Lyricist’s Heirs Demand $700,000 for ‘Santa Claus Is Coming to Town’

LOS ANGELES (CN) — The music companies that control the rights to “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” belong on the naughty list this Christmas, according to a lawsuit seeking royalties for the family of the lyricist.

Audrey R. Gillespie claims Mark Spier, president of Memory Lane Music Group, defrauded her of at least $700,000 in royalties due from her late father-in-law’s holiday song and other compositions in just the past two years.

Her father-in-law, Haven Gillespie, who died at 87 in 1975, also wrote the lyrics to “You Go to My Head,” “Breezin’ Along With the Breeze,” “Beautiful Love,” and dozens of other Tin Pan Alley compositions.

Audrey Gillespie says in the Tuesday lawsuit in Superior Court that “Spier willfully and maliciously defalcated the Gillespie compositions’ royalties to maintain his personal lifestyle and to pay certain family expenses.”

She claims that Spier actually “admitted to defalcating Haven Gillespie Music’s monies” at a meeting with the Gillespie family in April.

Audrey Gillespie sued on behalf of two trusts that own the rights to Haven Gillespie’s works and of the trusts’ business, Haven Gillespie Music Publishing Co.

Defendants include Spier’s companies, Memory Lane Music Group, Larry Spier Music, Royalty Collection Corp., Royalty Solutions Corp, Affiliated Music Publishing and Scion Music Group.

Representatives of Memory Lane Music in New York could not be reached for comment after business hours.

James Lamont “Haven” Gillespie wrote “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” with composer John Frederick Coots in 1934 for singer Eddie Cantor, who sought a Christmas hit. Cantor’s broadcast of the song during the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade that year created an instant smash, selling 30,000 records and 100,000 copies of sheet music almost overnight.

Recorded by dozens of artists in the years since, it ranks at the top of ASCAP’s list of most-performed holiday songs.

Audrey Gillespie says Haven Gillespie Music struck a deal with Spier’s companies in 2007, allowing Spier to enter into non-exclusive licensing agreements with others to perform and record her father-in-law’s songs.

The Gillespie company was to receive 85 percent of royalties from the licenses, while Spier would keep 15 percent as commission.

Instead, from about 2016 through the present, she says Spier engaged in an “abject violation of the trust and confidence” given him by Gillespie Music “to the tune of at least $700,000.”

At an April 24 meeting in Newport Beach Spier admitted to Gillespie representatives that he had collected about $594,000 in royalties that he never paid their company, Gillespie says.

“Spier pleaded for leniency and offered to pay Haven Gillespie Music in monthly installments of $50,000 as advances to cover future royalties, but offered no plan as to how defendants would repay the defalcated funds to plaintiffs,” according to the lawsuit.

Gillespie Music canceled its contracts with Spier in May, but soon discovered that the defendants “willfully and maliciously have ignored the termination” and continued to collect about $150,000 in royalties “for his own personal profit,” without turning over any to Gillespie, she says.

She seeks an accounting, at least $700,000 plus punitive damages for breach of contract, breach of fiduciary duty, unjust enrichment, defalcation, conversion, fraud and other causes of action.

“Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” also was at the center of litigation against music publisher EMI and others in New York in 2009 over rights to the song’s copyright. In 2015, the Second Circuit in New York ruled the copyright had reverted to composer Coots’ family.

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