We look around in the music industry and witness award ceremonies like the Soul Train Awards and other music awards shows and hear of artists who sold millions of records or went Platinum one, two, or three years in a row. Immediately, we think of people like Mariah Carey, Beyonce, Usher, or DMX who broke records with their record sales. But these artists and their songs only scratch the surface when it comes to the number of royalties their songs have earned compared to more legendary songs that we tend to take for granted. Here is a list of ten songs that have made millions in royalties.
10 The Happy Birthday Song
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Here is a song we probably heard every year of our lives but never wondered where it came from – Happy Birthday. The simple melody of the song has become an anthem at birthday parties around the world for more than a century. It wasn’t created by someone like Aretha Franklin or Whitney Houston, rather, it was born in 1893 by the Hill Sisters, Patty Smith Hill and Mildred J. Hill. According to CBS News, the song’s ownership has changed hands plenty of times in the past 100 years. Copyrights to the song were bought by the music holding company, Warner/Chapell, for $25 million in 1988, and today earns a total of $2 million per year in royalties. Altogether, the song has earned over $50 million in royalties.
9 White Christmas
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It’s quite possible that this Christmas song has been on the soundtrack of almost every Christmas movie made in the 21st Century, from Irving Berlin’s White Christmas film in 1954 to Macaulay Culkin’s Home Alone in 1990. Written by the actor Irving Berlin himself, the song White Christmas has come to evoke the spirit of Christmas, making it a must-have on your Christmas song playlist. Although it was written and first sung by Berlin, a more popularized version of the song was done by Bing Crosby, who is regarded as the most successful and famous celebrity singer and actor of the 20th century. In addition to selling over 100 million copies worldwide and earning an estimated $36 million in royalties, it was also deemed the best-selling single by the Guinness Book of World Records.
8 You’ve Lost The Lovin’ Feelin’
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The equivalent of a co-written song today by a celebrity couple would probably be Drunken Love by Jay-Z and Beyonce, the most talked about power couple in modern times. But in 1964, husband and wife songwriters Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil wrote this classic together with legendary producer, Phil Specter. Despite being recorded by the duet, the song was first released by another duo called The Righteous Brothers, consisting of Bill Medley and Bobby Hartfield, shortly after. Over the decades, the song went on to be covered by over 2200 music artists from across the globe. It has grossed royalty earnings of an estimated $32 million.
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The Beatles’ rock ban needs no introduction as their fame has gone throughout the entire world and has possibly spilled over into other galaxies! One of their biggest hits, Yesterday, was said to have been written by Paul McCartney in 1964 although it was credited to John Lennon. There was a great bit of controversy surrounding the song, and a disagreement between McCartney and the band’s then-record producer and arranger, George Martin, lead to the song’s release being delayed until 1965. McCartney claimed to have received the melody for the record in a dream and took his time to compose his masterpiece. His patience and musical genius paid off, as the song went on to earn $30 million in royalties as well as holding the title of the second most played song in the history of radio.
6 Unchained Melody
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In most cases, a movie lends the name of a song and attracts even more listeners to the artist. The same was done with the song Unchained Melody, written by Alex North & Hy Zaret, when it became the basis for a 1955 prison movie titled Unchained. Just as Bryan Mann and Cynthia Weil’s You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’ was covered by The Righteous Brothers, the Unchained Medley song was also covered by the musical duo in 1965. Their cover gained star popularity when the doing was featured in the 1990 romance/fantasy, Ghost, starring Demi Moore, Patrick Swayze, and Whoopi Goldberg. The song’s success was inevitable, grossing $27.5 million in music royalties.
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5 Stand By Me
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Written by Jerry Leiber, Mike Stoller, and Ben E. King in 1961, Stand By Me has become a cultural and historical icon in music over the decades. The song has come to represent a symbol of hope and brotherly love, judging by its sentimental lyrics. It was originally recorded by Ben E. King and went on to top the R&B Charts in 1961 as well as becoming the Top 10 hit on the U.S. charts twice in the same year. It topped the charts again years later in 1986 with the release of the movie, Stand By Me, starring John Cusack, Corey Feldman, and Jerry O’Connell. The song grossed $27 million in royalties in total.
4 Santa Clause Is Comin’ To Town
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Another legitimate carol that gets you hyped for the Christmas season is Haven Gillespie’s Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town. Released in 1934, it was an instant hit, selling over 400,000 copies within only a few months after its release. Another songwriter who doesn’t receive much credit for the song’s composition is J. Fred Coots. Undeniably, the song has remained a massive success to this day and has been covered by some of the music industry’s most prominent artists, such as Mariah Carey, Bruce Springstein, and Justin Bieber. The estimated royalties earned for this Christmas classic are around $25 million.
3 Every Breath You Take
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If you’re a hopeless romantic, then you definitely binged on listening to songs like Every Breath You Take by the English rock band musician, Sting. Featured on their Synchronicity album released in 1983, the love song made it to the number one spot on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart for eight weeks straight. Gordon Sumner, better known as Sting, was the songwriter for the hit single, which grossed $20.5 million in royalties since its release. In 1997, P. Diddy did a major re-boot of the song with Faith Evans in I’ll Be Missing You, a tribute to his late friend and rapper Notorious BIG, which only bolstered the song’s popularity. Sources state that Sting still receives $730,000 per year in royalties from the original song.
2 Oh Pretty Woman
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Musicians are often the face of a song, leading others to believe they own it. But in the world of music, he who writes (and owns the copyrights to) the song, gets the royalties. A perfect example of how a single song can keep you earning hundreds of thousands per year without lifting a finger is Oh Pretty Woman, co-written by Roy Orbison and Bill Dees. The song was released in 1964 and was received favorably as a hit single. But it wasn’t until 1990, when Richard Gere and Julia Roberts co-starred in the movie, Pretty Woman, that the song’s popularity was revived even more. Bill Dees revealed before his death in 2012, that even after 50 years since its release, he was still earning $100-$200k per year in royalties off the song. In total, the song has earned $19.75 million in royalties over time.
1 The Christmas Song
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Another slow, soothing, serenading Christmas song that the season of gift-giving can’t do without is Mel Torme’s The Christmas Song. Grossing a total of $19 million in royalties, Torme actually wrote the song when he was just 19 years old in 1944. As the years waned on, various singers and musicians have covered the Christmas classic, such as Tony Bennett, Garth Brooks, Frank Sinatra, and the 1990s boys band, NSYNC, with lead singer Justin Timberlake. A huge part of his royalties also came from being featured in movies like Christmas With The Kranks, starring Tim Allen and Jamie Lee Curtis.
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Sources: Song Facts, Irish Times, CBS News
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