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CategoryThe Danny Aiello Songbook March 31st, 2011 by Wes

Millions know and love Danny Aiello as an actor, singer, entrepreneur and philanthropist. What few know is that The Man With The Silky Smooth Speaking Voice is the owner of one of the largest catalogs of pop music, having steadily acquired the publishing rights to a number of hit songs over the years. Read up on the history of some of the crown jewels of the Danny Aiello Songbook.

Papa Don’t Preach

The early 1980s saw a brief but fruitful trend of father-figure stunt casting in music videos, led by Raising Arizona star Trey Wilson as Pat Benatar’s father in “Love Is A Battlefield” and Captain Lou Albano’s landmark legal adoption of Cindy Lauper. Noting these successes, Warner Brothers made casting the titular star for Madonna’s “Papa Don’t Preach” the label’s most important move in 1986.

Aiello personally chose Madonna's famous striped shirt, saying it added "subtext about being a prisoner of a patriachy."

Aiello would go on to win the now defunct Best Lead Actor award at that year's MTV VMA ceremonies.

Against Madonna’s wishes, Warner execs were hot to cast former Leave It To Beaver star Hugh Beaumont, but the Material Girl won the day when it was discovered that Beaumont had passed away four years earlier. This gave Madonna the chance to bring in her first choice: Danny Aiello, who Madonna had grown to admire from his work in such films as Once Upon A Time In America and The Stuff. In order to land the much-in-demand Aiello, the singer made a bold move, offering up the rights to the song itself if Aiello would take the role in the controversial video.

Time's cover would feature the infamous "Beatle and Madonna Deliver Shanghai Surprise To Aiello" headline

People's coverage of the Harrison - Madonna "Alliance Against Aiello"

The canny Aiello agreed, and was delighted when the song became Madonna’s fourth #1 single. Noting the potential income his rights could generate, Aiello quietly explored acquiring the rights to more of the Madonna catalog, but the singer received timely advice from former Beatle George Harrison on the set of Shanghai Surprise. Having just witnessed the Beatles lose their catalog to Michael Jackson in 1985, Harrison helped Madonna protect her work. Many Beatles experts believe that Harrison’s “Devil’s Radio” was a coded warning about Aiello’s newfound interest in the industry. But it would be Aiello who had the last laugh when “Papa” found a prime spot on the 11x platinum Immaculate Collection a few years later, providing him ample funds to expand his collection.

Fear of a Black Planet/Apocalypse 91/Muse Sick-n-Hour Mess Age

Though Danny Aiello’s influential role in the world of hip-hop is common knowledge, his roots in the game grow deeper than many realize. While filming Do The Right Thing in 1989, Aiello became infatuated with the film’s developing soundtrack, particularly Public Enemy’s “Fight The Power”. After arranging a meeting with the group through Spike Lee, the actor’s enthusiasm for their work quickly led to a friendship with PE front man Chuck D.

Convinced that Public Enemy was making music that “finally sounded like what he’d been hearing inside his head all these years”, Aiello became a something of a silent partner in the band’s next three albums, encouraging them to expand their sound and scope. Sadly, the Aiello/Public Enemy partnership would fall apart in 1994 after a tragic misunderstanding.

Some ain't gonna never ever change

The video footage that would accidentally shatter the Aiello/D partnership.

While seeing the band’s video for the single “Give It Up” for the first time, a confused Aiello somehow mistook a Claymation Bill Clinton for himself, viewing Chuck D’s attack as a commentary on Aiello’s status as co-owner of the publishing rights for their most recent albums. Infuriated and hurt, the actor broke ties with the group and has since let Muse Sick-n-Hour Mess Age fall out of print. In the wake of their bitter divorce from Aiello, a distraught Public Enemy would go through personnel changes and take four years to release another album.

Swinging On A Star/Seagram’s Golden Wine Coolers Jam

One of Aiello’s most profitable acquisitions has been the venerable classic “Swinging On a Star”, which won an Academy Award for Best Song as performed by Bing Crosby in Going My Way. Aiello bought the rights to the song in 1991 during the filming of Hudson Hawk, intending to give it to co-star Bruce Willis as a present to celebrate the impending success of the movie. Instead, upon learning of Aiello’s business ventures, Willis convinced his colleague to purchase the rights to the bluesy, harmonica-based jam that Willis had performed in a commercial for Seagram’s Golden Wine Coolers.

Estimated budget: $70M USD

A prank on the Hudson Hawk set gets out of hand.

Eager to be included in future installments of the Hudson Hawk franchise, Aiello spent a landmark $5 million to acquire the song from Quebec-based Seagram Company, Ltd. When he later found out that Willis had “just been goofin’ on him” about the song’s potential value, a livid Aiello vowed to never work with Willis again, going so far as to pull his financial backing out of the fledgling Planet Hollywood chain, where he was ultimately replaced by Sylvester Stallone.

Every Foo Fighters Song Ever Written

Beloved character actor Mike Starr

Not Danny Aiello.

Most recently, Aiello made waves among music industry insiders by acquiring the publishing rights to the entire Foo Fighters catalog. Though a savvy investment, the move was spurred on by curious circumstances. While watching TV at home one night, Aiello reportedly came across the NBC TV series Ed and, upon seeing actor Mike Starr on the show, became disoriented, believing the veteran character actor to be himself.

“I had the TV on, and I see this show and I yell to my wife ‘Honey, come see this! When did I do this? Come see me in this, I’m pretty good!’” – Danny Aiello (Source: From Me To Foo, The Story of a Taylor Made Man by Taylor Hawkins)

After fixating on the series theme song, the Foo Fighters’ “Next Year”, Aiello scooped up the rights to the band’s complete output, leveraging his “Papa Don’t Preach” earnings to outbid band leader Dave Grohl while the latter was embroiled in various Nirvana and Probot-related lawsuits.

"You're ruining your reputation!" - Brad from Newbridge

Dave Grohl checks his levels before a February Foo Fighters show at Danny's Upstairs.

Stunned by this turn of events, the Foo Fighters were forced to disband in 2009 while engaging in a series of lengthy negotiations with Aiello. It was only through the intercession of mutual acquaintance Juliette Lewis that a compromise was finally reached: Aiello agreed to sell back half of the rights to the Foo catalog; in exchange, Grohl reinstated Pat Smear as a full member of the band at Aiello’s insistence, and the Foo Fighters agreed to play a free show each month for the next 10 years at Aiello’s Hoboken hotspot, Danny’s Upstairs Comedy Club.

Special technical and artistic thanks to @theisb and @kickthebobo