The lawyer behind the worst deal in pop music

This year marks the 60th anniversary of what was probably the worst deal in the history of rock-and-roll.

It is estimated to have cost The Beatles – then just an up-and-coming Liverpool beat group – $100 million in lost earnings.

The lost revenue would be about £1 billion today.

John Lennon and Paul McCartney both blamed their manager Brian Epstein for this devastating error of judgment. But the real culprit was The Beatles’ high-flying showbiz solicitor David Jacobs (not to be confused with the disc jockey of the same name who presented “Juke Box Jury”).

In 1963, Epstein asked Jacobs to find someone to handle the growing number of requests from businesses anxious to cash in on Beatlemania by selling souvenirs, memorabilia and tat endorsed by the band of the moment.

The lawyer handed the Beatles merchandising rights to a Chelsea playboy, the Eton-educated former guards officer and racing driver Nicky Byrne.

Byrne set up a company called Seltaeb (Beatles backwards) and secured a deal with Jacobs in which The Beatles received just 10 per cent of the merchandising proceeds – the rest, 90 per cent, went to Seltaeb.

The Beatles became so popular, companies were cashing in with anything they could plaster pictures of John, Paul, George and Ringo on – pyjamas, plastic guitars, wallpaper, bubble gum, even cans purporting to contain the musicians’ breath.

After it became clear how much money The Beatles missed out on, Epstein and Jacobs were involved in a prolonged series of legal disputes on both sides of the Atlantic. By the time The Beatles won back control over merchandising, the mania had abated.

Now a new short novel by Nigel Hastilow called “Dead Groovy” pulls together the wide-ranging strands of David Jacobs’ career. It includes his involvement with the notorious gangster Kray twins and his role in the Profumo affair which brought down Harold Macmillan’s Government.

And it asks the question, did David Jacobs commit suicide at his house in Hove or was he murdered?

Jacobs was the go-to showbusiness solicitor of the era. Clients included the rich socialite Lady Docker, the singer Dorothy Squires, the composer Lionel Bart, who wrote the musical “Oliver”, theatre director Peter Hall, pop singer Gene Vincent, actor Laurence Olivier, film star Judy Garland, even the spy John Vassall.

In 1959, Jacobs masterminded the libel case which left the entertainer Liberace “laughing all the way to the bank” having defended himself from the implication he might be homosexual. He was, according to “The Daily Mirror” a “luminous, quivering, giggling, fruit-flavoured, mincing, ice-covered heap of mother-love”. Liberace won £8,000 damages.

In May 1968, the Kray twins were arrested for murder. Jacobs refused to handle the case even though he had worked for them in the past and the gangsters’ request might be an offer you can’t refuse.

Jacobs’ troubles included the strange business of an attempted coup d’etat in Panama involving Tito Arias, husband of the prima ballerina Dame Margot Fonteyn not to mention the bizarre case of a crucifixion on London’s Hampstead Heath.

Then on December 15, 1968, he was found dead at his house in Hove, where Ringo and Maureen Starr honeymooned three years earlier. He was 56.

The inquest verdict was suicide. Yet his goddaughter, actress Suzanna Leigh – who starred with Elvis Presley in “Paradise, Hawaiian Style” – refused to believe Jacobs killed himself.

“Dead Groovy” looks at the career of David Jacobs and at who might have wanted him dead.

“Dead Groovy”, a novella, was published on July 16. Kindle £1.99; paperback £5.00.

About the Author

Nigel Hastilow was editor of The Birmingham Post in the 1990s and a columnist for the Wolverhampton Express & Star. He has worked for the Institute of Directors, the Institute of Chartered Accountants and ran his own publishing company. He also had a short political career.

He has published several books, including The Man Who Invented The News, about Marchamont Nedham, the leading journalist of the English Civil War; The Trials of Eldred Pottinger, an historical romance set during the First Afghan War; Close of Play about village cricket; and How To Become Prime Minister, a guide for ambitious teenagers.

He lives in Wickhamford, near Evesham, Worcestershire.

This has been an advertisement for a novel, which was sent to us by the author. We have received no compensation for this, except that if you end up buying this book through our links, we will receive a percentage in the form of gift vouchers which we can only use to purchase stuff from Amazon UK. 

6 Responses

  1. Dave Cox says:

    Hi interesting article. Can you give me any info on the music track and where I can find this version of Its All To Much.

  2. marc says:

    what a story, never heard of it. thanks for this incredible story. loved it.

  3. Paul Murphy says:

    The figure of $100,000,000 lost to The Beatles continues to rear its head. But it’s not real. For a start, Mark Lewisohn, in quite strident terms (and anyone who knows how calmly and almost-ASMR-like Mark speaks will know that is very unusual), that “people talk about a hundred million [lost] … I’ve seen the figures … it’s just rubbish [the sum].” Secondly, the sales just weren’t there. In the first quarter, at the height of Beatlemania, the sum cleared was $1 million, as evidenced by Brian given a cheque for $9,700 [10%]. On that basis alone, to lose The Beatles ‘one hundred million’ would mean that Beatlemania would have had to continue for 100 quarters – i.e. 25 years.

    The oft-quoted $100 million appeared some 20 years ago, when the – active imaginationed, shall one say, Mark Spitz – started hurling around the supposedly cancelled Woolworths and Penny’s contracts, allegedly around $80 million worth. But that was based on the RETAIL sum – not the percentage-of-said sum. In essence, if Woolworths sold a Beatle wig for a dollar, that did not generate a dollar to The Beatles, NEMS, Seltaeb or anyone else. On standard retail mark-up, even Woolworths would only be getting 40% of that dollar. Woolworths and Penney’s would have been paying 10 cents in commision tops on the greatest deal ever.

    And many of the contracts were not ‘cancelled’ because of the legal case. What difference would it make to Penny’s if Byrne and Epstein were involved in a court battle? Their contract was made in good faith. The fact was, the merchandise bubble had burst, even if the musical one had not [indeed, never did]. How many Beatle wigs does one need? Does one buy a new Beatles watch every year? Of course not. There is a difference between a contract being cancelled, and an option not being taken up.

    Finally, which again Mr Spitz overlooked – by the time that the notices not to proceed were coming in, the Seltaeb deal had been renegotiated. You only have to look at the subline above: ‘The lost revenue would be about £1 billion today.’ Can you think of anyone – anyone, Taylor Swift, the Stones, Madonna, even Paul – all four together – who are going to garner one billion in merchandise in the next 14 months [the time-length of the original Seltaeb deal]? Of course not.

    ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’ sold 5 million copies in the US, at 69 to 89 cents. Even the MUSIC wasn’t generating such sums for Capitol.

    It’s a fantasy figure, and it needs to be put to bed. Well, it will be, when Mark releases Volume 2 … breath not held.

    • Muninman says:

      Great reply, Paul. You beat me too it, and in far greater detail.
      I think Philip Norman’s Shout performed an important role in this ‘story’. Shout (1982) was the first attempt to really tell the whole narrative of the Beatles. There’s no doubt Norman is a talented writer, but although I admire some aspects of his work, there is too much of the tabloid hack about him. He likes to add his opinions, as if they hold greater weight than other commentators (notably his dismissal of George Harrison), and he also likes to inject a certainly amount of mystery – conspiracy even. The Seltaeb debacle was central to his account, not just in presenting Nicky Byrne as some kind of villain, but also creating suspicion around the deaths of Epstein and Jacobs which he strongly hinted were possibly murders. I think he may have backed away from some of these claims in later years.
      Like you I hope ML eventually presents the fruits of his knowledge and research in another volume…

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