized/You know this attitude comes from cocaine lies.” He would later add in one interview: “That song represents a chaotic kind of self-serving illusion about oneself, a guy who is full of himself and really can’t see past his nose.” Another verse in the same song goes: “Schools gave me nothing needed / To my throne, I proceeded / Every warning went unheeded / Yeah, king of the New York streets.”
In the late 1960s, Dion took control of his life. He moved to Boca Raton, Florida with his wife Susan to get away from the New York streets that helped form his heroin habit. He and his wife Susan have three daughters and a grandchild. In the late 1990s, Dion also returned to Catholicism and through the church has worked with prison inmates and others going through addiction recovery.
2006: Dion DiMucci in his music room at home in Florida, where a huge portrait he painted of 1930s bluesman Robert Johnson hangs on the wall behind him.
But for Dion, it’s still the music that keeps him going. And over the years, of course, the praise and respect he has received from fellow musicians and music critics has been no small matter either. Los Angeles Times pop music critic Robert Hilburn wrote in January 2001: “Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly were superstars of rock’s first wave, but none of them expressed the innocence and desire of adolescence any more soulfully than Dion DiMucci.” Bruce Springsteen once called him “the bridge between Frank Sinatra and rock ‘n roll.” And songwriter Jerry Lieber has stated that Dion was “the best white blues singer he had ever heard.” Dion, meanwhile, continues to record and explore new music. No doubt there is more to come. Stay tuned.
Article Citation: Jack Doyle, “Dion DiMucci, 1950s-2012,” PopHistoryDig.com, January 11, 2013.
Sources, Links & Additional Information
1950s: Dion DiMucci with the two of The Belmonts behind him.
1959 album: “Presenting Dion and The Belmonts.”
1959: Dion & The Belmonts with Dick Clark of the "American Bandstand" television show.
Dion DiMucci in his “teen idol” years, on the cover of “Teen Screen” magazine, June 1962.
Dion DiMucci on the road, waiting for a train.
“Dion and The Belmonts/Dion Dimucci,” in Holly George-Warren and Patricia Roman- owski (eds), The Rolling Stone Encyclo- pedia of Rock & Roll, New York: Rolling Stone Press, 3rd Edition, 2001, pp. 264-265.
Bob Hyde and Walter DeVenne, “I Wonder Why, Dion & The Belmonts” and The Doo Wop Box, Booklet & Liner Notes (used in PBS promotions), Rhino Records, 1993, p. 57.
The young Rolling Stones in the mid-1960s brought plenty of “attitude” to their music. From left: Mick Jagger, Brian Jones, Keith Richards, Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts.
Did one rock ’n roll song of the mid-1960s provide a kind of social dividing line — a musical bright line separating old and new? Did one song lay down, in a popular way, a kind of generational and values demarcation?
Certainly there were any number of songs at that time heralding the new generation’s outlook and values — in lyrics, distinctive sound, and in some cases, musical “attitude.”
Bob Dylan, for one — the leading tr0ubadour of the 1960s — had begun offering his interpretations by the early 1960s. His “Blowin` in the Wind” and “The Times They Are A Changin`” were much in the air by 1963.
Music Player “Satisfaction”-1965 [scroll down for lyrics]
But in May 1965, a young British rock group named the Rolling Stones recorded a rock song called “Satisfaction”– also known by its longer title, “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction.” By July 1965, “Satisfaction” had been released in the U.S. and soon became a gigantic hit. This song, however, was something more than merely good rock `n roll. In its way, and perhaps in a more popular mainstream sense, “Satisfaction” became the pop/rock equivalent of what Dylan and other folk/protest musicians were offering to somewhat less mainstream audiences. “Satisfaction” was a hard-rock tune with a driving sound, but with lyrics that were also aimed at the status quo; a song that expressed a distinct “dis-satisfaction” with the way things were.
Sample record sleeve from 1965 for the Rolling Stones’ song “Satisfaction,” with B-side title, “The Under Assistant West Coast Promotion Man,” Decca Records.
The Rolling Stones had formed their band in the early 1960s playing mostly cover versions of American rhythm and blues(R&B) music and Chicago blues and rock n’ roll artists, including Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters, and others. Their manager, Andrew Loog Oldham, a former Beatles publicist, later encouraged the Stones to write their own pop songs as the Beatles were doing. Brian Jones, a talented guitarist who had once led the group and would later die in a drowning accident, preferred the R & B path. But lead singer Mick Jagger and guitarist Keith Richards soon began writing pop rock ‘n roll songs, taking the group in what would prove to be a very successful direction. “Satisfaction” would become their landmark hit; their big breakthrough.
Keith Richards played a key inventor’s role with this song. In early May 1965, as the Rolling Stones were on tour in the U.S., it was Richards who came up with “Satisfaction’s” opening guitar riff — the distinctive, flat-sounding twang that powers the song throughout and its signature sound. Story has it that Richards woke up in the middle of the night during the U.S. tour and recorded the guitar riff into a tape recorder that he kept at his bedside for unexpected moments of inspiration. Then he went back to sleep. Next morning he played the riff for Mick Jagger, offering one lyric he had in mind for the song – “I can’t get no satisfaction.” Jagger would later say he thought that line was possibly influenced subconsciously by Richards’ listening to a 1955 Chuck Berry song titled “30 Days,” a tune which has a similar line – “I don’t get no satisfaction from the judge”. The guitar riff developed by Richards in any case, was initially not set for guitar, but thought as a guide for horns. Jagger, meanwhile, fleshed out more of “Satisfaction’s” lyrics one afternoon while on tour, later admitting to incorporating some of his own feelings at the time about the media and advertising.
“Satisfaction” Rolling Stones-1965
I can’t get no satisfaction,
I can’t get no satisfaction.
‘Cause I try and I try and I try and I try.
I can’t get no, I can’t get no.
When I’m drivin’ in my car
and that man comes on the radio
and he’s tellin’ me more and more
about some useless information
supposed to drive my imagination.
I can’t get no, oh no no no.
Hey hey hey, that’s what I say.
…I can’t get no satisfaction,
I can’t get no satisfaction.
‘Cause I try and I try and I try and I try.
I can’t get no, I can’t get no.
When I’m watchin’ my TV
and a man comes on to tell me
how white my shirts can be.
Well he can’t be a man ’cause he doesn’t
smoke the same cigarettes as me.
I can’t get no, oh, no no no.
Hey hey hey, that’s what I say.
I can’t get no satisfaction,
I can’t get no girl reaction.
‘Cause I try and I try and I try and I try.
I can’t get no, I can’t get no.
When I’m ridin’ round the world
and I’m doin’ this and I’m signing that
and I’m tryin’ to make some girl
who tells me baby better come back
later next week
’cause you see I’m on a losing streak.
I can’t get no, oh no no no.
Hey hey hey, that’s what I say.
I can’t get no, I can’t get no,
I can’t get no satisfaction,
no satisfaction, no satisfaction,
The Stones, still on tour in the U.S. at the time, continued to work on the song between performances. In Chicago, they took it into the Chess recording studios, working on it there May 10, 1965. Two days later in Los Angeles, California, they completed it during a long session at RCA’s studios. It was in this session that Richards reportedly rigged up a version of a “fuzz box” to his guitar which gave the opening riff he’d invented its distinctive sound, helping send “Satisfaction” straight up the charts.
In that summer of 1965, there was no shortage of rock ‘n roll music. New songs were coming from all directions – Detroit’s Motown, the California surf scene, and a wave of new British artists. Among the tunes at or near the top of the charts that summer were songs such as: “Help Me, Rhonda” by The Beach Boys, “Mr. Tambourine Man” by The Byrds, and “I Got You Babe” by Sonny & Cher. But “Satisfaction” was different; the song stood out and apart. It had something about it that made it more than just a song. Though it was certainly musically appealing to the youth of that day, “Satisfaction” was also music with a message.
A share of popular and folk music by then had begun to take a more serious and cynical tack. Bob Dylan, as mentioned earlier, was having a profound influence, not only in folk and protest music, but also in mainstream rock `n roll. Dylan’s songs in 1962-1965, such as: “Blowin’ in The Wind,” “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall“, “Masters of War,” and “The Times They Are A-Changin`,” as well as songs by other protest songwriters, had opened a new window for 1960s’ music, bringing social commentary to song writing. The Rolling Stones and other groups at that time were greatly influenced by Dylan’s music. And “Satisfaction” – though not a protest song per se – was clearly one of those songs that had picked up on the idea of adding some “message” to the music.
Although the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement were both underway by mid-1965, “Satisfaction” was not a song aimed at those troubles per se. Rather, “Satisfaction” at the time was more of a general angst tune; a song that captured the frustrations bubbling up with the younger generation on a number of fronts, Vietnam and civil rights included. Conventional wisdom and social values were then being challenged all around and “Satisfaction” chimed in with lyrics aimed at superficial advertising and uptight sexual mores.“Satisfaction” had enough attitude and swagger to wilt any set of established values its listeners might target. It became an all- purpose anti-etablishment anthem.
The plea of the narrator/singer in this song is a guy who is frustrated with the “useless information” and advertising hype he hears on radio and TV, plus his own personal plight of not being able to score with the ladies. The guy is essentially throwing up his hands in frustration with life in general: he just isn’t getting any satisfaction on any level. Millions of young people then were trying to make their way in the world, and many weren’t happy or “satisfied” with what they saw around them.
The song’s lyrics, for their day, were controversial, in part, because they challenged the prevailing cultural mores. Perceived as an attack on the status quo, the song could be threatening to older listeners. “Satisfaction” offered plenty of attitude – not only in its lyrics, but also in its sound and the way the Stones delivered the song. “Satisfaction,” in fact, had enough attitude and swagger to wilt any set of established values its listeners might choose to target. It became an all-purpose, anti-establishment anthem with broad applicability. The song was a good fit for its times and audience.
The Rolling Stones pictured on “Satisfaction” record sleeve, from left: Bill Wyman, Charlie Watts, Keith Richards, Mick Jagger (looking a bit out of it), and Brian Jones, 1965-66.
For the Rolling Stones, “Satisfaction” proved to be the breakthrough song; the one that set them apart and sent them on their way toward superstardom. The group performed “Satisfaction” on American TV even before the single was released in the States. On May 20, 1965, they appeared on the ABC show Shindig! from Los Angeles. “Satisfaction” was released as a U.S. single by London Records on June 6th,1965, with another somewhat obscure song on its B-side, “The Under-Assistant West Coast Promotion Man.” The Stones were then touring in the U.S., the third time they’d been to the States. But at the time they were still a new group to many in America. As part of this tour, for example, on May 4th, 1965, they performed at Georgia Southern University in Statesboro, Georgia. On June 5, 1965 they played to about 3,000 people at Jack Russell Stadium in Clearwater, Florida. “Satisfaction,” meanwhile, had entered the Billboard Hot 100 that week and rose to No. 1 by July 10th, displacing The Four Tops’ “I Can’t Help Myself.” The song was also featured on the Rolling Stones’ third U.K. album, Out of Our Heads, also released in the U.S. in July 1965.
Keith Richards & Brian Jones comparing guitar licks,1960s.
Glenn Gass, a professor at the School of Music at Indiana University, told ABC News decades later on the 45th anniversary of “Satisfaction,” that although there were many great songs that year from groups such as the Beach Boys, Sonny & Cher, the Byrds, the Four Tops and others, “Satisfaction” nonetheless “claimed that summer.” The song held the top spot on the record charts for four weeks until August 7, 1965, when another English band, Herman’s Hermits, hit No. 1 with their tune, “I’m Henry the Eighth, I Am.” Still, “Satisfaction” remained on the Billboard charts for 14 weeks. The song sold 500,000 copies in its first eight weeks, giving the Stones their first official gold record award by the Recording Industry Association of America. The song also put the Stones on the path to “Beatles-level” popularity. “They were already going strong,” said Indiana University’s Gass of the Stones’ growing popularity then, “but that song put them in the Beatles’ stratosphere of rarified air.”“…It was the song that really made the Rolling Stones, changed us from just another band into a huge, monster band…”
– Mick Jagger Mick Jagger himself would later acknowledge much the same in a 1995 interview with Jann Wenner of Rolling Stone magazine:
“…It was the song that really made the Rolling Stones, changed us from just another band into a huge, monster band. You always need one song. We weren’t American, and America was a big thing and we always wanted to make it here. It was very impressive the way that song and the popularity of the band became a worldwide thing. It’s a signature tune, really,…a kind of signature that everyone knows. It has a very catchy title. It has a very catchy guitar riff. It has a great guitar sound, which was original at that time. And it captures a spirit of the times, which is very important in those kinds of songs… Which was alienation. Or it’s a bit more than that, maybe, but a kind of sexual alienation. Alienation’s not quite the right word, but it’s one word that would do.”
Mick Jagger and Keith Richards in 1967, two years after “Satisfaction” was released.
“Satisfaction” did, however, in the mid-1960s, tread upon sensitive ground with its lyrics suggesting frustrated adolescent sexuality — i.e., not getting any “girl reaction” – interpreted by some listeners and radio programmers as meaning a girl willing to have sex. In fact, when the Rolling Stones performed the song on the TV show Shindig! in 1965, the line “trying to make some girl” was censored. And again, when they performed it later on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1966 the same line – “trying to make some girl”– was not used.
“Satisfaction” also put rock music, and the Rolling Stones, on something of a more raucous, more bawdy, harder-edge path – a distinction some would later draw in comparisons to the Beatles. The Beatles, of course, had just been through their 1964-1965 “Beatlemania” period with a phenomenal run of pop hits and lots of “yeah, yeah, yeah.” The Stones, on the other hand, were coming on with a little different sound; providing music that had more of an R&B- and blues-tinge to it. “Satisfaction” was a “great ‘no’ to the Beatles’ ‘yeah’,” offered Glenn Gass from Indiana University in a 2010 interview with ABC News at the song’s 45th anniversary. Others, including writer Tom Wolfe, would go farther. “The Beatles,” he once famously wrote, “just want to hold your hand. The Rolling Stones want to burn your town down” – an exaggeration, of course, but the message was plain.
Ed Sullivan talking with Mick Jagger; Keith Richards in background, at another, later show rehearsal, January 15, 1967.
But it wasn’t just the Stones who were supplying that harder edge to rock music. In 1964 there had also been bluesy songs like the Animals’ “House of the Rising Sun,” and even the Beatles did their raucous cover of “Twist and Shout” that year. The Stones themselves also had the bluesy 1964 hit, “Time is On My Side,” which rose to No. 6 that November. Bob Dylan, meanwhile, had “Like A Rolling Stone” in the summer of 1965, a landmark message song. Still, “Satisfaction” grabbed center-stage attention at the time, appealing to mainstream rock audiences in a new way. It was a distinctive turn. After 1965-1966, of course, the music would change again, and the change would escalate, with much more innovation, new sounds, and good music to come – from the Stones, Dylan, the Beatles, and many others.
The Stones, for their part, would follow “Satisfaction” with a long list of other 1960s’ hits, such as: “Get Off My Cloud” and “As Tears Go By” in 1965; “Paint it Black” and “19th Nervous Breakdown” in 1966; “Let’s Spend the Night Together” and “Ruby Tuesday” in 1967; “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and “Street Fighting Man” in 1968; “Sympathy for the Devil” and “Honky Tonk Woman” in 1969, and many more. The Stones, in fact, were just getting started in the 1960s, with about four more decades of music-making and performing ahead of them. “Satisfaction,” meanwhile, would experience a spike in sales after being heard in movies such as Apocalypse Now in 1979 or Starman of 1994, as well as during and after the Stone’s many concert tours.
In November 2004, Rolling Stone magazine put “Satisfaction” at No. 2 among its ‘500 Greatest’ songs.
Over the years, “Satisfaction” has been accorded high honors in the pantheon of rock `n roll. The song has been noted in various “top 100 lists” by Vox, BMI , VH1, MTV, Q magazine and other media and rock music venues. Newsweek once called the song’s opening guitar riff, “five notes that shook the world.” In November 2004, Rolling Stone magazine placed the song at No. 2 on its list of the “500 Greatest Songs of All Time”– second only to Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone”. In 2006, “Satisfaction” was added to the Library of Congress National Recording Registry, songs deemed to be among those that are culturally and/or historically significant.
Other stories at this website on the Rolling Stones, their music, and business history include, for example, “Paint It Black” (song history & subsequent uses); “Stones Gather Dollars” (how the Rolling Stones helped develop a lucrative concert touring model); “Start Me Up” (Bill Gates & Windows 95 theme song), and “Shine A Light, 2008” (Rolling Stones film trailer). Additional story choices on other topics at this website may be found on the Home Page or in the Archive. Thanks for visiting — and if you like what you see here, please consider supporting this website. Thank you. — Jack Doyle
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.
A poster for the 1965 film version of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s ‘The Sound of Music,’ one of many R&H productions that have yielded long-lived economic returns in music, film, and continuing stage productions.
“I see musicals as a very big growth area for investment,” said André de Raaff, chief executive of Imagem Music Groupin April 2009. Mr. de Raaff’s company had just acquired the rights to a mother lode of Broadway hits by music legends Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein. Imagem is owned by a giant Dutch pension fund and the European media company CP Masters. The company is believed to have paid some $250-to-$300 million for the rights to the Rogers and Hammerstein treasures. The deal was first reported on April 21, 2009.
Richard Rodgers (1902-1979) and Oscar Hammerstein (1895-1960) were the re- nowned American songwriting team who created a string of popular Broadway musicals in the 1940s and 1950s. “Oscar & Hammerstein,” as they are popularly known, reigned over what is considered the golden age of Broadway. Rodgers did the composing and Hammerstein the writing. The musicals with their songs — and the film versions that typically followed — garnered an impressive array of awards over the years, among them some 34 Tony awards, 15 Academy Awards, two Pulitzer Prizes, and two Grammys. Five of their shows — Oklahoma!, Carousel, South Pacific, The King and I, and The Sound of Music — became runaway successes and are now regarded as musical icons. The music from these shows — and other Rodgers & Hammerstein work — remains popular among millions around the world and is regarded as a business gold mine.
In the deal that Imagem made, it acquired not only Rodgers & Hammerstein rights, but others as well, covering some 12,000 songs, 900 concert works, 100 musicals, and 200 writers. Among these are compositions by Irving Berlin and Mr. Rodgers’s other collaborator, Lorenz Hart. Irving Berlin’s song “White Christmas” — one of history’s top-selling songs ever — and his hit musical, Annie Get Your Gun, are also included, as are the Rodgers & Hart songs “Pal Joey” and “The Lady is a Tramp.” Imagem made its deal with the New York city-based Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization (RHO), which formerly managed all of this material. Imagem essentially acquired the RHO organization wholesale, retaining its existing management staff.
The Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization was created in 1943 to manage the works of Richard Rodgers & Oscar Hammerstein.
“The sale represents a transfer of power over one of America’s most famous song catalogs and the licensing rights for future productions of the musicals,” wrote New York Times reporter Patrick Healy. RHO president and executive director, Theodore S. Chapin, who agreed to stay on at RHO, suggested that Imagem’s global reach would help RHO find new licensing deals for their holdings in Europe and Asia. “[S]ince Imagem is global,” he said, “I hope they can help us disseminate the works we represent with a little more moxie.”
Over the years, RHO had run its business fairly conservatively, collecting royalties from tens of thousands of licenses it issued for theatrical productions of R&H works. They also issued thousands of licenses for performances and recordings of their copyrighted songs, musicals, and concert works. Imagem’s deal with RHO covers some 12,000 songs, 900 concert works, 100 musicals and 200 writers. By 1990, for example, RHO was licensing about 3,000 productions a year and its music-publishing division employed about 20 people. RHO had been run in recent years by two Rodgers & Hammerstein heirs — daughters Mary Rodgers Guettel and Alice Hammerstein Mathias, who appeared satisfied with the deal they made with Imagem. Speaking on behalf of the Hammerstein family, Alice Hammerstein Mathias stated: “The collaboration between my father and Richard Rodgers was extraordinary. That they kept everything together, including the management of their copyrights, is a testament to their shared vision, and now that vision will be continued in this promising new venture.” Added Mary Rodgers Guettel: “My father always believed in moving forward. This is a big and wonderful step, and I am thrilled by the new opportunities that André and his team bring to my father’s songs and shows…”
The composer Richard Rodgers, left, and the lyricist Oscar Hammerstein at work in 1953.
Rodgers & Hammerstein
RHO was initially founded by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein in 1943, then for the purpose of controlling their own musicals, and additionally, those of Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, some separate Hammerstein works, and later other properties such as Irving Berlin’s Annie Get Your Gun of 1946.
In the early 1940s, by the time Rodgers and Hammerstein came together for their extended collaboration, they had each had separate careers. They were both over 40 by then. Hammerstein had success in the 1920s, helping create stage hits with operetta-style musicals such as Rose-Marie of 1924 and The Desert Song of 1926.
Richard Rodgers & Lorenz Hart on the cover of Time magazine, Sept 26, 1938.
In 1927, his hit musical Show Boat (with Jerome Kern) broke new ground on Broadway on a number of fronts, becoming the first, as they say, to integrate “book, music and lyrics” into a coherent whole. Show Boat, known for Paul Robeson’s classic performance of “Old Man River,’ also broached social issues, including addictive gambling, alcoholism, racism and interracial marriage. Hammerstein, in fact, would become known as a key innovator and “book writer” on Broadway — making the story, not the songs or the performers, central to the production. Still, by the early 1940s, Hammerstein’s good fortune had evaporated and he went for about ten years without a hit show. Richard Rodgers on the other hand, working with lyricist Lorenz Hart, had composed the scores for a number of hit shows that included, On Your Toes (1936), Babes in Arms (1937), The Boys From Syracuse (1938), Pal Joey (1940), and By Jupiter (1942). More than 80 popular tunes came from those works. Both Rodgers and Hart were featured on the cover of Time magazine in September 1938. But Hart’s health was in decline and he passed away in 1943.
Oscar Hammerstein II on the cover of Time magazine, October 20, 1947.
Rodgers and Hammerstein, who had worked together on occasion in the past, came together again in the early 1940s to work on what would became Oklahoma! This production furthered what Hammerstein had started in Show Boat — focusing on story, and integrating all aspects of the musical around plot and characters. Oklahoma! began the string of major Rodgers & Hammerstein successes, five of which are explored in more detail below. Between them, Rodgers and Hammerstein had a prolific output over the years. Hammerstein wrote an estimated 850 songs; Rodgers composed more than 900. Their work, either seperately or together, is found in more than 40 Broadway musicals, and indirectly in many others, as well as Hollywood films and television adaptations. Hammerstein died at the age of 65 shortly after the opening of The Sound of Music in 1960. Rodgers died in 1979 at age 77.
Rodgers & Hammerstein Gold
Rodgers & Hammerstein’s ‘Oklahoma!’ opened in March 1943 and ran for 2, 212 performances.
Oklahoma!, the first musical written by Rodgers & Hammerstein — about a cowboy and his farm-girl romance in the early 1900s when Oklahoma was a territory — opened on Broadway in March 1943. It was a box-office smash and ran for an unprecedented 2,212 performances. In the decade before Oklahoma!, no Broadway show had run over 500 performances. Oklahoma! is regarded by some as the first real phenomenon in modern Broadway history. Notable songs in the production include: “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’,” “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top,” “People Will Say We’re in Love,” and “Oklahoma!.” Some of this music appeared on the popular music charts over multiple decades. “People Will Say We’re in Love” was a No.1 song in 1943 and “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'” and “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top” also topped the charts. New York Times writer Stephen Holden later observed that this musical “helped to define a national mood of optimistic self-assurance that persisted for two decades, until the assassination of John F. Kennedy. … And perhaps more than any Broadway show before or since, it addressed America’s urban and rural cultures in a language that both could understand.” A 1955 film adaptation starred Gordon MacRae and Shirley Jones. The film’s soundtrack was No. 1 on the 1956 album charts. For years the play has enjoyed numerous revivals, national tours, and foreign productions, including one in 1999 starring Hugh Jackman and Josefina Gabrielle in London. Oklahoma! continues to be a favorite play for school and community productions.
Cover of cast album from Rodgers & Hammerstein’s ‘Carousel,’ which first opened on Broadway in April 1945.
Rogers & Hammerstein’s Carousel opened on Broadway on April 1945 and ran for 890 performances. In London, the show opened in June 1950, and ran for 566 performances there. Among Carousel’s notable songs are “If I Loved You,” “June Is Bustin’ Out All Over,” and “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” The play was adapted for a Hollywood film in 1956 and also a made-for-television special in 1967. The 1956 film version starred Gordon MacRae and Shirley Jones. A 1994 Broadway revival won five Tony Awards, including Best Musical Revival.
Carousel, set between 1873 and 1888 in a New England coastal village in the state of Maine, tells the tale of a love affair between Billy Bigelow, a traveling, carefree carnival man, and Julie Jordan, a local factory worker. Billy loses his job just as he learns that Julie is pregnant and, desperately intent upon providing a decent life for his family, he is coerced into being an accomplice to a robbery. Caught in the act and facing the certainty of prison, he takes his own life. When he reaches Heaven, he is denied entry because of his terrible deeds. Years later, Billy is allowed to return to Earth for one day, where he encounters the grown daughter he never knew, now besmirched by her father’s former reputation. Billy seeks to instill in both his daughter and her mother a sense of hope and dignity. When the play first ran, The New York Daily Mirror wrote: “(Carousel is) beautiful, bountiful, beguiling…it is the product of taste, imagination and skill.”. In December 1999, Time magazine named Carousel the Best Musical of the 20th century on its “Best of the Century” list, with the editors adding that Rodgers and Hammerstein “set the standards for the 20th century musical”. Carousel is especially well-regarded in the theater community, and Richard Rodgers called it his favorite musical.
DVD cover of 1958 film version of ‘South Pacific.’
South Pacific, a Rodgers and Hammerstein stage production, opened on Broadway in April 1949. A U.S. tour ran for almost five years in 118 cities from April 1950 through March 1955. Among its popular songs are: “Bali Ha’i,” “Younger than Springtime,” and “Some Enchanted Evening.” Based upon short stories from James A. Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific, Rodgers and Hammerstein, along with co-writer Joshua Logan, won a 1950 Pulitzer Prize for their adaptation. The original production featured Mary Martin as Nellie Forbush a naive young Navy nurse from Arkansas and opera star Ezio Pinza, as Emile de Becque, a French plantation owner. In the story, these two main characters become romantically involved. The story, set in World War II, also involves the frustrations of bored military men stationed on the South Pacific islands with too few women around. Racism is also a part of this story, emerging when Nellie learns that Emile has fathered dark-skinned Polynesian children with a former partner, and another character, Cable, refuses to marry a local Vietnamese girl.
Concert version of ‘South Pacific’ at Carnegie Hall, telecast by PBS in 2006.
The Broadway production of South Pacific was nominated for ten Tony Awards and won all of them, including Best Musical and Best Score. It was the only musical production ever to win all four Tony Awards for acting. The show was a critical and box office hit and also spawned a 1958 film. There were also a number of U.S. and U.K. revivals. In film, Glenn Close, Harry Connick, Jr. and Rade Šerbedžija starred in a 2001 ABC television version of South Pacific. A June 2005 concert version, edited down to two hours, but with all of its music, ran live at Carnegie Hall with stars Alec Baldwin, Reba McEntire, and Brian Stokes Mitchell. This production was also taped and telecast by PBS in April 2006. A recent Broadway revival of South Pacific opened in April 2008 at New York city’s Lincoln Center Theater. This revival won seven Tony Awards, including best musical revival and through early 2009 was still doing a healthy box office. At the show’s 60th anniversary in April 2009, more than a dozen of the remaining cast members from the 1949 production, along with Mary Rodgers, daughter of Richard Rodgers, and Alice Hammerstein, daughter of Oscar Hammerstein, attended a special matinee performance. A national tour based on the 2008 Broadway revival will begin in San Francisco September 2009.
50th anniversary edition DVD for Rodgers & Hammerstein’s ‘The King and I’.
The King And I opened on Broadway in March 1951 and launched the career of relatively unknown actor named Yul Brynner, who played The King. The story is based on the popular 1944 novel Anna and the King of Siam, by Margaret Landon, based on a true story about Anna Leonowens, a Victorian Englishwoman who became the governess to the children of the King of Siam in the 1860s.
Rodgers and Hammerstein had the benefit of a 1946 film version of the novel preceding their own work, which was first proposed as a musical to them by the actress Gertrude Lawrence who wanted and got the leading role. In the production, The King is largely considered to be a barbarian by those in the West, and he seeks Anna’s assistance in changing his image, if not his ways. Although both Anna and King hold fast to their respective traditions and values, they grow to understand and respect one another, and become involved in a unique kind of love story. This Rodgers and Hammerstein production resulted in a number of hit songs, including: “I Whistle a Happy Tune”, “Hello, Young Lovers,” “Getting to Know You,” “We Kiss in a Shadow,” “Something Wonderful,” “I Have Dreamed,” and “Shall We Dance?”
Jodie Foster and Chow Yun-Fat in 1999 film, 'Anna and The King'.
Many credit Rodgers & Hammerstein with creating a fair picture of the orient in this production; a picture of the East with dignity, without resorting to any of the clichés often found in western productions. One reviewer, noting the careful attention to staging, costumes, etc., touted the production as promoting “a flowering of all the arts of the theater”.
In 1956, a Hollywood film adaptation was made starring Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr. It won five Oscars including one for Brynner as Best Actor. The King and I returned to Broadway in 1977 and 1985, and also as a short-lived 1972 TV sitcom, Anna and the King. Yul Brynner, over the course of 34 years, played The King more than 4,600 times, first on stage, then on the big screen, and also on the television series. In the first week of January 1985, as Brynner began his final engagement in the play at the Broadway Theatre, a new Broadway record was set for advance ticket sales in a single week, grossing $1,541,547. Another Hollywood film version, Anna and The King, starring Jodie Foster and Chow Yun-Fat , was produced in 1999, though with many differences from the musical production.
Poster for the 1965 film verison of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s ‘The Sound of Music.’
Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music presents the story of the von Trapp family of Austria fleeing their Nazi oppressors during World War II. It was adapted from Maria von Trapp’s autobiography, The Trapp Family Singers. In The Sound of Music, Maria Rainer is the cheerful teacher to Georg von Trapp’s seven children, who also helps lead the family to safety over the Alps to Switzerland in flight from the Nazis. The Sound of Music opened on Broadway at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre on November 16, 1959. It starred Mary Martin and Theodore Bikel. The production left a number of memorable songs, including “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” “Do-Re-Mi,” “My Favorite Things,” “So Long, Farewell,” “Sixteen Going on Seventeen,” and “Edelweiss.” On June 15, 1963 The Sound of Music closed at the Mark Hellinger Theatre, New York, after 1,443 performances. The show also had a long run in London, closing on January 14, 1967 at the Palace Theatre after six years and 2,385 performances — one of the longest running American musicals ever in London.
A movie version of The Sound of Music produced in 1965 by 20th Century Fox starred Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer. It won five Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director. The film premiered at the Rivoli Theatre in New York city in March 1965, where it ran for 93 weeks.In 2005, Box Office Mojo listed The Sound of Music as the third-biggest-gross- ing film of all time at the domestic box office. The movie’s initial run in the U.S. release lasted four-and-a-half years, prompting Variety magazine at the time to proclaim it the “all-time box office champion.” In 2005, Box Office Mojo listed The Sound of Music as the third-biggest-grossing film of all time at the domestic box office, at $911.5 million, adjusted for inflation. Only Gone with The Wind and Star Wars grossed more. When the home video version first became available in 1979, it set sales records and hit the Billboard Top 40 video sales chart, remaining on the chart for more than 300 weeks. Today, The Sound of Music remains one of the top grossing films of all time and is perhaps the world’s most popular musical ever made. The motion picture soundtrack, released by RCA, has sold over 10 million copies worldwide, and home video sales of the film in VHS and DVD formats, have done quite well too.
Over the years, the works of Rodgers and Hammerstein have held up quite well for their musical and production values, although receiving sharp criticism at times for being too sugary and too goody-goody in terms of the social values conveyed. In 1993, New York Times writer Stephen Holden offered this synopsis of the Rodgers and Hammerstein era: “Once upon a time, America dreamed of itself as a singing fairy tale for grown-ups, with a happy ending. Norman Rockwell painted this storybook country, and Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein wrote its songs. More than just pop confections, they added up to a kind of secular catechism that sweetly but firmly instructed people on the rules of behavior in a world where America knew best and good triumphed over evil…”
Rodgers & Hammerstein -- 'too sugary'?
American pop since the mid-1950’s came partly as reaction to the values of Rodgers and Hammerstein. “Certainly rock-and-roll at its rawest represented a spontaneous burst of rebellion by huge segments of American society that found the cultured urbanity of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Broadway songs too sweet, too sophisticated and too pious to speak for them,” offered Holden. Oscar & Hammerstein’s works, in those subsequent years, became for many, too optimistic, too cheerful, too hymnal and churchy, filled with sexual stereotypes, and too professed of American values and hegemony. Yet in their time, those values were mainstream; they were part of the national character, practiced by the majority. By the 1970s and 1980s, of course, Broadway self-corrected, as Hoden notes, producing disturbing and certainly “less-than sugary” works such as Sweeney Todd, Into The Woods, and others.
Holden concluded in his 1993 piece: “The America of Rodgers and Hammerstein — where the good guys won, love conquered all and progress was taken for granted — was itself a dream, a golden bubble of postwar hope and confidence that evaporated more than it burst.” True enough. Yet the Rodgers & Hammerstein works live on in the hearts of many, and still serve the values espoused, tempered, of course, by their own times. Hope and optimism, it seems, even if too sugary, are hard to extinguish. And certainly in terms of musical influence, Rodgers and Hammerstein continue to be heard in the strains of many pop ballads to this day.
Cover of 1996 CD for cast recording of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s musical, ‘The King and I’.
The Rodgers & Hammerstein acquisition by Imagem offers a continuing source of economic value for its new owners. Fees from music publishing rights can be collected from a broad range of uses, and many of these are not vulnerable to piracy. While the major record labels have suffered in recent years with declining sales due to changing technology, music publishing rights are still quite lucrative. This part of the music business has held its value far better than recordings. Music publishers make money when songs are played on the radio, in restaurants and bars, and when any version of a song is used in a movie, TV show, video game, or commercial advertisement. Also, other artists singing Rodgers & Hammerstein tunes — called “cover versions” — require license arrangements and yield standard royalties. The Rodgers & Hammerstein properties already have an extensive track record of doing business of one kind or another, and more is expected.
John Coltrane’s 1961 album includes his historic rendition of ‘My Favorite Things.’
“My Favorite Things” from The Sound of Music, for example — made popular during its Broadway run and with Julie Andrews in the film version — has been used in advertising. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the song was used in automobile commercials for Mitsubishi. In 2007, it was used in advertisements for the Skoda Fabia, a mini-car produced by Czech auto maker Škoda, owned by Volkswagen. It was also used that year in Master Card ads, one of which featured actress and singer Penelope Fortier.
“My Favorite Things” has also become a jazz standard, with John Coltrane’s album of the same name becoming a historic landmark of sorts, which helped spark the rediscovery of soprano sax. The song has also been performed by a range of artists in jazz and other styles, including: Stanley Jordan, Grant Green, Carmen Lundy, Dave Brubeck, Bill Evans, McCoy Tyner, Kenny Rogers, Tanya Tucker, Rod Stewart, Sarah Vaughan, The Supremes, the Gimme Gimmes, Kimiko Itoh, Tony Bennett, 2Pac, Barbra Streisand, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Andy Williams, Luther Vandross, and others.
“Climb Ev’ry Mountain,” another Sound of Music song, was used by Australian Idol contestant Guy Sebastian in 2003 when he performed it on Australian TV in the show’s first season there. Sebastian went on to win, becoming the first Australian Idol, and in 2004 he recorded “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” on his No.1 single, “All I Need Is You.” The Rodgers & Hammerstein song was also adapted for National Australia Bank’s “Confidence” TV ad campaign in 2007.
In 1954, Roy Hamilton’s version of ‘You'll Never Walk Alone’, became an R&B No.1 hit for eight weeks and a national Top 30 hit, boosting Hamilton to fame.
Over the last 60 years, “You’ll Never Walk Alone” — a song from Carousel — has been recorded by dozens of artists, some charting as hit songs in their time of play. Among those covering this song, for example, have been Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, Gerry & The Pacemakers, Elvis Presley, Roy Hamilton, Johnny Cash, Tom Jones, Renée Fleming, Nina Simone, Gordon MacRae, Ray Charles, Patti Labelle, the Righteous Brothers, Dionne Warwick, and others. The song is also a popular anthem for European soccer teams and has been used to help raise money for disaster victims and hurricane relief. Jerry Lewis has used the song for years during his Labor Day Muscular Dystrophy telethons. It has also been sung by Joan Baez, Marilyn Horne, Patti LaBelle and others in association with AIDS Walk campaigns and rallies in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Philadelphia and Chicago. In 2002, opera star Renee Fleming sang “You’ ll Never Walk Alone” at Ground Zero during first year commemoration of the 9/11 attacks. In 2009 she sang it again, this time globally telecast from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial at the Inauguration of President Barack Obama.
“You’ll Never Walk Alone”
When you walk through the storm
Hold your head up high
And don’t be afraid of the dark
At the end of the storm
There’s a golden sky
And the sweet silver song of the lark
Walk on, through the wind
Walk on, through the rain
Though your dreams be tossed and blown
Walk on, walk on, with hope in your heart
And you’ll never walk alone
You’ll never walk alone
Walk on, walk on, with hope in your heart
And you’ll never walk alone
You’ll never walk alone
Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “Some Enchanted Evening” from South Pacific was recorded by a succession of popular artists in the first year of its release, 1949, including: Frank Sinatra, Perry Como, Jo Stafford, Bing Crosby, Ezio Pinza (original cast recording), and Al Jolson. But in later years as well, others also did versions of the song, including Willie Nelson, Jay and the Americans, and Barbra Streisand. Jon Bon Jovi did it on the Ally McBeal TV show, and even Harrison Ford did a version in the film American Graffiti. “People Will Say We’re in Love” from Oklahoma! has also been covered by dozens of artists, some resulting in early Top 40 hits — Bing Crosby ( No.2), Frank Sinatra ( No. 3) and The Ink Spots ( No. 11). “Hello, Young Lovers” from 1951’s The King and I was covered that year by Perry Como and Guy Lombardo with Kenny Martin. Earl Grant did the song on his 1958 album The End. Bobby Darin did an upbeat swinging version of the song, and Paul Anka had a popular 1960 version in the Bobby Darin style. Frank Sinatra slowed it down on his 1965 album September of My Years. Marvin Gaye has a version in The Marvin Gaye Collection, a boxed set. Philip Quast covered the song on his Live at the Donmar album, as did Mark Murphy on his 1993 album Very Early. In 2004 Kevin Spacey covered the song on his Beyond The Sea soundtrack for his film about Bobby Darin.
Poster art for a production of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s ‘Carousel'.
RHO, despite this history of success, has not been the most aggressive marketer of its portfolio’s possibilities. Primarily, it has been content to steadily licence its shows for stage productions, while limiting the exposure of its classic works in an attempt to protect their value.
It is known, however, that there is increasing demand for use of R&H material in film and television. But in the past, RHO has usually denied these kinds of uses because they sought to uphold the artistic integrity of their work, only licensing it for theatrical production and concerts. Imagem, on the other hand, is expected to seek a fuller range of marketing options.
Imagem’s Playlist Sample List*
“Love & Affection” - Joan Armatrading “As Long As You Love Me”
– Backstreet Boys “Think Twice” - Celine Dion “Numb” - Linkin Park “Take A Bow” - Rihanna “When The Going Gets Tough” - Billy Ocean “You Are Not Alone” - Michael Jackson “Ray Of Light”
– Madonna “Karma Chameleon” - Culture Club “Baby One More Time” - Britney Spears “American Idol Theme” - American Idol “Since You’ve Been Gone” - Kelly Clarkson “Rock Your Body” - Justin Timberlake “I Believe I Can Fly” - R. Kelly “Who Do You Think You Are?” - Spice Girls “All Summer Long” - Kid Rock “Run To The Hills” - Iron Maiden “Thunder in My Heart” - Leo Sayer
____________________ *Imagem Music Group holds rights
to about 100,000 songs. Source: www.imagem-music.com
Imagem, however, is something of a newcomer to the global music and entertainment industry. It was founded in 2008 by ABP, one of the world’s biggest pension funds ($223 billion), in conjunction with Dutch independent music publisher and media company CP Masters. ABP is the pension fund for some 2.6 million persons and employers who work for the Dutch government or its education system. Imagem began building its business by acquiring other music publishing rights and music catalogs. After Universal Music Group bought Bertelsmann’s BMG music-publishing unit, several of its pop music catalogs were spun off to satisfy federal anti-trust regulators — Zomba UK, Rondor UK, 19 Music, and 19 Songs. Imagem picked up these catalogs. Today, Imagem’s collection, includes a number of tunes from pop artists such as those in the box at right, including: Madonna, Linkin Park, Celine Dion, Justin Timberlake and others. From its London location, Imagem manages its back catalog and has a roster of 40 writers creating new music. It also seeks out and signs new talent, recently signing, for example, artists such as Australia’s Jarrad Rogers and the Portico Quartet.
In April 2008, Imagem acquired Boosey & Hawkes, a large classical-music publisher, whose catalog includes works of renowned artists such as, Benjamin Britten, Aaron Copland, Serge Prokofieff, Igor Stravinsky, and Sergei Rachmaninoff. This catalog also includes jazz and other works by artists and composers such as Karl Jenkins, Elliott Carter, John Adams, and Wynton Marsalis. Boosey and Hawkes is also involved in the market for music in advertising and film, where revenues are currently growing at about 30 percent annually per annum, according to Imagem. Other clients at Boosey & Hawkes include orchestras, choirs, record companies, and radio stations.
In the April 2009 deal with RHO, Imagem also acquired works by other artists including Adam Guettel, Sheldon Harnick, Jerome Kern, Stephen Schwartz, Kurt Weill, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and others. RHO had represented Andrew Lloyd Webber in the past, including his musicals Cats, Evita, and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. At the time of the deal with Imagem, RHO and Webber’s group were in discussions about continuing that relationship.
Actor Hugh Jackman shown on the cover of a DVD for a 1999 production of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s ‘Oklahoma!’.
Imagem’s strategy is one of diversification; assembling a mix of pop, classical, jazz, and show tunes, as well as stage productions and their production rights. Imagem (with Boosey & Hawkes) now owns the rights to more than 200,000 songs and reports annual revenues of about $130 million. The company believes that established songs are one of the safest asset classes around since their usage is relatively constant, generating steady royalty income.
Imagem appears eager and willing to go where other established music business interests will not go, and willing also to spend what others will not. In the recently completed Rodgers & Hammerstein deal, other potential suitors included some of the world’s biggest music publishers, among them, Warner Music Group’s Warner/Chappell Music and Sony Corp.’s Sony/ATV Music Publishing. These two had considered buying RHO, but dropped out of the bidding because they considered it overpriced, especially for a catalog of Broadway songs.
“Our purchase of the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization is a once in a lifetime opportunity to acquire the publishing and theatrical rights of some of the most beloved shows and songs ever written,” said CEO André de Raaff at the time of the deal. He also added: “I personally believe that the world of musicals in which RHO is a leading player will grow further on a worldwide basis and we look forward to adding value to these rights through long term cultivation and development.”
Patrick Healy, “Rodgers and Hammerstein Catalog Sold,” New York Times, April 22, 2009, p. C-3.
Press Release, “Imagem Music Group Buys R&H — Imagem Music Group Buys Rodgers & Hammerstein, Becoming World’s Leading Independent Music Publisher,” The Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization, Updated, May 22, 2009.
Andrew Lloyd Webber, “The Showmen,” Time, Monday, June 8, 1998.
Mary Martin, co-star of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s ‘South Pacific,’ shown on the cover of Life magazine, April 18, 1949, as the show began playing on Broadway.
The Flamingos of the late 1950s shown on the cover of a 1997 CD featuring a compilation of 18 of their songs.
“I Only Have Eyes For You” is the name of a song that was made popular in the spring and summer of 1959 by a group called the Flamingos. The song was actually written for a film in the 1930s, and it became popular on the music charts at that time. However, the Flamingos’ 1959 version gave the song a whole new dimension. Set in the “doo-wop” style of its day, their “deep-echo” version proved to have broad national appeal, rising on both the rhythm & blues (R&B) and pop charts.
Today, the Flamingos’ “I Only Have Eyes For You” continues to resonate with many listeners, young and old. Music historians of the 1950s regard the song as a classic. For some, the song offers a “take-you-away” musical immersion, and for a few, a near-hypnotic, otherworldly experience. Listen to this Flamingos’ song on the music player at right and judge for yourself.
Music Player “I Only Have Eyes For You”
1959 – The Flamingos
The Flamingos were formed from a group of friends and relatives on Chicago’s southside in the early 1950s. They began recording in 1953, and became a group with a long list of recordings, working with a number of record labels, including Chance, Parrot, Chess/Checker, Decca, End, and others. And although they never had a No. 1 hit on the pop charts — coming close several times — they are regarded as one of the classic “doo wop” groups of their day, noted for their exceptional harmonies and unique sound. By the time “I Only Have Eyes for You” hit the streets in April/May 1959, the group was comprised of six members: founding “cousins” Jake and Zeke Carey, Terry Johnson, Paul Wilson, Tommy Hunt, and Nate Nelson. In 1958, the group had been recording with the Chess/Checker label in Chicago, but after relocating to New York City, they soon hooked up with a record producer there named George Goldner who helped the group score with some of their biggest hits in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
Sample recording from Flamingos’ earlier years with Chance Records, 1953.
Goldner was considered one of the biggest record hustlers of his day, also among the biggest producers of what would be called “doo wop” records. Goldner was not a rock ‘n roll fan, per se, but had Latin and jazz musical influences in his past. He had worked with Tico, a label that specialized in Latin artists, during the late 1940s. He had also worked with some early rock ‘n roll artists, as well, and had an ear for pop hits.
Much of Goldner’s success had come with producing and releasing singles. But he was also among those who liked to market “packages” of songs, or LPs, as albums were called in those days. In late 1956, he had released one of the first doo-wop albums, Teenagers, on the Gee record label. And by 1959, working with other artists, he had released a 12-track album by The Chantels, and another by Little Anthony & The Imperials. These two groups would later become successful and well known in their own right. The Flamingos, meanwhile, had come to Goldner after an unsatisfying period with their then-current record label, Decca, which they had joined in1957.
Geo. Goldner, the producer who helped The Flamingos.
In late 1958, it was Goldner’s idea to have the Flamingos record an album of old standards, but do it in “doo wop” style. Some believe Goldner was influenced by what had been done earlier with groups such as the Orioles and Ravens; groups that had successfully produced cover versions of older songs in a more popular style. Terry Johnson, one of the Flamingos’ lead singers, recalled the group’s experience with Goldner in an interview some years later with Marv Goldberg :
“…George Goldner wanted us to go in another direction than regular R&B. He wanted us to do standards like the Platters, who were doing songs like ‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.’ I was open to the idea, because I wasn’t raised on R&B; my parents listened to Patti Page, the Mills Brothers, the Ink Spots and Bing Crosby. When George said he wanted me to change the structure of the songs and give them a nice flavor, I was excited because it was such a good challenge for me.”
The Flamingos’ 1958 hit with End Records, ‘Lovers Never Say Goodbye’.
Goldner, in fact, took Richard Barrett to a music store and bought up the sheet music to every old song he could find, turning them over to Terry Johnson to arrange new songs for the Flamingos. One of the first songs the Flamingos did with Goldner that hit the pop charts was “Lovers Never Say Goodbye”, written by Terry Johnson, who shared the lead on the song with Paul Wilson. On the B-side was “That Love Is You”, with Nate Nelson in the lead. “Lovers Never Say Goodbye” reached No. 25 on the R&B charts and No. 52 on the pop countdown.
1958-59 magazine ad for Flamingos’ music by End Records, with lower corner box thanking radio DJs for playing their hit, ‘Lovers Never Say Goodbye.’
But by October 1958, with some money to spend on instrumentation and a good echo chamber available for recording, Goldner brought The Flamingos in for another studio session to record what would become the album, Flamingo Serenade. Terry Johnson and Paul Wilson were recorded as lead singers on three of the 12 songs selected for the album. Nate Nelson was in the lead for some of the album’s songs as well, including most notably, “I Only Have Eyes for You.”
As the album and its songs went in production for the next few months, the Flamingos did some performing in New York. Meanwhile, one of the Flamingos earlier record labels, Checker, seeing that the group was capable of turning out hits, decided to put out a single with two earlier-recorded but unreleased songs in January 1959. Checker would also issue a Flamingos LP the following month. But by this date, sales of their new single with Goldner — “Lovers Never Say Goodbye” — was already having considerable success. In January alone, it helped push Goldner’s labels to the one-million level in total sales. February was even better. More success was about to come with the forthcoming album, Flamingo Seranade.
Poster from 1959 film in which The Flamingos appeared.
In mid-January 1959, meanwhile, The Flamingos booked into New York’s Apollo theater where they had played a number of times before. Other notable performers appearing at the Apollo at that time included: Jerry Butler, the Crests, Little Anthony and the Imperials, the Quin-Tones, Wade Flemons, Doc Bagby, and Clay Tyson. In February, the Flamingos were filmed in a New York studio singing and dancing to a lively version of another of their songs, “Jump, Children.” This song, along with the Flamingos’ dance routine, would appear in a movie with disc jockey Alan Freed — a movie titled, Go Johnny Go! This was the second Alan Freed movie the Flamingos had appeared in, the first being Rock, Rock, Rock of December 1956, which also included stars such as Chuck Berry and Connie Francis. The Flamingos at this point, had also become well known for their stage show and choreography. Later groups that used choreography in their acts, such as The Temptations of the 1960s, would cite the Flamingos as a major influence.The film Go Johnny Go! would appear in theaters through mid-1959. The Flamingos’ debut album, mean- while, Flamingo Serenade, was released in April 1959 on Goldner’s End record label.
The Flamingos’ 1959 album of old standards, ‘Flamingo Serenade,’ also included their big hit, ‘I Only Have Eyes For You.’
Flamingo Serenade also helped with the release of singles. The first song released from this album was “Love Walked In,” issued ahead of the album, in March 1959. This single, however, failed to chart. But the next song they tried as a single, “I Only Have Eyes For You,” with Nate Nelson singing the lead, hit pay dirt. The song became a big hit. It first received notice in Philadelphia, and soon spread through the Northeast. Later that summer, the Flamingos would do a ten-day stretch of live performances at Philadelphia’s Uptown Theater. “I Only Have Eyes for You” peaked at No. 11 on the Billboard pop chart in June 1959, and rose to No.3 on the R&B chart. With its shimmering “doo-bop sh-bops” in the echo chamber, and Nate Nelson’s clear, distinctive lead, the record became a classic, and remains one of the most popular oldies of all time. It is also said to have been The Flamingos’ favorite recording, regarded as one of those moments in the studio when everything came together for a superb production.
'I Only Have Eyes For You,' 45rpm.
For George Goldner, the Flamingos proved to be among his most successful groups. They had at least eight singles on the End label that reached the pop charts, including a Top 30 hit in 1960, “Nobody Loves Me Like You Do.” They also turned out three full albums on the End label in addition to Flamingo Serenade, including: Flamingo Favorites (1960), Requestfully Yours (1960), and The Sound of the Flamingos (1962).
“I Only Have Eyes For You,” however, remains the classic hit single.In November 2004, Rolling Stone magazine ranked the Flamingos’ version of the song at No #157 on their “500 Greatest Songs” list. The Flamingos’ version was also used on the soundtrack for the 1973 film, American Graffiti.
Fans Love It
To this day, the “Flamingos sound” has a very loyal following. And some who hear The Flamingos’1959 version of “I Only Have Eyes for You” come away with a lasting impression, as did one fan named “Larry,” who wrote about his experience with this Flamingos’ song on the blog, Funky16 Corners:
“I Only Have Eyes
My love must be a kind of blind love
I can’t see anyone but you.
Are the stars out tonight?
I don’t know if it’s cloudy or bright
I only have eyes for you, dear.
The moon maybe high
but I can’t see a thing in the sky,
‘Cause I only have eyes for you.
I don’t know if we’re in a garden,
or on a crowded avenue.
You are here, and so am I
Maybe millions of people go by,
but they all disappear from view.
And I only have eyes for you.
“…I can’t be one hundred percent certain of the first time I ever heard ‘I Only Have Eyes For You’ by the Flamingos, but I’m guessing it was when I saw American Graffiti in 1973. I was only eleven years old, but as soon as this song came on the soundtrack it was instantly drilled deep into the pleasure centers of my brain. As I got older, and started to understand something of how records were made, my deep respect for the astounding level of craft involved in the making of ‘I Only Have Eyes For You’ has grown every time I hear it.
“There’s something special about the spare instrumentation — pretty much just piano, drums and guitar — contrasted with a rich, velvety blanket of human voices, all of it arranged to perfection… that simply blows my mind.
“I’ve always had a love for what might be (if only in my own mind) considered “night time” records that sound as if they were recorded in the wee small hours specifically for use in that same time period, whether for lovers or those engaged in solitary meditation, and ‘I Only Have Eyes For You’ is the ne plus ultra of that very specific subgenre…
“…It’s almost the musical equivalent of a meditative exercise, where you just close your eyes, allow yourself to be enveloped by the music …and just kind of feel it. Whether the Flamingos intended it or not, this record is possessed of a kind of otherworldly magic….”
Cover of sheet music featuring ‘I Only Have Eyes for You’ from the 1934 Warner Brothers film, ‘Dames’.
Song Origin & Covers
The Flamingos, of course, were not the first group to record “I Only Have Eyes For You.” The song, in fact, was written in 1934 for the film Dames starring Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler. It was composed by Harry Warren and lyricist Al Dubin. The song plays throughout the film’s soundtrack and is featured in two scenes. Powell first sings it to Ruby Keeler on the Staten Island ferry, expressing bedazzlement; and that he “only has eyes” for her. The second time the song appears, Powell is riding the subway and sees Keeler’s face everywhere he looks. The dream sequence that follows in the film features a elaborate dance scene by famed Hollywood choreographer and co-director Busby Berkeley. The dancers in scene at one point all wear Ruby Keeler masks.
In 1934, the song also charted in three versions — at No. 2 with Ben Selvin and His Orchestra, Howard Phillips vocal; No. 4 with Eddy Duchin and His Orchestra, Lew Sher- wood vocal; and No. 20 with Jane Froman. And for years thereafter, the song would be covered by a number of other artists. Billy Eckstine recorded the song on National Records in 1949. Peggy Lee also did it in 1950. In May 1952, the Swallows out of Baltimore, Maryland did an R&B version on King Records, somewhat slower than the Flamingos’ version. The Swallows’ recording is still available today and can be sampled online. Other R&B artists also did versions of the song as well. But R&B tunes generally suffered during segregation, and only began to be heard on some pop radio stations in the mid-1950s.
Art Garfunkel’s 1975 version of ‘I Only Have Eyes For You’ hit No. 1 in the U.K. and on the U.S. Adult Contemporary chart.
In 1962, Frank Sinatra recorded his version of “I Only Have Eyes For You,” accompanied by Count Basie’s orchestra. In 1966, the song became a Billboard Hot 100 hit when it was released as a single by The Lettermen from their album A New Song for Young Love. Jerry Butler covered the song in 1972. Art Garfunkel, formerly of Simon & Garfunkel, had a No.1 single with the song in the U.K. for two weeks in October 1975. It was the first time Garfunkel had a hit there as a solo artist. Garfunkel’s version, also on his 1975 Breakaway album, reached No. 18 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 and No. 1 on the adult contemporary chart. He also performed the song on the second episode of Saturday Night Live.
In 1976, Johnny Mathis named an album after the song. It was also featured in the 1980-81 Broadway revival of the Tony award-winning musical 42nd Street. In 1990, the Count Basie Orchestra recorded it with George Benson. And since then, still others have made cover versions, including: Mercury Rev in 1998, Martina Topley-Bird, Jamie Cullum, and Mark Eitzel of American Music Club in 2002. But the 1959 version of the song has remained popular, and has also found its way into other venues.
1973 film, ‘American Graffiti’ used the Flamingos’ song, among others from the 1950s & ’60s.
Film & TV
The Flamingos’ version of “I Only Have Eyes For You” has been used in a number of films, including: American Graffiti (1973), The Right Stuff (1983), One Good Cop/One Man’s Justice (1991), My Girl (1991), Heart and Souls (1993), A Bronx Tale (1993), Milk Money (1994), Past Tense (1994-TV), Four Dogs Playing Poker (2000), Cherish (2002), and Something’s Gotta Give (2003). On television, too, The Flamingos’ version has also been used, as in one 1998 episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer andalso in The Sopranos series during 1999.
This Flamingos’ song has also been used to give expression to experimental and artistic film making. In 2002, the Perth, Australia International Film Festival, “Revelation,” filed this mention of a short, seven-minute film by Tom Jarmusch and Fabienne Gaultier (USA/France) that used the Flamingos’ “I Only Have Eyes For You” in its production:
“Jarmusch and Gaultier collaborate to (re)produce their multiple screen installation work for cinema viewing and an excellent work it is. Using multiple film and video formats including 16mm, domestic video and a toy video camera, they have produced a hypnotic work with a wonderful tactile nature. Structured around the Flamingos tune “I Only Have Eyes For You,” it is a strangely poetic and layered experimental work which literally compels the audience to watch. Described as a “triple screen city symphony” its lyrical quality is alluring and wonderfully hypnotic.”
However, not all uses of Flamingos’ “I Only Have Eyes For You” have been approved or authorized by the group or their estates.
In 1997, Pepsi-Cola used the Flamingos’ 1959 version of “I Only Have Eyes For You” in a television commercial that ran nationwide for about six months. In 2003, two surviving members of The Flamingos, Terry Johnson and Tommy Hunt, and the estates of the deceased members, brought a lawsuit against Pepsi for the alleged wrongful action. They were represented by San Francisco entertainment lawyer Steven Ames Brown.
A collective bargaining agreement made with the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists requires advertisers to get permission for commercial use of music, and to pay fees to the music publishers, the record labels, and the artists. In 2006, a judge ordered Pepsi and its advertising company to pay $250,000 to The Flamingos for using their song in a TV ad without their permission. “In our case, they didn’t even ask,” said San Francisco attorney Brown, in a later interview with Associated Press.
In 2006, a judge ordered PepsiCo Inc. and its advertising company to pay $250,000 to the The Flamingos for using “I Only Have Eyes For You” without their permission. According to Brown, it wasn’t the first time that Pepsi neglected to pay a recording artist for a song. He charged that Pepsi failed to pay black performers for their songs before. “Pepsi routinely pays the Caucasian performers who appear on camera but refuses to pay the African-American singers whose voices are used in the soundtrack unless they sue,” Brown said. Brown had successfully sued Pepsi on a previous occasion on behalf of singer Doris Troy, whose 1963 hit “Just One Look” was used in another popular Pepsi commercial with supermodel Cindy Crawford that featured two young boys.
A spokesman for Pepsi said the failure to pay The Flamingos directly was an oversight and that Pepsi didn’t realize the song was subject to the collective bargaining agreement. “We have a long history and strong track record of supporting diversity in our advertising,”said Dave DeCecco of the Purchase, New York-based PepsiCo Inc.
A 1997 CD of Flamingos’ songs on Chess Records, issued as part of the Chess 50th Anniversary Collection.
Today, the Flamingos’ music has survived most of its original members. In fact, the group began to split apart in the early 1960s, with some members then going solo or to other groups. Around that time, Nate Nelson went to the Platters and Tommy Hunt became a minor soul star. Nelson later died of a heart attack in 1984 at the age of 52. Terry Johnson formed The Modern Flamingos for a time then went to Motown through a friend, Smokey Robinson, to help produce records there. Jake and Zeke Carey continued to lead one version of the Flamingos into the late 1990s. There were also other Flamingos configurations that continued thereafter. These various groups, offshoots, and later revivals are discussed elsewhere in more detail as indicated in “sources” below. However, in 2001 the original Flamingos were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, winning praise for their vocal quality. The Hall singled out “I Only Have Eyes For You,” calling it the group’s signature song, and “one of the most sublime and enduring vocal-group recordings of all time.” The Hall also noted one of the group’s earlier songs — their third single, “Golden Teardrops,” released in 1953 — which some have hailed as “perfect-sounding” and also “a legendary masterpiece.” The Flamingos recorded well over 100 songs between 1953 and 1964, plus additional unreleased material. For a full history on the group and a listing of their discography see, for example, the profile at Marv Goldberg’s R&B Notebooks, as well as other sources noted below.
Robert Pruter, “The Flamingos: The Chicago Years,” Goldmine (magazine) April 6, 1990, pp. 28-30. (Goldmine.com is also a music and music memorabilia website featuring articles on recording stars of the past and present, listing all known releases. Goldmine, the bi-weekly print magazine, also distributes a weekly e-newsletter, and broadcasts streaming radio.)
Record sleeve for ‘Paint It Black’ single issued in South Africa, 1966, with B-side, ‘Long Long While’.
In the spring of 1966, all was not well in the world. The Vietnam War was raging and American involvement there was escalating. U.S. troop strength had reached 200,000 by then, and draft quotas at home had doubled. Earlier that spring, in April, U.S. Senator J. William Fulbright (D-AR), one of the few Senators challenging U.S. involvement in Vietnam, had given his famous “Arrogance of Power” speech at Johns Hopkins University — a speech critical of the “might-makes-right” approach and more, aimed squarely at the U.S. In Vietnam, meanwhile, the military government of South Vietnam under Premeir Ky was doing battle with Buddhist rebels in Da Nang in mid-May. Also at this time, China had come forth with its Cultural Revolution pronouncement.
Despite these woes, the day-to-day rhythms of life went on as normal throughout much of the world. In America, Vice-President Hubert Humphrey and U.S. Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall dedicated the new Gateway Arch in St. Louis on May 25th, 1966. Busch Stadium, home to baseball’s St. Louis Cardinals, had opened there earlier that spring. In the world of boxing, late May, Muhammad Ali, then known as Cassius Clay, would knock out the U.K.’s Henry Cooper in a six-round heavyweight match in London.
Young Rolling Stones shown on German single, 1966.
In music, the Beach Boys had released their Pet Sounds album, and Bob Dylan his Blonde on Blonde album. About that time as well, around mid-May 1966, a new song titled “Paint It Black” by the British rock group the Rolling Stones, began to be heard across the U.S. and in the U.K. It was one of those hard-driving rock ‘n roll tunes from this raucous new group that was catching on in a big way.
Music Player “Paint It Black”
“Paint It Black,” written by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, is not a happy tune in its lyrics, but in 1966 its musical appeal pushed it to the top of the pop charts. Released as a single, the record reached No. 1 in the U.S. and the U.K. in late May, holding the top position for two weeks or so. It remained in the Top 40 for ten weeks through the summer. The song became popular throughout Europe and around the world.
“Paint It Black”
I see a red door and I want it painted black
No colors anymore I want them to turn black
I see the girls walk by dressed in their summer clothes
I have to turn my head until my darkness goes
I see a line of cars and they’re all painted black
With flowers and my love, both never to come back
I see people turn their heads and quickly look away
Like a newborn baby it just happens ev’ryday
I look inside myself and see my heart is black
I see my red door and it has been painted black
Maybe then I’ll fade away and not have to face the facts
It’s not easy facing up when your whole world is black
No more will my green sea go turn a deeper blue
I could not forsee this thing happening to you
If I look hard enough into the setting sun
My love will laugh with me before the morning comes
I see a red door and I want it painted black
No colors anymore I want them to turn black
I see the girls walk by dressed in their summer clothes
I have to turn my head until my darkness goes
Hmm, hmm, hmm…
I wanna see it painted black, painted black
Black as night, black as coal
I wanna see the sun, blotted out from the sky
I wanna see it painted, painted, painted, painted black
The Rolling Stones by this time already had two big breakthrough hits in 1965 — “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction” and “Get Off of My Cloud” — along with two top albums that year; Out of Our Heads and December’s Children. Their third album Aftermath, which included “Paint It Black” in the U.S version, was also a hit.
“Paint It Black” is about a man whose lover has died, and is beside himself with grief, seeing his whole world “painted black.” He even wants the sun “blotted out.” He’s depressed, feeling down, worthless, and without direction or connection. Some say that Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were then on an introspective writing streak partly influenced by Bob Dylan’s work. “Paint it Black” came out a few months after the Stones had released their last single, “19th Nervous Breakdown.”
“Paint It Black” also has some eastern musical influences, as a sitar is used in the song. The sitar’s use came about through Brian Jones, then the group’s lead guitarist, who had visited with the Beatles’ George Harrison who was also then using the Indian instrument. The sitar’s use in the song, says music critic Richie Unterberger, “qualifies as perhaps the most effective use of the Indian instrument in a rock song. The exotic twang was a perfect match for the dark, mysterious Eastern-Indian melody. . .”
'Paint It Black' single sleeve, Italy, 1966.
Long Sales Life
“Paint it Black” would become one of those songs from the Rolling Stone’s catalogue that would enjoy a second and third sales life, in some cases, 30 and 40 years after its initial release. It would be re-issued as a single on at least two other occasions — once in June 1990 when it hit the U.K charts for three weeks, and again in May 2007 when it hit the U.K. charts for a week or so, reaching No. 70. The song has also appeared on at least a dozen Stones albums and compilations. Billboard rated “Paint it Black” No. 21 on its list of the 100 top songs of 1966. But beyond the conventional record business, pop chart performance, and awards, “Paint It Black” has also found its way into a number of other uses, particularly in film, television, and video games. These uses have kept the song very much alive and well for many years beyond the 1960s.
The ‘Tour of Duty’ TV program, late 1980s, used ‘Paint It Black’ as its opening theme song.
Later packaging of ‘Paint It Black’ with red banner corner note that reads: ‘As Featured on the TV Series Tour of Duty’.
In the late 1980s, “Paint It Black” became associated with the Vietnam War due to its use in both the ending credits of the 1987 film Full Metal Jacket and its use as the theme song for Tour Of Duty, a CBS-TV show about the Vietnam war which ran from 1987-1990. The airing of the song on the TV show, which played around the world, contributed to its revised popularity in the late 1980s-early-1990s. In May of 1990 in the Netherlands, after “Paint It Black” was re-released there as a single again, it hit the No.1 position on the Dutch Top 40 chart. Later marketing and packaging of the song in those years also referred to the Tour of Duty TV show.
Some Vietnam veterans have identified with the song as well. One writer to SongFacts.com — “Bill,” from Queens, New York — made the following observation about the song’s Vietnam association:
“…While the Rolling Stones’ song “Paint It Black” was not written about the Vietnam War, it has great meaning for many combat veterans from that war. The depression, the aura of premature death, loss of innocence, abandonment of all hope are perfectly expressed in the song. When you walk off the killing fields, still alive, physically intact, you want everything painted black, like your heart, your soul, you mind, your life.”
“Paint it Black” was also used on the NBC-TV show American Dreams in a 2004 episode when a central character in the show — young J.J. Pryor from Philadelphia, PA — goes missing in Vietnam. The song’s other film appearances, either in its original or cover versions, include: 1997’s The Devil’s Advocate, a thriller/horror film starring Keanu Reeves, Al Pacino, and Charlize Theron;1999’s For Love of the Game, a film about baseball with Kevin Costner; and, Stir of Echoes, a supernatural thriller, also in 1999, starring Kevin Bacon.
On television, “Paint It Black” has also had more recent uses, as in a July 2003 pilot episode of the cable TV show Nip/Tuck — a show described by New York Times writer Alessandra Stanley as “a ‘Miami Vice”-style drama about two dashing and unscrupulous plastic surgeons in South Florida.” In the pilot episode, as a facial reconstruction takes place, “Paint It Black” plays on. Cover versions of the song have also been used in a number of other TV shows and films. Writer Stephen King has used “Paint It Black” in his Dark Tower series of novels; the song is heard by several characters as they pass the same music shop in New York at different time periods. Janet Fitch’s 2006 novel Paint It Black is named after the song, and uses the first four lines from the lyrics as a quote preceding the first chapter.
‘Paint It Black’ is one of the songs used in this popular ‘Guitar Hero’ video game.
The video game industry has also discovered “Paint It Black.” The song is used in a number of games — either during game play or heard in the background. Among games using the song are: Conflict: Vietnam, Twisted Metal: Black, Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock, and the Eve of Destruction modules for Battlefield 1942, Battlefield: Vietnam, and Battlefield 2. “Paint It Black” is also used in one version of the karaoke game SingStar. The song has also been used in some video game advertising. A number of video game players have stated that their first experience with the song was hearing it on one of the games. A parent named “Viki” from Liberty, Texas wrote SongFacts.com to share her view of the song as used on the Guitar Hero game:
“…I love hearing this song come out of my 12-yr-old kid’s room when he’s playing Guitar Hero 3. He asked me if I’d ever heard of it. I laughed so hard and told him I was raised on it!! You can diss Guitar Hero all you want, but it’s introducing a whole new generation of kids to classic rock songs — which are WAY better than the crap they’re coming out with now!!”
“…Every kid these days knows ‘Paint It Black’ because it’s in Guitar Hero…”
Another writer, responding in late October 2008 to a short story in the New York Times about some Beatles music being planned for a new interactive video game, raised concerns about which songs should be included in video games, noting the prominence of “Paint It Black”:
“…I’m a music teacher, and lately I’ve been finding that Guitar Hero and similar games actually help and inspire kids to learn to play real instruments — they don’t necessarily replace real instruments in kids’ minds. My only concern is the extent to which Guitar Hero creates a rigid repertoire of songs that kids know — every kid these days knows “Paint It Black” because it’s in Guitar Hero, but it’s strictly a matter of opinion whether that’s a better Rolling Stones song than “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” or “Street Fighting Man,” which no kid knows or cares about. Similarly, the producers of the new Beatles game need to take very seriously their responsibility of passing on the right songs to the next generation….” – I. Barry D’Paul
Oct 1989 edition of Forbes business magazine featuring Mick Jagger & Keith Richards.
“Paint it Lost”
In any case, “Paint It Black” has had a long and varied career since it was first launched in May of 1966. In 2004, the song was ranked No. 174 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the “500 Greatest Songs of All Time.” But sadly for the Rolling Stones, “Paint It Black” is one of the tunes they no longer control; losing rights to the song during their younger years. In a legal settlement with an earlier manager named Allen Klein, the Stones relinquished their publishing rights, along with lucrative royalties, to this song and others. In 1965, Klein, a New York manager also involved with other rock groups, had helped the Stones negotiate a new contract with Decca Records, then winning the group their first million-dollar payday. But in the process, Allen Klein also helped himself. His company, ABKCO, still retains the rights to the Stones’ early songs from the 1960s to 1971. The Stones parted ways with Klein in 1970, and have long since become a much more sophisticated and business- savvy rock ‘n roll group. See, for example, “Stones Gather Dollars, 1989-2008.”
The Beatles' February 11th, 1964 concert at the Washington Coliseum indoor arena in Wash., D.C., their first ever live U.S. concert performance. Photo: Rowland Scherman, http://www.snapstour.com/
When the Beatles first came to the U.S. in 1964, primarily to appear on the Ed Sullivan Show in New York on February 9th, 1964, they also performed two live concerts. The first of these concerts — and their first ever in the U.S. — was performed in Washington, D.C. at the Washing- ton Coliseum on February 11th. Not to be confused with an outdoor athletic-type coliseum, the Washington Coliseum was an indoor arena where professional and college basketball teams played. Originally built in 1941, it was first named the Uline Arena when it hosted hockey games. It was renamed the Washington Coliseum in 1959. It held a capacity crowd of about 7,000 people. Although the building still stands today near Washington’s Union Station, it is now used as an indoor parking garage. However, it is a protected property by the D.C. Historic Preservation Review Board, and is slated for redevelopment. In the 1960s it hosted a variety of music acts and concerts, of which the Beatles’ February 11th, 1964 concert was one.
Ticket stub to Beatles' first live American concert in Washington, D.C., February 11th, 1964.
The Beatles also made another live concert appearance during their February 1964 U.S. visit — at New York City’s Carnegie Hall on February 12th. In New York there were two shows, but in Washington, only one. However, the D.C. performance was filmed in black and white video by CBS with the permission of the Beatles’ then manager, Brian Epstein. This filmed version of the live D.C. performance was then packaged into a “closed-circuit” offering by a private company to be aired several weeks later at selected theaters across the U.S. More detail on these theater showings later. First, the D.C. performance.
Beatles’ D.C. Concert
At the Washington Coliseum, the Beatles performed on a boxing-ring stage, changing postion during the show. Feb 11, 1964.
The February 11th, 1964 concert at the Washington Coliseum, located at 3rd and M Streets N.E., occurred during a cold and snowy night. It was the Beatles’ first live American performance after their televised appearance on the CBS Ed Sullivan Show. They had arrived in D.C. earlier that day by train from New York. Before their show that evening, they also appeared at a brief press conference. At show time, there was a sold-out, over-capacity crowd of 8,000 fans, by one count. Before the Beatles came on, there were other opening acts. Although three groups were advertised to perform as opening acts that night – including the girl group, The Chiffons, and also Tommy Roe and The Caravelles – an East Coast snow storm prevented The Chiffons from getting to Washington. Although the existing historical record is unclear about which groups actually performed that night as opening and/or intermission acts, Tommy Roe reports that he was there, and performed three songs – “Sheila,” “Everybody,” and “Carol.” Also reportedly appearing that night were Jay & The Americans, The Righteous Brothers, and The Caravelles. The opening acts were quite good, according to some in attendance that evening. But when the Beatles came on, the place erupted with screaming and incessant flash bulbs. They played for nearly an hour. Because of the set up in the Coliseum, the Beatles were essentially performing on a boxing ring-type stage, and had to move their equipment around on stage a few times in order to give everyone in the audience a chance to see them. Ringo was seen moving his drum set around on stage between sets.
Beatles Set List Washington, D.C. February 1964
Roll Over Beethoven
From Me to You
I Saw Her Standing There
All My Loving
I Wanna Be Your Man
Please Please Me
Till There Was You
She Loves You
I Want to Hold Your Hand
Twist and Shout
Long Tall Sally
Some Beatles afficionados and music critics regard the D.C. performance as a singular event in Beatles history, especially since it captured the group’s fresh and exuberant performance for the first time with a live, American audience — the “big market” the Beatles had dreamed of cracking. Writes music critic Richie Unterberger:
“…[H]ere are the early Beatles at their on-stage best. They’re more visibly delighted, indeed almost overwhelmed, by the crowd’s enthusiasm here than at any time before or since. Despite the seeming overnight success of their invasion of America, it had in reality been a long hard climb to the top, taking about seven years of diligent work and numerous excruciating setbacks, and also a year or so where they’d made virtually no inroads into the U.S. market despite their mushrooming British superstardom. This was the payoff, and though the group would get fed up with touring before screaming teenagers within a couple of years, at the Washington Coliseum they were if anything having an even greater time than their admirers….”
Another shot of The Beatles at their February 11th, 1964 concert at the Washington Coliseum arena in Washington, D.C.
After their live D.C. performance, the group attended a masked ball at the city’s British Embassy. Reportedly, British Prime Minister Sir Alec Douglas-Home decided not to attend for fear of being upstaged by the group. During the party, an unidentified woman cut off a lock of Ringo’s hair without asking him. The Beatles stayed at the embassy party for a time and then returned to their rooms at the Shoreham Hotel. Tommy Roe recalls that evening as “chaotic,” noting there were “many agents and celebrities trying to get close to the fab four…” Roe had toured the U.K. about a year earlier, and the Beatles were a featured act on his tour. In D.C., Roe was invited to the Beatles’ suite at the Shoreham Hotel later evening by Brian Epstein, but Roe was soon besieged by friends and colleagues who “wanted me to take them along to meet the boys…” However, visitors to the Beatles’ suite that evening were restricted, although Roe did get in briefly to thank them for putting him on as an opening act. “I remember their suite was packed with press and photographers doing interviews…”
The following day, U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson, meeting with British Prime Minister Sir Alec Douglas-Home at the White House, reportedly said of the Beatles: “I like your advance guard. But don’t you think they need haircuts?” The Beatles that day returned to New York by train for their Carnegie Hall concerts — two 25-minute performances before 2,900 fans attending each show.
1964 ad for the Beatles' closed-circuit concerts.
The Closed-Circuit Concerts
However, about a month later, in mid-March 1964, the CBS filming of the Beatles’ live D.C. show — together with separate footage of performances by the Beach Boys and Lesley Gore — was shown in selected U.S. movie theaters as a closed-circuit concert. Billed in advertising as — “The Beatles: Direct From Their First American Concert” — the complete 90-minute film was transmitted over telephone lines to selected U.S. and Canadian theaters in four separate shows — two each day — over the weekend of March 14th and 15th, 1964.
The first round of closed-circuit concerts occurred on Saturday, March 14, 1964, and among the receiving theater locations that day, for example, were: the Stanley Theater in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; the Hippodrome Theater in Cleveland, Ohio; the El Monte Legion Stadium in El Monte, California; the Public Auditorium in Portland, Oregon; the Village Theater in Westwood, California; and many others. The following day, on Sunday, March 15, 1964, the show went out again to a number of locations, including: the Norva Theater in Norfolk, Virginia; Lake Theater in Oak Park, Illinois; Fox Theater in San Jose, California; and also back in Washington, D.C. at the Coliseum. In Albany, New York that weekend, there were three showings at the Palace Theater. In Indianapolis, Indiana, the Lyric Theater received the show on March 14th and March 15th, as did a big screen theater at the State Fair Coliseum in Dallas, Texas.
The total audience for the special closed-circuit broad- casts of the Beatles’ concert film was expected to exceed 500,000. The shows were seen in more than 100 theaters in the U.S. and Canada. The promoters — identified in advertising as the National General Corporation, or their subisidiary, Theater Color Vision — made millions. One 1964 estimate placed the take at some $4 million, or roughly $30 million in today’s money. This Beatles’ concert showing was apprarently the first use of closed-circuit broadcasting for a rock concert, as previously this closed-circuit theater network had been used only for championship boxing matches.
Excerpts from the film have shown up in numerous video compilations, including The Beatles Anthol- ogy. In 2003, a company named Passport released a DVD entitled The Beatles in Washington D.C., February 11, 1964.
Master Tape at Auction
Decades after the Beatles’ February 1964 performances, a reported master tape of the CBS film of the Beatles’ D.C. concert surfaced on the internet, appearing at the website, BeatleSource.com, display- ed in its shipping box. According to this site, the tape was auctioned off by “It’s Only Rock and Roll” in 2005 to an unnamed bidder for an unspecified price.
CBS Beatles tape in box.
In the website’s description of the master tape, however, it is noted: “. . . a variety of poor quality kinescopes trans- ferred to video versions of the [Beatles’ D.C.] concert have circulated on bootlegs, imports and, most recently, as a commercially released DVD. These versions are missing the on-stage announcements and footage of the Beatles running through the audience en route to the stage. In addition, these inferior copies end abruptly midway through ‘Twist & Shout,’ and are totally missing the finale of ‘Long Tall Sally’ and footage of the Beatles leaving the stage. Even the footage seen by millions on the Beatles Anthology series was far removed in picture and sound quality from what fans saw in their local theaters in March 1964.”
The website also notes in its description of this tape: “We can unequivocally say that there exists no other videotaped Beatles concert that remotely approaches the quality of this performance by the Beatles at Washington Coliseum.”
DVD of Beach Boys 'lost' concert.
“Lost” Beach Boys
There also appears to have been a film excerpt made of the Beach Boys’ portion of this show, which in recent years has been marketed as a separate DVD. The disc offers 22 minutes of the Beach Boys performance, described in the marketing literature as a “long-lost concert video” only now available. That Beach Boys’ performance — which was spliced into the Beatles’ closed-circuit film along with the Lesley Gore performance — was originally videotaped by NBC-TV in Burbank, California. Both of those performances were part of a separate concert hosted in Los Angeles in late January 1964 by L.A. disc jockey Roger Christian. But after the Beatles’ closed-circuit TV show was aired, including the Gore and Beach Boys’ portions, the Beach Boys segment remained virtually unseen for decades. Then in 1998, according to one account, the Beach Boys’ portion, or a version of the original session, was rediscovered and began being sold in June 1999 as a separate DVD. “Beach Boys fans will be delighted with the quality of the digitally mastered picture and sound,” says one review of “The Lost Concert.” It also captured the Beach Boys in their early days, when Brian Wilson was featured in the lead, as he would later stop touring with the band. The DVD also includes cutaway shots that provide a glimpse of what teen audiences were like during the heyday of the surfing craze, according to one description. “[P]lenty of Gidget hairdos, and a few parents in the crowd, marveling at the frenzy of it all…,” says the description. Among the Beach Boys’ songs on the disc are: “Fun Fun Fun,” “Little Deuce Coupe,” “Surfer Girl,” “Surfin’ USA,” “Shut Down,” “In My Room,” and others. See also, “Early Beach Boys, 1962-1966.”
Poster for Beatles' closed-circuit concert in Providence, R.I., 1964.
In late 2010, a high-quality video of the 1964 Beatles’ Washington, D.C. concert was reported to have surfaced in a couple of places, suggesting that it might be the 1964 master tape, or was somehow related to that tape. In November 2010, Apple, Inc.’s iTunes music service announced that it would begin selling Beatles’ music – singles, albums, and a special boxed set, among other items. The “Beatles Box Set” – which iTunes was then selling for $149.00 – included 13 remastered Beatles’ studio albums and other Beatles’ music. The box set was also advertised to include something else: the live 1964 Washington Coliseum Beatles’ concert film. iTunes reported that it had a “worldwide exclusive” on the film. Apple at that time was also allowing Beatles fans to stream and view the 1964 concert film from iTunes for free during November and December 2010.
Then, in December 2010, another report announced that the “not-seen-since-1964″ closed-circuit film – complete with Beach Boys and Lesely Gore segments, Roger Christian’s introductions, and the Beatles’ “Long Tall Sally” concert segment – would be given a special theatrical showing at the American Cinematheque Egyptian Theater in Hollywood on February 11, 2011. Hosting this screening would be: Alan Boyd, director of the documentary Endless Harmony: The Beach Boys Story; Domenic Priore, author of Riot on Sunset Strip: Rock ’n’ Roll’s Last Stand in Hollywood; and Ron Furmanek, a rock ‘n roll film archivist. “This will be the first time the ENTIRE production has been seen in full since the two days it was screened as a nationwide closed-circuit theater event…”, said the announcement, adding: “Our test screenings left us bedazzled, feeling as though we had just seen The Beatles in person… it’s that good.” Since then, however, it is not clear how often the “lost concert” Beatles film was actually aired in U.S., if at all, as a tour of U.S. theaters was promised, but there appears to have been some difficulty in showing the film — at least in some locations.
The Beatles performing live at the Washington Coliseum, February 11, 1964 -- from left, Paul, George, John & Ringo.
More Innocent Time
In any event, the Beatles’ in-theater, closed-circuit concerts that were aired in 1964 offer a look at an earlier, more innocent time in the music concert business — and a rare piece of music industry history. It also appears that those music fans who attended the 1964 theater showings of the Beatles’ first live U.S. concert — along with the added Beach Boys and Lesley Gore performances — were part of a rare event that occurred only in a limited number of U.S. locations.
(Original Posting) Jack Doyle, “Beatles’ Closed-Circuit Gig, Feb-March 1964,” PopHistoryDig.com, July 9, 2008.
(Title Change) Jack Doyle, “Beatles’ D.C. Gig,” Feb-March 1964, PopHistoryDig.com, January 29, 2014.
Sources, Links & Additional Information
Beatles on the Washington, D.C. mall, Feb 1964.
Beatles on D.C. mall with U.S. Capitol, Feb 1964.
February 1964: Fans outside the Washington, D.C. Coliseum waiting for the Beatles to arrive. (Photo, Keystone/Getty)
Jerry Doolittle, “Beatles Arrive, Teen- Agers Shriek, Police Do Their Duty, and That’s That,” The Washington Post-Times Herald, February 12, 1964, p. 1.
On YouTube.com, there are several videos of the Beatles’ February 1964 performance at the Washington Coliseum. These are typically grainy, black-and-white videos of various lengths, some 30 minutes or more, with shots of the Beatles performing, screaming fans, and the general pandemo- nium of that concert.
John S. Wilson, “2,900-Voice Chorus Joins the Beatles; Audience Shrieks and Bays and Ululates,” New York Times, February 13, 1964.
“Potential $4 Million Box Office For Beatles On Closed Circuit TV,” Broadcasting, February 24, 1964.
“Closed TV Shows Here for Beatles,” Dallas Morning News (Dallas, TX), March 2, 1964.
Myra MacPherson, “Help! The Day The Mania Came To Washington,” Washing- ton Post, February 7, 1984.
Bette Davis captured by photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt for Life magazine, January 23, 1939.
In May and June of 1981, the most popular song around was a tune about a Hollywood actress — or more precisely, about her eyes. “She’s got Bette Davis eyes” was the refrain made famous by the top-selling song of 1981, appropriately titled, “Bette Davis Eyes.” The song was performed by singer Kim Carnes, and was originally written in the mid-1970s by singer-songwriter Jackie DeShannon and Donna Weiss. DeShannon had also recorded a version of the song on her New Arrangement album of 1975. But it was the Kim Carnes version of the song in 1981 that became the big hit.
“Bette Davis Eyes,” in fact, became the third best-selling song of the entire 1980s decade, ranking only behind “Physical” by Olivia Newton John and “Endless Love” by Diana Ross and Lionel Richie. In 1981, it also won Grammy Awards for Song of the Year and Record of the year. Released on the EMI America label as a single in the spring of 1981, the song spent a total of nine weeks at #1 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 chart during May, June and July. It remained in the Top 40 for about 20 weeks. The Kim Carnes album containing the song — Mistaken Identity — also hit #1 and sold over eight million copies.
“Bette Davis Eyes”
Jackie DeShannon has stated that she was moved to write “Bette Davis Eyes” in 1974 after seeing the classic 1942 film Now Voyager, and one scene in particular, in which actor Paul Henreid, smitten by Bette Davis, is falling over himself lighting cigarettes for her. In the lyrics for the song by DeShannon and writing partner Donna Weiss, an intriguing, teasing woman is presented (see lyrics below). Bette Davis, of course, was a Hollywood legend. She had appeared in more than 100 films. She was known in part, for her large, expressive eyes, her engaging repartee, and for her sometimes sassy film roles. More about Davis in a moment. First, the song.
DVD cover for 1942 film, 'Now, Voyager.'
In 1980, Kim Carnes was a 34-year-old singer and songwriter who had experience in both Hollywood and the music business. She had begun her career at the age of 18 in Los Angeles, singing commercial jingles and doing nightclub work. In the 1960s she joined the New Christy Minstrels folk troupe where she met Kenny Rogers and Dave Ellingson, later marrying Ellingson with whom she did some joint singing and songwriting. She also produced some solo albums in the 1970s and had a minor hit or two. Her songwriting, however, was more successful — with Frank Sinatra, David Cassidy, and Kenny Rogers, among others. A duet she sang with Kenny Rogers, “Don’t Fall In Love With a Dreamer” in early 1980, became a Top 5 hit, and also had a related album, Gideon. About that time, Carnes was recording another album for EMI called Romance Dance and worked with producer/engineer Val Garay. The album charted and included Carnes’ first solo Top 10 hit, a version of Smokey Robinson’s “More Love.” Carnes and Garay then began work on a new album.
Cover for single of 'Bette Davis Eyes' by Kim Carnes released in 1981 by EMI Records America.
During their search for material, songwriter Donna Weiss brought some of her songs over to the studio where Carnes and Garay were working. One was a demo for a newer version of the 1974 “Bette Davis Eyes” song. Karnes and Garay both liked the melody and the lyrics, but the total package wasn’t quite there yet. However, one of their band members — keyboardist Bill Cuomo — gave the tune a more contemporary arrangement, along with a half dozen other musicians backing up Carnes. As Carnes would later explain to Dick Clark: “It’s Bill Cuomo, my synthesizer player, who really came up with the new feel, changing the chords. The minute he came up with that, it fell into place.” Garay recalls that ‘Bette Davis Eyes’ was recorded live in a North Hollywood studio.” I think we did three takes and the one we used was take one,” he said. Carnes has also written about recording the song: “I heard this song about a year before I finally cut it. My band, Val Garay and I rehearsed it for three days before coming up with the right feel. It was a completely collaborative effort between all of us. The next day we cut this track ‘live’ with no over-dubs and got it on the second take…” The song quickly became a major hit, along with the album. In addition to Carnes’ Grammy award for the song, Garay was also nominated for Producer of the Year, but lost to Quincy Jones.
“Bette Davis Eyes” 1981
Her hair is Harlow gold
Her lips sweet surprise
Her hands are never cold
She’s got Bette Davis eyes
She’ll turn her music on you
You won’t have to think twice
She’s pure as New York snow
She got Bette Davis eyes
And she’ll tease you
She’ll unease you
All the better just to please you
She’s precocious and she knows just
What it takes to make a pro blush
She got Greta Garbo stand off sighs
She’s got Bette Davis eyes
She’ll let you take her home
It whets her appetite
She’ll lay you on her throne
She got Bette Davis eyes
She’ll take a tumble on you
Roll you like you were dice
Until you come out blue
She’s got Bette Davis eyes
She’ll expose you, when she snows you
Off your feet with the crumbs she throws you
She’s ferocious and she knows just
What it takes to make a pro blush
All the boys think she’s a spy
She’s got Bette Davis eyes
And she’ll tease you
She’ll unease you
All the better just to please ya
She’s precocious, and she knows just
What it takes to make a pro blush
All the boys think she’s a spy
She’s got Bette Davis eyes
She’ll tease you
She’ll unease you
Just to please ya
She’s got Bette Davis eyes
She’ll expose you, when she snows you
She knows ya
She’s got Bette Davis eyes
First Lady of Film
Bette Davis, meanwhile, was still very much alive when “Bette Davis Eyes” became a hit song in 1981. In fact, she was then still actively performing, appearing in TV and Hollywood films, and would continue doing so through 1989. Davis began her film career in 1930 after a stint on Broadway. Born in Lowell, Massachusetts in April 1908, Davis had studied acting at the John Murray Anderson’s Dramatic School in New York where one of her classmates was Lucille Ball. In Hollywood, she was sometimes called “The First Lady of Film.”
During her career, Bette Davis appeared in more than 100 films. She gave notable performances in films such as Dangerous (1935) and Jezebel (1938), each of which earned her Oscars. In fact, she was nominated for an Academy Award five years in a row — 1938, 1939, 1940, 1941 and 1942. Another memorable performance by Davis came in All About Eve (1950) as the character Margo Channing.
Davis, right, in 'All About Eve' with Anne Baxter.
“In her heyday, as the reigning female star at Warner Brothers,” wrote Terrence Rafferty of The New York Times in 2008, “she was as electrifying as Marlon Brando in the ’50s: volatile, sexy, challenging, fearlessly inventive. She looked moviegoers straight in the eye and dared them to look away.”
In Hollywood, Bette Davis also became the first woman to be president of the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences, elected to that post in 1941. In 2008, on the 100th anniversary of Bette Davis’ birth, the U.S. Postal Service issued a commemorative stamp in her honor, the 14th in the Postal Service’s “Legends of Hollywood” series.
In addition to being the primary subject of Kim Carnes’ “Bette Davis Eyes,” the famous actress was also mentioned by name in Madonna’s #1 hit song of 1990, “Vogue”, which was Madonna’s tribute to the Golden Age of Hollywood. But Bette Davis herself reportedly liked Kim Carnes’ song and wrote to Carnes to tell her so. In liner notes from Carnes’ Gypsy Honeymoon album she writes about Bette Davis’s reaction to the song:
“…After the release of the record, Miss Davis sent me a note explaining how much she loved the song and that she was especially thrilled because her young grandson now considered her to be very contemporary. I developed a warm and special friendship with Miss Davis that lasted through the years. Shortly before her death, I sang the song live for her at a tribute held in her honor.”
Featured at right, Bette Davis in various
films & still shots, 1930s & 1940s. _____________________________
New Life for “Eyes”
Over the years, meanwhile, the Kim Carnes version of the “Bette Davis Eyes” song has held up reasonably well. Through the 1990s and beyond, the song was still being discovered by new listeners and recorded in new forms. A CD version appeared in 1996. In late August 1997, EMI UK and EMI Music Group Australia released a dance version. And by 1998, “Bette Davis Eyes” still had enough appeal that Cleopatra Records released the song as a down-loadable MP3, selling on Amazon and other outlets. In late 2003, another dance version was released with several different mixes.
The visual image used for a 1998 MP3 version of 'Bette Davis Eyes' by Kim Carnes for Cleopatra Records.
The cable TV channel VH-1 has also aired “Bette Davis Eyes” videos in programs such as “The Best Videos of the ’80s” and its “Pop-Up Videos” series. And last but not least, You Tubers have also produced some interesting video versions of “Bette Davis Eyes.” One enterprising video maker at You Tube has put together a nicely-done collage of Bette Davis stills that flash in sync with the Kim Carnes song — images that pretty much cover the film career of the famed movie star.
With the help of music it seems, the legacy of Bette Davis has been given some additional exposure and added luster, and will no doubt help to send those just discovering her to inquire further about her life, or into the many books that have been written about her.
A detailed account of Bette Davis’ reaction to Kim Carnes and the song “Bette Davis Eyes” can be found in Whitney Stine’s biography of Davis, I’d Love to Kiss You…Conversations with Bette Davis, Simon & Schuster, 1990.
Randolph E. Schmid, “Bette Davis Featured on New 2008 Stamps,” Associated Press, December 27, 2007.