The Band made history with their debut single “The Weight”. Though it wasn’t a huge success on the charts at the time, it has certainly aged well. It has since been named among the greatest songs of all time in numerous polls and is a staple of classic rock radio. Many of the names mentioned in the song are real-life friends and acquaintances of the band members. For example, “young Anna Lee” was a long-time friend of drummer and singer Levon Helm named Anna Lee Amsden. And “Crazy Chester” was an offbeat dude who would hang out at Ronnie Hawkins’ bar in Fayetteville.
The Band helped create the genre known as roots rock with their debut album Music From the Big Pink and in the ensuing decade carved out a piece of rock ‘n’ roll history. But even before they were The Band, they had achieved considerable success and fame as the backup band for Ronnie Hawkins and, even more famously, Bob Dylan.
“Angel of Harlem” by U2
U2 took some fans by surprise in 1988 with their fun yet soulful song “Angel of Harlem” -- complete with brass section. It was the second single off of Rattle and Hum. If anyone was wondering who this “angel” was, Bono was happy to solve the mystery. Bono wrote the lyrics in honor of the legendary jazz and pop singer Billie Holiday, whose influence on modern music is impossible to calculate. She had lived in Harlem, New York since her teens, and had been a part of the city’s exciting jazz scene since the 30s.
A heroic and tragic figure, Billie Holiday could never seem to get her life in order. After a horrific childhood, she finally had a successful music career, only to see it undone with her drug and alcohol abuse, as well as abusive relationships. Sadly, she died in 1959 at age 44, having destroyed her liver with excessive alcohol.
“American Pie” by Don McLean
The title track of Don McLean’s breakthrough 1971 album American Pie was written as a tribute to the three early rock ‘n’ roll stars killed in a tragic 1959 plane crash: Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and The Big Bopper (Jiles Perry Richardson Jr.). The plane crash is now widely known as “the day the music died” thanks to the tremendous cultural impact of the song. Aside from the central event described in the song, the many other ambiguous cultural references of “American Pie” have given rise to decades and debate and speculation. But don’t ask McLean to explain them to you. He believes in letting people draw their own conclusions while keeping a “dignified distance”.
“American Pie” was a worldwide smash hit single and one of the biggest songs of the 1970s. It also turned Don McLean from an unknown folk singer into an international superstar and among the most recognizable voices of his generation.
“Walk Away Renee” by The Left Banke
The Left Banke had a bass player named Tom Finn and the bass player had a girlfriend named Renée. But the keyboard player, Michael Brown, was in love with her too, and ended up writing at least three songs about her: “Walk Away Renée”, “Pretty Ballerina”, and “She May Call You Up Tonight”. Michael says that when it was time to record the song, Renée was in the studio, so his hands were shaking so badly he couldn’t perform; he left, returned to record his part after she had left.
For decades, the identity of this mysterious Renée was unknown. Finally, in 2001, she was identified as Renée Fladen-Kamm, a San Francisco-based singer and vocal coach. Brown described his feelings for Renée at the time as being “mythologically in love” in the sense that there was nothing really going on outside his imagination. Sounds unpleasant. The co-author of “Walk Away Renée”, Tony Sasone, recollects the song’s origins rather differently, however. According to him, he wrote the lyrics, and chose the name Renée as simply a random French-sounding name because the Beatles had had a hit with the French-named song “Michelle”.
"Cinderella" by Mac Miller
Ariana Grande and Mac Miller dated from 2016 (when Grande made the big announcement on social media) until 2018. After they broke up, Mac Miller released a very explicit song called “Cinderella” that includes many racy details of his relationship with the “Thank U, Next” singing sensation. The song also features rapping by Ty Dolla $ign. Grande has admitted that even some of the x-rated lyrics do in fact describe her relationship with Miller. So even though the relationship is no more, at least we all have this song forever and ever to remember them as a couple.
Sadly, just months after the breakup and the release of “Cinderella”, Mac Miller died of an apparent drug overdose on September 7, 2018. In her latest hit song “Thank U, Next”, her first number-one song, Ariana Grande calls Miller an “angel”.