How Michael Jackson spent over $47m to put a smile on Little Richard’s face

Nii Ntreh May 17, 2020
Michael Jackson (far left) and Little Richard (far right) at the wedding of a mutual friend. Photo Credit:

In 1984, the late Richard Wayne Penniman, famously known as Little Richard, sued Specialty Records, a record label he had worked with, for what he believed was an amount of $112 million owed to him.

Penniman had left the label in 1959 under very acrimonious circumstances. The eccentric rock-n-roll singer and performer fell out with Art Rupe, the boss at Specialty and the man who was also responsible for Penniman’s biggest payday at that time.

Rupe in 1955, bought Tutti Frutti, a song written by Penniman and Dorothy LaBostrie. Rupe paid just $50 to own the rights to the song and that turned out to be an outrageously rewarding maneuver by the record executive.

Tutti Frutti was considered an artistic hit but more importantly, a commercial one too. But Penniman did not stand to gain, much thanks to the conditions under which he had signed away his rights to the song.

Little Richard would later say about that episode in his life: “I was a dumb black kid and my mama had 12 kids and my daddy was dead. I wanted to help them, so I took whatever was offered.”

What was offered was half a cent for every record of Tutti Frutti sold. When Specialty sold 500,000 records, they reportedly gave a check of just $25,000 to Penniman.

Little Richard would go on after 1955 to write other songs for Specialty until he decided he had enough. When Penniman decided to leave his record label, Michael Joseph Jackson, the eighth child of Joe and Katherine Jackson, was just a year old.

At an early age, Michael Jackson was initiated into the only art his parents knew – music. In 1964, while just 6, Michael and big brother Marlon were added to bigger brothers Jackie, Tito and Jermaine in a group Daddy Jackson had named the Jackson Brothers.

Michael and Marlon were only supporting instrumentalists, playing the tambourine and congas. After Michael and Jermaine had assumed the lead vocalists roles, the group was re-christened Jackson 5.

Thanks to consistent hits and winning talent shows, the group overgrew the limelight in Indiana by 1968. By 1970, they had a national chart topping song, I Want You Back, which peaked at number 1 on the US Billboard Hot 100 for a month.

By the mid-1970s, the group, now known as The Jacksons, were described as having “crossover appeal” with faithful fan bases among white and black America. But through it all, it was apparent to both the group and their audience that Michael was the most talented.

Like a bird destined for the skies, Michael had to leave his family’s singing troupe. In 1983, he had the best-selling album in the world and till date Thriller maintains the singular honor as the most-bought studio album in recorded history.

With fame and fortune came a certain class of friends for Michael Jackson, one of whom was none other than Paul McCartney of The Beatles. But in that same time, Jackson could now rub shoulders with Little Richard, a man the former considered the founder of rock-n-roll.

McCartney would later go on record to say that one of the conversations he had with Jackson after Thriller came out was how a musician could actually make a lot of money. What Jackson did not know was that a stake or complete ownership of the publishing rights to a catalog of songs was the real goldmine.

McCartney and fellow Beatle John Lennon had set up Northern Songs in the 1960s as a company vested with overseeing their interests in the songs they had written for the group. But McCartney later lost his stake in Northern Songs.

Incidentally, Specialty Records which owned Little Richard’s songs were subsumed by ATV Music, the very same music publishing company that took over Northern Songs.

It is not clear if McCartney urged Jackson to buy a controlling stake in ATV but that is exactly what Jackson did with about $47.5 million in 1985. It is also not known if Jackson knew ATV owned the rights to Little Richard’s songs.

But in 1986, Jackson returned the rights of Little Richard’s songs to the rock-n–roll legend. From these rights, Penniman had a way to cash out on his creative ingenuity for many years until his death last week.

Last Edited by:Kent Mensah Updated: May 15, 2020


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