“Donna” by Ritchie Valens (1958)
For his foot-stomping, Mexican-American Spanish language classic ‘La Bamba,’ Ritchie Valens is known best today. His biggest hit on the charts was the sweet love song “Donna,” written in honor of Valens’ high school romance, Donna Ludwig. It was a two-hit on Billboard in 1959. As his career began and he went on tour, Valens and Ludwig remained in touch. When Donna died tragically in the same plane crash that took Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper’s lives on February 3, 1959, Donna stayed in touch with his family.
“She’s Always a Woman” by Billy Joel (1977)
Billy Joel, one of the greatest musical storytellers of the 20th century, 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 enduring love for a tough, modern, and flawed woman. It’s no surprise the man’s Joel himself. The woman behind the song was Elizabeth Weber, whom he married from 1973 to 1982. Joel was far from the level of financial security he had earned due to numerous unwise contracts and deals he had made after several years of growing musical success.
“Wild World” by Cat Stevens (1970)
Cat Stevens was involved with actress Patti D’Arbanville a few years before his big breakout in 1970. The song is almost a paternal kind of warm plea for Stevens’ former lover to take care of herself and not get hurt as she chooses to give up his watchful embrace for all her romantic love and longing. Cat Stevens followed “Wild World” with a hit string over the next few years before shocking his fans by retiring largely from the music business in 1978, focusing on his spiritual journey with the new name Yusuf Islam as a religious Muslim.
“Photograph” by Def Leppard (1983)
For so long, Marilyn Monroe has been the inspiration for so much art that it is easy not even to notice it sometimes. The leading singer of Def Leppard, Joe Elliot, was only three years old when Monroe died in 1962, but that didn’t stop her because she was his muse for one of the band’s first big hits: “Photograph,” a deep longing for someone who can’t be reached. Clearly, Elliot could never have Monroe, but at least he could put her in a single cover art photograph and hire her doppelganger in that song’s music video.
“Candle in the Wind” by Elton John (1997)
As a Marilyn Monroe memorial, Elton John released “Candle in the Wind” in 1974. Nearly a quarter of a century later, when his good friend, Diana Princess of Wales, died in a car accident, John was inconsolable. He discussed the possibility of adapting their classic song in Diana’s memory with his longtime writer and lyricist, Bernie Taupin. Within days, the new version was ready. He performed at Diana’s funeral, releasing a studio version. It captured people worldwide’s creativity and hearts who just lost one of the most beloved public figures of the century.
“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 would do to their lives and careers that fateful day. The lyrics’ inspiration? Of course, Axl Rose’s girlfriend, Erin Everly, daughter of Don Everly of the legendary rock duo, the Everly Brothers. Considering the memorably evocative lyrics that fill the song, she must have been quite the muse
“Love of My Life” by Queen (1975)
For his former fiancée and best friend, Mary Austin, Freddie Mercury, the lead singer and mastermind behind the acclaimed British rock band, Queen, wrote the song ‘Love of My Life.’ When he met 19-year-old Austin, Mercury was 24. They told interviewers how they felt instantly connected and soon fell deeply in love. They separated as a couple for seven years. Mercury admitted being attracted to men, and Austin confirmed she knew he was gay. Nevertheless, the two remained close-knit, and even Mercury bought an apartment from Austin down the street to stay close to each other.
“Peggy Sue” by Buddy Holly (1957)
The song that would probably become the most beloved of Buddy Holly’s hits was originally titled “Cindy Lou,” but for the sake of his drummer Jerry Allison’s love life, Holly changed it to “Peggy Sue. Allison had just broken up with his future wife, Peggy Sue Gerron, and Holly wanted to do anything he could to help them get back together. And it worked! Allison and Gerron got back together and married, an event immortalized by “Peggy Sue Got Married,” yet another Buddy Holly song, although that would prove to be a less successful single.
“Layla” by Derek and the Dominos (1970)
What would you do if you had fallen in love with your best friend’s wife? Classic rock pioneer Eric Clapton decided to write her a thinly-veiled love song to win her heart was the best action. Complicating matters was that the woman in question was Pattie Boyd, the famous model. Perhaps the man she married was an even greater pioneer of classic rock: George Harrison, the Beatles. The song was “Layla,” which was one of the greatest rock songs of all time and one of Clapton’s signature songs.
“Jennifer Juniper” by Donavan (1968)
Oh, those Boyd sisters! Older sister Pattie Boyd was the inspiration for “Layla” and several other Eric Clapton and George Harrison songs. Here we have the classic folk and psychedelic rocker Donovan’s 1968 song “Jennifer Juniper,” inspired by younger sister Jenny Boyd. Jenny was a well-known model, like her older sister. Still, she quit the business when she began visiting India and getting into Transcendental Meditation with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, along with much of the rock community she was hanging out with.
“My Sharona” by The Knack (1979)
Until the day he saw Sharona Alperin, 17, Doug Feiger, guitarist and lead singer for The Knack, suffered from writer’s block. 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. 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.
“Uptown Girl” by Billy Joel (1983)
Billy Joel dated supermodel Elle MacPherson, 19, and then another supermodel, Christie Brinkley, dated (and eventually married) himself. It seems he originally wrote his smash hit “Uptown Girl” with Elle in mind, though Christie was the lady in his life when it was released, so she stars in the video. In the song, Billy portrays a not-so-rich “downtown man” trying to woo a wealthy and refined “uptown girl.” Originally, because of the many posh and beautiful women he surrounded himself with at the time, he would call the song ‘Uptown Girls.’
“Oh Sherrie” by Steve Perry (1984)
Not exactly a master of subtlety, in honor of the girl he was dating, named Sherrie Swafford, Steve Perry wrote his greatest solo hit, “Oh Sherrie.” She even starred in the song video, which benefited from massive MTV airplay. You can bet that the love affair between MTV and the video was not an insignificant factor in the single success. Steve and Sherrie’s relationship proved a bit more ephemeral than the song that came from it. The two never tied the knot and ended up, so to speak, going separate ways.
“Woman” by John Lennon (1981)
It should come as no surprise 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 dedicated to all women everywhere. The Lennon-Ono collaboration album was released as a single just weeks after Lennon passed away. Benefiting from the universal anguish of one of rock’s critical pioneers’ untimely death, “Woman” became a top ten hit worldwide.
“Brown Sugar” by The Rolling Stones (1971)
Mick Jagger had a discreet but very intense relationship with a model, actress, and musician, Marsha Hunt, around 1970. Jagger’s first child, daughter Karis, was born to Hunt in November. Not surprisingly, Jagger and the Stones would inspire one of the most popular songs. Hunt’s attribution wasn’t uncontroversial for inspiring the song. Some claimed it’s soul singer Claudia Lennear. She herself made that claim many years later in a BBC radio interview, saying she and Jagger had spent a lot of time together. But Marsha Hunt stuck to her guns, insisting she’s the one.
“Athena” by The Who (1982)
One night, drunk and high on drugs, Townsend 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. Upon his rejection, Heartbroken went home and wrote a very personal love song he called “Theresa.” However, when it came to recording, he decided it might be a bit too personal, so he changed the song’s name to “Athena,” and the name stuck.
“Maybe I’m Amazed” by Paul McCartney (1970)
Paul McCartney, one of the most celebrated songwriters of the 20th century, was responsible for many of the most beloved songs of all time, both with his Beatles partner, John Lennon and as a solo artist. And he’s on another level with his love songs. One of his first releases as a solo artist was “Maybe I’m Amazed,” and he thanked his wife Linda for her unwavering support as the Beatles broke up.
“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 Michael Brown, the keyboard player, was also in love with her and ended up writing at least three songs about her: “Walk Away Renée,” “Pretty Ballerina,” and “Tonight She May Call You Up.” The identity of this mysterious Renée was unknown for decades. Finally, she was identified as Renée Fladen-Kamm, a singer and vocal coach based in San Francisco, in 2001.
“Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” by Crosby, Stills, and Nash (1969)
Writing four, then putting them together into a classic suite of songs, is the only thing better than writing a song in honor of your loved one. That’s exactly what Steven Stills did for his 1969 debut album of folk-rock band Crosby, Stills, and Nash. The lady in question was fellow folk singer-songwriter Judy Collins, from 1967 to 1969. The song’s title plays on the homophonic nature of the word “suite” as the composition is a musical suite and can be pronounced as “Sweet Judy Blue Eyes” since Collins was renowned for penetrating blue eyes.
“Suzanne” by Leonard Cohen (1967)
When Judy Collins recorded it in 1967, the song was put on the map by a previously unknown Leonard Cohen. Cohen wrote it as a poem the previous year, then recorded his own version on his debut album not long after Collins. His deep friendship and (unconsumed) attraction to Suzanne Verdal is described. As the lyrics explain, they’d visit Montreal and go on long walks, enjoying that classic city’s sights and each other. She’d make and serve tea at home. Hearing the song, it’s easy to imagine the two were lovers.
“Je T’aime … Moi Non-Plus” by Serge Gainsbourg (1969)
The result was the scandalously erotic “Je t’aime…Moi non plus” (“I love you… neither do I”) recorded as a duet when Brigitte Bardot asked Serge Gainsbourg to write a song for her in 1967, while they were making out in the recording booth. However, Bardot was married at the time, and her husband was not pleased, to say the least, when he heard about it. Bardot, therefore, asked Gainsbourg not to release the song, and he complied. Two years later, with his new girlfriend, the English actress Jane Birkin, he re-recorded it.
“Always” by Irving Berlin (1925)
When Catholic American heiress Ellin Mackay married Jewish-American songwriter Irving Berlin, it was a controversial event that captured media and attention. The rich Western Union tycoon, Mackay’s father, promptly disinherited his daughter. Still, Berlin stepped in to compensate for her loss by signing royalties for his bride’s love song “Always” Mackay turned out to be a lucrative move. Ellin’s father did his utmost to keep the marriage from happening, going so far as to send her off to Europe in hopes of finding a match for her.
“Jersey Girl” by Tom Waits (1980)
“Jersey Girl,” his future wife, Kathleen Brennan, is a remarkably straightforward expression of love and passion for the love of her life. They met in New Jersey while she was living, which is what gave the song its name. At the time, he was working on a film soundtrack and would see her whenever he could. The couple has been married for decades and lives with their three children in California, often collaborating on projects.
“Lady in Red” by Chris de Burgh (1986)
As a commentary on the fact that the average man fails to remember what his wife was wearing when they first met, Chris de Burgh wrote his massive 1986 hit song. In loving detail, “Lady in Red” chronicles the day that de Burgh first met the woman he was destined to marry: Diane Davison. The career of Chris de Burgh has been inextricably linked with ‘Lady in Red’ since 1986. It is a song that inflames, positively and negatively, the passions of many who hear it. It is among the songs of the 1980s that were most loved and hated.
“In Your Eyes” by Peter Gabriel (1986)
When “In your Eyes” was written, Peter Gabriel lived with actress Rosanna Arquette, which has made it a commonly repeated theory that she was the inspiration for the song. She also allegedly inspired the “Rosanna” Toto song, which was released while she was dating Steve Porcaro, the keyboard player. In confirming the speculation about the origins of their songs, both Peter Gabriel and Toto were less than forthcoming, but that did not stand in the way of the received wisdom about them.
“It Ain’t Me, Babe” by Bob Dylan (1964)
Bob Dylan wrote “It Ain’t Me Babe.” for his girlfriend, Suze Rotolo, whom he dated from 1961 to 1964. She studied 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 songs. The couple broke up after a big fight in 1965. Soon after, when Dylan was sick in the hospital, Baez appeared to make amends, only to find him with Sara Lownds, his new girlfriend, and his future wife.
“And I Love Her” by The Beatles (1964)
Paul McCartney has earned the distinction of being one of the 20th century’s finest songwriters, and among his most popular compositions have been his love songs. “And I Love Her” was the first of those to meet with wide acclaim, a song he claimed to be the first of his ballads he was proud of. Jane Asher, his then-fiancee, inspired it. Asher was a photographer and actress who, in the 60s, was an important part of the British cultural scene, and the press was in love with her and Paul’s romance.
“50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” by Paul Simon (1975)
After his recent divorce from his first wife, Peggy Harper, and his new relationship with actress Carrie Fisher, trying to unravel how much of this song is a joke and how much the actual frustrations of Paul Simon represent. A comedic chronicle of all manner of sabotaging a person’s romantic relationship is “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” After years of on-off-again romance, Simon and Fisher eventually got married in 1983, but then divorced after a year before starting to date again! Maybe Simon took too much advice from this song!
“Our House” by Graham Nash of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young (1970)
In the 1960s and 70s, Graham Nash and Joni Mitchell were both very well-known singers and songwriters. They lived with Mitchell’s two cats in Los Angeles’ Laurel Canyon. “Our House” is a charmingly simple chronicle of ordinary events in one day’s life. They went out for breakfast, then stopped going home to buy a cheap vase at an antique store. At home, Mitchell picked some flowers for the vase, Nash sat down on the piano, and about an hour later, a folk-rock classic was born.
“Lola” by The Kinks (1970)
The slightly creepy but undeniably infectious song “Lola” tells an innocent youth’s tale with a transvestite’s unexpected romance. But who’s the man, who’s the trans woman in real life? Well, it depends on who you ask. Rolling Stone claims that the woman was Candy Darling, a popular actress in Andy Warhol’s artist circle and one of Lou Reed’s inspirations behind “Walk on the Wild Side,” and she and Kinks’ frontman Ray Davies had dated. Davies claims that while he and Darling went to dinner several times, they never misunderstood her true identity.
“Something” by The Beatles (1969)
George Harrison married Pattie Boyd and began writing love songs about her before Eric Clapton met her. Harrison wrote the song “Something” back in 1968, which would eventually be included by the Beatles on the 1969 album Abbey Road. It’s a song of tremendous passion and longing, and Boyd describes how much she loved it in the kitchen when he first sang it to her. Finally, Harrison distanced Boyd from being the main inspiration for the song, possibly because of the negative feelings associated with Eric Clapton stealing her away.
“Oh! Carol” by Neil Sedaka (1958)
Neil Sedaka and Carole King went to high school together and even dated for a while, becoming the basis for one of Neil’s first hit songs, “Oh! Carol made the top 10 in 1959, but there was no end to the song’s success. Carole King married Gerry Goffin, and as a songwriting duo, they tried to make a name for themselves. And they became one of America’s most famous songwriting teams.
“Crazy Love” by Van Morrison (1970)
For six years surrounding 1970, Van Morrison married Janet “Planet” Rigsbee, and she was probably the muse for a number of his songs from that period, including “Crazy Love. By all accounts, their relationship was intense and passionate, but it nevertheless ended in 1973. Still, considering that they were only really married so that Van could avoid deportation to the UK, it was a pretty good run. Shana, their daughter, was born in 1970 and occasionally shared the stage in the 1990s with her famous father.
“Philadelphia Freedom” by Elton John (1975)
Rock star Elton John and tennis star Billie Jean King formed an unlikely friendship, but they nevertheless forged a deep and lasting friendship. John asked Bernie Taupin, his longtime songwriting partner and lyricist, to help him write a song in her honor, named “Philadelphia Freedom,” after the Philadelphia Freedoms, her professional tennis team. Taupin claimed to have no idea how to write a tennis song. In the end, Taupin wrote a song about life, and every listener just filled their own heads with the meaning of what that song meant to them.
“You’re So Vain” by Carly Simon (1972)
In 1972, Carly Simon wrote “You’re So Vain,” It was a hit number 1 single. Simon has made clear that there are about three distinct conceited men in the three verses, and it has long been assumed and acknowledged that actor Warren Beatty is the second verse. He still claims, in fact, that the entire song is about him. David Cassidy, Cat Stevens, and David Bowie are often bandied to be vain enough to inspire ‘You’re So Vain.’
“True Blue” by Madonna (1986)
Madonna was already dating her soon-to-be husband actor Sean Penn when she wrote “True Blue” in 1986, and her emotions for him were too strong to keep inside bottled up. She thought she was the most amazing guy she’d ever met, and she had to write him a love song, or else she’d break up. Unfortunately, the marriage only lasted four years, ending amid rumors and allegations of Penn’s abuse.
“Day Dreaming” by Aretha Franklin (1972)
Aretha Franklin was engaged to singer Dennis Edwards of the classic vocal group The Temptations when she wrote “Day Dreaming.” However, they never got married. Edwards would admit to being wrong decades later. The idea of marrying such a powerful superstar intimidated him. Franklin replied that long before, she had made peace with the situation, that she had grown tired of the lack of commitment and had decided to move on to greener pastures.
“Carey” by Joni Mitchell (1971)
To travel to Greece and other European destinations, Mitchell took time off the music biz. There she met Cary Raditz, who, as a cook, was literally America’s cave-dwelling hippie. For some time, Joni lived with him and wrote about him and their experiences with “Carey.” Since breaking up with Graham, Joni was still in a fragile emotional state and, to add to the discomfort, her newfound fame caused her to be constantly followed by a hippie gaggle.
“I Will Always Love You” by Dolly Parton (1973)
It was a match made in music business heaven when country star Porter Wagoner discovered a relatively unknown 21-year-old Dolly Parton. For both of them, it was a very lucrative partnership. But seven years later, as a solo performer, Parton was beginning to feel artistically stifled and wanted to branch out independently. Given that their careers were tied together, it was neither an easy decision nor an uncomplicated business transaction.
“Girl from the North Country” by Bob Dylan (1963)
People can’t agree with the woman behind the early “Girl from the North Country” composition by Bob Dylan. Many are convinced that it was his sweetheart from high school, fellow Minnesota native Echo Helstrom. Others insist it was Bonnie Beecher, another early girlfriend, actress, and activist. Dylan’s long-time girlfriend, Suze Rotolo, who was with him as he progressed from a relatively unknown folk singer to one of his generation’s most important cultural icons, was the third woman who is often mentioned as the source of the song.
“867-5309/Jenny” by Tommy Tutone (1981)
For a long time, the origins of “Jenny” have been sources of disagreement and controversy. The argument extends about whether or not there was the eponymous Jenny and whether 867-5309 was a real phone number. In 1982, lead guitarist Tommy Tutone and song co-writer Jim Keller claimed that Jenny was a real normal girl (not a prostitute) and that he had actually dated her. He also claimed that with him overwriting the song and making her phone number public, she was distraught.
“Isn’t She Lovely” by Stevie Wonder (1976)
In 1976, Stevie Wonder released Songs in the Key of Life, an ambitious double album that included a sweet song dedicated to the recent birth of his daughter, Aisha Morris. As she was born, the song opens with the sound of Aisha’s first cry and closes with the sound of Wonder bathing her when she was a little older. The song’s album version lasted more than six minutes, far too long to be released as a single at the time, and Wonder initially objected to it being shortened.
“You Oughta Know” by Alanis Morissette (1995)
There’s no question that Alanis Morissette puts her lyrics and the meaning behind them into a lot of thinking, but don’t expect her to explain them to you. In no uncertain terms, in a 2008 interview, she said that she would never talk about who inspires her songs because it is a very personal expression of her experiences. That has, of course, not stopped people from speculating. Dave Coulier, the actor and comedian of Full House fame who dated Morissette for a while before her fame took off, is one name that comes up a lot.
“The Ballad of Jayne” by L.A. Guns (1990)
The second L.A. Guns album, 1989’s Cocked & Loaded, was also their first gold record. The lead single from the album, “The Ballad of Jayne,” was inspired by Jayne Mansfield’s life, one of the greatest sex symbols of the 1950s and 60s in Hollywood. One of the original ‘blonde bombshells’ was Mansfield, a pinup girl and one of the first Playboy Playmates. She took advantage of her looks in provocative ways to further her career with every imaginable sort of publicity stunt, despite her above-average intelligence.
“Killing Me Softly” by Lori Lieberman (1971)
Based on singer Lori Lieberman’s idea and poem to Gimbel, Charles Fox, and Norman Gimbel wrote the songwriting duo: “Killing Me Softly.” As an idea for a song inspired by another song that profoundly moved her, she wrote the poem. That song was Don McLean’s “Empty Chairs” from his breakthrough American Pie album in 1971. Lieberman had seen McLean perform at a club, and a very emotional experience for her was his rendition of “Empty Chairs.”
“The Hurricane” by Bob Dylan (1975)
The American professional boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, who spent almost 20 years in prison for murders that many believed he was innocent of, was the subject of the topical protest song “The Hurricane.” In hopes of securing the boxer’s release, the song was written by Bob Dylan and Jacques Levy to bring attention to Carter’s plight. Dylan was forced to re-record it after the song was completed. Still, before it was released, his record company feared that some of the lyrics would leave them responsible for defamation lawsuits by some of the trial witnesses.
“American Pie” by Don McLean (1971)
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, the title track of Don McLean’s breakthrough 1971 album American Pie was written. Thanks to the tremendous cultural impact of the song, the plane crash is now widely known as “the day the music died.” Apart from the central event described in the song, “American Pie” has given rise to decades of debate and speculation through many other ambiguous cultural references. But don’t ask you to explain them to McLean.
“Tears in Heaven” by Eric Clapton (1991)
In the 1990s, Eric Clapton experienced heartbreak and tragedy. The 1990 helicopter crash that killed Stevie Ray Vaughan, his friend, and musician, also killed Clapton’s manager and two others. A few months later, when the baby fell from New York’s 53rd-floor apartment window where they lived, Clapton lost his four-year-old son, Conor. For his emotional health, Clapton felt the need to isolate himself for a while. He started working on the Rush movie soundtrack, for which he co-wrote the song ‘Tears in Heaven’ with the songwriter Will Jennings when he was ready to join the living world.
“Vera” by Pink Floyd (1979)
Vera Lynn was a British singer who was enormously popular during World War II, especially with the troops. We’ll Meet Again” is the song she is most closely associated with, which she often sang as she visited army bases throughout the war.” In his inimitable ironic fashion, Roger Waters mentions Vera Lynn and “We’ll Meet Again” while implying that his character in The Wall will never see his father again in reality.
“Chelsea Hotel #2” by Leonard Cohen (1974)
One of the most memorable of his early songs, “Chelsea Hotel #2” is included on the 1974 Leonard Cohen album New Skin for the Old Ceremony. Since Mark Twain stayed there, New York’s Chelsea Hotel was a famous temporary residence for traveling artists. Cohen used to love regaling his audience, not just the song, but the story and name behind it. Eventually, he would repent of the “locker room” mentality that made him kiss and tell.