Music by Turner: Birthdays can be expensive

It is by far the most recognizable song in the English language.


No, it’s not Wild Thing, Louie, Louie, or even Free Bird, the latter of which I fervently pray I will never, ever hear again.

Actually, the honors for not only the best-known song also go to the one that has earned the highest royalties in music history, and yes, it’s an oldie!

Happy Birthday to You tops the list, which might not be too surprising. After all, it’s the only song ever performed by both The Beatles and Marilyn Monroe. The Fab 4 played it Eddie Cochran-style in 1963 for the BBC, and Monroe did the honors the preceding year for JFK.

Gee, even I, a lifelong Beatles fan, like Marilyn’s version better. To this day, those are regarded as the six sexiest notes ever sung to a “sitting” president as it’s rumored that Kennedy couldn’t stand up for at least 10 minutes after her sultry rendition.

For more years than I care to (or can) count, January also marks my birthday month. Yes, it does beat the alternative, as I have already lived longer than one of the writers of the song!

The composers of Happy Birthday were a couple of sisters from Kentucky, Mildred and Patty Hill. One was a pianist, the other an educator, and they took an old folk song Good Morning to All and changed the words.

The duo published their version of the song in 1893. It’s certain that the siblings had no idea that their creation would be the standard that it remains to this day as it was written as a simple ditty for children to sing.

Usually, a song that is as old as Happy Birthday is no longer under copyright, which means no royalties are paid when it is recorded or performed in television or the movies. Through clever legal wrangling, Time Warner was able to extend the copyright in 1998 which results in Happy Birthday being a proverbial cash cow that brings into their coffers an estimated $2 million each year. How?

Filmmakers who want to use Happy Birthday usually pay around $10,000+ for the rights. Television programs start at roughly $700 per airing, so it’s no surprise why one these days hears the non-copyrighted and free-of-charge For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow instead of Happy Birthday.

Even worse, you can also blame Time Warner for those dreadful birthday songs that servers in restaurants are forced to sing because royalty fees could be charged to the offending establishments if they sang the traditional Happy Birthday. For that offense alone I would totally divest their stock immediately from my portfolio … if I had one.

Mildred Hill died in 1916 and Patty 30 years later. Neither were able to share fairly in the immense bounty for their song. But for me, one question remains:

What was sung at their birthdays?