Would it surprise you to learn that many of your favorite songs were inspired by actual people? Maybe not; after all, even the greatest artist doesn’t exist in a vacuum. So let’s take a little trip down memory lane and uncover the stories behind the songs. The faces behind the hits. Some, as you might imagine, were lovers. Others were loved from afar. And a few might be a little harder to characterize. A few of the musicians were bold enough to use the person’s real name in the song, while others were a bit more circumspect. But each of them created something truly memorable.
Every artist needs a muse, an inspiration, someone or something to get the creative juices flowing. Read on to discover the stories behind some of the greatest pieces of art ever created. We promise you will be in for a few surprises!
“The Girl from Ipanema” by Astrud Gilberto with João Gilberto and Stan Getz (1964)
Ipanema is a chic seaside neighborhood of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. In 1962, a pair of songwriters were sitting in an Ipanema coffee shop and noticed that day after day, Heloisa Eneida Menezes Paes Pinto, known for posterity as Helô Pinheiro, would walk by on her way to the beach. Sometimes she would even come into the coffee shop to buy cigarettes for her mother. She was only seventeen years old, but beautiful enough to inspire a timeless song and win the heart of every man who saw her.
The bossa nova jazz song’s original Portuguese title was “Menina Que Passa” (The Girl Who Passes By). It is about the wistful longing for the passing beauty of youth. The song immortalized its subject; Pinhero would go on to become a model, boutique owner, and eventually a Brazilian Playboy Playmate in 1987. In 2003, at the age of 59, she was Playboy Playmate again alongside her daughter. “The Girl from Ipanema” was a worldwide Grammy-winning hit in the 1960s, both in the original Portuguese as well as in its probably better known English version. It has gone on to become one of the most covered songs in history, with literally dozens of versions. These include instrumental tracks, gender-reversed versions, and various comic parodies.
“Sweet Caroline” by Neil Diamond (1969)
The inspiration for Neil Diamond’s 1969 hit single would remain a mystery for more than four decades. Only then would Diamond finally reveal that the eponymous Caroline was none other than the daughter of President John F. Kennedy. Neil had seen an issue of Life Magazine from September 7, 1962, featuring a four-year-old Caroline Kennedy riding a pony. The image brewed in the musician’s fertile imagination for five years until he finally wrote the timeless song. Finally, when Neil Diamond was invited to perform for Caroline Kennedy’s 50th birthday in 2007, he told everyone the story. In a 2011 television interview, he added details about the magazine cover. However, the story got a little more complicated in 2014 when Neil said that in fact, the song was about his then-wife Marcia and that he changed the name in order to have the three syllables that he needed to fit the rhythm. We may never know the whole truth.
Not only has “Sweet Caroline” become one of Neil Diamond’s biggest hits and most beloved songs, but it has also been covered by other major recording artists, including Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra. It has also become a very popular call-and-response song played at American sporting events, especially in Boston, a city with a long history of Kennedy family significance.
“Donna” by Ritchie Valens (1958)
Ritchie Valens is perhaps best remembered today for his foot-stomping, Mexican-American Spanish language classic “La Bamba”. But his biggest hit on the charts was actually the sweet love song “Donna”, written in honor of Donna Ludwig, Valens’s high school romance. It was a Billboard number two hit in 1959. Valens and Ludwig remained in touch as his career took off and he went on tour. When he died tragically in the same plane crash that took the lives of Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper on February 3, 1959, Donna stayed in touch with his family and was a great comfort to them.
Unbelievable but true, Ritchie Valens was only 17 years old when he was killed. His shockingly brief music career, lasting only eight months, was nevertheless enough to win him a place among the timeless legends of rock 'n' roll.
“She’s Always a Woman” by Billy Joel (1977)
One of the greatest musical storytellers of the 20th century, Billy Joel told one of his most evocative and memorable stories in 1977 with “She’s Always a Woman”. It tells the story of a man’s deep and abiding love for a tough, modern, and flawed woman. That the man is Joel himself is no surprise. The woman behind the song was his then-wife Elizabeth Weber, to whom he was married from 1973 to 1982.
After several years of growing musical success, Joel was finding himself far from the level of financial security he had earned, due to a number of unwise contracts he had signed and deals he had made. It all turned around when Weber took over managing his career. Her tough take-no-prisoners style led to friction with Joel’s business partners, and he wrote the song in support of her. One of the greatest soft rock anthems of all time, the haunting key and time signature keep “She’s Always a Woman” in the listener’s memory long after the song is over. Keep reading to learn more true stories behind some of Billy Joel’s most beloved songs.
“Wild World” by Cat Stevens (1970)
For a couple of years before his big breakout in 1970, Cat Stevens was romantically involved with actress Patti D’Arbanville. She was the muse for at least two of his songs, including “Lady D’Arbanville” (obviously) and possibly the biggest hit of Stevens’ career, “Wild World”. Both songs were released in 1970.
The song, for all its romantic love and longing, is almost a paternal sort of warm protective plea for Stevens’ former lover to take care of herself and not get hurt as she chooses to abandon his watchful embrace. D’Arbanville, a former fixture of Andy Warhol’s New York scene, has appeared in numerous movies and television shows over the years, including Perfect Stranger and The Sopranos. Cat Stevens followed “Wild World” with a string of hits over the next few years before shocking his fans by largely retiring from the music business in 1978 to focus on his spiritual journey as a religious Muslim with the new name Yusuf Islam. Since 1995 he has returned to the spotlight, performing music in public once again.
“Photograph” by Def Leppard (1983)
Marilyn Monroe has been the inspiration for so much art for so long that it’s easy sometimes to not even notice it. Lead singer Joe Elliot of Def Leppard was just three years old when Monroe passed away in 1962, but that didn’t stop her for being his muse for one of the band’s first big hits: “Photograph”, about a deep longing for someone who is unattainable. Clearly, Elliot could never have Monroe, but at least he could put her photograph on the single cover art and hire her doppelganger to star in the song’s music video. Joe Elliot would say in later years that the song had nothing to do with Marilyn Monroe, but that seems a little unlikely given the evidence to the contrary.
Def Leppard was among the most prominent bands in the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM) in the 1970s and 80s. They had a string of massive hits in the 80s that made them one of the most successful groups of the decade. Their style often fused fun, sex, and playfulness together with a truly powerful sonic attack. And 40 years later, they’re still going strong.
“Candle in the Wind” by Elton John (1997)
Elton John first released “Candle in the Wind” in 1974 as a memorial to Marilyn Monroe. Almost a quarter-century later, when his good friend Diana Princess of Wales died in an automobile accident, John was inconsolable. He discussed with his longtime writing partner and lyricist Bernie Taupin the possibility of adapting their classic song in memory of Diana. Within a few days, the new version was ready. He performed it at Diana’s funeral, and a studio version was released. It was not only more successful than the original version but indeed went on to become one of the best selling singles of all time, behind only “White Christmas” by Bing Crosby. It captured the imagination and hearts of people worldwide who had just lost one of the most beloved public figures of the century.
Elton John has been one of the most popular performers in the world for nearly half a century. Together with his longtime collaborator Bernie Taupin he has written hundreds of songs, including dozens of smash hit singles, making him one of the highest-selling musicians of all time. But who would have imagined that his greatest success would come from a revision of one of his oldest songs?
“Sweet Child o’ Mine” by Guns N’ Roses (1987)
You never know where a spontaneous jam will get you, and you can bet that the young and relatively unknown members of Guns N’ Roses had no idea what their little practice session that fateful day would to their lives and careers. They were warming up at the house they shared in Los Angeles’ Sunset Strip and in no time, the instrumental backbone of the song had taken shape. Hearing it, singer Axl Rose rushed downstairs and started writing the lyrics, which were completed by the next day.
And the inspiration for the lyrics? Axl Rose’s girlfriend, of course, Erin Everly, daughter of Don Everly of the legendary rock duo, the Everly Brothers. She must have been quite the muse, considering the memorably evocative lyrics that fill the song. “Sweet Child o’ Mine” was the third single off of Appetite For Destruction, one of the most successful and influential debut albums in the history of recorded music. Taking the then-popular hair metal genre and making it harder, dirtier, and more immediate, it changed the face of popular music for a decade.
"Love of My Life" by Queen (1975)
Freddie Mercury, the lead singer, and mastermind behind the acclaimed British rock band, Queen, wrote the song "Love of My Life" for his ex-fiancée and best friend, Mary Austin. It debuted on the band's famed studio album- A Night At The Opera. Mercury was 24 when he met Austin, who was 19 at the time. They told interviewers how they instantly felt a connection and soon fell deeply in love. After living together as a couple for 7 years, they separated. Mercury confessed that he was attracted to men, and Austin confirmed that she knew that he was, in fact, gay. Nonetheless, the two remained close-knit, and Mercury even bought Austin an apartment right down the street from his, so they could remain in close proximity to each other. Eventually, Austin moved away, got married, and had 2 children- one of which was Mercury's god-son.
Most people found it difficult to understand the nature of their relationship. Mercury once explained “All my lovers asked me why they couldn’t replace Mary, but it’s simply impossible. The only friend I’ve got is Mary, and I don’t want anybody else. To me, she was my common-law wife. To me, it was a marriage…We believe in each other. That’s enough for me. I couldn’t fall in love with a man the same way as I have with Mary.” You can catch a glimpse of their complex relationship as depicted in the film 'Bohemian Rhapsody' (2018).
“Peggy Sue” by Buddy Holly (1957)
That’s what a friend - or, buddy, so to speak - is for. The song that would become possibly the most beloved of Buddy Holly’s hits was originally titled “Cindy Lou”, but Holly changed it to “Peggy Sue” for the sake of his drummer Jerry Allison’s love life. Allison and his future wife Peggy Sue Gerron had just broken up, and Holly wanted to do whatever he could to help them get back together. And it worked! Allison and Gerron got back together and got married, an event immortalized by yet another Buddy Holly song, “Peggy Sue Got Married”, although that would prove to be a less successful single.
Buddy Holly was one of the most important and popular of the early pioneers of rock ‘n’ roll music in the 1950s. Having been involved in music since he was a teenager, he rocketed to fame in 1957 on the back of two smash hit singles: “That’ll Be the Day” and “Peggy Sue”. He remained immensely popular until he was tragically killed just two years later in the plane crash that also took the lives of Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper in the event that would come to be known as the Day the Music Died.
“Layla” by Derek and the Dominos (1970)
What would you do if you fell in love with the wife of your best friend? Classic rock pioneer Eric Clapton decided the best course of action was to write a thinly-veiled love song to her in hopes of winning her heart. Complicating matters was that the woman in question was the famous model Pattie Boyd and the man she was married to was possibly an even greater classic rock pioneer: George Harrison of the Beatles. The song was “Layla”, widely considered to be one of the greatest rock songs of all time and one of Clapton’s signature songs. As for its intended effect, you could call it a delayed response, but Boyd did eventually divorce Harrison, and she and Clapton would be married from 1979 until 1989.
Several versions of “Layla” exist. The original studio version was over seven minutes long, which at the time was far too long to be released as a single, so a pared-down edit of less than three minutes was created. Eventually, the full version would be released as a successful single also. And in 1992 Clapton performed an acoustic version for the famous MTV Unplugged series to wild acclaim and success.
“Jennifer Juniper” by Donavan (1968)
Oh, those Boyd sisters! Older sister Pattie Boyd was the inspiration for “Layla” as well as a number of other songs by Eric Clapton and George Harrison, and here we have younger sister Jenny Boyd inspiring classic folk and psychedelic rocker Donovan’s 1968 song “Jennifer Juniper”. Like her older sister, Jenny was a well-known model, but she quit the business when, along with much of the rock community she was hanging out with, started visiting India and getting into Transcendental Meditation with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Donovan and Jenny were never a couple, though at the time he wished they were. Boyd ended up with Mick Fleetwood of classic rock band Fleetwood Mac, marrying and divorcing him twice after having two daughters with him. She later married and divorced King Crimson’s drummer Ian Wallace. After her modeling days were over, she got a Ph.D. in psychology and worked as a clinical consultant, co-authoring the book Musicians in Tune.
Donovan, on the other hand, has been going strong in the music business for over half a century. While he never again reached the heights of fame and success that he had in the 60s, still he has barely slowed down. He is best known for the hits “Sunshine Superman”, “Mellow Yellow”, “Hurdy Gurdy Man”, and “Atlantis”.
“My Sharona” by The Knack (1979)
Doug Feiger, guitarist and lead singer for The Knack, had been suffering from writer’s block until the day he saw 17-year-old Sharona Alperin. He was eight years older, but he was head over heels in love and started writing song after song after song inspired by the new beautiful girl in his life. One of those songs would go on to become one of the biggest worldwide smash hit singles of all time: “My Sharona”.
Feiger and Alperin dated for four years, which is a lot longer than the 15 minutes Feiger said it took to write the unforgettable song about her. He and The Knack’s lead guitarist Berton Averre constructed the song together around Averre’s catchy riff and Feiger’s lyrics. The muse behind the music, Sharona herself would go on to become a major Los Angeles area real estate agent listing available properties on -- wait for it -- mysharona.com! As for The Knack, their debut album Get the Knack was one of the most successful debut albums in recorded music history, propelled by its equally auspicious lead single. For a time, it looked like the future belonged to Doug Feiger and The Knack. But it was not to be. Never able to come close to their original success, today they are the virtual poster boys for the one-hit wonder.
“Uptown Girl” by Billy Joel (1983)
Billy Joel was finally getting over his recent divorce, which is a much easier thing to do when you’re an internationally famous rock star. So he dated 19-year-old supermodel Elle MacPherson, and then he dated (and eventually married) yet another supermodel, Christie Brinkley. It seems like he originally wrote his smash hit “Uptown Girl” with Elle in mind, though by the time it was released, Christie was the lady in his life, so she stars in the video.
In the song, Billy portrays a not very rich “downtown man” trying to woo a wealthy and refined “uptown girl”. Originally, due to the numerous posh and beautiful women he was surrounding himself with at the time, he was going to call the song “Uptown Girls”. Billy has claimed that the style of the song was inspired by the music of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, and it’s not hard to see why. Billy Joel, one of the most successful musicians in history, has been reinventing himself for decades. His 1983 album An Innocent Man, which featured “Uptown Girl” alongside other huge hits including “Tell Her About It”, “The Longest Time”, and more, is among his best selling and most highly acclaimed. A tribute to the popular music styles of his youth in the 1950s and 60s, it is notable for its exuberant sense of optimism.
“Oh Sherrie” by Steve Perry (1984)
Not exactly a master of subtlety, Steve Perry wrote his biggest solo hit “Oh Sherrie” in honor of the girl he was dating at the time, named Sherrie Swafford. She even starred in the video for the song, which benefited from massive airplay on MTV. You can bet that MTV’s love affair with the video was not an insignificant factor in the single’s success.
The relationship between Steve and Sherrie proved a bit more ephemeral than the song that came from it. The two never did tie the knot and ended up going separate ways, so to speak. But the song lives on as an important piece of 80s pop-rock history. Steve Perry, of course, is best known as the lead singer of Journey during its most successful period in the 1970s and 80s. His crystal clear tenor voice is instantly recognizable and has earned him the everlasting legacy as one of the greatest vocalists in the history of rock music.
“Woman” by John Lennon (1981)
It should come as no surprise, given that Yoko Ono was John Lennon’s muse for more than a decade before his tragic murder, that his song “Woman” was inspired by her, though it was also dedicated to all women everywhere. Included in the Lennon-Ono collaboration album Double Fantasy, it was released as a single just weeks after Lennon’s passing. Benefiting from the universal anguish at the untimely death of one of rock’s critical pioneers, “Woman” became a worldwide top-ten hit.
John Lennon said in a Rolling Stone interview just days before his murder that “Woman” was a “grown-up version” of his 1965 Beatles song “Girl”. In the song’s opening seconds Lennon can be heard whispering “For the other half of the sky…”, part of a Chinese aphorism that Mao Zedong was known to use. What can one say about John Lennon? How many people can be considered to be even half as important as he to the development of rock ‘n’ roll as we know it? From his early simple catchy pop songs to his later more complex and experimental compositions dealing with mature political, spiritual, and personal issues, he helped define the trajectory of the art for generations of musicians.
“Brown Sugar” by The Rolling Stones (1971)
Around 1970, Rolling Stones frontman Mick Jagger had a discreet but very intense affair with Marsha Hunt, a model, actress, and musician (she would later become an acclaimed writer). Jagger’s first child, daughter Karis, was born to Hunt in November of that year. No surprise then that she would inspire one of Jagger’s and the Stones’ most popular songs. The attribution to Hunt for inspiring the song has not been uncontroversial, however. Some have claimed that it was soul singer Claudia Lennear. She herself made that claim on a BBC radio interview many years later, saying that she and Jagger had been spending a lot of time together in those days.
But Marsha Hunt has stuck to her guns and insists she’s the one. And what a song! There’s the irresistible catchy groove. The chunky bluesy riff. The classic Jagger whiny wail. And then there are the lyrics. Very controversial at the time, to the point that Mick himself has said that he couldn’t have even written the song today. They cover every taboo subject from drugs to sex, including some rather explicit and kinky variations on that theme.
“Athena” by The Who (1982)
After years and years of being among the most vital pioneers of hard rock music, by 1982 The Who and their leader Pete Townsend were in an uncertain place. They were still selling albums and tickets, but it seemed like something was missing. One night, Townsend, drunk and high on drugs, went to see a Pink Floyd concert where he ran into the actress Theresa Russell, who was engaged to director Nicholas Roeg.
Townsend fell madly in love, possibly with the help of the foreign substances in his brain, but Theresa was having none of it. Heartbroken at his rejection, he went home and penned a very personal love song that he called, “Theresa”. When it came time to record it, however, he decided that maybe it was a little too personal, so he changed the name of the song to “Athena”, and the name stuck. As for Theresa Russell, she has been floating in and out of the mainstream for 40 years. She starred alongside Robert De Niro, Dustin Hoffman, and Bill Murray in some of her early big-budget roles before starting to take riskier off-beat roles in many independent films. But you can still see her in supporting roles in major movies to this day.
“Maybe I’m Amazed” by Paul McCartney (1970)
One of the most acclaimed songwriters of the 20th century, Paul McCartney has been responsible, both with his Beatles partner John Lennon and as a solo artist, for many of the most beloved songs of all time. And his love songs are on another level. “Maybe I’m Amazed” was one of his first releases as a solo artist, and it thanks his wife Linda for her unwavering support as the Beatles were breaking up. Paul wrote many songs for his beloved Linda, to whom he was married for almost 30 years until she passed away from breast cancer in 1998.
The original studio version of “Maybe I’m Amazed”, recorded as a solo performance, was never released as a single. A few years later, when Paul was the leader of the popular band Wings, they performed the song live and released it as a huge international smash hit single.
“Walk Away Renee” by The Left Banke (1966)
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”.
“Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” by Crosby, Stills and Nash (1969)
The only thing better than writing a song in honor of your beloved is writing four, then putting them together into a classic suite of songs. That’s exactly what Steven Stills did for the 1969 debut album of his folk-rock band Crosby, Stills, and Nash. The lady in question was fellow folk singer-songwriter Judy Collins, whom Stills dated from 1967 until 1969. The title of the song is a play on the homophonic nature of the word “suite”, since the composition is a musical suite, and it can also be pronounced as “Sweet Judy Blue Eyes”, since Collins was known for penetrating blue eyes.
Crosby, Stills, and Nash famously performed the song at the Woodstock festival. Still wrote the song as his relationship with Collins was coming to an end, and the lyrics for the most part deal with his feeling about her as well as the coming breakup.
“Suzanne” by Leonard Cohen (1967)
This was the song that put a previously-unknown Leonard Cohen on the map when Judy Collins recorded it in 1967. Cohen had written it as a poem the previous year, and then recorded his own version on his debut album not long after Collins. It describes his deep friendship and (unconsummated) attraction to a woman named Suzanne Verdal. As the lyrics explain, they would visit in Montreal and go for long walks, enjoying the sights of that classic city, and each other. At home, she would make and serve him tea.
It’s easy to imagine, listening to the song, that the two were lovers. And certainly, Cohen had more than his share over the years. But Suzanne was different. He always said that the thought of sleeping with her was always more exciting that the reality could ever have been, so they remained friends. Verdal made no money off the song named after her, and shockingly, Cohen only did from his performances of it, having been tricked into signing away the copyright years earlier. In a sad but poetic turn of fate, Suzanne Verdal passed away just weeks before Leonard Cohen. Cohen who knew he was dying and was unable to travel to Suzanne’s funeral, send a note to be read at the service, saying he knew they would be together again soon.
“Je T’aime … Moi Non Plus” by Serge Gainsbourg (1969)
When Brigitte Bardot asked Serge Gainsbourg to write a song for her in 1967, the result was the scandalously erotic “Je t’aime...moi non plus” (“I love you...neither do I”) recorded as a duet while they were making out in the recording booth. However, Bardot was married at the time, and her husband was, to say the least, not pleased when he heard about it. So Bardot asked Gainsbourg not to release the song, and he complied. Two years later, he recorded the song again with his new girlfriend, English actress Jane Birkin. This version was a major international hit, despite (because of?) being censored and banned all over the place. Afterward, Gainsbourg himself was shameless about offering to re-record the song with just about any pretty singer he came across, from Marianne Faithfull to Valerie Lagrange. The original Bardot version was finally released in 1986.
Serge Gainsbourg was one of the most famous songwriters in France in the second half of the 20th century. As a songwriter, he had a rich and varied output in almost every imaginable genre. In addition, he was a singer, actor, and director of note.
“Always” by Irving Berlin (1925)
When 38-year-old Jewish-American songwriter Irving Berlin married 22-year-old Catholic American heiress Ellin Mackay, it was a controversial event that captured the attention of the press and the country. Mackay’s father, the wealthy Western Union tycoon, promptly disinherited his daughter, but Berlin stepped in by signing over the royalties to his love song “Always” to his bride to make up for her loss. It turned out to be a pretty lucrative move for Mackay.
Ellin’s father did all he could to prevent the marriage from taking place, going so far as to ship her off to Europe in hopes of her finding a more suitable match. But nothing worked, and they married in 1926. Both the age difference and the religious one were sources of conflict surrounding the match. And “Always” will go down as one of the greatest wedding presents in history. It probably came as a surprise to almost everyone, but the love affair between Irving Berlin and Ellin Mackay continued for more than six decades until her death in 1988. The author of around 1500 songs, including “God Bless America” and “White Christmas”, Irving Berlin is virtually synonymous with American songwriting.
“Jersey Girl” by Tom Waits (1980)
Softer and more tender than your typical gritty Tom Waits song, “Jersey Girl” is a remarkably straightforward expression of love and passion for the love of his life, his future wife Kathleen Brennan. They met while she was living in New Jersey, which is what gave the song its name. He was working on a movie soundtrack at the time and would go see her whenever he could.
The pair have been married for decades, and live in California with their three children, often collaborating on projects. “Jersey Girl” has been covered by Bruce Springsteen, to the point that it is often associated with him more than its author. Tom Waits’ tough boozy musician persona makes his long fruitful marriage to Kathleen Brennan somewhat counterintuitive. He has always been an intensely private individual and has built an impenetrable wall of separation between his professional and personal life.
“Lady in Red” by Chris de Burgh (1986)
Chris de Burgh wrote his massive 1986 hit song as a commentary on the fact that the average man fails to remember what his wife was wearing when they first met. “Lady in Red” chronicles in loving detail the day that de Burgh first met the woman he was destined to marry: Diane Davison. “Lady in Red” was the second single from his 1986 album Into the Light, and instantly propelled him from a hard-working but relatively unknown niche artist to major international superstar. The video, complete with a lady in red, received massive airplay on all the video channels.
Ever since 1986, Chris de Burgh’s career has been inextricably linked with “Lady in Red”. It’s a song that inflames the passions of many who hear it, but positively and negatively. It is among the most loved and the most hated songs of the 1980s.
“In Your Eyes” by Peter Gabriel (1986)
Peter Gabriel was living with actress Rosanna Arquette at the time “In your Eyes” was written, which has made it a commonly repeated theory that she was the inspiration for the song. Not only that, but she also allegedly inspired the Toto song “Rosanna”, which was released while she was dating the keyboard player Steve Porcaro. Both Peter Gabriel and Toto have been less than forthcoming in confirming the speculation about their songs’ origins, but that hasn’t stood in the way of the received wisdom regarding them. How many women can claim to be the muse behind not one but two very popular rock songs?
Rosanna Arquette has reinvented herself as an actress many times over the last three decades, taking both serious and quirky roles over the years. Among her most memorable performances are a starring role alongside Madonna in Desperately Seeking Susan and an unforgettable cameo as a drug dealer’s wife in Pulp Fiction.
“It Ain’t Me, Babe” by Bob Dylan (1964)
The accepted wisdom is that Bob Dylan wrote “It Ain’t Me Babe” for his girlfriend at the time, Suze Rotolo, whom he dated from 1961 until 1964. She was studying in Italy in 1963, and Dylan went there looking for her and wrote the song during his journey. ‘It Ain’t Me Babe” has become one of Dylan's most popular, and most covered songs. Probably the most popular version, even more so that his own, was the one recorded by another girlfriend of his, Joan Baez that same year. Dylan and Baez had a very rocky relationship that covered the period between Dylan’s obscurity and his superstardom. They broke up after a big fight in 1965. Soon after, when Dylan was in the hospital with an illness, Baez showed up to make amends, only to find him there with his new girlfriend and future wife Sara Lownds.
Few artists in history have been both more famous and more mysterious than Bob Dylan. Having radically reinvented himself more times than most artists have songs, he has been a driving force in folk music, folk-rock, electric rock, spiritual music, and much more besides. And he has been touring virtually non-stop for longer than many readers of this article have been alive.
“And I Love Her” by The Beatles (1964)
Paul McCartney has earned the distinction of being among the finest songwriters of the 20th century, and his love songs have been among his most popular compositions. The first of those to meet with wide acclaim was “And I Love Her”, a song that he claimed to be the first ballad of his that he was proud of. It was inspired by his then-fiancee Jane Asher. Asher was a photographer and actress who was a significant part of the British cultural scene in the 60s, and the press was in love with the romance between her and Paul. However, it was not to be. Within a year, they had gone their separate ways, and Paul ended up marrying Linda Eastman (McCartney) who was the true love of his life.
“And I Love Her” wasn’t the only Beatles song inspired by Jane Asher. There were many, among which were “We Can Work it Out” and “I’m Looking Through You”. After her split from Paul, she met and wed artist Gerald Scarfe, to whom she’s been married for over forty years now.
“50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” by Paul Simon (1975)
It’s a bit of a mystery to try to unravel how much of this song is a joke and how much represents Paul Simon’s actual frustrations after his recent divorce from his first wife Peggy Harper and his new relationship with actress Carrie Fisher. “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” is a comedic chronicle of all the ways a person can sabotage his romantic relationship. Simon and Fisher finally got married in 1983 after years and years of on-again-off-again romance, but then got divorced after just a year before starting to date again! Perhaps Simon was taking too much of his own advice from this song!
One of the most acclaimed songwriters of the 20th century, Paul Simon achieved the heights of fame as half of the classic duo Simon and Garfunkel before achieving enormous success as a solo artist in his own right. And every once in a while, he’ll wink at the audience with just the briefest hint of a deep comedic side to his nature.
“Our House” by Graham Nash of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young (1970)
Graham Nash and Joni Mitchell were both very well known singers and songwriters in the 19600s and 70s, so when they moved in together in 1968, it was like a family of folk-rock royalty. They lived in the Laurel Canyon area of Los Angeles along with Mitchell’s two cats. “Our House” is a charmingly simple chronicle of the ordinary events in one day of their lives. They had gone out for breakfast, then stopped on the way home to buy a cheap vase at an antique store. When they came home, Mitchell picked some flowers for the vase, Nash sat down at the piano, and an hour later a folk-rock classic was born.
Graham Nash, in addition to his solo career, was a founding member both of the classic rock group the Hollies, as well as of one of rock’s first supergroups, Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young. Joni Mitchell is among the most famous singers and songwriters of all time. Her songs have been covered by hundreds of artists. Among her best-known songs are “Both Sides Now”, “Woodstock”, and “Big Yellow Taxi”.
“Lola” by The Kinks (1970)
The slightly creepy but undeniably infectious song “Lola” tells the story of an innocent young man’s unexpected romance with a transvestite. But who is the man, and who is the trans woman in real life? Well, that depends on whom you ask. Rolling Stone says that the woman was Candy Darling, a popular actress in Andy Warhol’s circle of artists and one of the inspirations behind Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side”, and that she and Kinks frontman Ray Davies had dated. Davies claims that while he and Darling had gone to dinner a few times, he was never under any misapprehension as to her true identity. Davies claims that the song was inspired by his manager’s drunken romance with a trans woman at a bar one night. They had danced the night away, with the manager never realizing that his partner was not the woman he thought she was. She had, as the song would later say, “walked like a woman and talked like a man”.
The Kinks, along with the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, were at the forefront of the British Invasion in the 1960s. And they’re still going strong to the present day. Among their best-known songs, in addition to “Lola”, are “Where Have All the Good Times Gone”, “You Really Got Me”, and “Come Dancing”.
“Something” by The Beatles (1969)
George Harrison married Pattie Boyd and started writing love songs for and about her before Eric Clapton even met her. Back in 1968, Harrison wrote the song “Something” that would eventually be included on the Beatles’ 1969 album Abbey Road. It’s a song of tremendous passion and longing, and Boyd describes how much she loved it when he first sang it to her in the kitchen. Harrison eventually distanced Boyd from being the primary inspiration for the song, possibly due to negative feelings associated with her being stolen away by Eric Clapton. Being really into eastern spirituality, he claimed the song referred to the Hindu god Krishna, and that godly love and physical love are inextricably linked. By 1996, Harrison was saying that the idea of Boyd being the inspiration for the song was just made up by everybody else who assumed it must have been true, especially since she was featured in the promotional video.
“Something” was a tremendous hit. It was #1 in many countries, and possibly the best known Beatles song not written by Lennon-McCartney. Both John Lennon and Paul McCartney heaped praise upon the song, the former saying it was the best song on Abbey Road and the latter saying it was the best song Harrison ever wrote.
“Oh! Carol” by Neil Sedaka (1958)
Neil Sedaka and Carole King went to high school together, and even dated for a time, becoming the basis for one of Neil’s first hit songs, “Oh! Carol”, which made the top 10 in 1959. But the song’s success wasn’t finished. Carole King had married Gerry Goffin, and they were trying to make a name for themselves as a songwriting duo. They needed a hit. What King and Goffin did was write a playful response to the original song called “Oh! Neil” which helped push Sedaka’s song back into the spotlight and get the team of King and Goffin a job writing songs at the Brill building hit factory, where they became among the most famous songwriting teams in America. Among their hits were “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?”, “It’s Too Late”, “I Feel the Earth Move”, and “The Loco-Motion”.
Neil Sedaka has been one of the most popular performers and songwriters since the 1950s. Just when you think you’ve heard the last of him, he stages yet another comeback. Among his most popular songs, in addition to “Oh! Carol”, are “Calendar Girl”, “Breaking Up is Hard to Do”, “Love Will Keep Us Together”, and “(Is This the Way to) Amarillo”, a number one hit single for Tony Christie in 2005.
“Crazy Love” by Van Morrison (1970)
Van Morrison was married to Janet “Planet” Rigsbee for six years surrounding 1970, and she was likely the muse for a number of his songs from that period, including “Crazy Love”. Their relationship was by all accounts intense and passionate, but nevertheless, it ended in 1973. Still, it was a pretty good run considering they only really married so that Van could avoid deportation to the UK. Their daughter Shana was born in 1970 and has occasionally shared the stage with her famous father in the 1990s. It is likely that Rigsbee was also the “Brown Eyed Girl” in Morrison’s possibly best-known song, as they were already dating at that point in 1967. After divorcing Van, Janet moved to California, becoming a songwriter in addition to recording five of her own solo albums.
Van Morrison has been a major figure in popular music since the 1960s. First, he was a rock performer as the frontman for Them, with whom he had the hit song “Gloria”. Later, as a solo artist, he branched out into pop, blue-eyed soul, world music, and much more. Among his most beloved songs are “Moondance” and “Wild Night”.
“Philadelphia Freedom” by Elton John (1975)
Rock star Elton John and tennis star Billie Jean King made for an unlikely friendship, but a deep and lasting friendship they nevertheless forged. John asked his longtime songwriting partner and lyricist Bernie Taupin to help him write a song in her honor, to be called “Philadelphia Freedom” after her professional tennis team the Philadelphia Freedoms. Taupin claimed he had no idea how to write a song about tennis. In the end, Taupin wrote a song about life, and every listener simply filled in the meaning in their own head about what the song meant to them. The song was a smash number 1 hit single.
Over the years, Elton John and Billie Jean King have leveraged their friendship and their respective fame to create a major philanthropic movement that has raised hundreds of millions of dollars for HIV/AIDS causes and LGBT rights causes as well.
“You’re So Vain” by Carly Simon (1972)
Carly Simon wrote “You’re So Vain” in 1972, and it was a number 1 hit single. And for more than 40 years now, the controversy and speculation have raged: Who is the song about?? One thing that Simon has made clear is that the three verses are about three different conceited men, and it has long been assumed and acknowledged that the second verse is about actor Warren Beatty. In fact, he still claims that the whole song is about him. Carly has denied that her ex-husband, musician James Taylor inspired the song, nor did Mick Jagger. Both had been suspected of being behind the song. Music industry executive David Geffen was also a speculated choice, but Simon says she never even met him. Other names often bandied about as having been vain enough to inspire “You’re So Vain” are David Cassidy, Cat Stevens, and David Bowie.
Carly Simon has been a major force in singing and songwriting since the 1970s. She has had a number of comebacks and has managed to stay relevant after many others have passed into obscurity. Among her best-remembered songs, in addition to “You’re So Vain” are “Haven’t Got Time For the Pain”, “Coming Around Again”, “The Stuff That Dreams are Made Of”, and “Let the River Run”, for which she won an Oscar.
“True Blue” by Madonna (1986)
By the time she wrote “True Blue” in 1986, Madonna was already dating her soon-to-be husband actor Sean Penn, and her feelings for him were too powerful to keep bottled up inside. She thought he was the most amazing guy she had ever met, and she needed to write a love song for him or else she would burst. Unfortunately, the marriage only lasted four years, ending amid rumors and allegations of abuse by Penn. Penn has denied the allegations and even sued people who made them, and Madonna for her part has always carried warm feelings for her ex-husband, remembering the letters he wrote her after her performances.
Talk about reinvention. It would have been hard to imagine at the dawn of the 1980s that this new bubblegum pop singer would continue to find new ways to stay one step ahead of the culture year after year, decade after decade. Madonna has truly been one of the driving forces of popular culture for over thirty years.
“Day Dreaming” by Aretha Franklin (1972)
It can be a heavy burden if you’re the man that the queen of soul has written a love song about. You’ve got the love and the passion, but the flame can be hot enough to burn. At the time she wrote “Day Dreaming”, Aretha Franklin was engaged to singer Dennis Edwards of the classic vocal group The Temptations. They never did marry, though. Decades later, Edwards would admit being in the wrong. He was intimidated at the idea of marrying such a powerful superstar. Franklin replied that she had made peace with the situation long before, that she had grown weary of the lack of commitment and had decided to move on to greener pastures.
The Queen of Soul had a career spanning over 60 years and over a hundred charting singles. She was well known both as a songwriter and an interpreter of other people’s songs. Among her best-known singles are “Respect”, “Chain of Fools”, “Think” “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman”, and “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)”, a duet with George Michael.
“Carey” by Joni Mitchell (1971)
At one point, Joni Mitchell and Graham Nash shared a home, or “Our House”, as Nash referred to it in his famous song. But it didn’t last, and when it ended, Mitchell took some time off from the music biz to travel to Greece and other European destinations. There she met Cary Raditz, who was literally a cave-dwelling hippie from America who made a living as a cook in Greece. Joni lived with him for some time and wrote the (purposely misspelled) “Carey” about him and their experiences together.
Joni was still in a fragile emotional state from her breakup with Graham, and to add to the discomfort, her newfound fame caused her to constantly be followed by a gaggle of hippies. She appreciated Cary’s fierceness in fending them off with the cane he carried and allowing her to have some peace and quiet to heal. She wrote the song “Carey” as a birthday present to him, though she called him a “mean old daddy” since, even though they were friends, she felt he sometimes enjoyed scaring her. Mitchell also referenced Cary in her next song, “California”. He was obviously a significant part of that stage in her life. They remained friends for a few years but eventually lost touch. In time, Cary ended up moving back to America and he became an investment analyst in Washington DC. How many cave-dwelling hippies can say that?
“I Will Always Love You” by Dolly Parton (1973)
When country star Porter Wagoner discovered a relatively unknown 21-year-old Dolly Parton, it was a match made in music business heaven. Over the next seven years, she became a staple on his TV show and they recorded numerous duets together. It was a very lucrative partnership for both of them. But seven years later, Parton was starting to feel artistically stifled and wanted to branch out on her own as a solo performer. It was neither an easy decision nor an uncomplicated business transaction, given that their careers were tied together. But she did it, and to soften the blow, she composed this lovely farewell song for him expressing her undying gratitude for all he had done for her.
“I Will Always Love You” was a number 1 country hit for Parton in 1974, and then again in 1982, a truly rare feat. And then in 1992 Whitney Houston released a cover of the song for the soundtrack to the movie The Bodyguard, and it became one of the best selling songs in the history of recorded music.
“Girl from the North Country" by Bob Dylan (1963)
People can’t seem to agree who was the woman behind Bob Dylan’s early composition “Girl from the North Country”. Many are convinced it was his high school sweetheart, the fellow Minnesota native Echo Helstrom. Others insist it was another early girlfriend, actress, and activist Bonnie Beecher. The third woman who is often mentioned as the source for the song was Dylan’s long-time girlfriend Suze Rotolo, who was with him as he progressed from a relatively unknown folk singer to one of the most important cultural icons of his generation. Her political beliefs influenced Dylan to write songs with a more political bent, and it is she who is walking arm in arm with him on the cover of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan.
Musically, “Girl from the North Country” was inspired by Bob Dylan’s recent trip to England is his immersion in the various styles of folk music prevalent there. He met many of the local folk musicians, and based this composition partly on a local version of the classic “Scarborough Fair”.
“867-5309/Jenny” by Tommy Tutone (1981)
The origins of “Jenny” have been a source of disagreement and controversy for a long time. The argument extends as far as whether the eponymous Jenny existed or not and whether 867-5309 was a real phone number. Tommy Tutone’s lead guitarist and the co-writer of the song, Jim Keller, claimed in 1982 that Jenny was a real normal girl (not a prostitute) and that he had actually dated her. He further claimed that she was really upset with him overwriting the song and making her phone number public. This claim was supported by the band’s lead singer Tommy Heath in 2008, who said that, as a joke, he had written a girl’s number on a bathroom wall, leading to years of laughter.
The other songwriter, Alex Call, has a very different story to tell, however. He said in 2009 that he wrote the song in his backyard and that both the name and the phone number simply came to him out of nowhere. He alleges that Jim Keller simply added the story to the framework that Call had come up with. So what is the truth? We may never know. “867-5309/Jenny” is the only Tommy Tutone single that achieved any significant airplay. It was a monster hit in 1981, making Tommy Tutone one of the archetypal one-hit wonders. It led to a rash of prank calls all over the USA with people calling the phone number, leading to a lot of irritated innocent people, and a lot of police complaints as well as lawsuits.
“Isn’t She Lovely” by Stevie Wonder (1976)
In 1976, Stevie Wonder released an ambitious double album called Songs in the Key of Life which included a sweet song dedicated to the recent birth of his daughter Aisha Morris. The song opens with the sound of Aisha’s first cry as she was born, and closes with the sound of Wonder bathing her when she was a little older. The album version of the song was over six minutes long, far too long to be released as a single at the time, and Wonder at first objected to shortening it. In the end, he relented because fans loved the song so much and demanded it as a single. The edited version was just over three minutes long.
Songs in the Key of Life was Stevie Wonder’s most successful album and in the view of many observers marks the end of his early “classic” period. As he entered the 1980s he developed a more polished commercial pop sound to continued massive success which continues to this day.
“You Oughta Know” by Alanis Morissette (1995)
There is no question that Alanis Morissette puts a great deal of thought into her lyrics and the meaning behind them, but don’t expect her to explain them to you. She said in no uncertain terms in a 2008 interview that she will never talk about who inspires her songs because it is a very personal expression of her experiences. That hasn’t stopped people from speculating, of course. One name that comes up a lot is Dave Coulier, the actor and comedian of Full House fame who dated Morissette for a while before her fame took off. He has admitted that some of the lines in the song are uncomfortably familiar, including the line about her calling in the middle of dinner and the “older version” part. Other rumored subjects of the song include NHL hockey star Mike Peluso, actor Matt LeBlanc of Friends and musician Leslie Howe.
Alanis Morissette started off as a dance-pop singer in her native Canada with two albums in the early 90s, where she achieved considerable success. She was dissatisfied with her artistic direction, so she moved to Los Angeles where she wrote the songs that would become Jagged Little Pill, the album that made her an international alt-rock superstar.
“The Ballad of Jayne” by L.A. Guns (1990)
he second L.A. Guns album, 1989’s Cocked & Loaded, was also their first gold record. The lead single off the album, “The Ballad of Jayne” was inspired by the life of Jayne Mansfield, one of Hollywood’s biggest sex symbols of the 1950s and 60s. Mansfield was one of the original “blonde bombshells”, a pinup girl, and one of the very first Playboy Playmates. Despite her above-average intelligence, she took advantage of her looks in provocative ways to further her career with every imaginable sort of publicity stunt. She was only 34 years old when she died in a horrific car crash in 1967.
The glam metal scene in Los Angeles produced a lot of acts with lasting influence, and group members would often move from one band to another. At one point, L.A. Guns merged with Hollywood Rose to form Guns n’ Roses, which is a classic case of the whole being more than the sum of its parts. The other bands would eventually regroup in one form or another.
“Killing Me Softly” by Lori Lieberman (1971)
The songwriting duo of Charles Fox and Norman Gimbel wrote: “Killing Me Softly With His Song” based on an idea and poem presented to Gimbel by singer Lori Lieberman. She wrote the poem as an idea for a song inspired by another song that had moved her deeply. That song was “Empty Chairs” by Don McLean off his breakthrough 1971 album American Pie. Lieberman had seen McLean perform at a club and his rendition of “Empty Chairs” was a very emotional experience for her. She scribbled some ideas for a song on a napkin, took them to Norman Gimbel, and the rest is history. Don McLean has always expressed gratitude and humility at having been the inspiration for such a classic song.
“Killing Me Softly With His Song” was a moderate hit for Lieberman, but before she could fully enjoy its rise to success, her version was overshadowed by Roberta Flack’s cover, which was one of the biggest easy listening hits of the 70s. More than two decades later, it would be a smash hit yet again when it was covered as a rap/r&b song by The Fugees.
“The Hurricane” by Bob Dylan (1975)
The subject of the topical protest song “The Hurricane” was the American professional boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, who spent almost 20 years in prison for murders that many believed he was innocent of. The song was written by Bob Dylan and Jacques Levy to bring attention to Carter’s plight in hopes of securing the boxer’s release. After the song was completed but before it was released, Dylan was forced to re-record it because his record company feared some of the lyrics would leave them liable to defamation lawsuits by some of the trial’s witnesses.
Bob Dylan had largely left behind protest songs by that time in his career, and “The Hurricane” was a notable exception. More than 20 years later, the song was prominently featured the Hollywood biopic about Carter’s life, also called The Hurricane.
“American Pie” by Don McLean (1971)
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.
“Tears in Heaven” by Eric Clapton (1991)
Eric Clapton experienced heartbreak and tragedy as the 1990s entered. The 1990 helicopter crash that killed his friend and fellow musician Stevie Ray Vaughan also took the lives of Clapton’s manager and two other people. Just a few months later, Clapton lost his four-year-old son Conor when the toddler fell from the window of the 53rd floor New York apartment where they were living. Clapton felt the need to isolate himself for a time for the sake of his emotional health. When he was ready to rejoin the living world, he began work on the soundtrack to the movie Rush for which he co-wrote the song “Tears in Heaven” with songwriter Will Jennings. Clapton has said that music was a tremendous source of healing, joy, and pleasure for him. After the death of his son, Clapton has become an advocate of childproofing household hazards.
Eric Clapton, who has had a storied career as a giant and pioneer of rock since the 1960s, had an unexpected hit with the soft understated ballad “Tears in Heaven”. It is his best selling single in North America and among the most successful singles of all time. Shortly after its release, he recorded a live acoustic version as part of the MTV Unplugged series, which was also a big hit.
“Vera” by Pink Floyd (1979)
Vera Lynn was a British singer who was tremendously popular during World War II, especially with the troops. The song she is most closely associated with is “We’ll Meet Again” which she often sang as she visited army bases throughout the war. Roger Waters, in his inimitable ironic fashion, mentions Vera Lynn and “We’ll Meet Again” while implying that his character in The Wall will, in fact, never see his father again. Almost as though Vera had broken her promise. It is even possible that Waters intended the title to be a double entendre on losing faith, given that “Vera” is the Russian word for faith.
After a few years of declining relevance and increased tensions, Pink Floyd came back with a bang with one of the biggest selling albums in history: 1979’s The Wall. It also features their only number-one single, “Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2”. Three years later, it would be adapted into a successful movie of the same name.
“Chelsea Hotel #2” by Leonard Cohen (1974)
The 1974 Leonard Cohen album New Skin for the Old Ceremony contains one of the most memorable of his early songs, “Chelsea Hotel #2”. In it, he describes in surprising detail a one night stand with a woman he would later reveal was the rock star, Janis Joplin. The Chelsea Hotel in New York was had been a famous temporary residence for itinerant artists ever since Mark Twain had stayed there.
Cohen used to love regaling his audience not only with the song (which is explicit enough) but with the story and name behind it. Eventually, he would come to repent the “locker room” mentality that caused him to kiss and tell. He loved talking and singing about sex, but he felt it was wrong to associate Joplin’s name with what he had done and he apologized, so to speak, to “her ghost”. In 1968 it was far from given that Leonard Cohen would ever be a legend in the music industry. His one album at that point had not sold very well, and he was already older than many established stars. That was when he started staying at the storied Chelsea Hotel. Who knows; maybe between the ambiance and Janis Joplin, he got the inspiration he was looking for.
“I Love Mickey” by Teresa Brewer (1956)
The popular and versatile 50s singer Teresa Brewer had a hit in 1956 about the New York Yankees baseball superstar Mickey Mantle. The song was “I Love Mickey”. Mantle even showed up at the studio and recorded a short spoken word part for the song, which led to some rumors about a possible romance between them. The song was born of a visit by Brewer to Yankee Stadium to watch the team play. Watching the Yankees’ top player in action, she thought he was amazing and that someone ought to write a song about him. Her friend hummed a little tune, Brewer started writing lyrics, and before you knew it, the song was ready to present to Mantle for his approval.
Though her career lasted over four decades, the 50s really belonged to Teresa Brewer. Unbelievably, she recorded something like 600 songs in almost every conceivable style from jazz and R&B to country and show tunes. Such was her fame that when Elvis Presley was in high school, one of his very first performances was a Teresa Brewer song.
“Sweetest Thing” by U2 (1987)
Bono, the lead singer of U2, wrote “Sweetest Thing” by way of apology to his wife Ali Hewson for leaving her alone for weeks at a time due to his hectic rock star schedule, and for skipping out on her birthday due to commitments involved with recording the Joshua Tree album. In his wife’s honor, Bono agreed to donate to Ali’s favorite charity, Chernobyl Children’s Project International, all the profits from the single. The original version of “Sweetest Thing” appeared as the B-side of “Where the Streets Have No Name”. In 1998, U2 re-recorded the song for inclusion on their Best of 1980-1990 compilation.
Ali Hewson, the inspiration for this lovely song, has been married to Bono for over 35 years. They have, by all accounts one of the most stable, loving, and long-lived marriages in the entertainment world. She has always shunned the spotlight but has been working tirelessly on various poverty-related projects.
“Hey Jude” by The Beatles (1968)
As John Lennon’s marriage to Cynthia was disintegrating in the wake of his affair with Yoko Ono, friend and bandmate Paul McCartney grew concerned for the welfare of their son Julian. He decided to write a song (originally titled “Hey Jules”) for the boy to comfort and encourage him through that difficult time. A couple of months after the separation, Paul took a drive out to the country to visit Cynthia and Julian. She had been close to the band since they had been unknown, and he found it strange that there was now a sort of wall between them. He composed much of the song as he was driving to see them, and it warmed her heart and her son’s to see Paul’s show of friendship.
“Hey Jude” turned out to be a record-breaking song. At over seven minutes long, it was the longest number one at the time, as well as spending the longest time at number one of any Beatles song. It is on many critics’ and fans’ lists of the greatest songs of all time and continues to inspire to this day.
“Coyote” by Joni Mitchell (1976)
Joni Mitchell’s 1977 song “Coyote” is all about the challenges two people face trying to make a connection if they come from different circumstances. In the song, Mitchell sings about a one night stand between the narrator (presumably herself, based on clues in the song) and a farmhand she dubs “Coyote”. Executive assistant to the stars Chris O'Dell alleged in her 2009 autobiography that the subject of the song is none other than actor and playwright Sam Shepard. O'Dell claims to have had an affair with the married Shepard, who then left her for Mitchell. Confirmation of the allegations have not been forthcoming, however.
“Coyote” marked a return of sorts by Joni Mitchell to her roots. While her songs had been growing lusher and fuller over the years, featuring more instrumentation and a bigger sound, “Coyote” by comparison is stripped to its bare essentials: voice, acoustic guitar, electric guitar, and bass.
“Time After Time” by Cyndi Lauper (1983)
Cyndi Lauper’s debut album She’s So Unusual was one of the most successful debuts in pop music history, and her first number one hit single was the deep and moving ballad “Time After Time”. It was obviously a love song, and the inspiration was the man behind the music in more ways than one. At the time her debut album was getting recorded and she was at the beginning of her career, her boyfriend David Wolff was also her manager. He even appears in that role in the video. Aside from that, Lauper claims that the reference in the song to the ticking clock was about an actual loud clock that he had given her.
Arriving out of nowhere like a bolt out of the blue and like a breath of fresh air, Cyndi Lauper conquered America and the world in 1983 with her debut album. Her first single, the smash hit “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” set the tone for things to come. All four of the first singles off the album hit the top five, a record at the time.
“Rosanna” by Toto (1982)
Rock band Toto were at their peak in 1982 when they released the top five hit “Rosanna”. All about finding and losing love, it was bigger than a power ballad and it cemented Toto’s place among the biggest bands of the 80s. It’s been a running joke from the beginning that the song was inspired by the actress Rosanna Arquette, who was actually dating the band’s keyboardist Steve Porcaro at the time. Arquette herself was not above playing along from time to time. The songwriter and fellow bandmate David Paich denied the rumor for years and years before finally admitting it in 2016. He said that Arquette was very beautiful and he had had a secret crush on her, and that’s why he named the song after her.
Though Toto has been going strong for over forty years, the 80s was their time in the sun. Their massive hits “Rosanna” and “Africa”, as well as 1978’s “Hold the Line” established them as a supremely professional, massively talented, and endlessly entertaining group of musicians.
“Go Your Own Way” by Fleetwood Mac (1976)
Fleetwood Mac was among the undisputed greatest bands of the 1970s and they reached the pinnacle of success with their number one album Rumours in 1977. One of the album’s four top ten singles, “Go Your Own Way”, is obviously about a romantic breakup. But is it real? As it turns out, it’s very real. The lead guitarist and author of this song, Lindsey Buckingham, was just in the midst of breaking up with lead singer Stevie Nicks. He was devastated that Nicks had decided to leave him, but he was stuck in the band having to write hit singles for her to sing. So he got back at her by writing some particularly biting lyrics and forcing her to sing them over and over in concert and on the album.
Rumours is in some ways the album of the 1970s. Having sold over 40 million copies worldwide, it is one of the best selling albums of all time, and the Grammy winner for Album of the Year. The other top ten singles off the album are “Dreams”, “You Make Loving Fun”, and “Don’t Stop”, famously used in Bill Clinton’s election campaign.
“I’m Your Boogie Man” by KC & The Sunshine Band (1976)
One might be forgiven for assuming that when a super successful disco pioneer sings “I’m Your Boogie Man”, he’s talking about himself. But the truth is that the song was written in praise of someone that the band felt they owed their success to. A DJ from the band’s hometown of Miami was the first to play their song “Get Down Tonight” on the air. It would go on to become their first number one hit and launch them into superstardom at the very top of the world of disco. The DJ’s name was Robert W. Walker, and he was the inspiration for “Boogie Man”.
Harry Wayne Casey (KC) started KC & the Sunshine Band as a disco and funk outfit in 1973. By 1975 they had the first of five chart-topping hits, the last of which ushered in the 1980s, which would also be the decade that would see their decline. Disco ruled for a while, but when the backlash came, it was severe.
“Man on the Moon” by REM (1992)
REM’s 1992 hit “Man on the Moon” is absolutely filled with just about every sort of cultural reference. But the center of gravity that they all revolve around is comedian Andy Kaufman. When Andy wanted to be funny, you would laugh, whether on Saturday Night Live, on Taxi, or on any of his many guest appearances. The song was written by various members of REM, though the lyrics were mostly written by lead singer Michael Stipe. Bass player Mike Mills has said that Andy Kaufman is the perfect guide for a journey through questioning the accepted truths of our culture. His own cryptic and inscrutable nature made it fitting that through him you would see the cultural contradictions.
“Man on the Moon” was a top 40 hit in 1992 and has remained among the most loved and best remembered of REM’s repertoire. When in 1999 director Milos Forman decided to make a movie about the life of Andy Kaufman, it was a natural choice to use the title of the REM song as the name of the movie.
“The Boxer” by Simon and Garfunkel (1969)
Folk-rock duo Simon and Garfunkel had one of their biggest hits and most evocative songs in 1969 with “The Boxer”. One might think that it goes without saying that the song must literally be about a boxer, but the truth is a little more mysterious and enigmatic. Almost as soon as the song came out, competing rumors and theories as to the real meaning behind the song started coming out. One popular one was that “The Boxer” was none other than Bob Dylan, who had been an amateur boxer earlier in his life, and who would eventually cover this very song!
Paul Simon, the man who wrote the song, has never given credence to any of these theories. If anything, he has stated at times that the song is autobiographical, as he felt that he and his partner were being unfairly attacked in the press.
“A Day in the Life” by The Beatles (1967)
Rounding out Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life” can be described as ethereal, trippy, and evocative. The main theme of the lyrics describes a man experiencing confusing and conflicting emotions as he gets up in the morning and reads the newspaper. John Lennon was the primary songwriter on this track. It was inspired by a car crash that claimed the life of his friend, the 21-year-old heir to the Guinness empire, Tara Browne. Lennon adapted the story in the Daily Mail newspaper into the first two verses of the song.
Even the third verse, the enigmatic one about “holes” filling the Albert Hall, was adapted from another article in the same edition of the same newspaper. The article was about the numerous holes in England’s roads, and Lennon was inspired to make it a little more psychedelic.
“Shine On You Crazy Diamond” by Pink Floyd (1975)
“Shine On You Crazy Diamond” is a legendary nine-part rock saga written as a tribute to Syd Barrett. Barrett was a founding member of Pink Floyd and was its lead guitarist, singer, and songwriter for the first few years until he was asked to leave in 1968. But Barrett cast a longer shadow than the remaining band members anticipated, and to exorcise their demons, they created this 25-minute-long masterpiece as a homage to him. Eerily, as they were working on the recording, he wandered into the studio and sat down. His appearance had changed so drastically that none of his former bandmates even recognized him for 45 minutes.
After Barrett's departure from Pink Floyd in 1968, it seemed inconceivable that the band could continue without him. It was simply unprecedented for a band to continue successfully in the absence of its original creative visionary. Amazingly, bass player Roger Waters stepped up and took over the songwriting, sharing lead singing duties with replacement lead guitarist David Gilmour.
“Plaster Caster” by Kiss (1977)
“Plaster Caster” is a playfully saucy song, and if you didn’t know anything about its origins, you’d still figure out that it has everything to do with sex. The truth is even a bit weirder than that. The song is about an actual real live woman who spends a good bit of her time making plaster casts of rock stars’ erect members. No really.
Her real name is Cynthia Albritton, but she goes by the name Cynthia Plaster Caster. She started this little (so to speak) project in 1968 with her first “model” Jimi Hendrix, and in the decades since it has managed to get 48 musicians to submit to the procedure. Apparently, this hobby started off as a simple ruse to get rock stars into bed with her. She was shy and was looking for some way to connect with the opposite sex. You might say she succeeded beyond her wildest dreams. Albritton today refers to herself as a “recovering groupie”.
“God Save The Queen” by The Sex Pistols (1977)
It was the early days of punk music, and it was a scary time for the music establishment, and the establishment in general. The Sex Pistols did nothing to allay their fears when they released this blatantly anti-monarchy and anti-establishment anthem. Cheekily and ironically taking its title from the British national anthem, “God Save the Queen” is all about criticizing the monarchy and the whole system for its perceived injustice and its treatment of the poor. Oh, and the cover art for the single was none too respectful of Her Royal Highness either.
Unsurprisingly, both the BBC and the Independent Broadcasting Authority banned “God Save the Queen”. That didn’t stop it from being a huge hit, though. It was the number two single on the official charts, leading to speculation and accusation that it was really number one, and was purposely kept off the top spot as a form of punishment.
“MacArthur Park” by Richard Harris (1968)
“MacArthur Park” was a huge hit for Richard Harris in 1968. Its classic easy listening format was nonetheless embellished with intricate time signatures and an overall complex structure. Few people would have guessed that the song was born of a difficult and painful breakup on the part of songwriter Jimmy Webb. Webb had been dating a lady named Susie Horton. They would often spend their time in Los Angeles’ MacArthur Park, since he worked in an office building nearby. The lyrics to the song simply document Webb’s feelings and sights as we walked around pondering the relationship he had had and its demise.
As big a hit as Richard Harris’ original 1968 version of this song was, it was nothing compared to Donna Summer, at the peak of her career, when she released a cover version in 1978. Set to disco music, it was a number one hit and one of the biggest songs of the year. Later, in 1993, “Weird Al” Yankovic released a parody called “Jurassic Park”.
“The Weight” by The Band (1968)
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.
“You Haven’t Done Nothin'” by Stevie Wonder (1974)
It’s not every day that mild-mannered pop and funk superstar Stevie Wonder releases a seriously political song. Love songs were more up his alley. But this was the mid-70s. The Vietnam War was still a fresh memory, and the societal fabric seemed to be fraying badly. And along comes Stevie Wonder and throws some serious shade at president Richard Nixon, who was the clear and unambiguous target of Wonder’s ire. And as a huge coincidence (or was it?) Nixon resigned a mere two days after the song was released.
In a further surprise twist, the Jackson 5 (featuring a young Michael Jackson), another band not known for their overt political statements, sang backup vocals on this track. Stevie Wonder even called the Jackson boys out by name right in the middle of the song. “You Haven’t Done Nothin’” was later covered by Roger Daltrey of The Who.
“Angel of Harlem” by U2 (1988)
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.
“Hearts and Bones” by Paul Simon (1983)
The title track off of Paul Simon’s 1983 album Hearts and Bones is a tender love song that obviously draws on the singer’s experiences. As is happens, Simon was at the time in the middle of a stormy 1-year marriage to the actress Carrie Fisher. Simon proposed to Fisher at a baseball game. Even though they were only married for a year, they got back together after their divorce and remained together for a few years before separating for good. “Hearts and Bones” exists as a commemoration of their better times together.
Paul Simon was one half of the classic folk duo Simon and Garfunkel, as well as their primary songwriter. After splitting from his musical partner he forged a tremendously successful solo career. Carrie Fisher, daughter of Hollywood royalty, was an actress best known as Princess Leia in the Star Wars film franchise. She passed away in 2016.
“Wonderful Tonight” by Eric Clapton (1977)
Pattie Boyd was still married to former Beatle George Harrison when Harrison’s friend and fellow rock superstar Eric Clapton met and fell in love with her. After Clapton finally won her over and made her his own wife, he wrote the dreamy smooth ballad “Wonderful Tonight” for her. They say the song was inspired by Clapton watching Boyd one evening getting ready to go out to an annual musical memorial for Buddy Holly. “Wonderful Tonight” can be seen as a sequel of sorts to “Layla”, which Clapton wrote for Boyd when she was still married to Harrison.
Pattie Boyd was married to George Harrison from 1966 until 1977. After leaving him for Eric Clapton, she was married to the latter from 1979 until 1989. She divorced Clapton after his numerous infidelities led to the birth of a son with one of his mistresses. She married her third husband in 2015.
“Happy Birthday” by Stevie Wonder ( 1980)
Stevie Wonder has been one of the most powerful people in the music industry since the 1960s and he was not above using his power to try to do good in the world. Whether it was politics or social issues, you could often find Stevie Wonder at the forefront. “Happy Birthday” was not written for a friend celebrating growing a year older; it came from Wonder’s long-time advocacy on behalf of making the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. a federal holiday. Ronald Reagan would eventually sign it into law in 1983 and it was observed nationwide for the first time in 1986.
Ironically, the same Ronald Reagan would be the subject of another scathing Stevie Wonder track, 1987’s “Skeletons”. Stevie Wonder famously performed “Happy Birthday” at the 1986 concert commemorating the first national Martin Luther King Jr. Day. He also performed it for Queen Elizabeth II in 2012 at her Diamond Jubilee Concert.
“Like A Rolling Stone” by Bob Dylan (1965)
Bob Dylan was at the top of his post-acoustic form with the classic “Like a Rolling Stone”. It is arguably his best-known song and is a benchmark of 60s folk-rock. The direct and confrontational lyrics were seen as revolutionary in their time. Dylan has claimed that the song is about a socialite who drops out of high society to become an outcast. One commonly repeated theory is that the woman in question is Edie Sedgwick, one of Andy Warhol’s superstars who was estranged from Warhol’s “factory” in 1966 and would eventually die in 1971 at age 28 from a drug overdose.
Numerous polls list “Like a Rolling Stone” as one of the greatest songs of all time, if not literally the greatest. It turned around Bob Dylan's career after he had considered quitting the year before. The song is a major inspiration for almost any musician who grew up in the generation after Dylan.
“Me and Bobby McGee” by Roger Miller (1969)
In the world of classic rock, “Me and Bobby McGee” is a classic. Written by singer-songwriter superstar Kris Kristofferson together with songwriter Fred Foster, it was first recorded by Roger Miller to great acclaim. But it has become inextricably linked to the late great Janis Joplin who recorded it right before her tragic death. But who is the song really about? Counterintuitively, Bobby McGee was in fact a woman. Fred Foster was the founder of Monument Records, and when his company moved into a new building, he met a young secretary named Barbara “Bobbie” McKee who was working for the owner of the building, legendary songwriter Boudleaux Bryant.
Kristofferson and Foster simply borrowed the secretary’s name, changed it a little, and inserted it into their song about a pair of drifters and the adventures they have. McKee was reportedly tickled about the use of her name and smiles about it to this day.
“Hey There Delilah” by Plain White T’s (2005)
“Hey There Delilah” is a bare-bones ballad detailing the pain and desire of a long-distance romance. When the relatively unknown Plain White T’s released it in 2005, it took over the world with its catchy melody and universal themes. So what and who is the song about? It so happens that the band’s lead singer Tom Higgenson had met champion long-distance runner, Delilah DiCrescenzo, and was immediately smitten with her beauty and charm. He told her that he had a song about her already. He was lying, but it was worth a try. Unfortunately, she turned him down, but he ended up writing the song anyway. And we’re happy he did.
So far, “Hey There Delilah” is the Plain White T’s only number one song. But what a song! In addition to selling gazillions of copies and making the band oodles of money, it was also nominated for a grammy, put on many critics’ lists of the best songs of the year, and even spoofed on Sesame Street.
"Cinderella" by Mac Miller (2018)
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”.