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

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

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.

Get Into the Halloween Spirit With Harry Potter and Star Wars Costumes and Accessories From Hot Topic

Hot Topic
Hot Topic

Halloween is fast approaching, and that means it's time to start picking up those decorations, planning your costume, and settling down for a few monster movie marathons. Hot Topic is already way ahead of you, with a selection of costumes and accessories based on fan-favorite movies and TV shows like Harry Potter, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Stranger Things, and Hocus Pocus. We've picked out some of our favorites for you to check out below.

Harry Potter

1. Beauxbatons Hat and Cape Uniform; $60

Hot Topic

If Fleur Delacour is your favorite character from the Triwizard Tournament, then this look is for you. Beauxbatons baby blue hat and cape can now be yours to prance around in and pretend you're from the magical French academy for young witches.

Buy it: Beauxbatons Hat, Beauxbatons Cape

2. Hogwarts Zip-Up Hoodie Cloak; $55

Hot Topic

One of the most iconic parts of the Hogwarts uniform is the cloak. The sweeping black robes looked so official and mystical in the movies that it almost seems wrong not to wear one if you want to be a Hogwarts student for Halloween. These hoodie cloaks are available in all four house colors.

Buy it: Hot Topic

3. Hogwarts Cardigan Sweater; $49

Hot Topic

Much like the cloak, the sweater vests and cardigans the students at Hogwarts got to wear are essential to any costume. You can choose from the four house crests and colors, so you can show your allegiance while also making a fashion statement.

Buy it: Hot Topic

4. Hogwarts Plaid Skirtall; $45

Hot Topic

Though this isn't a look you'd recognize from the Harry Potter movies, these plaid skirtalls—skirt overalls, basically—feature the crest and colors of whichever house you represent.

Buy it: Hot Topic

Star Wars

1. The Mandalorian Helmet; $17

Hot Topic

With the second season of The Mandalorian coming out right in time for Halloween, going as one of the show's main characters is a no-brainer. And since you probably can't pull off the Baby Yoda look, this simple Mando helmet is your best option.

Buy it: Hot Topic

2. Yoda Pet Costume; $20

Hot Topic

Baby Yoda is easily the cutest thing to emerge from the new Disney+ series, and there's no shortage of merchandise with that little green face plastered across it. From Amazon Echo Dots to slippers to LEGO sets, the little rascal is everywhere. But if you're more a fan of classic Yoda, you can impose your love of the character on your dog with this costume, complete with floppy green ears and tiny Jedi robe.

Buy it: Hot Topic

3. The Force Awakens Rey Costume; $48

Hot Topic

Rey represents a new generation of Star Wars hero, and her costume during her time on Jakku from The Force Awakens is still her most iconic look. It's also a costume that's simple enough to throw on for Halloween and still feel comfortable in.

Buy it: Hot Topic

4. R2-D2 with Pumpkin Decoration; $50

Hot Topic

When trick-or-treaters stop to collect candy from your house, greet them with this inflatable R2-D2 decoration that's primed for Halloween. Standing around 3 feet tall, this will show off your love for a galaxy far, far away and your holiday spirit.

Buy it: Hot Topic

The Nightmare Before Christmas

1. Sally Scrunchies Set; $10

Hot Topic

If you're looking to embrace your The Nightmare Before Christmas love in a more subtle way, opt for these Sally-approved scrunchies that embody the colors of the movie without going too far overboard.

Buy it: Hot Topic

2. Jack Skellington Button-Up Shirt; $35

Hot Topic

If Jack Skellington is your ultimate fashion hero, then this button-up pinstriped shirt is the ticket for you. It mimics Jack's look right down to the unique bat-shaped collar.

Buy it: Hot Topic

3. Jack and Sally 'Love is Eternal' Eyeshadow Palette; $17

Hot Topic

Makeup inspired by your favorite characters is the key to completing a Halloween look, and this palette will help you make a colorful, smokey eye featuring shades seen in The Nightmare Before Christmas. You can even use these colors long after Halloween is over once you've mastered your favorite style.

Buy it: Hot Topic

4. Zero Dog Costume; $29

Hot Topic

The real star of The Nightmare Before Christmas has to be the dog, Zero, and now you can drape your own pooch in the ghostly visage for under $30.

Buy it: Hop Topic

Other Categories

- Stranger Things
- Coraline
- Disney
- Haunted Mansion
- Hocus Pocus
- The Craft

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You Betcha: 16 Facts About FX's Fargo

Chris Rock as Loy Cannon in Fargo season 4.
Chris Rock as Loy Cannon in Fargo season 4.
Matthias Clamer/FX © 2020, FX Networks. All Rights Reserved.

The contrast between the affable citizens of Minnesota and the bloody criminal activities they find themselves drawn into helped make the Coen brothers' Fargo (1996) a critical and commercial success. In 2012, the Oscar-winning filmmakers agreed to let Noah Hawley (Legion) create an expanded-universe TV series for FX. With their help, 2014’s Fargo retained all of the film’s Midwestern charm, with Billy Bob Thornton’s Lorne Malvo at odds with Martin Freeman’s wife-bludgeoning Lester Nygaard.

The anthology series has been a hit for the network and for Hawley, with three seasons airing through 2017. The fourth season—starring Chris Rock as crime family head Loy Cannon, who rules a new setting for the show (Kansas City in 1950) and trades sons with the Italian mafia to keep the peace between the organizations—premiered on September 27.

In case you're in the mood for reflection, we’ve rounded up some behind-the-scenes facts about television’s most polite crime saga, with plenty of You betchas and Uff das in tow.

Note: Some spoilers ahead.

1. It wasn't the first Fargo television adaptation.

A year after Fargo’s theatrical release, rights holder MGM attempted a small-screen adaptation starring a pre-Sopranos Edie Falco as Marge Gunderson, the role originally played by Frances McDormand. The Coens were not involved, which may have doomed the project from the start: it never went to series and sat on the shelf for six years until cable network Trio unearthed the pilot in 2003 as part of their block of unseen-programming specials. Ironically, NBC executive Warren Littlefield passed on this project—which eventually wound up at CBS—fearing it could never live up to the movie: Littlefield wound up becoming an executive producer on the 2014 series.

2. There's a reason the Fargo series didn't use Marge.

One reason Littlefield was more supportive of this spin-off was because creator Noah Hawley had no desire to revisit McDormand’s Marge Gunderson character, the pregnant sheriff of Brainerd, Minnesota. In 2014, Hawley told IndieWire that he opted for an anthology format with a different narrative every season to avoid the show becoming about the “grim” day-to-day adventures of Marge.

3. The Coens didn't have to be involved in Fargo (but they wanted to be.)

Getty Images

Because MGM owns the rights to Fargo, they didn’t necessarily need Joel and Ethan Coen's blessing to move forward. (And apparently didn’t get it for the 1997 attempt.) But when Littlefield presented them with Hawley’s script for the pilot, they decided to become involved. “They just said, ‘We're not big fans of imitation, but we feel like Noah channeled us and we would like to put our names on this,’” Littlefield told HitFix in 2014. “And they didn't have to do that.”

4. The Fargo series is all taken from a (fake) true crime book.

Hawley has been quoted as saying he thinks of the Fargo-verse as being influenced by a big book of Midwestern crime tales, with each season being a different chapter. He cemented that idea in the ninth episode of the second season, opening with a close-up of a book titled The History of True Crime in the Midwest.

5. ... which might explain that UFO.

In season 2, Patrick Wilson’s Lou Solverson character is saved during the “Massacre at Sioux Falls” (originally referenced in the first season) by the appearance of what appeared to be a UFO hovering over a motel parking lot. Even by Fargo’s standards, it was a strange occurrence. According to Hawley, who was pressed for some kind of explanation during a June 2016 book signing, the scene stemmed from the idea that the show is taking cues from “true crime” books and all of the unbelievable details they often contain.

Speaking of a similar scene that felt disconnected from the narrative of the original film, Hawley said that he asked himself, “‘Why is this in the movie?’ It has nothing to do with the movie—except the movie says, ‘This is a true story.’ They put it in there because it ‘happened.’ Otherwise you wouldn’t put it in there. The world of Fargo needs those elements; those random, odd, truth-is-stranger-than-fiction elements.”

It's also worth noting that the Coens's 2001 movie The Man Who Wasn't There, starring Billy Bob Thornton, featured a similarly out-of-nowhere UFO scene.

6. There was a voice coach on the Fargo set.

If you’ve ever met anyone who wasn’t a big fan of the Coen brothers' 1996 film, they probably pointed to the syrupy Minnesota accents as being too obnoxious to put up with for too long. Hawley was cognizant of that, too. Although he kept a voice coach on set, he had the actors minimize any attempt to lay it on thick. The accent “became a caricature after the movie,” he said. Allison Tolman, who played police deputy Molly Solverson in season 1, said her accent was inspired by listening to a Midwestern character on the 1990s Howie Mandel cartoon Bobby’s World.

7. FX felt they needed Billy Bob Thornton for Fargo.

Billy Bob Thornton and Colin Hanks in Fargo.Chris Large/© 2014, FX Networks. All rights reserved.

Oscar-winner Thornton portrayed philosophical hitman Lorne Malvo in the first season, a casting move that FX president John Landgraf said was mandatory for the show in order to find its footing. “We needed Billy Bob Thornton," Landgraf told a television critics panel in 2014, “but now the show, the title, the tone, the writing ... are the star of that show.”

8. Bad hair is a Fargo series tradition.

Jean Smart was cast in the second season as Floyd Gerhardt, the matriarch crime boss of a bunch of hooligan sons. Set in 1979, the 62-year-old Smart was asked to cut and dye her hair to appear more matronly. “They first day they cut and dyed and styled my hair, I burst into tears,” Smart said.

While Thornton sported an equally unfortunate cut in the first season, he seemed more pleased with it. "I got a bad haircut," he told Collider in 2014. "We had planned on dyeing my hair and having a dark beard, but I didn’t plan on having bangs. But then, instead of fixing it, I didn’t fix it because I looked at myself in the mirror and I thought, 'Hang on a second here, this is like 1967 L.A. rock. I could be the bass player for Buffalo Springfield. This is good. Or, it’s the dark side of Ken Burns.'"

9. You need to watch Fargo really closely to catch all the Coen Brothers Easter eggs.

FX

Hawley’s Fargo doesn’t just pay homage to the feature that inspired it; if you watch closely, you’ll see obscure references to the Coens's entire filmography. A second-season episode panned over a diner placemat featuring a Hula Hoop in a nod to 1994’s The Hudsucker Proxy; the word unguent is featured in both the film and show as a treatment for a bite and gunshot wound, respectively; a chalkboard ad for a White Russian drink special—a favorite of The Dude in The Big Lebowski—can be seen behind Martin Freeman.

10. Shooting on Fargo can be canceled when it gets too cold.

To mimic the frozen tundra of Minnesota in the winter, producers headed to the frozen tundra of Calgary in late 2013. Temperatures sometimes dropped to minus 30 degrees. On one particularly harsh day, producers noticed that a traffic cone had become so frozen it shattered into pieces when a wind swept through, dropping the temperature to minus 40. They called off shooting for the remainder of the afternoon.

11. The fake snow on Fargo can be irritating.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Carrie Coon in Fargo.© 2017, FX Networks. All Rights Reserved.

While there was plenty of real freezing to go around, the production couldn’t always rely on a steady stream of real snow. The show used a fake concoction made of shredded rice cakes that proved bothersome to the actors; it made their shoes so slick it was hard to walk without slipping, and breathing it in resulted in bronchial irritation.

12. Fargo, North Dakota got a little upset about Fargo.

When the series announced it would be taking advantage of the tax breaks available to television productions shooting in Canada, the city of Fargo, North Dakota, let out a collective sigh of disappointment. “I was afraid they might want to shoot it in Canada,” Charley Johnson, president of the city’s visitor’s bureau, said. The state has no film commission to offer any financial breaks, but they do have a wood chipper at their tourist center.

13. Bruce Campbell won the Ronald Reagan role on Fargo by mocking the former president.

Bruce Campbell as Ronald Reagan in Fargo.Chris Large/FX  Copyright 2015, FX Networks. All Rights Reserved.

Bruce Campbell figures he got the job portraying then-presidential hopeful Ronald Reagan in season 2 by mocking him. He and executive producer John Cameron went to high school together and kept in touch, which allowed Cameron to see Campbell do his version in the 1980s. “My kids grew up in a Reagan Era, they were young during that decade, so we mocked him good,” Campbell told The Hollywood Reporter. "So that must've been how that came in, that John was like, ‘OK. I've seen Bruce do Reagan for years’ and I'm sure Noah Hawley was at least intrigued."

14. Ewan McGregor fooled set visitors on Fargo.

Ewan McGregor as Ray Stussy in Fargo.Matthias Clamer/FX © 2017, FX Networks. All Rights Reserved.

In the third season, Ewan McGregor plays Emmit and Ray Stussy, two brothers with vastly different lifestyles. While Emmit is "the parking lot king of Minnesota" with a fortune to match, the scheming Ray has gone to seed, with straggly hair and a paunch. McGregor told Entertainment Weekly that when a car mechanic came on set to discuss Ray's Corvette, he had an hour-long conversation with the actor while he was in makeup for Ray. The next day, he was (re) introduced to McGregor and had no idea he had already spoken to him.

15. There's a detail in season 3 of Fargo you might not have noticed.

Ewan McGregor as Emmit Stussy in Fargo.Chris Large/FX © 2017, FX Networks. All Rights Reserved.

One major character's fate in season 3 of Fargo is to be relegated to a tiny office space. How small? As Noah Hawley told The Hollywood Reporter, each office entrance had two yellow lines in front of it to indicate they were hardly any bigger than a parking space. "Nobody probably noticed, but if you go back to the Stussy Lots Limited offices, outside of everybody's door, there are these two yellow lines on the floor that look like [a] parking place," Hawley said. "It's the sort of jokey thing where you can imagine them going, 'Oh, it's funny! This is my parking space office and this is your parking space office' and nobody probably notices, but it's there, for me, because I think that my job is to put it into the show so that it's part of the story."

16. Chris Rock agreed to be in Fargo without reading a script.

Chris Rock, Jeremie Harris, Corey Hendrix, and Glynn Turman in Fargo.Elizabeth Morris/FX Copyright 2020, FX Networks. All Rights Reserved

According to Noah Hawley, Chris Rock made a commitment to star in season 4 of the show without seeing much of anything on paper. Hawley phoned FX, told them the basic idea, and expressed interest in casting Rock. "Chris came to the set [of Hawley's 2019 film, Lucy in the Sky] two weeks later and I pitched him the thing and luckily he was a Fargo enthusiast and he was in," Hawley told Entertainment Weekly. "There wasn't a script for six more months. I've never done it that way before. There's always been a script first."

This story has been updated for 2020.