History: BMI and Pop Music

The founding of BMI in 1940 coincided with a revival in American popular music. Ten years earlier, the Depression had brought the record industry to the brink of collapse, but now both the national economy and the music business were on the rebound. For example, there was at least one radio in 85 percent of American homes, and network radio programs — broadcast over hundreds of affiliated stations nationwide — generated tens of millions in advertising revenues each year.

The swinging sounds of the big bands and the songs of Broadway musicals created much of the soundtrack to these surges in finance and communications. More Americans than ever before were creating and consuming popular music, yet the protection of performing rights was essentially a closed shop from which many composers of blues, jazz, and country-western songs were excluded. By 1939, only about 1,100 songwriters and 140 music publishers had gained admission to the existing performing rights organization, with roughly 65 percent of its distributed revenues divided up among just thirteen firms — most of them allied with the Hollywood studios.

BMI opened for business on February 15, 1940. By the start of 1941, the new organization was licensing some 36,000 copyrights held by 52 music publishers. From its inception, BMI was an important force in mainstream popular music. The prominent Tin Pan Alley publisher E.B. Marks was one of the first firms to join BMI, and Ralph Peer‘s Peer International brought a significant body of Latin, blues, and country songs to the new organization.

BMI was primed to take full advantage of pop music’s expansion in the post-war years. For example, “Tennessee Waltz,” composed by Redd Stewart and Pee Wee King in 1947, became one of the biggest pop hits of 1950 when Patti Page recorded the song. Tony Bennett enjoyed one of his first hits in 1951 with a cover of Hank Williams’ “Cold, Cold Heart.” A parallel phenomenon was the mainstream success achieved by white pop performers with covers of rhythm & blues songs. Little Richard co-wrote and originally recorded “Tutti Frutti,” but Pat Boone had a bigger Pop hit with his version of the song. Among other key composers of the period were Chuck Berry (“Roll Over Beethoven,” “Rock & Roll Music”), Otis Blackwell (“All Shook Up,” “Fever,” “Don’t Be Cruel”), and Felice & Boudleaux Bryant (who wrote “Bye Bye Love” and “All I Have To Do Is Dream” for the Everly Brothers). 

By 1959, the initial rock & roll explosion had faded along with the careers of its progenitors: Elvis was drafted, Buddy Holly was killed in a plane crash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry were off the charts. But new regional pop sounds were already emerging.

In Detroit, Berry Gordy’s Motown empire was under construction. In 1961, the label had its first number one Pop single with the Marvelettes’ “Please Mr. Postman,” and Gordy never looked back. Motown virtually defined the term “pop soul” with hit after hit from writer/producers like Holland/Dozier/Holland (the Supremes’ “Baby Love,” the Four Tops’ “I Can’t Help Myself”) and Norman Whitfield (the Temptations’ “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg,” Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard It Through The Grapevine”). Meanwhile, in the cramped offices of New York’s Brill Building, other young writer/producer teams — Gerry Goffin & Carole King, Jeff Barry & Ellie Greenwich (with Phil Spector) — were cranking out pop classics for girl groups like the Cookies (“Chains”) and the Ronettes (“Be My Baby”).

Across the Atlantic, the beat groups of Britain were uncovering a wealth of cover mate-rial in the Motown and Brill Building songbooks en route to become hit composers in their own right. The Beatles led the pack with early John Lennon/Paul McCartney classics like “Can’t Buy Me Love,” “Eight Days A Week,” and “A Hard Day’s Night.” In their wake came Rolling Stones Mick Jagger & Keith Richards (“Satisfaction,” “Get Off My Cloud”) and Brit-beat composers like Graham Gouldman (who penned “Bus Stop” for the Hollies and “For Your Love” for the Yardbirds). Yet even at the height of the British Invasion, the weekly Hot 100 was peppered with hits by Elvis Presley (“Such A Night”), Tony Bennett (“Who Can I Turn To”), and even Robert Goulet (“My Love Forgive Me”).

The ’70s were a fertile and eclectic period in pop music. Sixties-bred singer-songwriters like Paul Simon (“Kodachrome”) regularly broke through to pop radio and the singles charts. Elton John became one of the world’s most popular performers, scoring 16 Top 10 Pop hits in the course of the decade. Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff created “The Sound of Philadelphia” with their writing and production for the O’Jays (“Love Train”) and Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes (“If You Don’t Know Me By Now”). Even heavy rockers like Grand Funk Railroad struck pop gold: Their cover of Goffin & King’s “The Loco-Motion” topped the Hot 100 in 1974.

With his record-breaking album Thriller and such international hit singles as “Billie Jean” and “Beat It,” Michael Jackson became the quintessential ’80s pop star. Jackson’s ability to blend r&b with pop, rock guitars with dance beats, combined with his cross-format radio success and innovative videos to create a pop music template that is still with us today. Other ’80s pop hits emerged from the English new wave (the Police with “Every Breath You Take”), L.A. glam-rock (Warrant’s “Sometimes She Cries”), and Miami’s prolific Latin scene (Gloria Estefan‘s “Rhythm Is Gonna Get You,” “Anything For You”).

The years since Thriller have brought forth a host of hugely successful BMI writer-performers.

Some, like Eric Clapton (“Tears In Heaven”) and Carlos Santana (“Supernatural”), are ’60s veterans who traveled a long, hard road to mainstream pop success. Then there are the MTV-era stars, who bring the glamour and technical perfection of vintage Hollywood to contemporary music: Janet Jackson (“That’s The Way Love Goes”), Toni Braxton (“Un-Break My Heart”), Mariah Carey (“One Sweet Day”), and Sheryl Crow (“All I Wanna Do”). Other present-day pop icons —a mong them Li’l Kim, R. Kelly, and Snoop Dogg — have crossed over to the mainstream from the r&b and rap charts, just as Faith Hill and Shania Twain have done from their original base in country music.

Styles of music will come and go, just as technology has changed the way we hear them. But in every era, pop music has been the art of the song — and great songs are the heart of BMI.