It’s no secret in the music business that the bigger star you are, the more song royalties you get by claiming “authorship” of a hit song written by a committee of lyricists and composers. You can force yourself into an author share of the profits because, by recording a song, you can make it popular enough that everyone will get paid. Giving you a little something for something you did not write — instead of guaranteeing an even split of nothing for the actual authors — is one surefire way to win in any business dyad.
Chuck Berry has been accused of not writing his own hit songs that he claims ownership of — because, some argue, the songs are written in chords that are more common on a piano than a guitar. If you don’t write a lot of music to begin with, having to transpose musical keys from one instrument to another in your head during composition of a song is nigh impossible. You’d write the song in the familiar, and easier to play, key signatures of the instrument you use to perform.
Johnnie Johnson, one of Chuck Berry’s longtime sidemen and the man who inspired Berry’s classic “Johnnie B. Goode,” filed suit against Berry in a St. Louis Federal District Court on Nov. 29.
The multi-count suit alleges that Johnson and Berry were equal collaborators on early rock classics like “Roll Over Beethoven,” “No Particular Place to Go” and “Sweet Little Sixteen,” to name a few. Johnson claims that Berry registered the copyrights to the songs in his name alone, and therefore was the sole recipient of royalties from those songs. Johnson’s suit also seeks public recognition for his songwriting role on the fifty songs he claims to have written with Berry.
Perhaps the most infamous case of a successful “songwriter” not writing his own songs is the matter of Irving Berlin.
Irving didn’t read or write music. He could play the piano with two fingers at a time, but using only the black keys. Legend has it that he would hire young street musicians, stand behind them while they were playing the piano, and “write” the songs by telling them what sounds he liked and what he didn’t like. Is that a genius collaboration or a ripping off of the starving young artist?
There was a very persistent rumor that dogged Irving Berlin to his dying day that his songs were written by black musicians in Harlem who toiled anonymously. This started with his first hit, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” in 1911. Many people believed it was impossible for one person to write as many songs in as many styles as he did or for an untrained musician to write so many works of genius. Berlin, relying on his ear, worried that something he had heard somewhere would crop up in his music.
In the end, does it matter who or what or how a song was written if it moves people and becomes a standard that challenges the test of time?
It really only matters in real terms when the royalty checks are cut and deposits are made in the bank. Authorship is ownership in music and owning a song doesn’t always have to mean you wrote it — and that’s why royalties have become so valuable over the years.
Write — err, “own” — one big hit song, and it will pay you the rest of your life. Who would ever want to get left out of that sort of guaranteed income annuity?