What if I told you a celebrity may be worth more dead than alive?
Forbes' roundup of the highest-paid deceased celebrities of 2023 provides more fodder for those who find a kernel of suspicion in every untimely celebrity passing. These stars are absolutely raking it in from beyond the grave.
1. Michael Jackson: $115 Million
The total earnings of the highest-paid dead celebrities decreased by 70% between 2022 and 2023, but The King of Pop's heirs and heiresses aren't hurting for cash. Paris, Prince, and Blanket can afford to live like royalty, assuming they see a modest percentage of their late father's earnings.
The Michael Jackson ONE by Cirque du Soleil show in Las Vegas is one of the richest revenue sources, keeping the MJ gravy train moonwalking down the tracks.
2. Elvis Presley: $100 Million
If you earn the monicker “King” in the music business, your descendants will be rich forever. Despite passing away in 1977, Elvis' brand continues to be “Too Much!” for even most living celebrities to keep pace with. The Presley estate gets a cut of every visit to Graceland, while it is just one of several revenue sources spawned from Elvis.
Actress Riley Keough is the King's granddaughter. After Lisa Marie Presley's passing in January 2023, Keough engaged in a legal dispute with her grandmother to become Graceland's sole owner and the Elvis estate's primary beneficiary.
3. Ray Manzarek: $45 Million
Keyboardist Ray Manzarek was an integral member of The Doors, but his prospect of playing music ended in 2013 when he passed away of cancer. However, Manzarek's estate received a windfall in 2023 when living Doors guitarist and the Manzarek estate sold the rights to the band's catalog.
Music industry insiders called the multi-million-dollar transfer a “monumental acquisition.”
4. Dr. Seuss: $40 Million
You have Dr. Seuss to thank if you've ever enjoyed a steaming plate of green eggs and ham. Everyone's favorite doctor, Theodor Seuss Geisel, became eligible for this list when he died of cancer in 1991.
Few author-illustrators loom as large in American culture as Dr. Seuss, with films and amusement parks derived from his work keeping him relevant more than three decades after his death.
5. Charles Schulz: $30 Million
Even if you don't know the name Charles Schulz, you surely know of Garfield. The man who brought the sarcastic cat into the universe died in 2000 of cancer. Still, his greatest creation continues to garner tens of millions of dollars annually for the Schulz estate.
6. Prince: $30 Million
Perhaps Prince should have considered the dollar sign as his symbol. The rock n' roll legend's estate took in $30 million in revenue in 2023, with three posthumous albums driving a large portion of the income.
7. Whitney Houston: $30 Million
Whitney Houston's tragic drowning in 2012 came as a shock to fans, but appreciation for one of the greatest voices of her generation has not waned. The biopic Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody hit theaters in late 2022 and grossed nearly $60 million worldwide.
Houston's iconic status will also ensure that her music catalog continues to garner significant revenue for her estate.
8. John Lennon: $22 Million
The Beatles were cash cows when the members were all alive and kicking (or strumming or drumming), and they maintained their earning habits from beyond the grave. The Lennon estate continues benefiting from his solo catalog and the group's royalties.
The Lennon estate has been the focus of a contentious legal battle between Yoko Ono and John's first son, Julian. There would be plenty of money, but the legal confrontation indicates otherwise.
9. Bob Marley: $16 Million
One of Jamaica's favored sons, Bob Marley, will forever be the tallest giant in reggae music. With the biopic Bob Marley: One Love hitting theaters in 2024, next year could also be lucrative for the sons of Marley and other estate beneficiaries.
Regarding the money churner, Marley's likeness and intellectual property continue to “Stir It Up.”
10. Bing Crosby: $14 Million
You can't have a proper Christmas without Bing Crosby, and the release of the album Bing Crosby's Christmas Gems in October 2023 only boosted the estate's annual haul. Crosby apparently wanted his children to make it on their own, though, because he stipulated in his will that they would not have access to their inheritance until they were 65 years old.
11. George Harrison: $14 Million
Beatles are apparently gold-mining insects because George Harrison is the second of the four most prominent Beatles to make this list.
Harrison's estate derives earnings from his solo catalog, The Beatles' catalog, and the Cirque du Soleil show LOVE.
12. Arnold Palmer: $10 Million
The multi-colored umbrella logo you'll find on Arnie's branded drinks came to be when the golfer spotted a woman open an eye-catching umbrella during a break in a brainstorming session. You'll now see that logo on cashews, golf club covers, belts, and other products whose proceeds go (at least in part) to the Palmer estate.
The Arnold Palmer drink has proven most substantial to the Palmer portfolio. The half-lemonade, half-iced tea concoction comes in non-alcoholic and hard tea forms. The drink has gained seemingly unstoppable momentum since hitting $100 million in sales in 2010.
13. Marilyn Monroe: $10 Million
Marilyn Monroe's face is among those most likely to be hanging in your home's man cave or theater room, even sixty-plus years after her passing in 1962. Because Monroe had no children when she died, her estate went to her mother, acting coach, therapist, and a host of other non-relatives. However, the current iteration of the Monroe estate is among the most convoluted you'll find, so it's difficult to say who benefits most from her ongoing revenue flood.
14. J.R.R. Tolkien: $500 Million (2022)
Forbes only published figures for the 13 highest-earning dead celebrities in 2023. But in 2022, Lord of the Rings author J.R.R Tolkien amassed more gold than Smaug in 2022. Amazon Games and Embracer Group purchased the rights to create a Lord of the Rings-branded game in 2022.
The Tolkien estate also sold Amazon the rights to make The Rings of Power for $250 million in 2017, while books and audiobooks continue to generate considerable income for Tolkien's heirs.
15. Kobe Bryant: $400 Million (2022)
The 2020 helicopter crash that claimed Kobe Bryant's life (as well as the lives of nine others) was among the most earth-rocking celebrity deaths in recent memory. Bryant's estate continues to see revenues from merchandise sales, but the 2022 sale of BodyArmor sports drinks to Coca-Cola for $5.6 billion explains this nine-figure windfall.
As an initial investor in the sports drink, Kobe set his family up for a generational payday. The story goes that BodyArmor founder Mike Repole promised Kobe the drink would become the most popular of its kind by 2025, and it's difficult to argue considering the brand's $8 billion valuation.
16. David Bowie: $250 Million (2022)
Ziggy Stardust remains one of the most replayable artists of his generation, and the eye-popping sales price of his music catalog proves it. Warner Chappell Music purchased the rockstar's considerable publishing catalog for over $250 million in early 2022.
With hits like “Under Pressure,” “Fame,” and “Ziggy Stardust” in that catalog, Warner Chappell is banking on recouping its investment and then some.
17. James Brown: $100 Million (2022)
A musician's art lives well beyond their flesh vessel, but someone has to own that art. In James Brown's case, the art owner is Primary Vessel, which purchased Mr. Dynamite's publishing catalog in late 2021 for $90 million.
The deal not only included Brown's masters but also the rights to use his name and likeness for other ventures (movies, for example).
18. Leonard Cohen: $55 Million (2022)
Singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen is one of Canada's most famous sons, but his music no longer generates income for the Cohen estate. Media investment fund Hipgnosis Song Management purchased Cohen's catalog (including the smash hit “Hallelujah”) in 2022 for a considerable sum.
The fund has habitually scooped up high-value masters, as Justin Bieber sold his catalog to Hipgnosis for $200 million in January 2023.
19. Jeff Porcaro: $25 Million (2022)
Toto drummer Jeff Porcaro is credited with co-writing the band's biggest hit, “Africa.” In fact, Porcaro is responsible for the iconic groove that sticks in so many listeners' heads.
The drummer's revenues come from more than Toto, though, as he manned the cans on other iconic tracks like Michael Jackson's “Beat It.” Primary Wave bought Porcaro's catalog in late 2021 for an estimated $30 million.
20. Juan Gabriel: $23 Million (2022)
Mexican crooner and actor Juan Gabriel passed away in 2016 from a heart attack, but a deal struck between his estate and Universal Music Group in 2022 opens the door for the release of more music.
This deal involved transferring more money to the Gabriel estate, making it a landmark year for descendants of the singer, who has more than 1,800 existing songs to his name.
21. Roald Dahl: $513 Million (2021)
We go back to Forbes' 2021 list of highest-grossing deceased celebrities, where beloved author and illustrator Roald Dahl claimed the top spot.
Dahl's intellectual properties are immensely marketable, as evidenced by the release of another Wonka film in 2023.
Netflix spent $1 billion in a recent three-year span for the rights to re-tell Dahl's stories, and such deals have made Dahl a veritable printing press even after passing away.
22. Gerry Goffin: $23 Million (2021)
Lyricist Gerry Goffin is the mind behind timeless hits like “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” and “The Loco-Motion.” Primary Wave's 2021 acquisition of a partial stake in Goffin's catalog made it a profitable year for the Goffin estate.
23. Luther Vandross: $21 Million (2021)
Primary Wave has been gobbling up costly music catalogs like Pac-Man eating pellets, and Luther Vandross' music was among the rights they purchased in 2021.
The legendary soul singer's catalog includes albums that have sold more than 40 million copies internationally, so it's no wonder that Primary Wave paid a hefty sum to the Vandross estate for the publishing rights.
24. Juice WRLD: $15 Million (2021)
Rapper Jarad Higgins, also known as Juice WRLD, passed away in 2019 from causes related to his tumultuous lifestyle. His posthumous album Legends Never Die topped the Billboard charts in 2020 and earned the fourth-highest single-week streaming numbers ever for an album.
The record's success trickled down to Higgins' estate, which will likely continue to see income from existing and future Juice WRLD releases.