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Text by Mehdi Chebil

Latest update : 2010-08-15

With Sony Music gearing up to put a collection of previously unreleased songs from late pop icon Michael Jackson on sale, FRANCE 24 takes a look at some of the world’s most legendary posthumous songs.

250 million dollars. That’s all it took to resuscitate the ‘King of Pop’, according to a Rolling Stone magazine interview with Michael Jackson’s former manager, Frank DiLeo. Ten previously unreleased songs are due to hit the shelves in November 2010, following a multi-million dollar agreement between Sony Music and the Jackson family estate.

List of top earning dead celebrities

Most profitable deceased celebrities, list compiled by Forbes Magazine based on 2009 figures (musicians highlighted)

1. Yves Saint Laurent $350 million

2. Rodgers & Hammerstein $235 million

3. Michael Jackson $90 million

4. Elvis Presley $55 million

5. J.R.R. Tolkien $50 million

6. Charles Schulz $35 million

7. John Lennon $15 million

8. Dr. Seuss $15 million

9. Albert Einstein $10 million

10. Michael Crichton $9 million

11. Aaron Spelling $8 million

12. Jimi Hendrix $8 million

13. Andy Warhol $6 million

DiLeo has confirmed that Michael Jackson’s hard drives contain more than 100 never-before-heard recordings, some of them dating back to the pop legend's peak in the 1980s.

But Michael Jackson is far from being the first singer to rise from the grave and grace his fans with a series of original, posthumous songs. Such releases are usually secured after lengthy legal wrangling between the parties that most benefit from the ‘exhumation’: the record company and the artist’s family.

FRANCE 24 takes a look at some of the most legendary hits released post-mortem, and the sometimes tricky paths trodden between the grave and the record store shelves.

Otis Redding - “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay”

A sure way to fire up sales is to find and release an unreleased song just after the death of the song's singer. This approach worked even better with Otis Redding’s “(Sittin’ on) the Dock of the Bay”, a track with melancholic lyrics that powerfully evoke the artist’s death.

26-year-old Redding died in December 1967 when his plane crashed into the frozen waters of Lake Monona, Wisconsin. Atlantic Records owned all the rights to unreleased Otis Redding material, and they moved quickly to release “(Sittin' on) the Dock of the Bay” in January 1968, as radio stations were compiling tributes to the dead artist. The song had been recorded just days before the plane crash, and its iconic whistling remains a testimony to the unfinished nature of the piece – Redding whistled the tune of a particular verse for which he intended to compose the lyrics later.

“(Sittin’ on) the Dock of the Bay” ended-up becoming the first posthumous number one single in US chart history, a decade-defining tune that earned Otis Redding his title of 'King of Soul'.

Nirvana – “You Know You're Right”

What happens if the unreleased songs’ ownership is disputed? That’s when the lawyers step in. A typical case in point is grunge group Nirvana’s post-mortem hit “You Know You’re Right”.

The song was recorded in late January 1994, four months before lead singer Kurt Cobain committed suicide. Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic kept the precious tapes in his basement, but legal wrangling with Cobain’s widow and heiress Courtney Love prevented the group from releasing the song.

“You Know You’re Right” eventually hit the shelves in 2002, after the surviving bandmates and Courtney Love settled their protracted battle over the ownership of Nirvana’s music catalogue in a multi-million dollar deal.

Tupac Shakur  – “Changes”, and Notorious BIG – “Mo Money Mo Problems”

Suicides, accidents, drug overdoses: some of the more common ways for great artists to meet their makers. But the rise of gangsta rap in the mid-1990s and the bitter West Coast/East Coast rivalry gave birth to a new but short-lived musical genre: posthumous hits from murdered rappers.

After being shot dead in Las Vegas in 1996 Tupac Shakur’s body was cremated, with some of his ashes later mixed with marijuana and smoked by his surviving Outlawz bandmates. This marked the beginning of a lucrative posthumous career which included his chart-hit “Changes”: eight post-mortem albums boosted the rapper’s worldwide sales to a record 75 million albums.

His New York nemesis, rapper Notorious BIG, was killed in a drive-by shooting in 1997, weeks before the release of his aptly-named “Life after Death” album which included his biggest-ever hit  “Mo Money Mo Problems”.

Claude François – “Alexandrie Alexandra”

Putting an unreleased song on sale days or weeks after a singer's accidental death is a guaranteed bonanza. Frenchman Claude François went a step further: his highly-anticipated single 'Alexandrie Alexandra' hit the shelves on the very day of his funeral on March 15, 1978.

The release date had actually been set weeks in advance, when the acclaimed singer had no clue that an electric shock in his bathroom would cut him down in his prime. The 45rpm record proved a massive success, boosted by a mix of nostalgia (its lyrics mention Egypt, where Claude François was born) and a lively tune.

'Alexandrie Alexandra' remains one of the most popular retro songs played in French discos, a staple used by DJs nationwide to fire up a moribund dancefloor in the small hours. Outside France, Claude François is more known for his song 'Comme d'Habitude', which became one of the country's most successful song exports when Frank Sinatra adapted and rerecorded it under the title 'My Way'. 

Date created : 2010-08-04


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