Ray Charles' copyrights a lucrative business

NEW YORK (Billboard) - Ray Charles is a music publisher’s dream. Not only did he write songs that stand the test of time, but his interpretations of other songwriters’ tunes could turn them into royalty-generating goldmines.

Charles wrote classics like “What’d I Say?” and made other songwriters’ tunes into hits as well. His version of “Georgia On My Mind,” written by Hoagy Carmichael and Stuart Gorrel, went to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1960, even though it had been recorded by plenty of well-known performers before then.

Besides Charles’ own songwriting, and the tunes he owned through his own music publishing companies, “there are few, if any, recording artists who have impacted publishing houses around the country as has Ray Charles,” says Tony Gumina, president of the Ray Charles Marketing Group, which handles the late artist’s licensing affairs. “If you just look at the 11 different songs where Ray won a Grammy award you’ll find 14 different publishers/co-publishers.”

Ahead of the 80th anniversary of Charles’ birth on September 23, the Ray Charles Marketing Group is working with partners on numerous projects including a new documentary on the Biography Channel and the debut this fall of “Unchain My Heart: The Ray Charles Musical” set for November.

Most of the songs that Charles wrote through 1962 are owned by Warner/Chappell Music, while the songs he wrote after that are published by Charles’ own publishing operations, owned by the Ray Charles Foundation, and licensed by the Ray Charles Marketing Group, which was formed in 2005, to maximize opportunities from those rights.

Beginning in 1962, three years after Charles left Atlantic and signed with ABC, every song he wrote, co-wrote or arranged and sometimes even recorded was owned by his own publishing companies, Tangerine Music Corp. and Racer Music Co.

In the six years since Charles died of cancer, his publishing catalog has flourished. Income for his older copyrights has been propelled by more recent success. In 2004, Concord Records released Charles’s Grammy-winning album “Genius Loves Company,” which has since sold 3.2 million copies. In the same year, the film “Ray” was released featuring Jamie Foxx in the Oscar-winning lead role. Since 2004, Rhino’s “Very Best of Ray Charles” has sold more than a million copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan, after selling only 143,000 units between its release in 2000 and mid-2004.

“Between the ‘Greatest Hits,’ the movie, the soundtrack, and the new (Concord) records, and Kanye West’s ‘Golddigger,’ (which uses the Ray Charles/Renald Richard composition ‘I’ve Got A Woman,”), it’s all kind of snowballed,” says Brad Rosenberger, Warner/Chappell senior VP of catalog development and marketing. “Ray is definitely reaching a new generation of kids.”

But his reputation sometimes proved daunting to other singers. In other words, because Charles often did the definitive versions of his songs, “we don’t get a lot of cover versions of the songs he recorded,” Gumina says, and Rosenberger agrees.

According to the Warner Music Group, the top Charles songs in its catalog include: “Hallelujah I Love Her So,” “Hard Times (No One Knows Better Than I),” “Mary Ann,” “What’d I Say,” and “I’ve Got a Woman.”

While Charles has a substantial songwriting catalog post 1961, “what is interesting is he didn’t like to write,” says Gumina. “He wrote songs when he was on Atlantic because he didn’t like what (Atlantic principals) Ahmet (Ertegun) and Jerry (Wexler) were giving him (to record). So his most prolific writing period was between 1948 and 1960.

“As soon as he became big enough to record the biggest songs, he started recording the American songbook Rogers and Hart, Rodgers and Hammerstein, the Gershwins and Irving Berlin.”

That dovetailed nicely with the fact that once he became big enough singing star, listeners wanted to hear his version of popular songs like “Over The Rainbow,” Gumina says.

But just because he recorded other songwriters’ songs, doesn’t mean he was forsaking publishing. By the 1960s, Charles’ stature was such that top songwriters were constantly pitching their songs to him to record, Gumina says. “He’d take the stance, if I am going to record it, I want to publish it.”

So he started Tangerine Music, which was named after his Tangerine Records label, and Racer Music.

Percy Mayfield was among the songwriters whose music Charles published through his music publishing arms. Charles also capitalized on another publishing angle: he began recording a lot of public domain songs, like “America The Beautiful,” and “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” where he published the arrangement.

Today, the Ray Charles Marketing Group represents about 500 songs from those companies, including about a dozen Charles wrote and another 30 or 40 where he is credited as co-writer. It also represents 80 of his songs where it can license both the songs and the master, which it is making available to film producers, directors, and advertising agencies.

Since the release of the “Ray” biopic, Gumina says that synchronization of Charles songs has proven lucrative. But he also says performance royalties are on the upswing too.

For example, when Charles first published “Hit The Road Jack,” who could imagine the uses that would come its way.

Nowadays, at any sporting event -- whether it’s a player fouling out of a basketball game, a pitcher getting pulled from the mound, a hockey player getting sent to the penalty box -- when a player is pulled from the game, “Hit The Road Jack” will resound over the PA system.