Just about any night of the week, at bars and restaurants all over the Shore, Tommy Santelli takes on the biggest names in the music business.
Perched on a stool, with just his acoustic guitar, his ever-present cowboy hat and his versatile voice — a bit gruffer and tobacco-cured since we last saw him about 25 years ago — Santelli takes on The Boss in his “Thunder Road” glory days. He takes on such iconic figures as Neil Young, Van Morrison, Led Zeppelin. He takes on America, the Allmans, Stevie Ray Vaughan.
But it was the time he took on Elton John that forms the gist of our story. Took him to the doorstep of the court, he did, with the conviction that the bespectacled British entertainer plagiarized one of his original songs, a little thing called “Written in the Stars.”
And isn’t “Written in the Stars” a grand ballad of unrequited love from the Broadway Aida that John and Tim Rice adapted from the Verdi opera? A song that the composer dueted on with Lee Ann Rimes, who reissued the recording on her own greatest-hits album? What would any of this have to do with a fifty-year old country rocker from the blue-collar bars of the Bayshore; a man whose first original recording was an ode to his off-road vehicle?
As Santelli tells it during a between-sets cigarette break outside The Downtown, “All my life I’d been waiting for my American Pie, you know what I mean? Just looking for the one song, the one thing that I knew would work out for me.”
“When I wrote ‘Written in the Stars,’ I knew in my heart that this was the one — it was like a message from God,” he continues. “When I heard Elton John and Lee Ann Rimes sing it on TV one night, I knew that he and Tim Rice plagiarized the whole thing — they just inverted the song, basically.”
Digging around in his bag for a copy of his gig calendar and a CD of demos, Santelli waxes philosophical. “A song is a very personal thing, you know — when somebody steals your shit, it hurts you deeply.”
To get some perspective on how this David-and-Goliath scenario came about, it helps to flash back a few years to a time when the Tom Santelli Band was a regular presence at local saloons; gigging constantly in long-forgotten places with names like The Tavern and The Breadline, and even experiencing that Jersey rite of passage when he got to share the stage with Springsteen.
By the mid-1980s, Santelli “knew that I had peaked here in Jersey,” and, breaking up the band, he lit off solo to southern climes — first Hilton Head, South Carolina; Sarasota, Florida; eventually settling in Sweetwater, Tennessee, close to Knoxville and on the well-traveled road to Nashville.
Along the way, he played countless hours of live music, made some cash and some friends, opened his own music store, and got to play with Gregg Allman, Marshall Tucker,Steppenwolf, War and Donovan. He’s even got a funny story about how Donovan, that Zen-preaching, peace-loving hippy-folkie 60s popstar, got into a sloppy fistfight in front of his house with the son of the late Rolling Stone Brian Jones.
He married and divorced a few times; fathered a son who followed him into the family business. Now 17, Angelo Santelli plays guitar with some pretty well-known musicians. As his proud poppa puts it, Angelo just played the House of Blues in Chicago, as part of a band that featured Devin Allman, Duane Betts and Derek Trucks — all second-generation keepers of the Allman Brothers Band legacy.
He even dated Louise Harrison — that’s right, Beatle fans; the sister of George Harrison (she’s some 15 years Santelli’s senior), a man who, were he alive today, would be able to tell us a thing or two about song-authorship lawsuits.
Santelli, who keeps a home in Sarasota and a log-cabin farmhouse in Tennessee, has been working the Jersey Shore again for the first time in years; maintaining an apartment in his old Atlantic Highlands stomping grounds and thinking about opening a guitar shop somewhere in the local area.
It was at his old shop in Sweetwater that Santelli made some crucial connections — among them a guy named Ron, whom he describes as “one of Elton John’s people” and who, he says, told him that he’d like to hear some of his stuff.
As one of many people orbiting the perimeter of Music City USA, Santelli had frequently sent new song demos to record labels and song publishers, hoping for that foot in the door of the American Dream. As he tells it, he received form-letter rejections from lots of companies — with the exception of Rocket Records, Elton John’s on-again/off-again label.
The Disney-produced Broadway show Aida had come about without Santelli paying much attention to its soundtrack, but when Elton and an all-star cast of guest stars recorded a sort of self-tribute to Aida in 2002, Santelli discovered Elton and Lee Ann’s lite-pop version of “Written in the Stars” — a song that he felt shared considerable similarity to his well-circulated demo of that same title.
Although song titles are not subject to copyright, Santelli found enough bothersome points (his own song mentions “God’s plan,” while the Tim Rice lyric asks “Is this God’s experiment?”) to literally make a case of it.
“I guess they thought that I was just some little peanut from Tennessee,” says Santelli. “But I wasn’t going to let this go without a fight.”
“I hired a top musicologist out of New York, a woman who charged $300 an hour for her services, to analyze the two tracks and give an expert opinion on whether they were the same song.”
Feel free to compare and contrast yourself. The video of the John-Rimes duet can be viewed here, with the Tim Rice-credited lyrics on display here. Santelli’s original song “Written in the Stars” can be found on this MySpace page.
“I spent a fortune, and four years, fighting Disney, fighting Elton John, fighting Lee Ann Rimes,” Santelli states. “I spent every penny my parents left me when they died.”
“Now I’m an expert in copyright law. I had all my papers in order, the copyrights, the postal receipts, everything that showed the timeline of me creating this song and getting it to the attention of these people. I’m the fuckin’ Mack Daddy of this shit.”
As Santelli relates it, his cause got a boost when Caleb Quaye, Sir Elton’s guitar player for years, came into the store and told him that “Elton’s been known to lift things from people.”
“The only thing I couldn’t get him on, was Elton John never signed for the package when I sent the music over,” he adds. “Of course, a big star isn’t going to come to the door; they’ll have somebody else sign for them.”
Whether the judge would have seen things Santelli’s way is a moot point, as the songwriter tells us that a settlement was agreed upon about two weeks prior to the court date. Santelli didn’t elaborate on the particulars of the settlement.
Red Bank oRBit attempted a cursory look-up of material on this case and found little to link to here. The official soundtrack album for Aida and its all-star cousin continue to credit Elton John and Tim Rice for “Written in the Stars,” as does the official material on the Rimes best-of I Need You. There are a few instances where Tommy Santelli is listed as the writer of the song, although they all exist on various blogs and wiki sites.
Santelli, for his part, appears to have moved on. You can buy a CD of his covers and recent originals (including “Written,” a one-man “Dueling Banjos” and a fun interlude of musical impressions) at any of his many local gigs; he’s working toward getting that guitar shop open up here, and he’s got a boat down in Florida and a couple of “adopted parents” looking after the spread in Tennessee.
“I pray to God every day; it keeps me focused,” he explains. “I find that as long as I keep praying, good things will continue to happen.”
Heading outside for a smoke, he punches a button for some recorded music between sets, and lands, curiously enough, upon the Elton John song “Tiny Dancer.”
“I still sing this song,” he says with a grin. “Elton John is a great star, a great singer and writer; that hasn’t changed for me.”