You've probably never heard of J. Fred Coots, but damned if his ditty hasn't been blowing up your car radio for the past month. Way back in 1934, Coots co-wrote a little tune called "Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town" -- a track that cracks the ten most played songs worldwide almost every year and has been covered by everyone from Bing Crosby to Green Day.
Like a lot of artists from his era, though, Coots signed away rights to the song to a big record label, EMI, which controls a large share of the profits from those millions of holiday radio plays. Coots's surviving relatives, who have called South Florida home since the late '80s, filed a federal lawsuit here just in time for Christmas to try to wrest back the rights to his masterwork.
"EMI has chosen to ignore our family's rights. I don't want to say it's because of greed, but this song makes them a lot of money," says Patricia Bergdahl, one of Coots's grandchildren.
Coots was born in Brooklyn in 1897 and made his name as a Vaudeville musician before writing Broadway show tunes. He eventually penned more than 700 songs, including standards such as "A Precious Little Thing Called Love."
But it was his holiday tune about Santa knowing "whether you've been bad or good" that struck the longest-lasting chord. For Coots's descendents, the song became a piece of family pride at every school Christmas gathering and seasonal mall trip.
"Once I was old enough to understand that my grandfather wrote it, it was great," Bergdahl says. "It's one of the greatest Christmas songs written."
Which means it's also valuable. Coots signed away distribution rights in 1934 and renewed the deal now owned by EMI in 1961. His heirs tried to terminate the agreement in 2004 and again in 2007, but EMI claims he also renewed it in 1981, giving the label rights until 2029.
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Bergdahl and her relatives say that's bogus and he never renewed in the '80s (Coots died in 1985). EMI's press office didn't return Riptide's calls for comment.
"This isn't about preventing anyone from performing the song," she says. "All along, my grandfather wanted his family to control the song, but he didn't quite know how to go about doing it. We just want the rights to his work."