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Ghosts of music past: Success stories from beyond the grave

Congratulations. You survived another Halloween. Just when you thought it was safe to re­turn to the land of the living, the latest album releases blast out of limbo from somebody who didn’t.

By David Jacklin

Monday 11 November 2019, 02:00PM

In a growing trend within the music industry, record labels are in­creasingly requesting deceased artists’ estates or collaborators to complete and hand over unfinished works for general release. After all, a contract is a con­tract, and whether you’re breathing or not is rather inconsequential to some. There’s big money to be made in the posthumous works of long-gone legends.

First up for the resurrection is one of the greatest and most influential artists in the history of jazz and 20th Century music: Miles Davis. As a maes­tro of the trumpet, starting out as part of Charlie Parker’s bebop quintet of the 1940s New York scene, Davis went on to record and change the face of the genre for over five decades, championing cool jazz and fusion.

Having died at the age of 65 in 1991, jazz enthusiasts will be delighted, if not a little surprised, to learn he has a new album out entitled Rubberband. The album sessions, including vocals from American R&B artist Ledishi, were recorded in 1985 and were part of Da­vis’ plan to widen his appeal to a more mainstream audience of the day. As oth­er projects and collaborations took over, the album never saw the light of day. The recent release employed the skills of Davis’ nephew, Vince Wilburn Jr., to modernise the production into what can be best described as an alternative R&B addition to Davis’ later works.

The next, more lyrical Lazarus is the Canadian singer, songwriter, poet and novelist Leonard Cohen. The acclaimed writer of classics such as Hallelujah, Su­zanne and Famous Blue Raincoat passed to the other side in 2016. But poets tend not to allow such trivial events as death from limiting the power of their word.

His new 15th studio album titled Thanks for the Dance is scheduled for release later this month. Described by his representatives as an unexpected harvest of new songs [No kidding? – Ed], the released new single The Goal has Cohen still squaring things away.

Settling at last
Accounts of the soul
This for the trash
That paid in full

And if a new album wasn’t enough, Cohen fans were treated to Nick Broom­field’s well-received documentary earlier this year, Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love. This was a tender and haunting on-screen farewell, charting the meet­ing and relationship of Cohen with his influential Norwegian muse.

Possibly the most orchestrated swan song of recent times has been David Bowie’s Blackstar. Released on Bowie’s 69th birthday, the experimental album strayed far from his previous musical styles, as if in a final refusal to cater to radio stations and fan expectation. More essentially this is a deliberate puzzle book of clues and deeper refer­ences for fans to decipher in the wake of his death, only two days after the album’s release.

Bowie’s final recording became one of the best-selling and critically ac­claimed albums worldwide that year. The music critic Sean O’Neal described Blackstar as “a sonically adventurous album that proves Bowie was always one step ahead – where he’ll now re­main in perpetuity.”

Blackstar, like Bowie’s life, was much more than a collection of great songs. It is the final act of an art movement that radiated from one of the most enigmatic figures in contemporary music.

I’m dying to
Push their backs against the grain
And fool them all again and again

Even from Neverland Michael Jack­son’s catalogue of work still commands the annual GDP of a small state. Ac­cording to Forbes, the Peter Pan of commercial pop magnates earned an astonishing $400 million in 2018 from the sale of his EMI Music Publishing stake, nearly a decade after his death.

Despite singing Too Much in 1957, it apparently wasn’t enough for the King of Rock and Roll. From the man that stated, “Ambition is a dream with a V8 engine”, over 40 years after his death Elvis still has a Ford Mustang driving his Memphis bank account.

At the time of Elvis Presley’s death, his estate was valued at $4.9mn, equal to $19.6mn today. He left his entire estate to his only child, Lisa Marie Presley, who was nine years old when he died. He certainly didn’t leave her in the ghetto. With an average earning of over $15m each year, Elvis Presley’s net worth has risen to an estimated $300mn today. The King’s estate has grown by over 1,400% since his death.

But of all the ghosts of music past, the artist that will have all the others singing “Nothing Compares 2 U” will be Prince. The diminutive pop royalty was famously prolific, banking a vast body of unreleased works since the early 1980s in a private vault at his Paisley Park Studios. After his untime­ly death in 2016, the vault was opened to reveal a reported back catalogue of enough music to release a new album every year for the next century.

This year’s purple-one parting gift, Originals, which compiles the original demo versions of songs Prince wrote and gave to other artists, was released through Warner Bros. Records in June.

Whilst the rest of us are contemplat­ing working much later in life before being able to draw a respectable pen­sion, the other-worldly pop stars will be raking it in long after their sell-by date.

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