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Among the Highest-Earning Dead Celebs, There’s a Big Surprise

Elisabeth Edwards
Photo Credits: 1. Lester Cohen / Getty Images, 2. Jim McCrary / Redferns, 3. Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images

Forbes magazine has released a list of the richest people in the world, but this particular ranking didn’t include the expected billionaires like Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, or Bill Gates. No, what everyone on the list has in common is that they are making millions from beyond the grave.

The 13 departed celebrities on the list earned a whopping $1.6 billion, a 72 percent increase from 2021. For the first time in history, the top five decedents made more than $100 million each. But one name included on the list is barely recognizable to most and is raising eyebrows after raking in $25 million this year.

The top earners on the ‘other side’

At the top of the list is J. R. R. Tolkien, the author of the beloved fantasy series The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, who died half a century ago. Tolkien earned a whopping $500 million in 2022. This was thanks to the sale of Middle-Earth Enterprises, a company that maintains Tolkein’s intellectual property rights from the Lord of the Rings motion picture franchise, games, and merchandise, to the Swedish gaming company Embracer.

Photo of JRR Tolkien in his office

John Ronald Reuel (JRR) Tolkien, author of The Hobbit and The Lord Of The Rings. (Photo Credit: Haywood Magee / Getty Images)

Just behind Tolkien is Kobe Bryant, one of basketball’s most prolific players. He died tragically in a helicopter crash in January 2020. Bryant, his thirteen-year-old daughter Gianna, and seven others were all killed after the helicopter crashed into a mountain in Calabasas, California. Bryant’s estate earned $400 million this year after his share of the BodyArmor sports drink company was sold to Coca-Cola for $5.6 billion, making it the largest acquisition in Coca-Cola’s history.

Portrait of Kobe Bryant

NBA player Kobe Bryant. (Photo Credit: Rob Carr / Getty Images)

Others on the list include David Bowie, who brought in $250 million after his catalog of music spanning six decades was sold to Warner Chappell Music. Elvis Presley, whose popularity reached new heights after the wildly successful Baz Luhrman biopic Elvis was released in June 2022, has earned $110 million from show tickets and merchandise.

An unexpected addition

The Forbes list continues with other top musicians and artists like Michael Jackson, James Brown, and Dr. Seuss, but ranking 9th was Jeff Porcaro – a name far less recognizable than Elvis or Bowie. Porcaro rose to fame in the 1980s as the drummer of the rock band Toto, whose most iconic song “Africa” – co-written by Porcaro – topped the charts in 1982.

Jeff Porcaro with drums

Porcaro at his drum kit on stage, circa 1990. (Photo Credit: Fryderyk Gabowicz / Picture Alliance / Getty Images)

Originally taught by his drummer father, Porcaro fell in love with music at a young age. By the time he was 13, he had joined his first band. After moving with his family to Los Angeles, Porcaro dropped out of high school to take a job on the TV show The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour. In 1973, he was given the opportunity to drum for Steely Dan during a four-month tour. Porcaro later drummed on Steely Dan’s albums Pretzel Logic (1974), Katy Lied (1975), and Gaucho (1980).

Porcaro formed Toto in 1977 with singer Bobby Kimball, guitarist Steve Lukather, keyboardists David Paich and Steve Porcaro (Jeff’s brother who co-wrote “Human Nature” with Michael Jackson), and bassist David Hungate.

Portrait of the 80s band Toto

Rock group Toto (L-R Steve Porcaro, David Hungate, Steve Lukather, Bobby Kimball, David Paich and Jeff Porcaro) in 1982. (Photo Credit: Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images)

Porcaro’s career with Toto was just the tip of the iceberg. He quietly climbed the ranks as the go-to studio drummer for huge recording artists like Quincy Jones and even Michael Jackson – it’s Porcaro keeping the beat on his wildly successful album Thriller. Throughout his career, Porcaro also collaborated with Eric Clapton, Bruce Springsteen, and Paul McCartney.

Jeff’s unique style became “the sound of mainstream pop/rock drumming in the 1980s.” The drummer died on August 5, 1992, at the age of 38. He had a heart attack after spraying insecticide in his yard.

More from us: In Memoriam: Celebrities We Lost in 2022

After Porcaro’s publishing and recording royalties were acquired by Primary Wave for $30 million in 2021, the drummer’s estate brought in $25 million in 2022.

Elisabeth Edwards

Elisabeth Edwards is a public historian and history content writer. After completing her Master’s in Public History at Western University in Ontario, Canada Elisabeth has shared her passion for history as a researcher, interpreter, and volunteer at local heritage organizations.

She also helps make history fun and accessible with her podcast The Digital Dust Podcast, which covers topics on everything from art history to grad school.

In her spare time, you can find her camping, hiking, and exploring new places. Elisabeth is especially thrilled to share a love of history with readers who enjoy learning something new every day!

The Digital Dust Podcast