Who stole my song?
The music industry has been plagued by stories of “stealing credits” — both compositions and lyrics
There is a wonderful story behind the classic song I Wanna Be Around of which there are many versions, though the best known may be by Tony Bennett. If you look up the writing credits, you will discover that it was written by Johnny Mercer and Sadie Vimmerstedt.
Johnny Mercer was one of the greatest songwriters of the Fifties. But who in God’s name was Sadie Vimmerstedt?
It turns out that she was a beautician in Youngstown, Ohio, who had an idea for a song which began, “I want to be around to pick up the pieces when somebody breaks your heart.” She had heard of Mercer and wrote him a letter addressed to “Johnny Mercer, Songwriter, New York.” It is a measure of Mercer’s celebrity that the letter reached him.
He liked the line and wrote a song around it. Because he was a decent man, he assigned one-third of the royalties to Vimmerstedt. The song became a hit and is now a standard. Vimmerstedt made so much money from that one suggestion that she went around the world twice. And the royalty cheques keep coming.
Those were simple and honourable days. A songwriter wrote a song. He sent it to Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett or Elvis Presley who then recorded it the way he or she had written it. But with the shift to singers and groups writing their own songs, the process has become more complicated. And it is harder to assign credit.
Many singers and bands go into the studio with no ready songs. For instance, Elton John already has Bernie Taupin’s lyrics when he starts recording. But he makes up the tune in the studio. Most songs emerge out of jams which are, by definition, collaborative efforts.
Take the case of A Whiter Shade of Pale, one of the greatest hits of the 60s. The lyrics were written by Keith Reid, who gave them to Gary Brooker — the leader of a band called Procol Harum. The group went into the studio, a tune emerged and Brooker was cited as the writer.
Except that Mathew Fisher, who played the organ at the session, says he wrote most of the tune. The case went to Britain’s highest court which ruled that, yes, Fisher was right. He now has a co-writing credit and shares in the royalties.
But it is not always so clear-cut. Take The Beatles. Who wrote Eleanor Rigby? John Lennon claimed to have written “a good half of that lyric”. Paul McCartney says he wrote the whole song. Most people believe McCartney and the bad blood led McCartney to reverse the Lennon-McCartney credit on the songs he had written to McCartney-Lennon in later releases of the old albums.
What makes it more complicated is that when The Beatles went into the studio, they often did not have finished songs. McCartney just had the tune for Yesterday and some of the words. But when the recording started, the song went Scrambled eggs, doo doo doo. Most of the lyrics came in the studio. Who is to say who suggested which line?
In the case of The Rolling Stones, the situation is more complex. One reason guitarist Mick Taylor left the band is because he felt he was not getting credit for his song-writing contributions. For instance, Keith Richard could never have played those guitar parts on Time Waits For No One. But the song is credited to Jagger-Richards. Bill Wyman has claimed that he came up with the riff that drives Jumpin’ Jack Flash, but that Mick Jagger and Keith Richards refused to give him a song-writing credit.
Marianne Faithfull wrote the words to Sister Morphine but it took ages for the Stones to give her credit. Gram Parsons is said to have had a hand in the creation of Wild Horses. But the Stones never gave him any credit and he died two years after the song was recorded so it never flared into a major dispute.
The tendency to sample bits of existing songs in modern music has made it difficult to assign credit. For example, Ice Ice Baby, the hit song by Vanilla Ice, was based on a riff sampled from Under Pressure by David Bowie and Queen. Vanilla Ice did not give any credit to the creators of the riff. When Queen’s Brian May first heard the song, he is said to have thought: “That’s our riff! But it is such a crap song that it will sink without a trace.” Wrong. The song became an international hit. Queen sued and won a share of the royalties.
Simon and Garfunkel
Often songwriters make millions out of traditional songs. Scarborough Fair is an old English folk song. But when Simon and Garfunkel recorded it, the song writing credit ran “Trad arr [traditional; arranged] by Simon and Garfunkel.” Because nobody is quite sure what the original song sounded like, everyone who records it pays Simon and Garfunkel. Most notorious is the case of the The House of the Rising Sun. This is an old folk song that had been recorded by many artists. Then the British band, The Animals, got their hands on it, changed one or two words and recorded it as a rock song. The band expected no song writing credit but its keyboard player, the canny Alan Price, went behind the backs of his colleagues to ensure that the credit read “Trad arr by Alan Price”. The royalties kept him going for decades.
And sometimes, when artists are in the studio under pressure to come up with a tune, they fall back on something that is already in their memory — somebody else’s song. That, said George Harrison, is what happened to him while recording My Sweet Lord. He used much of the tune of He’s So Fine by The Chiffons. The original writers went to court and Harrison lost.
Gone is the gentler era when a stranger could send a single line of a song to a great writer and end up making so much money.