The story of the Beatles’ song ownership is legendary in rock music deals on par with Colonel Parker‘s usurious contractual hold over Elvis Presley. Suffice it to say those “funny papers” Paul McCartney sang about on Abbey Road were problematic. The Beatles only owned a percentage of the songs they wrote, the majority went to their publishing company Northern Songs, founded by the band, their manager and music publisher Dick James in 1963.
In 1983, when the song was performed on Sesame Street, Northern Songs was run by entrepreneur Robert Holmes à Court, Australia’s first billionaire. “They were worried that if we could do what we did on Sesame, then advertisers could use Beatle-like songs without paying for them,” Cerf explains. “That was the main reason they went after us.”
The $5.5 million suit against the nonprofit group Children’s Television Workshop would have made Sesame Street a dead end. But copyright laws are a two-way street. “It’s fair use to do a parody, so the suit didn’t have a great chance,” Cerf says. Two years before “Letter B” aired, Paul McCartney and Yoko Ono tried to buy the rights to the Beatles songbook. The attempt suffered the same fate as similar attempts in 1967, after Brian Epstein died, and 1969 when James and his partner sold their shares to Britain’s Associated Television, without warning the songwriters. “I’m sick to death of being fucked about by men in suits sitting on their fat arses in the city,” Lennon complained in the middle of negotiations, according to Solid State: The Story of “Abbey Road” and the End of the Beatles by Kenneth Womack.
After the deal fell through, McCartney passed on the lessons he learned to a collaborator who would prove to be an education to the legal minds on Sesame Street. “We were winning the lawsuit as it was,” Cerf remembers. “But luckily for us, Michael Jackson bought the entire catalog and he thought the lawsuit was ridiculous.” Before he was the King of Pop, Jackson performed with Oscar the Grouch on the Oct. 24, 1978, Sesame Street Christmas special, and came back bearing gifts. “He settled the entire suit for $50.”
Cerf personally paid the settlement, thinking he might get something out of the investment. “The humor for me was that I had to write out a check to Michael Jackson for $50 and I figured I would come out ahead because he would endorse the check and then I could sell the autograph for more than $50,” Cerf admits. “But unfortunately he used a rubber stamp, so that didn’t work out.”
If Cerf truly was an autograph hound, he would have had plenty of opportunities. From their first guests Pete Seeger and Don McLean, the series attracted big stars and crossed musical boundaries. Over the years they’ve hosted Gwen Stefani, Ray Charles, Beyoncé, Tony Bennett, Janelle Monáe, Katy Perry, Bruno Mars, and Smokey Robinson. Stevie Wonder performed a frighteningly inspired rendition of “Superstition” in 1973. Lena Horne sang “Bein’ Green” to Kermit in 1976.
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