Merv Griffin's $80 Million Lullaby & More Tales of Music Royalties

Jeopardy Productions, Getty Images
Jeopardy Productions, Getty Images

Even if they're not the ones on stage belting out their tunes, songwriters can make quite bit of cash from publishing royalties. If you write a hit song, you'll pick up anywhere from a few cents to hundreds of dollars any time it's played on TV, the radio, or in a film. Let's take a look at a few noteworthy tales of music royalties.

Jeopardy! Theme Makes a Non-Trivial Amount

Jeopardy!'s memorable theme song "Think!" was originally composed by show creator Merv Griffin as a lullaby for his son Tony; in 2005 Griffin told the New York Times that he had tossed the tune together in less than a minute. It might have been the most lucrative minute on record, though. In the same interview, Griffin estimated that the royalties from the theme had put somewhere between $70 and $80 million in his pockets.

To put that figure in perspective, to make that much loot by playing Jeopardy!, Ken Jennings would have needed to win every game for about 10 years.

"Happy Royalties to You"

You probably already knew that "Happy Birthday to You" is still under copyright and that licensing the song for use in, say, a film is prohibitively pricey. (Some sources estimate that the cost of using the tune in a movie is over $10,000.) Warner/Chappell Music, Inc. owns the copyright to the song, which allegedly earns in over $2 million in royalties each year.

Here's something you might not know, though: it's not entirely clear that the song's copyright is valid. In 2008 George Washington University law professor Robert Brauneis published a paper called "Copyright and the World's Most Popular Song" that contended the copyright might not stand up to any legal challenges. According to Brauneis, the copyright was surely expired due to failure to file proper renewals and ambiguity over who wrote the original lyrics. Nevertheless, Warner/Chappell keeps collecting royalties on the tune.

Elton John Can Afford Lots of Candles

The manuscript of the song ''Candle in the Wind'' signed by Elton John and lyricist Bernie Taupin
Sion Touhig, Getty Images

It's hard to pin down which song has earned the most royalties over the years since so many of the copyrights are in private hands. "White Christmas" would seem like a safe choice, but Irving Berlin's family has been pretty cagey about revealing any figures. The English press has their own guess, though: Elton John's "Candle in the Wind."

If you've got to go out on a limb, "Candle in the Wind" is a pretty good bet. The song, which was originally written for the 1973 album Goodbye Yellow Brick Road by John and lyricist Bernie Taupin, reached #11 on the UK charts when it was released as a single in 1974. In 1986 John released an even more successful live single of the song that featured accompaniment from the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra; that version reached #5 on the UK charts and peaked at #6 in the U.S.

The real sales, though, came when Taupin and John revised the song following the 1997 death of Diana, Princess of Wales. Taupin changed the lyrics from a tribute to Marilyn Monroe to a tribute to Princess Di, and John rerecorded the track as "Candle in the Wind 1997." The single shot to the top of the charts around the world, and John pledged all of the song's royalties to the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund. By the end of the year, the song had earned $33 million for the foundation, and the Guinness Book of Records later certified it as the best-selling single "since records began."

The Video Beatles Rake It In

Ringo Starr and Sir Paul McCartney introduce the new video game The Beatles: Rock Band for the Microsoft XBox 360 at the E3 2009 gaming expo
Kevork Djansezian, Getty Images

Just how valuable are the rights to the Beatles' catalog? Consider this: when Viacom licensed the Fab Four's tunes for the video game Beatles Rock Band last year, it coughed up $10 million just in initial fees. Wired estimated that if the game sold as planned, the royalties for the Beatles' rights holders would be over $40 million.

"Baker Street" Leads to Easy Street

It's not just mega-hits like the Beatles' catalog that pile up big royalties. According to a 2006 report, Scottish singer songwriter Gerry Rafferty pulls in over $100,000 a year in royalties from his 1978 single "Baker Street." Not too shabby for a song that never hit #1 in the U.S. or the U.K.

"A Whiter Shade of Pay Me My Royalties"

British band Procol Harum scored a number-one hit with its 1967 track "A Whiter Shade of Pale," and after spending six weeks atop the charts, the song has enjoyed a long life on oldies stations. Most listeners would agree that the organ part is the lynchpin of the song, but organist Matthew Fisher didn't get a sniff of the royalties. Instead, the cash went into the pockets of frontman Gary Brooker, who sang and played piano on the song, and manager/lyricist Keith Reid.

In 2005, Fisher decided he was due for some compensation and sued Brooker with the claim that he had co-written the song and deserved half of any royalties it had earned. In late 2006, the court decided that Brooker could have 40% of the copyright and a corresponding share of any royalties going forward. After several years of appeals by Brooker and Fisher, the case ended up before the House of Lords in 2009. The U.K.'s highest court ruled that Fisher's organ line had been a crucial part of the song's success and gave Fisher a share of any future royalties the song earned.

10 Dramatic Downton Abbey Fan Theories

Jim Carter as Mr. Carson in Downton Abbey (2019).
Jim Carter as Mr. Carson in Downton Abbey (2019).
Focus Features

Despite its exhaustively polished veneer, Downton Abbey was always a soap opera. Julian Fellowes's historical drama about a family of aristocrats and their many servants could never resist a good shocker, and it deployed plenty of them over the course of six seasons. The valet was suspected of murder (twice). One of the Crawley sisters got knocked up by her older married boyfriend, who promptly went missing. And another sister’s first sexual encounter ended in death. Considering all this, it should come as no surprise that fans have developed similarly wacky theories about the show. These fan theories include secret parentage, undercover spies, and, of course, poison.

Brush up on the best of them before the Downton Abbey movie hits theaters—just in case the whole miscarriage curse comes up.

1. Mr. Carson is Lady Mary’s father.

This theory all comes down to eyes. As you may recall from science class, certain genes are dominant and others are recessive. This is perhaps most easily understood through eye color, where brown eye color, a dominant gene, is expressed as BB and blue eye color, a recessive gene, is expressed as bb. A parent with brown eyes might carry the recessive blue eye gene (i.e. Bb), but if you plot out genetic probabilities on a basic Punnett square, two blue-eyed parents with double bbs have seemingly no shot at producing a Bb baby. Now, what does any of this have to do with Downton Abbey? Both Lord and Lady Grantham have blue eyes, but their eldest daughter, Mary, has brown eyes. This has led some fans to speculate that Lady Mary is actually the daughter of Carson, the family’s beloved butler who has always acted as as sort of second father to Mary. As debunkers have noted, two blue-eyed people can have a brown-eyed child, because recessive genes aren’t that simple. But isn’t it wild to think of Carson and Cora having an affair?

2. Thomas Barrow poisoned Kemal Pamuk.

One of the soapiest subplots of Downton Abbey's first season involved “poor Mr. Pamuk,” the dashing Turkish diplomat who makes a fateful visit to the Abbey. After enjoying a day of fox hunting and an evening of sparkling conversation, Kemal Pamuk drops dead ... right in Lady Mary’s bed. The cause, it is later revealed, was a heart attack, but many viewers suspected something more sinister. Earlier in the episode, the Crawleys’ closeted footman, Thomas Barrow, made a pass at Pamuk, which the diplomat rejected quite forcefully—so much so that he threatened to get Thomas fired. That placed the footman in a tricky situation, but it was nothing a little poison couldn't fix, and that’s exactly why some fans believe Thomas slipped something into Mr. Pamuk’s dinner.

3. Lady Grantham’s miscarriage started a curse.

In the Season 1 finale, tragedy strikes. The newly pregnant Lady Grantham slips on a bar of soap, falling onto the bathroom tiles and inducing a miscarriage. It’s a sad moment, but it’s also, Reddit claims, the source of the house’s future misfortune. According to this theory, the miscarriage kicks off a curse of deadly pregnancies: Lady Sybil dies in childbirth; Matthew Crawley dies in a car accident soon after the birth of his son; and when the maid Ethel Parks becomes pregnant with Major Bryant’s child, he dies, too.

4. Mr. Bates is actually a bad guy.

Brendan Coyle and Joanne Froggatt in Downton Abbey (2019).
Brendan Coyle and Joanne Froggatt in Downton Abbey (2019).
Focus Features

Downton Abbey invests a lot of time and effort in convincing us that John Bates, Lord Grantham's trusty, is a great guy—despite his checkered past and multiple murder allegations. But what if everyone’s assumptions about Bates are exactly right? Some Redditors believe Bates is just a remorseless serial killer, pointing to his intense hatred of his first wife and “creepy vibes” as evidence. Anna had better watch out.

5. Michael Gregson is a spy.

Lady Edith’s boss and lover Michael Gregson is the publisher of a London magazine, The Sketch. Thanks to his job, he knows tons of important people, travels all over the world, and speaks multiple languages. He eventually disappears inside Germany in season 4, and later dispatches to the Crawley family imply that he was a victim of Adolf Hitler’s “thugs.” (The show timeline places Gregson in Munich right around the time of the Beer Hall Putsch.) Or at least, that’s the official story. Another one suggests that Gregson was a British spy gathering intel on the insurgent Nazis—and he might not have died at all. His superiors simply needed to feed Edith a lie that would discourage her from poking around, so they made up a cover story that someone who follows the news would believe.

6. Lady Rosamund Painswick is Lady Edith’s mother.

When Lady Edith becomes pregnant with Michael Gregson’s child, she finds a strong support system in her aunt, Lady Rosamund Painswick. Upon learning Edith’s secret, Rosamund travels to Downton Abbey to help her niece through her pregnancy, and suggests adoption options as the due date draws near. Some fans have interpreted this empathy as a clue that Rosamund, not Lady Grantham, is Edith’s true mother. It could also explain why Edith looks (and behaves) so different from her sisters. Or it could just be a sign that Rosamund cares about her niece.

7. Lady Mary’s “operation” was IVF.

In season 3, Lady Mary claims to have undergone a “small operation” that will help her start a family with Matthew. It’s maddeningly unclear what this operation entails, but one wild guess is that she had an early version of IVF. The complete crackpot theory is that this was a cover for Matthew’s infertility, which the doctors wouldn’t disclose to him, presumably to preserve his 1920s masculinity.

8. Lady Mary’s son George becomes a Royal Air Force pilot in World War II.

Lady Mary’s son George is only five years old in the series finale of Downton Abbey. But that means he would theoretically be 18 in the fall of 1939, which is exactly when World War II broke out in Europe. He would almost certainly enlist, as show creator Julian Fellowes himself has suggested. But Decider has more specifically theorized that George would join the Royal Air Force (RAF), “with a desire to rebel against his emotionally distant mother and find purpose in a greater cause.” Sounds like George would be taking part in some dangerous missions, putting the entire family’s future at risk.

9. Public tours keep the estate alive.

The Crawleys spend much of Downton Abbey fretting about the future management of their estate—partially because Lord Grantham is kind of bad at it. But Lady Mary has taken over when the series ends, and Fellowes believes she’d find savvy ways to keep her family’s home in their hands. “She would probably have opened the house to the public in the 1960s, as so many of them did,” Fellowes told Deadline. “And she’d have retreated to a wing, and maybe only occupied the whole house during the winters. My own belief is that the Crawleys would still be there.”

10. The Dowager Countess keeps Denker and Spratt around for the drama.

Gladys Denker is a maid to the Dowager Countess. Septimus Spratt is her butler. These two do not like each other, and they’re quite public about it. Denker and Spratt’s unprofessional squabbles would’ve gotten plenty of other servants fired, but fans believe the Dowager Countess keeps them employed for her own amusement.

You Can Rent This Wizard of Oz-Themed Cottage in North Carolina

Airbnb
Airbnb

This year marks the 80th anniversary of The Wizard of Oz, the classic 1939 adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s book. In addition to watching the film, you can opt for a more immersive way to celebrate the occasion. As Travel + Leisure reports, a cottage in West Jefferson, North Carolina offered on Airbnb is perfect for any traveling Oz fan—and it’s only $35 a night.

The studio cottage is considered a glamping destination and is slim on amenities—it has a breakfast nook, porch, sofa bed, and a Porta John—but the Oz-themed details more than make up for the lack of luxurious perks.

A pair of stockinged feet are visible under the home, hinting at a witch’s untimely demise; a character mural of Dorothy and her three escorts, the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Cowardly Lion, appears on the side of the cabin; inside, various other decorations pay homage to Baum's books, including a pair of ruby slippers and a few stuffed Totos.

A cottage with a 'Wizard of Oz' theme in West Jefferson, North Carolina is pictured
Airbnb

If you go, you’ll have to act quickly. The cottage is open only in the spring, summer, and fall, as it has no heat.

The Airbnb listing has a perfect score across 16 reviews. You can book it here.

[h/t Travel + Leisure]

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