These People Are the Inspirations Behind Some of the Most Beautiful Songs Ever Written
Musicians tend to have a particular image in mind when they play and that means some of the most famous songs of all time were, in fact, inspired by real people. Let’s finally discover the backstories behind these beloved songs and discover the special individuals who inspired it all. Sometimes it was a person the musician loved, while in other cases, it was based on a fantasy of someone they adored. While some artists were brave enough to title the name of the song after the muse, others were more subtle about it. Read on to discover the women and men who inspired them all.
1. “The Girl from Ipanema” by Astrud Gilberto with João Gilberto and Stan Getz (1964)
It all started in a neighborhood of the fashionable seaside of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 1962. The composers of the song noticed beautiful 17-year-old Heloisa Eneida Menezes Paes Pinto, otherwise known as Helô Pinheiro, on her daily strolls to the beach where she’d pass the Veloso café and sometimes enter the café to purchase cigarettes for her mother. Her sultry features captured the heart of every man who caught a glimpse of her.
Originally titled “Menina que Passa” (The Girl Who Passes By), the song is about the beauty of youth and the pang of melancholy which arises just at the thought of youth fading. This Bossa Nova tune secured fame for Pinheiro and she went on to become a model and bikini store owner in São Paulo. Pinheiro appeared on the cover of Brazilian Playboy in 1987 and again in 2003 at the age of 59.
2. “Sweet Caroline” by Neil Diamond (1969)
It was believed for years that Neil Diamond drew his inspiration from the cover of the September 7, 1962 issue of Life Magazine. It showed Caroline Kennedy riding a horse when she was four years old. The image of young Caroline remained at the back of Diamond’s mind, so much so, that five years later “Sweet Caroline” was born.
But 42 years after the song was released, Diamond revealed the true inspiration behind the song during an interview on CBS’s The Early Show. He even performed the song in 2007 at Caroline’s 50th birthday celebration. However, Diamond took back his words in 2014, when he said the song was actually written about his ex-wife Marsha, but he needed a woman’s name with three syllables to fit the melody.
3. “Donna” by Ritchie Valens (1958)
Ritchie Valens really knew how to get a crowd up on its feet with his Mexican folk song “La Bamba,” but his highest-charting hit was the sweet ode “Donna”, dedicated to his high school sweetheart Donna Ludwig. “Donna” reached number two on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in 1959.
Valens stayed in contact with Ludwig while he was on the road performing the hit until February 3, 1959, when he and Buddy Holly were tragically killed in a plane crash. However, Ludwig remained a close friend of the Valens family even after his death.
4. “She’s Always a Woman” by Billy Joel (1977)
Billy Joel has always known how to work his magic with meaningful words and melodies, and “She’s Always a Woman” is no different. Released in 1977, the song talks of a modern woman whom Joel adores for all her flaws and foibles. This woman he talks of is his ex-wife Elizabeth Weber Small, whom he married in 1973.
Weber managed Joel’s career and secured him a successful future at a time when the singer signed some bad contracts and made bad deals. The song talks of her tough negotiating skills that many opponents found quite masculine, but to Joel, this made her even more of a woman. The pair divorced in 1982. Read on to see which other beauties inspired Joel’s crooning.
5. “Peggy Sue” by Buddy Holly (1957)
Buddy Holly took the meaning of “buddy” very seriously. He helped out his drummer friend Jerry Allison and named his new hit song “Peggy Sue” after Peggy Sue Gerron, the woman Allison was swooning over at the time. It also ended up securing Holly one of the biggest rock and roll hits of all time.
The song also managed to win the heart of Peggy Sue because Allison did indeed tie the knot with her. The successful union was celebrated with the sequel song “Peggy Sue Got Married,” but that song failed to hit the charts.
6. “Wild World” by Cat Stevens (1970)
Cat Stevens dated Patti D’Arbanville for about two years, during which he wrote several songs based on her. The most well-known songs are the eponymous “Patti D’Arbanville” and “Wild World,” the latter of which emerged as a hit in 1970.
Many critics interpreted the song as a bit over-protective for a departing lover. D’Arbanville left Stevens for Mick Jagger, so the words bid farewell to a lover who’s headed out on her own. D’Arbanville, a model and actress, appeared in Andy Warhol’s Flesh when she was just 16-years-old. She went on to appear in other movies and TV shows including My So-Called Life.
7. “Photograph” by Def Leppard (1983)
Marilyn Monroe possessed a timeless beauty that continues to inspire people even today. When the star died in 1962, Joe Elliot of the rock band Def Leppard was only three-years-old, but her beauty captivated him when he grew up and inspired him to pen the metal rock song “Photograph.” The song laments the feeling of desiring something you can never have.
For Elliot, Monroe was obviously out of reach, and his only way to hold onto her was by placing her photo on the cover of Def Leppard’s single and recruiting Monroe lookalikes for the music video. Elliot later took to saying that the single wasn’t really about her, but that seems even more far-fetched than the song itself.
8. “Maybe I’m Amazed” by Paul McCartney (1970)
When Paul McCartney writes a love song, it can be nothing short of incredible. “Maybe I’m Amazed” is probably the most meaningful love song McCartney wrote and performed as a solo artist because he expresses gratitude to his wife Linda McCartney for simply being who she is.
When The Beatles split up, Linda served as a strong pillar of support to McCartney, so he decided to write the song to her as a tribute. This was one of many songs he penned about his wife, who died in 1998 of breast cancer.
9. “Sweet Child o’ Mine” by Guns N’ Roses (1987)
Some of the best songs of all time are those composed on the spur of the moment. Steven Adler and Slash were warming up for a jam session at Guns N’ Roses’s condo on the Sunset Strip in West Hollywood when Izzy Stradlin joined in with some chords and Duff McKagan added a bass-line. The band’s lead singer, Axl Rose, heard all this going on from upstairs and became inspired to compose some lyrics.
While the music playing downstairs certainly inspired Rose, his true muse was his girlfriend of the time, model Erin Everly. In fact, he was on such a roll that he completed the lyrics the following afternoon. Everly must have boasted some seriously beautiful hair if it reminded Rose of a “warm safe place.” Read on to learn who else inspired a hit Guns N’ Roses song.
10. “Oh Sherrie” by Steve Perry (1984)
This one couldn’t be more obvious given the title, “Oh Sherrie.” Steve Perry penned this tribute to the woman he loved at the time, Sherrie Swafford, who even appeared in the music video. Unfortunately for Perry, the relationship didn’t last very long and he never married.
Even though Perry’s relationship with Swafford didn’t last, the legacy of the song remains one of the best ’80s anthems. The song reached number one on the rock chart and number three on the pop chart in the U.S. that year. The popularity of the music video also contributed to its success, seeing that MTV played it non-stop.
11. “Jennifer Juniper” by Donovan (1968)
There must be something about the Boyd sisters because Jenny Boyd also inspired the lyrics of a song. Two years before “Layla” was released, “Jennifer Juniper” by singer Donovan came out. Jenny was a famous model, but quit the industry after she traveled to Rishikesh, India with Donovan and her sister Pattie to meditate alongside the guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.
Donovan and Boyd were never in a relationship, but he certainly had a crush on her. In the meantime, Boyd had been in an on-and-off relationship for 15 years with Mick Fleetwood from Fleetwood Mac, and they married in 1970 and had two daughters. Today, Boyd holds a PhD in psychology and co-wrote a book called Musicians in Tune.
12. “My Sharona” by The Knack (1979)
It was love at first sight when Doug Fieger laid eyes on Sharona Alperin. He was 25 at the time and she was 17, and his love for her inspired him to write many songs about her. However, there was only one that became a household single, and “My Sharona” secured his band, The Knack, one of its biggest hits.
Fieger has stated that falling in love with Alperin felt like a baseball bat hit him in the head. They dated for four years, during which he feverishly penned a number of songs about her. In fact, “My Sharona” was written in about 15 minutes. He recounted how his instant affection for her inspired lots of songs. Alperin went on to become a realtor in Los Angeles and currently promotes her listings on her website, mysharona.com.
13. “Uptown Girl” by Billy Joel (1983)
Billy Joel originally wrote “Uptown Girl” about his Australian supermodel girlfriend Elle MacPherson, who was 19-years-old at the time. Soon after the pair broke up, Joel won over the heart of another supermodel, Christie Brinkley. The song was released two years before the two tied the knot, so it seems that both women inspired the lyrics.
The song is about an average “downtown” man, a.k.a. Joel, who falls for beautiful and sophisticated “uptown” women. The song was originally titled “Uptown Girls” because Joel was hanging around the most famous women of the ’80s, including Whitney Houston. Joel also said that Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons inspired the melody.
14. “Layla” by Derek and the Dominos (1970)
If you want to win over the heart of your best friend’s wife, write a song about her. That’s what Eric Clapton did when he serenaded Pattie Boyd, who was still married to his best friend George Harrison. Well, he didn’t quite win her over at that point.
In 1970, the guitar virtuoso released the hit “Layla” with his blues rock band Derek and the Dominos. It expressed his obsession with Boyd. He loved her so much that to get close to her he moved in with her sister Paula. Paula, however, wasn’t having it when she heard the song and realized exactly what the lyrics meant. Boyd and Clapton eventually married in 1979.
15. “Woman” by John Lennon (1981)
Serving as an ode to his wife Yoko Ono, the song “Woman” was featured on the album that John Lennon and Ono collaborated on shortly before his death on December 8, 1980. This song was the first posthumous single released from the Double Fantasy album.
Lennon dedicated the song to his wife, who in turn, stood for all women. In an interview with Rolling Stone magazine, three days before he was shot to death, Lennon stated that the song was a “grown-up version” of his song “Girl.” The track opens with Lennon murmuring the phrase, “For the other half of the sky …,” from a Chinese proverb that Mao Zedong once quoted.
16. “Brown Sugar” by The Rolling Stones (1971)
Mick Jagger and model-singer Marsha Hunt conducted a brief and secret relationship, but long enough for them to have a daughter together, Karis Jagger. It’s no wonder that Hunt inspired such an iconic song. After all, she was on the original London poster for Hair, a musical that canonized the ’70s.
Others have claimed to be the inspiration for the song, though. Singer Claudia Lennear declared on BBC’s Radio 4 that “Brown Sugar” was in fact written about her because she was hanging out with Jagger at the time. However, that hasn’t stopped Hunt from holding fast that the song was more likely written about her.
17. “Athena” by The Who (1982)
Unrequited love is never fun, especially when you take the time to write and dedicate a song to a special someone. Pete Townshend met the actress Theresa Russell when he went to watch a Pink Floyd performance during the band’s Wall Tour. He tried to make moves on her, but she outright rejected him. The even funnier part is that at the time she was engaged to Nicholas Roeg, the director Townshend wanted for his rock opera Lifehouse.
Townshend originally titled the song “Theresa,” and he described how he decided he was in love with her because he took a line of cocaine the night before he met her and got very drunk at the Pink Floyd show. This led to even further frustration when she didn’t reciprocate. He changed the title so it wouldn’t seem as personal when the band The Who recorded it.
18. “Candle in the Wind” by Elton John (1997)
When Princess Diana was killed in a car crash on August 31, 1997, the whole world came to a standstill. Sir Elton John was bestowed with the honor of performing a song at the funeral a few days later on September 6th, and the song he chose was none other than “Candle in the Wind,” originally released in 1973 as a tribute to Marilyn Monroe.
The lyricist Bernie Taupin altered the words of the song to fit Diana’s circumstances, so that John could play it at the princess’s funeral. The revamped 1997 single was incredibly popular as the world mourned over the Princess Diana’s shocking death. The 1997 version proved to be a greater success than the 1973 original. In fact, the 1997 single remains the second best-selling single of all time, after Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas”.
19. “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” by Crosby, Stills and Nash (1969)
As if one song isn’t enough to impress, Stephen Stills of rock folk band Crosby, Stills & Nash composed a multi-part ode called “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes”, which they performed at Woodstock. The ode refers to Stills’ rocky relationship with his singer-songwriter girlfriend, Judy Collins, known for her piercing blue eyes.
Most of the lyrics that make up the different sections of the suite describe Stills’s thoughts and feelings about their imminent breakup. The pair met in 1967 and dated until 1969, when she fell for Stacy Keach, her co-star in the musical production Peer Gynt at the New York Shakespeare Festival. Stills was truly heartbroken when Collins left him for Keach, and wrote the song to channel his sadness. In fact, the band was originally only formed to record “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” but went on to create more albums and hits.
20. “Je T’aime … Moi Non Plus” by Serge Gainsbourg (1969)
When Brigitte Bardot asked Serge Gainsbourg to compose a beautiful song for her in 1967, he came up with the erotic duet “Je T’aime … Moi Non Plus.” When things didn’t work out between them because her husband Gunter Sachs found out about the recording, Gainsbourg went on to re-record it with his new girlfriend Jane Birkin.
Birkin’s rendition was released in 1969 and it became a household hit, but caused a lot of controversy and was banned from radio stations because it was so erotic. Gainsbourg had no shame and actually asked many women to record the song with him, including Marianne Faithfull, Mireille Darc, and Valerie Lagrange. The version with Bardot was eventually released in 1986.
21. “Always” by Irving Berlin (1925)
Some might call it cradle snatching, while others might find Irving Berlin’s courtship of Ellin MacKay quite endearing. Sixteen years his junior, the young Western Union heiress became the object of Berlin’s affection to the horror of her father not only because he was so much older, but because MacKay came from a staunch Catholic background and Berlin was Jewish.
MacKay’s father attempted to distract his daughter by taking her on a year-long trip around Europe, but unfortunately her affection for Berlin did not waver. After her father disinherited her, Berlin married MacKay in 1926. As a wedding gift, Berlin gave his wife the royalty rights to the song “Always,” which he wrote about their love the year before. Luckily for her, the royalties turned out to be pretty high, making up for her lost inheritance.
22. “Jersey Girl” by Tom Waits (1980)
One of the most tender love songs, “Jersey Girl” eloquently captures the feeling of love and romantic longing for a lover. When Tom Waits was working on the soundtrack for the film One from the Heart, he met the musician and artist Kathleen Brennan, and the rest was history.
The pair met while Brennan was in New Jersey, hence the title of the song. They got married the same year that “Jersey Girl” was released and went on to have three kids together. They live in California and often collaborate for artistic inspiration. The song has also been covered by Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band.
23. “Lady in Red” by Chris de Burgh (1986)
Chris de Burgh penned this song to emphasize how men often forget what their wives were wearing the first time they met. “Lady in Red” vividly describes de Burgh’s first encounter with Diane Davison, the woman who would become his wife.
While the song doesn’t directly mention Davison, it does refer to her and the night they first met. The song was released as the second single from de Burgh’s album, Into the Light. The music video for the song was performed in studio and features a woman with curly hair wearing red.
24. “In Your Eyes” by Peter Gabriel (1986)
The actress Rosanna Arquette inspired not one, but two songs including Toto’s “Rosanna” and Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes.” Gabriel and Arquette lived together at the time the song was released, so the speculation about her being his muse seems all too viable.
The couple broke up in 1992, and since then, Arquette has appeared on TV Shows and movies such as Showtime’s Ray Donovan and the film Pulp Fiction. Toto claims that their song isn’t about the actress despite the fact that she was dating keyboardist Steve Porcaro around the time the song came out.
25. “It Ain’t Me, Babe” by Bob Dylan (1964)
Bob Dylan’s biographers all acquiesce that “It Ain’t Me, Babe” was inspired by Suze Rotolo, his former girlfriend. Dylan allegedly penned the song while he was in Italy in 1963 in search of Rotolo, who happened to be studying there at the time.
The song was originally recorded by another of Dylan’s girlfriends, the folk singer Joan Baez. Her version of the song appeared on her 1964 album Joan Baez/5. The two became an item when Dylan was still a nobody. He went on tour with Baez which led to his fame, but things between them went south very quickly. After a huge fight during a tour in 1965, the couple split up. After Dylan contracted a virus and was hospitalized, Baez came to visit with flowers, only to find out he was already dating Sara Lownds, whom he married six months later.
26. “And I Love Her” by The Beatles (1964)
Paul McCartney knew exactly how to write that perfect love song. “And I Love Her” became what he called “the first ballad [he] impressed [him]self with.” The inspiration behind the song was Jane Asher, the English actress he was engaged to at the time.
Jane Asher was an iconic figure during the ’60s for her influence in arts and culture, so the two made what seemed like the perfect pair. Unfortunately, only a year after the song was released, Asher and McCartney went their separate ways. She went on to marry Gerald Scarfe while he married Linda Eastman.
27. “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” by Paul Simon (1975)
If you want some advice on how to leave your lover, look no further than Paul Simon’s “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover.” He wrote the song just after separating from his wife Peggy Harper and began his romance with Carrie Fisher.
Simon and Fisher tied the knot in 1983 after a seven-year rocky relationship, but the marriage was very short-lived because they divorced the following year. Lo and behold, the pair started seeing each other again after the divorce. The song was written after his first divorce from Harper, and the lyrics are witty advice a mistress gives to a husband to end his relationship.
28. “Our House” by Graham Nash of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young (1970)
Both singers and songwriters, Graham Nash moved in with Joni Mitchell and her two cats in December, 1968. The two chose a cute little house in the Laurel Canyon area of Los Angeles. The song “Our House” recounts an endearing domestic event that Nash recalls while living with Mitchell.
The pair went out for breakfast one morning and bought a vase for a very good price on Ventura Boulevard. This very ordinary moment was documented in a song by Graham to highlight the simple beauty of domestic life. While Mitchell went to pick flowers from the garden to place in the vase, Graham wrote the song on a piano within one hour.
29. “Lola” by The Kinks (1970)
According to Rolling Stone magazine, “Lola” was written about Candy Darling, the transvestite Ray Davies dated for a brief time. Darling was a member of Andy Warhol’s entourage and has also been referred to in “Walk on the Wild Side” by Lou Reed. However, in the official biography of The Kinks, lead singer Davies tells a different tale.
Davies claims that the song was written after an incident between the drunken band manager and Darling, but that he didn’t realize who Darling really was. The lyrics detail a romantic encounter in a Soho, London nightclub between a man and what seems like a transvestite. The narrator describes the confusion about a woman named Lola who “walked like a woman, but talked like a man.” Davies says he didn’t date Darling and that they only went to dinner. Moreover, he said he was always aware of her true identity.
30. “Something” by The Beatles (1969)
Before Pattie Boyd and Eric Clapton were an item, she fell for George Harrison and they married in 1966. He penned the song “Something” in 1968, which speaks about her enigmatic allure. She recalls how beautiful she thought the song was when she first heard it in her 2009 memoir.
Harrison also cited other inspirational sources for the song besides for his wife. He said the song alluded to Krishna, the Hindi deity, because when he writes about women, he writes about God. In a 1976 interview with Rolling Stone magazine, Harrison emphasized his philosophy of universal love, and how when one loves a woman, it’s God that one sees in her. In 1996, Harrison even went as far as to state that the song wasn’t actually about Boyd and that everyone just assumed it was about her because she featured in the accompanying video.
31. “Oh! Carol” by Neil Sedaka (1958)
“Oh! Carol” was written for Carole King, who briefly dated Neil Sedaka in high school. The song became a top 10 hit in 1959, but the real success of the song would actually come a few months later when the rebuttal to the song was released by King herself.
King married Gerry Goffin and they both needed a new hit song to launch their fledgling careers, so “Oh! Neil” was born. It worked well for everyone. It made the original song even more of a hit. It also caused King and Goffin to be hired as songwriters by the Brill Building pop music factory after Sedaka gave a recording of the rebuttal song to his boss. King and Goffin went on to write some of the biggest hits of the ’60s, including “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?” and “The Loco-Motion.”
32. “Crazy Love” by Van Morrison (1970)
Janet “Planet” Rigsbee inspired Van Morrison’s “Crazy Love” and his song “Tupelo Honey.” Rigsbee described the time she and Morrison first met as “alchemical whammo,” but the pair split up in 1973. They had a daughter named Shana who was born just after the release of his album Moondance in 1970.
Many assume that Rigsbee was Morrison’s “Brown Eyed Girl” because they were dating at the time the song was released in 1967. Makes sense because they did wed shortly after and stayed married for six years. After the divorce, Rigsbee went on to become a songwriter in California where she recorded five of her own albums. Their daughter would later go on to share the stage with her father on tour in the 1990s.
33. “Philadelphia Freedom” by Elton John (1975)
Elton John and tennis star Billie Jean King were very friendly, so much so, that he asked his lyricist Bernie Taupin to pen a tribute in her name. Taupin was rather perturbed because he didn’t know how to write songs about tennis.
The song was called “Philadelphia Freedom” because at the time, King was a member of a World Team Tennis squad called Philadelphia Freedom. However, the song isn’t really about tennis or Philadelphia, but the title seemed catchy and did the trick. The single hit the top of the charts. Gene Page composed an orchestral arrangement for the song which includes strings, horns, and flutes.
34. “Walk Away Renee” by The Left Banke (1966)
Renne Fladen-Kamm is to blame in this case for distracting the keyboard player Michael Brown during band practice. She was bass player Tom Finn’s girlfriend and used to sit in the studio when The Left Banke recorded the 1966 hit “Walk Away Renee.” Brown, only 16 at the time, described how his hands used to shake when he stared at the tall blonde, so he had to come back later when she wasn’t around to practice.
The Left Banke actually wrote several other songs about Fladen-Kamm including “Pretty Ballerina” and “She May Call You Up Tonight.” Until 2001, no one really knew who this Renee figure was until she was identified as a vocal coach and singer from San Francisco. Brown lamented that he was “mythologically in love” and that’s pretty much what his unrequited love came down to.
35. “Suzanne” by Leonard Cohen (1967)
“Suzanne” was originally written as a poem by Leonard Cohen about his attraction to Suzanne Verdal, whose beauty he regarded as otherworldly. He said that “everyone was in love with Suzanne,” and she described her friendship with Cohen as a “spiritual union.” The poem was actually recorded as a song by Judy Collins in 1967, and then Cohen performed it that same year as the debut single on his album Songs of Leonard Cohen.
The poem describes his platonic friendship with Verdal when he would visit her apartment in Montreal, where she would serve him tea, and how they would walk by the church of Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours. Many interpretations of the song suggest sexual encounters between the two, but Verdal said in a 2006 interview that they never had one. Cohen always insisted that it was more about imagining an encounter, but neither of them had the inclination to go through with it.
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