Review: 'The Richest Songs in the World' Special

Posted Dec 29, 2012 by Alexander Baron
There are all kinds of musical charts, but this is a unique one comprised of the ten biggest earning songs in history. It is presented by Mark Radcliffe.
TV presenter Mark Radcliffe.
TV presenter Mark Radcliffe.
Mark Radcliffe
Mark Radcliffe was once an aspiring songwriter, but by his own admission here that began and ended with a royalty cheque for £15.32 from the Japanese market. He has since had a great deal more success as a broadcaster and TV presenter, and it is wearing the latter hat that he delves into the at times secretive subject of songwriter royalties, and other sources of revenue.
For those who can receive it, the hour and a half odyssey The Richest Songs in the World is currently on BBC iplayer. One person who will certainly be interested in this is the Man from Songfacts, but he won't be able to receive it, unless some kind person in the UK with more technical nous than his London correspondent downloads it from Auntie and then uploads it to YouTube.
According to Mark Radcliffe, this is the first time a chart of this nature has been compiled, and although he says he cannot vouch for its accuracy - for a number of reasons, including confidentiality - he says they are in the right ball park (his exact words).
It will surprise no contemporary musicologist that the Roy Orbison song (Oh) Pretty Woman is in this chart - at number 9 - but it may surprise many people that it was once recorded by a rap group (in rap style) and that the resulting court case went all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States which decided the new recording was a parody. It should though surprise no one that songs that earn a lot of money can sometimes result in court cases. This is because although a song may be credited entirely to one individual within a band, other members will often contribute, if only a riff. The first UK song in this first ever richest song chart is Every Breath You Take, which was number one on both sides of the Atlantic, and is estimated to have earned over £13 million for Mr Sumner. Nice work if you can get it; it would have been nicer still for fellow band member Stuart Copeland if he had received a credit for the song as well, but he was philosophical here about missing out. Others may not be, which is why Spandau Ballet ended up in court. One of the most famous and successful songwriting teams of all time - Lennon/McCartney - wrote most of their songs individually, although they shared the credits.
At number 5 in this chart is Unchained Melody, which is said to have earned its composers over £18 million to date.
At number 4 is that McCartney bloke again, whose classic Yesterday is and has been for many years the most covered song of all time. Although he was not interviewed for this documentary, some archive footage has been dug out of him from a talk show in which he does his best to explain the song which he says was written by his unconscious rather than by himself. The original version of Yesterday also gets a look in, and part of a recording of it is played.
Unsurprisingly, Irving Berlin is at number 2 with White Christmas. The Dean of American songwriters is said to have clocked up £24 million with this song, which although his most successful commercially is far from his best work.
Irving Berlin (1888-1989)  the Dean of American songwriters photographed in 1941.
Irving Berlin (1888-1989), the Dean of American songwriters photographed in 1941.
Creative Commons
Perhaps surprisingly the number one song on the list is Happy Birthday, which is also easily the oldest song here, and is said to have earned around £30 million in royalties, although not for its writers, who are of course long dead.
One person who doesn't quite make this list is Irish music giant Van Morrison who wrote his best selling song at the young age of 21, but although it is believed to have netted around £12 million, Morrison saw little if any of that money.
Contributors to this programme include Academy Award winning composer Paul Williams, and Ben E. King who co-wrote Stand By Me.
One surprising fact that was not mentioned here is that every single one of these song was written by Americans and English composers. So the Sun hasn't quite set on either of our Empires yet.