The Power of Music Publishing

While the film “One Night in Miami” depicts a fictionalized night of conversation between Sam Cooke, Malcolm X, football star Jim Brown, and boxer Cassius Clay, there was one piece of dialogue that had viewers running to Google to fact check — and the recounted story was, indeed, a true one. Well, at least some of it was.

Cooke, played by Leslie Odom Jr., was breaking down how then-upstart rock band The Rolling Stones recorded a cover of  “It’s All Over Now,” a song produced by Cooke for the Valentinos, a family band on his SAR label, that featured - and was written by - a young Bobby Womack. Cooke explains that the Stones' version, which reached number one on the charts, made him and his clients loads of money and was recorded with his blessing.

That may or may not have been quite the reality. Covers created in the U.S., like this one was, don’t require the permission of the rights holder to be recorded. But they do require a compulsory license and sending a notice of intention. Whether the Stones, their management or their record label contacted Cooke and Womack as a professional courtesy is unclear, but the permission he talks about giving in the movie isn’t exactly how the legalities work.

Before we dig into that, let’s take a step back and look at how “It’s All Over Now” came to be. Cooke established SAR Records in 1961. Though he remained signed to RCA for his own music, he wanted to be more than a lounge singer and expand his production work, songwriting skills, and platform to other Black artists during the early stages of the Civil Rights movement. At the beginning of the film, “One Night in Miami” shows Cooke playing a set to an indifferent white audience, hammering home why this expansion was important to him as a creator and a businessman.

This single by The Valentinos - the group consisting of the five Womack brothers - would become one of SAR’s most successful releases, and eventually, Bobby Womack would launch a successful solo career. Cooke discovered the group in 1956, when Friendly, the oldest of the brothers, was only 15, and signed them to SAR in 1960. They cut a few unsuccessful gospel singles as The Womack Brothers before they changed their name and went secular.

Womack and his sister-in-law Shirley Womack co-wrote “It’s All Over Now” for the Valentinos, and SAR released it as the A-side of a single. It was released in May 1964 and topped out at number 94 on Billboard’s Hot 100 in June, the same month the Stones released their version of the song. By July, it would become the first No. 1 hit for the Stones, as the band did their first American tour. 

The artists’ stories diverge here; the Stones think they recorded an obscure record that wasn’t a hit, while Womack and his group felt that they had had a potential hit song big-footed away from them. Womack’s argument, detailed in the book “Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke,” is similar to what we hear from X in “One Night in Miami.” In response, both to Womack in real life and in the movie, Cooke explains that letting the Stones record the song will make them a lot of money, and he argues that it will lift all of their careers. It turns out he was right.

When an artist wants to record a cover of a song to include on a physical release, they have to secure a compulsory mechanical license and pay a fee, called the mechanical royalty, to the song’s publisher. As Jagger recalled to Rolling Stone, the band recorded their version of “It’s All Over Now” in the famous Chess Studios in Chicago, and he credits the in-house engineer, Ron Marlow, with helping them find the song’s groove. Their label quickly released it on the EP “Five By Five,” and it was later included on the album “12 X 5.” If the band had only released the song for streaming (and after 2021), they could have used The Mechanical Licensing Collective (The MLC) to make sure royalties per stream were paid to the songwriter - Bobby Womack - and label owner and publisher Cooke.

We don’t know the details of the Stones’ licensing process, but we do know Cooke and Womack discussed if they’d allow the guys to cover the song at length, and didn’t agree at first. As recounted in “Dream Boogie,” Cooke tells Womack that the Stones recording a version of his song means that Womack will become famous in England, making it possible to tour Europe and sell records there, and that the Valentinos will become part of history. Cooke tried to explain that the Stones and their music were going to change the industry — he could see it already and wanted to convince the band to embrace what the visibility of the Stones could bring to their careers.

Womack wasn’t a fan at first, but, as he recounts in “Dream Boogie,” he was extremely pleased after getting the royalty check from the Stones. Those checks kept coming for the rest of his career, and they continue every time copies of the Stones’ EP and album including his song are sold, every time someone streams the music, and every time a new artist discovers it and records yet another version. As a songwriter, Womack continues to get paid royalties via his publisher’s deal with the Stones in the same way he would for a play of his own version of the song.

Is it worth it to let some young upstart record your song? Or to have an old hit featured on a show like “The Voice” or “American Idol”? As long as you’ve got a publisher to collect and distribute royalties and administer a mechanical license — it can certainly be a nice revenue stream without you having to lift a finger.

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We created this guide to answer a simple question: How do songwriters support themselves? The answer is not as simple as we’d like, but our goal is to make it as clear, transparent and understandable as we possibly can.

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