How Michael Jackson Helped Little Richard

There’s a longstanding history of artists signing bad recording and publishing deals – only having to turn around and utilize the legal system to fight for the money they should have earned. Toni Braxton did so when she sued LaFace Records in the 90s after filing for bankruptcy and having her personal belongings confiscated in order to pay off her debts. Some artists take years to recover from contractual mistakes they made at the beginning of their careers and Little Richard was one of them.

Michael Jackson and Little Richard attend friend's wedding
Michael Jackson and Little Richard attend friend’s wedding via Twitter

Despite Richard being known as the originator of the iconic rock and roll sound we know of today, his personal finances did not match his accomplishments – thanks to a bad contract he signed early on in his career. But another king of music would rescue him and gift him what he was owed. Michael Jackson surprised Richard by returning his publishing after Jackson purchased a larger publishing catalog that housed Richard’s music.

Little Richard’s unfair publishing deal

Richard had a deal for a few years before he hit it big with his 1955 hit, “Tutti Fruitti.” Seeing the success of the song and the potential revenue it would generate for years to come, Specialty Records owner, Art Rupe, convinced Richard to sell him the rights to the record. But he lowballed Richard by just buying the song for a reported $50 – despite Richard writing the song.

Source: YouTube

The terms of the contract gave Richard only half a cent for each record sold. The New York Times notes that once “Tutti Frutti” sold 500,000 copies, Richard earned just $25,000 from it. It was also reported that in addition to the low earnings per record sold, Richard did not receive royalties when his music was used in movies, sampled for commercials, or covered by other artists.

As for why Richard accepted the low deal, he explained that growing up with little money and knowledge about how the business worked played a factor. He once said, “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.”

Little Richard
Little Richard | Echoes/Redferns

Richard would later sue Specialty Records in 1984 for $112 million, claiming he was not paid any royalties for his music after leaving the label in 1959. The suit was settled out of court but the amount was never specified. 

Michael Jackson buys a music catalog that includes Little Richard’s and gifts Richard his publishing back

Jackson famously purchased the publishing rights to the Beatles catalog in 1985 for $47 million – outbidding Beatles member Paul McCartney! There were 251 compositions in the catalog by the Beatles, as well as music by other artists, including Little Richard’s as Speciality Records’ music was included in the package.

Michael Jackson
Michael Jackson | David McGough/DMI/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images

At the time, Jackson was unaware that the Beatles owned all of the rights to Speciality Records publishing, which included Richard’s. Richard spoke of Jackson’s acquisition of the catalog in a 2004 interview with Rolling Stone and explained that Jackson even offered him a lifelong job.

“Michael Jackson owns the Specialty stuff now. He offered me a job with his publishing company once, for the rest of my life, as a writer,” he said. “At the time, I didn’t take it. I wish I had now.”

Michael Jackson
Michael Jackson 1986 | Kevin Mazur/WireImage

Richard also spoke on his love for Jackson and his influence over Jackson in a 1985 interview on The Joan Rivers Show

“He is a genius and is smart and I’m very proud of Michael Jackson – he’s an innovator, he’s an emancipator,” Richard said. “Michael Jackson, his style of dressing, and some of the things that he does – if you look at some of my old pictures, you see Little Richard.”

Source: YouTube

Still, Jackson was noble and opted to gift Richard his publishing back before Jackson died. It’s reported that he did so for two reasons: he knew the struggles of black artists in Richard’s time and felt he deserved it – and Jackson eventually sold his share in the catalog upon experiencing legal troubles and wanted to ensure certain publishing rights were in the right hands.