…or how to write a mega hit without knowing it sounds like someone else’s song!
British singer Sam Smith followed up his massive breakout song “Money On My Mind” in 2014 with “Stay With Me”, a song he co-wrote with James Napier and William Phillips. It followed “Money On My Mind” to the top of the UK singles chart, but out-performed that song by a long way, with sales to date of over 1.6 million copies there. It was a similar story throughout the rest of the world. “Stay With Me” has sold over four million physical copies in America and a further four million ‘streamed’ units there.
And it was this success that was to prove the song’s undoing. Rewind to 1989. American songwriter and performer Tom Petty releases the single “I Won’t Back Down” as the lead track from his album “Full Moon Fever” and the song instantly becomes a huge hit. “I Won’t Back Down” was co-written by Petty and Jeff Lynne, formerly of ELO and with whom he joined in the super group The Travelling Wilburys along with Bob Dylan, George Harrison and Roy Orbison. It’s even used by presidential hopeful George W. Bush for the 2000 US presidential election until Petty complained and it was withdrawn. He later performed the song at Al Gore’s home! It was also used in the 2008 film ‘Recount’.
Petty heard Smith’s “Stay With Me” and thought…hmmm…this sounds familiar and realised the backing track was “I Won’t Back Down”. The publishers contacted Sam Smith who stated he had never heard of Tom Petty’s song and it was merely a fluke that this had happened. But an agreement was reached in 2015 that saw Petty and Lynne recorded as co-writers of “Stay With Me” and that 12.5% of the royalties from the song would be paid to them from now on. Petty later stated that he did not believe Smith had plagiarized him, adding: “All my years of songwriting have shown me these things can happen. Most times you catch it before it gets out the studio door but in this case it got by. Sam’s people were very understanding of our predicament and we easily came to an agreement”.
Thirty years ago this week (28th May 2019), “I Won’t Back Down” entered charts around the world and gave Petty his biggest hit of the 1980’s. The album “Full Moon Fever” would go on to sell over five million copies in the US alone. Sadly, Tom Petty died in October 2017, but royalties from “Stay With Me” continue to be paid to his estate. So perhaps it is possible to write a big hit and not be aware that the melody already exists. Now, I’ve got this song and it goes “la la la, la la la la la”, I’m sure it could be big(!)