There was a lot of talk over Super Bowl weekend about the appropriateness of Justin Timberlake using a projected image of Prince during the halftime show, and about Prince’s estate planning to release new music. The decisions by the Prince Estate fly in the face of the late icon’s wishes. He has been widely reported to have felt that using holograms or similar digital representations of a dead artist as demonic. Prince also cited the use of John Lennon’s vocals to create the song “Free as a Bird,” several decades after Lennon’s death. Prince was legendary for preferring creative control, even saying he never wanted unreleased music to be released after his death. The controversy over Prince reminds us of the many controversies which arise when an artist passes away while leaving a treasure trove of unreleased music.
Some people believe that Tupac is alive and putting out albums from seculison somewhere. The probable truth is that he was killed in 1996 in a murder which remains unsolved. According to some sources, Tupac was preparing to release an album called One Nation which would end the East Coast vs. West Coast rap war. It was said to feature Scarface, Outkast, DJ Premier and others, but there was no proof that anything was ever recorded. But One Nation was just a rumor. Tupac’s very prolific output has been confirmed. There have been seven studio albums, over 10 compilations, a soundtrack, a live DVD and two remixes since his death. Although there is some debate about the quality of the releases, it is more or less accepted that the albums simply do not measure up to the polished releases during Pac’s lifetime.
Some experts believe that the release of music an artist did not approve of in life can reward fans, but hurt the artist’s legacy over the long term. This seems to be what happened with Elvis. He only released music he thought was great, but after his death, many of the songs he thought were no good were released on new albums. As a result, many people think of Elvis through his last years of recordings, which were not quality. That ended up diminishing Elvis’s reputation. This is one reason many artists prefer to keep their material under wraps forever.
Michael Jackson died in profound debt. That informs many of the decisions made by the Jackson Estate after he died in 2009. Jackson famously held the rights to a huge music catalogue, which at times even included music by the Beatles. When Jackson died, music pirates stole more than 50,000 audio files from Sony, including all sorts of music that had never been released. The hackers were arrested before the music could be disseminated. LaToya Jackson said she found hard disks with over 1,000 songs on them that the public has never heard. Some songs have been leaked to the public. However, the biggest cache is still held by Sony Music Entertainment, which signed a deal with the Estate to release ten posthumus albums, some with unreleased material, over the next decade.
Amy Winehouse’s sudden death in 2011 deprived the world of decades of future music. Unfortunately, her label quickly tried to capitalize on her passing by compiling an album of covers and miscellaneous recordings, Lioness: Hidden Treasures. The tracks were not up to her standards and many seemed influenced by her drug and alcohol addiction. After criticism, Universal UK allegedly destroyed their back catalogue of unreleased tracks, in particular the demos she was recording for her third, never completed, album. Her drummer, Troy Miller, has said that she would not have wanted any material released without her consent.
Sony Legacy has kept up a steady release of new albums over several decades after Hendrix’s death at just age 27. However, the most infamous lost album on our list has yet to be discovered or leaked: Black Gold. This 16-song cycle was recorded back in 1970, while Hendrix was living (and recording) in a Greenwich Village apartment. The acoustic recordings feature 16 tracks. The tapes were given to drummer Mitch Mitchell that same year, and they ended up in a box and forgotten. Mitchell eventually found the tapes and a tentative release was planned, but after Mitchell’s death in 2008 the tapes disappeared again. Or did they? Hendrix’s sister Janie claimed back in 2010 that this music would be released “this decade” but it has not surfaced yet. Just one track, “Suddenly, November Morning,” has been released. It was included onWest Coast Seattle Boy: The Jimi Hendrix Anthology in 2010.
The Beatles probably had an extensive back catalogue of unreleased material. The band broke up in 1970, but like Tupac, had an enormous musical output over a short period of time. There are two areas of interest for Beatles fans. First, it has been rumored that Paul McCartney would like to put out several albums of unreleased material, including live performances, but has been stopped by the estates of Beatles John Lennon and George Harrison. Yoko Ono is protective of Lennon’s legacy. She permitted the song “Free as a Bird” to be completed by the surviving Beatles for the 1994 Beatles Anthology album. The song was originally recorded by Lennon at home in New York in October, 1977. It was one of many incomplete songs that Lennon and Ono were writing for a never-completed autobiographical Broadway show. The second area of interest is in the long-rumored Beatles reunion which was allegedly being planned when Lennon died. According to studio owner Len Kovner, the Beatles recorded in Los Angeles in 1976. However, tracks from these sessions have not been released, nor has anyone confirmed their possible location.