Elvis No Longer King of Dead Celebrities

ByBuck Wolf

Oct. 24, 2006 — -- As much as Elvis Presley made when he was alive, he's earned millions more since passing away.

In a moment of unbridled cynicisim, Presley's manager, Col. Tom Parker, allegedly said death was a "good career move" for his client -- at least according to Albert Goldman's infamous biography.

This much is true: Elvis has reigned atop Forbes' list of "Top-Earning Dead Celebrities" every year since its inception in 2001, lording over John Lennon, James Dean, and all the others who are dead as dirt, yet filthy rich and getting richer.

But now, there's a new top star among dead tycoons. Forbes hails Kurt Cobain, who earned a whopping $50 million between October 2005 and 2006, as the New No. 1.

Presley wound up in second place, with $42 million, down $3 million from last year. And while it's certainly a blow to his fans, it's still much more than the combined earnings of deceased luminaries Marilyn Monroe ($8 million), Ray Charles ($10 million) and Johnny Cash ($8 million).

In an age of relentless marketing and product licensing, Forbes' dead celebrity power rankings have indeed become a telling sign of the times for certain careers that simply refuse to die.

Here's a look at where the top-earning dead celebs are getting their money:

1. Kurt Cobain --- You'll soon hear Nirvana on "CSI: Miami." One reason Cobain overtook Elvis is that his widow, Courtney Love, cut a deal with Primary Wave, a publishing group, to sell 25 percent of the band's song catalogue -- and now, it will be marketed aggressively.

The company is now exploring using Nirvana music in commercials, especially for eco-friendly products. "Come As You Are," as long as you're driving a hybrid.

2. Elvis Presley -- Don't tell Robert F.X. Sillerman, "It's good to be the king." The billionaire's CKX company paid $114.2 million for rights to Presley's name and likeness, in addition to the tourist operations at Graceland.

The results, however, were not what Sillerman wanted. Presley's annual earnings fell $3 million.

CKX also markets "American Idol," and the show's contestants did go to Presley's Memphis home, helping to boost attendance 6 percent.

Then, in June, President Bush brought Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi -- a big Elvis fan -- on a well publicized Graceland pilgrimage. Alas, it just wasn't enough to bolster earnings.

Still, there's hope in the future, with the forthcoming launch of an Elvis-themed Cirque du Soleil in ("Viva") Las Vegas.

3. Charles M. Schulz -- In the 1965 landmark holiday special, "A Charlie Brown Christmas," the little round-headed kid decried the commercialization of the holiday.

Now, four decades later, you can buy an official "Peanuts" Christmas tree from Urban Outfitters for $24 dollars -- and it's just as spindly as the one Charlie Brown nearly kills when he tries to decorate it.

The "Peanuts" cartoon strip still runs in 2,400 papers, but the bulk of the late cartoonist's $35 million in earning comes from licensing. Among other products, Urban Outfitters sells a replica of Linus' security blanket.

4. John Lennon -- Droll music historians note that John Lennon was a millionaire many times over when he sang the lyrics to his famous song that go, "Imagine no possessions, I wonder if you can?"

With $24 million in earnings last year, the Lennon estate is singing, "All You Need Is Love" all the way to the bank.

The Beatles continue to sell millions of discs, and the New York Supreme Court just cleared the way for the band and its survivors to sue EMI for $25 million in damages and unpaid royalties.

5. Albert Einstein -- The greatest of all super-geniuses has hit a goldmine with the Baby Einstein line of educational videos and toys, which generated $400 million last year. Einstein's estate, controlled by Hebrew University of Jerusalem, gleaned at least $20 million in royalties, more than proving the theory of celebrity relativity.

6. Andy Warhol -- Andy Warhol famously said, "In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes." But could the pop icon have ever imagine his art plastered on $200 Levi Strauss jeans, as well as limited edition cell phones, and Adidas running shoes, all to the tune of $19 million?

This winter, Barneys department store will institute the "Happy Warholidays" advertising campaign, with the artist's work on billboards and shopping bags.

New iMac computers are equipped with a feature called Photo Booth, which has a "Warhol" option. Click a button, and the photo of your choice is split into multiple images and candy-colored, just like the artist's classic rendering of Campbell's soup cans. Now, all you have to do is convince a museum that it's modern art.

7. Dr. Seuss -- The Grinch is dreaming of the Great White Way this Christmas. Theodor Geisel's classic children's book is coming to Broadway, with theater unions agreeing to put on 12 shows a week, four more than the industry standard.

The movie version of "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" already proved to be a $260 million blockbuster, so it's not surprising that the good doctor still pulls in $10 million in annual earnings, enough to top Whoville's Who's Who.

The Rest of the list: No. 8, Ray Charles ($10 million); No. 9. Marilyn Monroe ($8 million); No. 10, Johnny Cash ($8 million); No. 11; J.R.R. Tolkien ($7 million), No. 12 George Harrison ($7 million); No. 13. Bob Marley ($7 million).

Buck Wolf is ABCNews.com's entertainment producer. The Wolf Files is published on Tuesdays.

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