You won’t believe who inspired these famous songs! What hit did Sean Penn inspire? Who did Warren Beatty upset so much that penned a bitter song about him? And who’s the gorgeous woman that two separate rock legends wrote epic ballads? Read on.
My Sharona – The Knack
You might be surprised to learn that a romance with a major age gap inspired the classic rock song My Sharona. Doug Fieger, who was 25 at the time, wrote the song for his 17-year-old girlfriend, Sharona Alperin.
Layla – Derek And The Dominos
Everyone knows the classic rock song Layla by Derek and the Dominos, but few people know the scandalous backstory behind the music. The song was written by Eric Clapton, who was pining for his best friend George Harrison’s wife, Patti Boyd. Of the song, Patti said, “I think that he was amazingly raw at the time… He’s such an incredible musician that he’s able to put his emotions into music in such a way that the audience can feel it instinctively.”
Hearts And Bones – Paul Simon
Love fades, but a classic rock ballad lasts forever. At least, this is the case with Hearts and Bones by Paul Simon. The song describes the ups and downs of his whirlwind romance with Star Wars actress Carrie Fisher. The couple were married for a year and then divorced, but kept a romance going even after their marriage ended. “I like the song he wrote about our relationship,” Carrie said. “Even when he’s insulting me, I like it very much.”
Maybe I’m Amazed
We appreciate our significant other even more when we’re going through a tough time. Paul McCartney’s Maybe I’m Amazed is a classic example of this feeling. The tender power ballad was dedicated to his wife, Linda. The song was written just as Paul’s band The Beatles were breaking up, and Linda was there to support Paul through his chaotic transition from the band to a solo career. A testament to his love, the song lives on in popularity, even after Linda’s death.
Jennifer Juniper – Donovan
British singer Donovan, with his globe-trotting adventures, shaggy hair, and folk-psychedelic musical style, was a perfect embodiment of the hippie era. His song Jennifer Juniper is a classic – featuring oboe, flute, bassoon and a final stanza sung in French, it captures the free spirit of the time. But you may not have known the song was written for Jenny Boyd, the sister of Pattie Boyd (who was previously mentioned on this list). Apparently, the Boyd sisters’ beauty was inspiration for more than one musician.
You’re So Vain – Carly Simon
Carly Simon’s You’re So Vain instantly sparked debate as soon as it was released. The song, which won several Grammy awards, blasts a narcissistic lover who is obsessed with himself. Of course, people were dying to know who it was about. Carly kept mum for a while, initially saying it was about men in general and not a specific man. Finally, Carly let it slip that the second verse was about actor Warren Beatty. It only took her 43 years to say it!
In Your Eyes – Peter Gabriel
Romantic 80s ballad In Your Eyes wasn’t your typical love song – it featured singing in the Wolof language by Senegalese singer Youssou N’Dour and unusual percussion. Gabriel said the lyrics were strongly influenced by the blurred line between the romantic love between a man and a woman and a religious love of God. But that’s not the most interesting aspect of the song – it was written specifically for actress Rosanna Arquette, who Peter was in love with at the time.
Something – The Beatles
The Beatles song Something, written by George Harrison, is widely considereda romantic classic and one of the Beatles’ best songs. However, the woman it was written for, Pattie Boyd, has already appeared on this list! Before Eric Clapton wrote Layla for her, Pattie was married to his best friend, George Harrison. In her autobiography, Pattie wrote, “He [George] told me, in a matter-of-fact way, that he had written it for me. I thought it was beautiful.” We agree!
Je T’aime … Moi Non Plus – Serge Gainsbourg
French singer Serge Gainsbourg was known for his steamy lyrics, shocking publicity stunts, and his prolific work (he wrote over 550 songs in his lifetime!) But one of the biggest scandals of his career came after blonde bombshell Brigitte Bardot asked him to write a sensual song for her sing in a duet with him. Serge wrote the highly charged Je T’aime … Moi Non Plus which made the romantic nature of the relationship between him and married Brigitte abundantly clear.
Uptown Girl – Billy Joel
It’s the classic boy meets girl tale – the boy is from the wrong side of the tracks, the girl was born with a silver spoon in her mouth, and despite society’s objections, the two star-crossed lovers will fight for their love. Billy Joel’s Uptown Girl follows this formula, but with one twist – the song was inspired by his girlfriend at the time, Australian supermodel Elle MacPherson. Elle obviously found Billy good enough for her, and the song peaked at #3.
Sweet Child O’Mine – Guns N Roses
Wild child Axl Rose was infamous for his rock star antics in the 1980s hard rock scene. But aside from his controversial behavior, he was a very talented songwriter, and his tender side was revealed in the sensitive lyrics of Sweet Child O Mine. He wrote the song for his then-girlfriend, Erin Everly, the daughter of Don Everly of The Everly Brothers. Axl and Erin married in 1990 but divorced not long after. Axl remains a bachelor to this day.
Wild World – Cat Stevens
Most love songs capture the passion and love between two people when romance is at its peak, but English singer and songwriter Cat Stevens’ Wild World isn’t like most love songs. The lyrics are a bittersweet send off to a girlfriend just before they part ways forever – and the song mirrors the reality of Cat’s life. He wrote the tender song for young actress Patti D’Arbanville, wishing her well in the future as their relationship sadly collapsed. It reached #12 on the Billboard chart.
Brown Sugar – The Rolling Stones
Mick Jagger is infamous for his slew of high profile romances. He’s been married only once but has fathered eight children with multiple women and dated famous beauties like Marianne Faithfull, Sophie Dahl, and L’Wren Scott. However, in 1969, one woman, in particular, caught the playboy’s attention and caused him to go on the straight and narrow (for two years.) African-American model and actress Marsha Hunt met Jagger in London, and he fell for her instantly, penning Brown Sugar in her honor.
Photograph – Def Leppard
British glam rockers Def Leppard owned the charts during the 1980s, with smash hits like Love Bites and Pour Some Sugar On Me. But they also had a deeply sensitive side, which showed in their popular Photograph. The song is about singer Joe Elliott’s obsession with the late American movie star Marilyn Monroe. Though he never met her in person, he was infatuated with her and describes the melancholy feeling of forever wishing for something that you can never have.
Candle In The Wind – Elton John
The world was devastated by the death of British royal and philanthropist Princess Diana of Wales. As the world struggled to say goodbye to England’s rose, rocker Elton John penned an epic song in her honor. Candle In The Wind is a classic tribute song that is certainly fit for the late princess. Elton even played it at her state funeral, and the song became so popular that it has been declared the #2 highest selling single of all time.
Jersey Girl – Tom Waits
Though the stereotypical Jersey Girl has a bit of a bad reputation, Tom Waits’ ode to his girlfriend who lives in the Garden State proves that this reputation is unfounded. Tom wrote the song for his future wife Kathleen Brennan, who was living in New Jersey while he was based in New York. Years after Waits’ version was released, Bruce Springsteen’s cover version of the song was a huge hit – so much so that many people think it’s Bruce’s original song.
Carey – Joni Mitchell
Everyone loves a nice holiday romance – fun in the sun, and a fling is many people’s idea of a perfect vacation. But sometimes those love feelings can linger on, even after the vacation has ended. Joni Mitchell summered on the island of Crete, where she met and fell in love with an American expat on the island, Cary Raditz. She penned Carey as a tribute to him and their time together. It’s not clear why she spelled his name wrong.
Woman – John Lennon
Woman was the first song released after John Lennon’s death, and many people were touched by this ode to his wife, Japanese artist Yoko Ono. The track is typical of solo John Lennon, as it’s fairly experimental – the song starts off with John whispering that the song is for “the other half of the sky,” an old Chinese proverb used by Chairman Mao. Officially, the song is not just dedicated to Yoko – it’s meant for all the women in the world as well.
Lady In Red – Chris de Burgh
Whether you’ve heard it countless times at weddings, on the radio, or in the background of commercials, everyone knows Lady in Red by British – Irish crooner Chris de Burgh. The intensely personal song is a recollection of the first time Chris laid eyes upon his future wife, Diane Davison. The classic power ballad reached #3 in America and #1 in Canada, the UK, and Ireland. Chris married Diane, and their beautiful daughter Rosanna Davison was crowned Miss World in 2003.
Our House – Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young
It’s unusual inspiration for a romantic song – the simple act of buying a vase and putting flowers in it. A normal morning which culminated in buying a cheap vase served as the catalyst for the classic folk-rock ballad Our House by Graham Nash. “Our House was born, out of an incredibly ordinary moment that many, many people have experienced,” said Graham, who at the time was living with Joni Mitchell with her two cats in her Laurel Canyon home.
Oh Sherrie – Steve Perry
Steve Perry rose to fame as the lead singer of 70s rock band Journey. However, in 1984 Steve struck out on his own and released Oh Sherrie as a solo artist. The song was an ode to his girlfriend at the time, Sherrie Swafford. “We were crazy in love,” says Steve. “And it was a very tough time because the band was peaking.” The couple’s love didn’t last, and they broke up a few years after the song was released.
Suite: Judy Blue Eyes – Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young
Judy Collins is an accomplished Grammy award-winning singer and songwriter, known as much for her touching folk lyrics as her piercing blue eyes. So it’s no surprise that the song Suite: Judy Blue Eyes was written for her. The lyrics of the song immortalize the love between Judy and the song’s writer, Stephen Stills, of the group Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. But the song doesn’t just describe the pretty parts of their love story – it’s also about their breakup.
Sweet Caroline – Neil Young
You probably didn’t know that a photograph was the inspiration for the classic Neil Young song Sweet Caroline. Neil was so touched by a photo of John F. Kennedy’s daughter Caroline on a horse, featured on the cover of LIFE Magazine, that he ended up penning an ode to the child. “It was such an innocent, wonderful picture,” Neil said, “I immediately felt there was a song in there.” It reached #4 on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart in 1969.
Walk Away Renee – The Left Banke
Continuing on this list’s theme of musicians trying to woo their friends’ girlfriends, Walk Away Renee was written with the intent of stealing a beautiful girl from another man. The Left Banke’s singer Michael Brown had a crush on the bassist’s girlfriend, a leggy blonde free spirit named Renee Fladen-Kamm. He penned the song as a tribute to her. Though Michael said his “hands were shaking,” he managed to sing and record it while she watched and the song reached #4.
Peggy Sue – Buddy Holly & His Crickets
When wooing a pretty lady, it’s always good to have a little help from your friends. And that’s exactly what rockabilly artist Buddy Holly did for his bandmate and buddy Jerry Allison after his girlfriend left him. Desperate to win her back, Jerry enlisted Buddy’s help in writing a song for her, and the result was the legendary Peggy Sue. The song was a smash hit from the start, and the plan worked – Jerry and Peggy Sue ended up getting married.
Crazy Love – Van Morrison
Crazy Love by Van Morrison is considered as one of the most romantic ballads of the 1960s, and it definitely deserves that title. It was clear from the beginning who the song was dedicated to – his then-wife, “brown-eyed girl” Janet “Planet” Rigsbee, who appeared in an intimate photograph with Van on the cover of the record. While their marriage, unfortunately, didn’t last, the song and record cover immortalizes their young love in its purest form forever.
It Ain’t Me Babe – Bob Dylan
Many people don’t know that the Bob Dylan romantic ballad It Ain’t Me, Babe came as a result of an international trip to chase the object of his affection, Suze Rotolo. Suze went to Italy for six months to study art in 1962, and Bob couldn’t stand to be apart from her. He wrote the song while visiting her. Country crooner Johnny Cash, who was a fan of Bob’s work, recorded a duet cover version of the song with his wife June.
I Will Always Love You – Dolly Parton
You probably know this song from Whitney Houston’s unforgettable cover of it, but I Will Always Love You was actually written and originally sung by legendary country diva Dolly Parton. It was written as a tribute to her partner and mentor Porter Wagoner, as she had decided to professionally separate from him after seven years of closely working with him. Though many people would interpret the lyrics as romantic, Dolly said the intensely personal track was only about a professional relationship.
Athena – The Who
Sometimes we are inexplicably drawn to a stranger, and decide that they were our soulmate. This happened to Pete Townshend, the lead singer of The Who, after he met actress Theresa Russel at a showing of Pink Floyd’s The Wall. She wasn’t interested in him, and “I decided I was in love,” Pete said. “When I came to do the vocal on the following day, I was really out of my mind with frustration and grief because she didn’t reciprocate.”
Suzanne – Leonard Cohen
Unrequited love can sometimes be the sweetest, and Leonard Cohen’s smash hit Suzanne is a perfect example of this phenomenon. The song is a tribute to his friend, Suzanne, who he always imagined having a romantic relationship with, but never did. Suzanne was dating a sculptor who was a good friend of his, and they simply drank tea in her apartment and walked around Montreal together, while keeping it strictly platonic. First published as a poem, the song reached #9.
Donna – Richie Valens
Best known for his cover of Mexican folk song “La Bamba” and his tragic death at the young age of 17 in a plane crash, Richie Valens is a rockabilly legend. But his highest charting hit song, Donna, was an ode to his high school sweetheart Donna Ludwig. The two had a Romeo and Juliet romance, as Donna’s parents didn’t approve of her dating Richie (because of his Mexican heritage.) Richie’s love for her lives on forever in the song.
50 Ways To Leave Your Lover – Paul Simon
This is Paul Simon’s second appearance on this list. His classic song 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover is a comical, satirical experiment. It describes a mistress’s advice to a husband on how to end his marriage. The song was definitely based on reality – it was written after Paul divorced his first wife Peggy Harper, and began a relationship with actress Carrie Fisher. His tumultuous relationship with Carried ended up in a short-lived marriage and subsequent divorce. The song was Paul’s biggest solo hit.
867-5309/Jenny – Tommy Tutone
Everyone knows the world’s most famous phone number from the hit song 867-5309/Jenny. A song by the 80s one hit wonder band Tommy Tutone, it was their only popular singer. When asked about Jenny’s identity, singer Jim Keller revealed, “Jenny is a regular girl…I called her on a dare, and we dated for a while. I haven’t talked with her since the song became a hit, but I hear she thinks I’m a real jerk for writing it.”
And I Love Her – The Beatles
This is legendary Paul McCartney’s second appearance on this list. Paul apparently loved to write beautiful songs in tribute to the women he loved, and And I Love Her is definitely no exception. Paul’s muse for this ballad was his fiancee at the time, English actress Jane Asher. Paul began his relationship with Jane when she was just 17 years old, and they were engaged after several years of dating. Jane caught Paul cheating on her and ended things before the wedding.
Always – Irving Berlin
There were many things which kept Ellin McKay’s parents from accepting her relationship with accomplished composer Irving Berlin. First of all, Irving was 16 years older than Ellin. Second, Irving was a Russian immigrant from a Jewish background, and Ellin’s family were strict Catholics. But in the end of the day, love won, and Ellin and Irving were married. Irving wrote Always as a wedding gift to his wife. He correctly predicted the song would be a smash, and gave her half the royalties.
Go Your Own Way – Fleetwood Mac
Breakups and heartache are always a good inspiration for songs, but it’s really awkward when you write a ballad pouring your heart out and then make your ex girlfriend sing it, while standing just a few steps away from her! This was the situation behind the classic Fleetwood Mac song, as the writer of “Go Your Own Way” Lindsey Buckingham penned the ballad and his ex girlfriend, the band’s main singer Stevie Nicks, was forced to sing the sensitive lyrics!
Man On The Moon – R.E.M.
Andy Kaufman was a performance artist/comedian who came to prominence in the 1970s due to his unusual brand of oddball humor, which involved purposely bad impersonations of celebrities, a pre-Borat heavy accent in his character Foreign Man, and a few poorly received appearances on Saturday Night Live. Hardly a heartthrob, he may seem at first glance to be the subject of a sensitive tribute song, but the band REM immortalized him in their 1992 song “Man On The Moon.”
Rosanna – Toto
This marks Rosanna Arquette’s second appearance on this list, as we previously mentioned that Peter Gabriel immortalized his love for her in the hit song “In Your Eyes.” Toto’s keyboard player, Steve Pocaro, was dating the beautiful actress, and his bandmate David Paich was equally smitten with her. He found himself penning this sensitive track as a tribute to her, and it ended up being a surprise smash hit. The song earned Toto a #2 spot on the charts.
MacArthur Park – Richard Harris
It’s one of the hardest parts about breaking up – passing by the spots where you spent so much time with your loved one, and having all the happy memories come flooding back. Many people were touched by Richard Harris’ singing of the emotional ballad “MacArthur Park,” but most people don’t know the song was written for a woman named Susan Horton. She broke songwriter Jimmy Webb’s heart and he wrote the song about the park where they used to meet.
Rocket Queen – Guns N Roses
Guns N Roses were infamous for their 1980s rock star antics, and their lead singer Axl Rose’s various arrests and on stage shenanigans. So it may come as a surprise that the singer also had a sensitive side and wrote “Rocket Queen” as a heartfelt tribute and appreciation to a girl he knew before he was famous, named Barbie Von Grief. According to Axl, “She kinda kept me alive for a while” while the fiery redhead battled various substance addictions.
Time After Time – Cyndi Lauper
While it may be a classic 80s hit that many listeners remember more from middle school dances, and later, the film Napoleon Dynamite, “Time After Time” by Cyndi Lauper has meaningful lyrics that refer to one very specific man. She wrote the sensitive song as a tribute to the man who was her manager in the beginning of her career and later became her boyfriend, named David Wolff. He also made an appearance in the music video for the song.
Happy Birthday – Stevie Wonder
You might be surprised to hear it, but Stevie Wonder’s song “Happy Birthday” had a markedly political point to it! Rather than just a nice tune that has now become a staple at birthday parties all around the world, if you listen to the lyrics closely, you can understand what Stevie was trying to achieve by writing the song. He actually wrote it with the intention of getting civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday immortalized as a national holiday!
Tears In Heaven – Eric Clapton
It’s every parent’s worst nightmare – losing their child. Unfortunately, this happened to rock star Eric Clapton in 1991, when his four year old son fell out of a window on the 53rd floor of the New York City high rise where the family lived. Because Eric was a musician, he used the song as a way to express his grief over the tragic incident. He’s also publicly spoken out about childproofing windows and staircases, channeling his loss into something good.
Isn’t She Lovely – Stevie Wonder
“Isn’t She Lovely” by Stevie Wonder is a sensitive yet upbeat song that he wrote specifically for the birth of his daughter, Aisha Morris. However, although the song contains many lyrics specifically referring to her, the song is so beloved that he ended up dedicating it to other people as well. He performed the song with modified lyrics at Oprah Winfrey’s surprise birthday party, and changed up the lyrics yet another time when performing for Queen Elizabeth II of England!
Hurricane – Bob Dylan
The classic 1960s folk singer is well known for capturing the spirit of the times, through his searing lyrics which contained deep political and social commentary. So it’s no surprise that the Bob Dylan classic “Hurricane” had a clear message about justice in America. Bob penned the ballad for middleweight boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter. Basically, Bob felt that Hurricane was wrongly arrested and imprisoned because of racism, so he wrote the song with Jacques Levy to raise the public’s awareness.
You Oughta Know – Alanis Morisette
While Alanis has kept mum about the inspiration for her breakthrough track and surprise smash hit, the alleged source of the song has been pretty loose lipped about it! It may surprise you to learn that Dave Coulier, best known as goofy Joey on Full House, inspired this passionate break up anthem. He has repeatedly said in interviews that he recognizes specific references in the song lyrics as being undeniably directed at him. Alanis has never commented on his statements.
American Pie – Don McLean
It’s been commonly referred to as “The Day The Music Died” – February 3, 1959, when legendary early era rock and rollers Richie Valens, Buddy Holly, and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson were all tragically killed in a plane crash, along with their pilot, in Clear Lake, Iowa. But what many people don’t know is that the name for this horrible day came from Don McLean’s tribute song “American Pie,” which he wrote in tribute to the rockers who died too young.
The Ballad Of Jayne – L.A. Guns
L.A. Guns were a fast living, hard rocking band that came to prominence during the peak of the Sunset Strip 1980s metal era. They were mostly known for their rivalry with the more popular band Guns N Roses, so it makes sense that lead singer would sympathize with the underdog of another classic rivalry. During the 1950s blonde bombshells Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield competed for roles and publicity, and Tracii Guns picked his side by writing “The Ballad of Jayne.”
Sweetest Thing – U2
Irish rockers U2 are known for their epically successful music career, which has spanned over four decades and shows no signs of slowing down. Their best known album is the 1980s classic “The Joshua Tree” which is widely considered one of the most important albums of the 20th century. But what you probably didn’t know is that “Sweetest Thing” on that album was written as an apology to singer Bono’s wife, as he missed her birthday while working on the album!
Hey There Delilah – Plain White T’s
Delilah DiCrescenzo is an accomplished long distance and marathon runner who happened to meet a guy who was in a band. In an attempt to woo her after she turned him down several times, he told her that he’d written a song for her. The song, “Hey There Delilah” ended up hitting #1. However, the success of the song wasn’t enough to make her interested in pursuing a romantic relationship with him. She did accompany Tom to the Grammys, though.
She’s Always A Woman – Billy Joel
This is Billy Joel’s second appearance on this list, and a very unusual love song. She’s Always a Woman is a tribute to his then-wife, Elizabeth Weber Small. But rather than praising her beauty or figure, he sings about how much he admires her tough negotiating skills and never-back-down attitude. After signing some bad contracts early in his career, Billy’s wife ended up cleaning up the mess and sorting things out for him. He expressed his gratitude in this song.
The Girl From Ipanema – Antônio Carlos Jobim & Vinícius de Moraes
It’s one of the most recorded songs of all time, and Frank Sinatra’s English version made it famous. Everyone knows the tune of The Girl from Ipanema, but many people don’t know that she was a real person! The song was inspired by a teenage Helô Pinheiro , who grew up to be a well known super model and media figure in Brazil. In 2001, the song’s copyright holders sued Helô for naming her boutique after the song, but she won the case.
Philadelphia Freedom – Elton John
Most of the songs on this list are tributes to romantic partners, but Elton John’s Philadelphia Freedom was inspired by his close friend, legendary tennis player Billie Jean King. The song’s title is a reference to the tennis team on which Billie Jean played. Elton and Billie Jean met in 1973 and the two’s friendship is still going strong decades later, with the pair doing extensive charity work. Billie has said, “We’re going to make this world a better place.”
Oh! Carol – Neil Sedaka
Oh! Carol by classic crooner Neil Sedaka was an international hit, but many people don’t know that the song was directed to an equally famous singer – Carole King! They dated briefly while they were both in high school in New York City, and parted ways amicably. After the song became a smash hit, Carole’s husband wrote a playful response for her to sing called Oh! Neil. Unfortunately, Carole’s version failed to reach the charts, but Neil’s song remains a classic.
True Blue – Madonna
They were a power couple – she was the original pop shock queen, and he was a bad boy, surfer A-List actor. Madonna and Sean Penn’s marriage, unfortunately, didn’t last, but the song she penned in tribute to him, True Blue, has stood the test of time. In an interview several decades later, Madonna was quick to dismiss the song as a mistake – “It’s a song about true love,” she said. “I didn’t know what I was talking about when I wrote it.”