The True Stories Behind 20 Of The Greatest Songs Ever Recorded

They’re some of the most famous songs ever and have been performed on numerous occasions over the years. But the stories behind them may not be as well-known as their iconic lyrics and catchy melodies. Here, we reveal the real-life inspiration surrounding 20 of the world’s most memorable tracks – and some of them might surprise you.

20. “Save The Last Dance For Me” – The Drifters

“Save The Last Dance For Me” by The Drifters first came out in 1960. And it has since been covered by stars such as Michael Bublé and Dolly Parton. But what some people may not know is that it was written by Mort Shuman and Doc Pomus on the latter’s wedding day.

Pomus suffered from polio and was often confined to a wheelchair. That meant that when he got married, he had to watch his new wife dancing with other guests because he couldn’t get on the dance floor himself. And it was this that inspired the lyrics he penned that day.

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19. “I Am The Walrus” – The Beatles

The 1967 Beatles song “I Am The Walrus” featured in Magical Mystery Tour, the band’s TV movie. And while it may not be one of their biggest hits of all-time, it is certainly a memorable one – particularly because of its puzzling nature. So why does it contain such strange words?

Well, it turns out that it’s because of a letter that Lennon had been sent at the time. The singer got a note from a student telling him that their class was being made to study Beatles’ lyrics. So, in order to perplex the people trying to get to the bottom of the meaning behind his words, he wrote nonsense into this song.

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18. “Smoke on the Water” – Deep Purple

Deep Purple ended up writing this song after disaster struck at a Frank Zappa gig in Montreux, Switzerland. Suddenly, somebody in the audience set off a Roman candle at the show and caused a huge blaze in the process. And while everyone made it out unscathed, the building was entirely destroyed.

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Interestingly, Deep Purple witnessed what was happening from their hotel room close by. And as the firefighters tackled the blaze, they noticed something intriguing: the haze surrounding Lake Geneva. It seems that the image was a powerful one, as it gave the group the idea for their 1972 hit, “Smoke on the Water.”

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17. “Sweet Caroline” – Neil Diamond

It took decades for Neil Diamond to reveal the inspiration behind his 1969 hit, “Sweet Caroline.” But he eventually explained that he came up with the song on tour after seeing a photo of a little girl in a magazine. She was on a pony and the image was so pure that it led to the star penning those memorable lyrics.

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It turned out that little girl was none other than Caroline Kennedy, the daughter of President John F. Kennedy and First Lady Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy. And in 2007 Diamond finally got to tell his inspiration the tale himself. The singer was performing at Kennedy’s 50th birthday party when he shared the story.

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16. “Hey Jude” – The Beatles

The subject of this 1968 song didn’t know it for a long time after its release. But “Hey Jude,” one of the Beatles’ best-loved hits, really began as “Hey Jules.” That’s because Paul McCartney penned the tune for John Lennon’s son, Julian, as a way of boosting his morale.

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At the time, Julian was dealing with his father’s divorce from his mother, Cynthia. But after coming up with the lines, McCartney changed the words to “Hey Jude” simply because he thought it had a better ring to it. Interestingly, Julian only found out that the single was about him years later.

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15. “One” – Harry Nilsson

It seems that creativity can come from all kinds of places. After all, that certainly was the case with Harry Nilsson’s “One.” Popularized by the group Three Dog Night in 1969, the song is known for the lyrics, “One is the loneliest number that you’ll ever do.”

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Nilsson actually wrote it while attempting to make a phone call to someone. When he got the busy signal, he decided to stay on the line and began to write. In fact, it’s possible to tell from listening to the song that the tone comprises the track’s first few notes.

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14. “I Will Always Love You” – Dolly Parton

Many people think of “I Will Always Love You” as a break-up single. The hit was first released by Dolly Parton in 1973 and later famously covered by Whitney Houston. But rather than being about a romantic split, it was actually based on Parton ending her working relationship with country artist Porter Wagoner.

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Parton had appeared on The Porter Wagoner Show for years and regularly performed duets with him. Unsure of how to tell him she was leaving, she created and sang the track as a way of saying goodbye while still showing her gratitude. “When I finished, he said, ‘Well, hell! If you feel that strong about it, just go on… Providing I get to produce that record because that’s the best song you ever wrote,’” the star told The Tennesseean.

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13. “Layla” – Eric Clapton

Eric Clapton received a version of the book The Story of Layla and Majnun, a Persian tale about being in love with someone who does not feel the same way. And it was the centuries-old fable that became the motivation for 1970’s “Layla.” Clapton wrote the song based on his own feelings for someone unavailable.

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Who exactly was it that Clapton was pining for? That would be Pattie Boyd, the wife of George Harrison. Eventually, the singer got what he wanted – Boyd divorced Harrison and married him instead. But while the romantic song may have helped woo her, the relationship didn’t last. Nevertheless, Harrison and Clapton went on to repair their friendship.

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12. “Higher And Higher” – The Moody Blues

The take-off of Apollo 11 was a major moment in American history. And it won’t come as a surprise that it was also a source of inspiration for musicians including The Moody Blues. Indeed, the band penned 1969’s “Higher and Higher” about the spaceflight that led to humanity taking its first steps on the Moon.

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That’s why a rocket launching can be heard at the beginning of the track. Although the band was given a recording by NASA to use, they decided to replace it with their own. Apparently, the song became a hit with astronauts and the those on Apollo 15 even listened to it in space.

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11. “Philadelphia Freedom” – Elton John

Elton John was close friends with tennis ace Billie Jean King and deeply inspired by her work as an activist. So the pop megastar decided that he wanted to write a song for the world’s best female tennis player. However, he couldn’t convince his lyricist, Bernie Taupin, to go ahead with it.

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In fact, Taupin point-blank refused to pen a track about the sport. However, John persisted and the pair eventually managed to come to a compromise. In the end, they put together the 1975 number “Philadelphia Freedom” as a tribute to King, which referred to the name of the star’s team.

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10. “The Winner Takes It All” – ABBA

“The Winner Takes It All” came out in 1980. That same year, ABBA’s Björn Ulvaeus left fellow band-member Agnetha Fältskog for another woman. For this reason, it has been widely rumored that the track is based on their split. And even Fältskog confirmed to You magazine in 2013 that Ulvaeus wrote the song “about us after the breakdown of our marriage.”

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However, Ulvaeus insists that despite being about divorce, it wasn’t necessarily referencing his own. “One thing I can say is that there wasn’t a winner or a loser in our case,” he told The Observer in 2008. “A lot of people think it’s straight out of reality, but it’s not.”

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9. “White Room” – Cream

Cream’s “White Room” came out in 1968 and is known for containing some rather strange lyrics. Among them is the line, “In the white room with black curtains near the station.” And because of the ambiguous words featured on the song, many have pondered the possible meaning behind it.

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However, lyricist Pete Brown insists it is not nearly as deep as most people assume. In fact, he never even expected the song to be a success. “It was a miracle it worked, considering it was me writing a monologue about my new flat,” he confessed, according to Mental Floss.

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8. “You’re So Vain” – Carly Simon

Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain” became a break-up anthem following its release in 1972. And it also sparked a major mystery as to who the song, which centers on a self-absorbed ex, was really about. In fact, people were so desperate to get to the bottom of the secret that in 2003 Simon even auctioned off the answer for $50,000.

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Finally, in 2015, Simon admitted that the offender was, in fact, Warren Beatty. “There is a verse in ‘You’re So Vain’ that is clearly, distinctly about Warren Beatty, even though there are not that many particulars in the verse to show that it’s him, or to prove that it’s him. But the second verse is about him,” she told USA Today. “I think he knows, because he’s reflected upon the idea in various interviews that he’s done.”

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7. “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet” – Bachman-Turner Overdrive

Randy Bachman initially recorded a spoof version of 1974’s “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet” in which he deliberately stuttered his words. The surprising reason behind it was to make fun of his brother, who had a stammer. “For the ultimate tease I wrote a song like he spoke,” he told LouderSound in 2016.

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“Then I called [my brother] and scared him by telling him it would be on the album,” Bachman continued. “I liked it as an idea but I was never going to finish it off.” Although the guitarist insisted he wasn’t really going to go through with it, he was told to release the song because it would be a hit – and it was.

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6. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” – Nirvana

Released in 1991, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is one of the hits that Nirvana was best-known for. But even its writer, Kurt Cobain, didn’t exactly know what it was about. That’s because Cobain put pen to paper after noticing that someone had scribbled on the wall: “Kurt smells like teen spirit.”

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Cobain believed that the line was profound – and he didn’t realize until afterwards what it referred to. At the time, the frontman was dating Tobi Vail, who used Teen Spirit deodorant. When Cobain hung out with her, the smell would linger on him and one of his friends was making fun of him for it.

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5. “Chelsea Hotel No. 2” – Leonard Cohen

A couple of years before Janis Joplin’s death of a drug overdose in 1970, Leonard Cohen ran into the singer at the Chelsea Hotel in New York. The two musicians then had a short affair. “[Joplin] wasn’t looking for me, she was looking for Kris Kristofferson; I wasn’t looking for her, I was looking for Brigitte Bardot,” he said during a stage performance. “But we fell into each other’s arms through some process of elimination.”

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While the fling may have been brief, it served as the inspiration for Cohen’s 1974 song, “Chelsea Hotel No. 2.” He wrote the track after Joplin’s death and later confessed that it was about her. Although he insisted the singer “would not have minded,” he would go on to admit that he regretted revealing her identity.

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4. “What’s The Frequency Kenneth” – R.E.M.

Journalist Dan Rather was randomly and viciously attacked by two men in 1986. Bizarrely, during the beating, one of the perpetrators yelled, “Kenneth, what is the frequency?” The attackers got away but Michael Stipe of R.E.M. became fascinated by the story, calling it “the premier unsolved American surrealist act of the 20th century.”

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In fact, Stipe was so intrigued by what happened that he wrote 1994’s “What’s The Frequency Kenneth” about the incident. Over 10 years later, it emerged that William Tager, who by that point was incarcerated for murder, was the culprit. And it’s believed that Rather had been mistaken for politician Kenneth Burroughs.

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3. “Sweet Child O’ Mine” – Guns N’ Roses

It’s perhaps the most famous of all Guns N’ Roses songs. But “Sweet Child O’ Mine”, which was released in 1987, came about by a virtual accident. The lyrics were based on a poem that Axl Rose had written for his then-girlfriend and future wife, Erin Everly. And the melody to the track was created after Slash began messing around with his guitar and picking out a circus tune.

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Much to Slash’s chagrin, Axl Rose asked him to carry on playing and eventually the song was created. But the guitarist was never a fan of the popular single. Indeed, he told Musician magazine in 1990, “[The song] turned into a huge hit and now it makes me sick. I mean, I like it, but I hate what it represents.”

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2. “I Shot the Sheriff” – Bob Marley

According to Bob Marley’s former girlfriend Esther Anderson, his 1975 song “I Shot The Sheriff” was not a comment on immorality as is sometimes assumed. In reality, the track is about the arguments that they used to have over birth control. And it wasn’t until 2011 that Anderson revealed this.

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Anderson explained that Marley was against her taking the contraceptive pill. So the “sheriff” that is referred to in the lyrics is actually the doctor who gave the pill to her. This is no more evident than with the lines, “Every time I plant a seed, he said kill it before it grow.”

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1. “Poker Face” – Lady Gaga

Lady Gaga’s catchy song “Poker Face” helped launch her to stardom in 2008. And a few years later, in 2014, she revealed what it was actually about. The pop star told the audience at a private performance in London that it described her hiding her bisexuality from her then-boyfriend.

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Gaga decided to put the track together to express the feelings that she was having for other women. “I just didn’t want him to figure it out because I felt so bad,” the star said, before adding that she no longer has any guilt over her secret. “But I don’t anymore because I wrote a song about it.”

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