12 Soulful Facts About Aretha Franklin

American singer Aretha Franklin, circa 1968.
American singer Aretha Franklin, circa 1968.
Express Newspapers/Getty Images

Before she was a global sensation, Aretha Louise Franklin was a young girl with a big voice. She was born in a tiny home in Memphis, Tennessee in 1942 to C.L. and Barbara Franklin. Her parents, a well-known Baptist minister and a talented singer and musician, laid the groundwork for their daughter's roots in the gospel traditions of the church early on. When she was 5, the family moved to Detroit when her father took over as pastor of the New Bethel Baptist Church, and it later became the center of the Civil Rights Movement in Detroit. It was there that Aretha Franklin's talents and views grew.

Though she became known as the Queen of Soul, Franklin's music was genre-bending—it touched on everything from gospel to pop—and her songs topped the R&B charts as well as the pop charts. Here's what you should know about the artist whose career spanned some six decades before her death from a pancreatic neuroendocrine tumor on August 16, 2018, at the age of 76.

  1. Aretha Franklin knew Sam Cooke from childhood and wanted to emulate his career.

In the early 1950s, Franklin met Cooke—who is often referred to as the King of Soul—at her church. "I was sitting there waiting for the program to start after church, and I just happened to look back over my shoulder and I saw this group of people coming down the aisle," she told NPR in 1999. "And, oh, my God, the man that was leading them—Sam and his brother L.C. These guys were really super sharp. They had on beautiful navy blue and brown trench coats. And I had never seen anyone quite as attractive—not a male as attractive as Sam was. And so prior to the program my soul was kind of being stirred in another way."

Much like Franklin, Cooke was the son of a minister and started his career in gospel before transitioning to pop. "All singers aspired to be Sam," Franklin told Rolling Stone in 2014. "Sam was what you call a singer's singer … He didn't do a lot of running around on the stage, and because he knew he didn’t have to. He had a voice, and he didn't have to do anything but stand in one place and wipe you out."

Franklin covered a couple of Cooke's songs, including "A Change Is Gonna Come" in 1967 and "You Send Me" in 1968.

  1. Aretha Franklin's dad grounded her divaness.

Aretha Franklin circa 1968.Express Newspapers/Getty Images

When Franklin was 16, she visited New York City—her first time beyond Detroit's city limits since her family moved there from Memphis when she was 5—and took vocal lessons and a choreography class. "When I went home, I didn't think I was supposed to do housework anymore," she told Canadian TV in 1998. "This is too mundane for me. I'm not supposed to do that. I've been to New York. I'm a star now!"

She explained how she watched her sisters and cousin clean house, but didn't chip in. Her father walked into the room and asked her why she wasn't helping. "I said, 'I'm a star. I'm not supposed to do that. I've been to New York City.' He said, 'Well, listen, star, you better get in the kitchen and introduce yourself to all those dirty dishes.' I have not been a star since. I really needed that. He grounded me and he gave me balance, and from then on I'm not a star, I'm the lady next door."

As a teen, Franklin toured on the gospel circuit, and by 1960 she had a record deal with Columbia. By October of that year, her first label single, "Today I Sing the Blues," was released. It reached No. 10 on the R&B chart, but generally, Columbia didn't know how to market her. Franklin's albums and songs were middling chart hits, and though she was making good money touring, she wasn't a top act. When her contract expired in late 1966, she chose to move to Atlantic Records. There, her career skyrocketed.

  1. Her hit "Respect" was about respecting everyone.

When Franklin recorded Otis Redding's song "Respect" in 1967, she didn't have a specific feminist or civil rights agenda in mind. "My sister and I, we just liked that record [Respect]," Franklin told Vogue in 2016. "And the statement was something that was very important … It's important for people. Not just me or the Civil Rights movement or women—it's important to people. … As people, we deserve respect from one another.” That's also what the song's line "give me my propers" refers to—Franklin told The New York Times that the phrase was street slang for mutual respect.

The anthem was Franklin's first No. 1 hit, and it quickly became her signature song. Not only did the song empower others, but it was a lifelong mantra for Franklin. "I give it and I get it," she said of the importance of respect. "Anyone that I don't get it from does not deserve my time or attention."

  1. Franklin wrote the most famous line of "Respect"—and it wasn't sexual, as many have suggested.

Besides the "R-E-S-P-E-C-T" refrain, the repeated lyric "sock it to me" is the most famous line of the song. Redding didn't write that part, though—Franklin did. In 1999, Franklin told NPR that she and her younger sister decided to include the line while playing around on the piano one day. "It was a cliché of the day," Franklin said. "We didn't just come up with it, it really was cliché. And some of the girls were saying that to the fellows, like, 'Sock it to me in this way' or 'sock it to me in that way.' It was nonsexual, just a cliché line." The two backup singers who sang that refrain were Aretha's sisters, Erma and Carolyn.

  1. Aretha Franklin carried her purse everywhere, even onstage.

At the 2015 Kennedy Center Honors, Franklin performed a show-stopping rendition of "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman" for honoree Carole King (who co-wrote the song in 1967 specifically for Franklin, and then recorded a version of her own for her 1971 solo album, Tapestry). When she walked out on stage, Franklin was wearing a floor-length mink coat and carrying a sparkling clutch, which she laid on top of the piano before sitting down to play—a habit she had had for decades.

In a 2016 profile in The New Yorker, editor David Remnick wrote that Franklin made it a point early in her career to be paid upfront—in cash, sometimes of amounts up to $25,000—before performances, so keeping her handbag on her or within eyeshot was a security measure. "It's the era she grew up in," television host and author Tavis Smiley told Remnick. "She saw so many people, like Ray Charles and B. B. King, get ripped off … and she won’t have it. You are not going to disrespect her."

"She's got her money, she's ready to move, to go wherever she needs to be," Rickey Minor, who was the musical director of the Kennedy Center Honors, told The New York Times. "How many times do you have to leave your purse in the dressing room and have it go missing before you say, 'I worked hard for this money—I'm going to put my purse right here where I can see it'?"

  1. Aretha Franklin believed in equal pay.

In a 2014 interview with Rolling Stone, she commented on gender disparity. "If women are going to do the same job, why not give equal pay? Because that job is harder for a woman than a man sometimes," she said. "We deserve parity, and maybe even a little more. Especially if it's physically taxing, we should get a little more money, if you have enough heart to take it on."

  1. Aretha Franklin used her money to fund social and civil rights activism.

In addition to being a socially conscious artist in public, Franklin she also worked behind the scenes to support the Civil Rights Movement. "When Dr. King was alive, several times she helped us make payroll," Franklin's longtime friend, the Reverend Jesse Jackson, told the Detroit Free Press in 2018. "On one occasion, we took an 11-city tour with her as Aretha Franklin and Harry Belafonte … and they put gas in the vans. She did 11 concerts for free and hosted us at her home and did a fundraiser for my campaign … She has shared her points of view from the stage for challenged people, to register to vote, to stand up for decency."

Another family friend, the Reverend Jim Holley, echoed Jackson. "Whenever there was a tragedy with families, any civil rights family, she was always giving," Holley said. "She used her talent and what God gave her to basically move the race forward. A lot of people do the talking but they don't do the walking. She used her talent and her resources. She was that kind of person, a giving person."

  1. Aretha Franklin offered to bail activist Angela Davis out of jail.

In 1970, communist activist and academic Angela Davis was arrested for allegedly purchasing guns used in a California courthouse shoot out. Franklin rushed to her defense and offered to pay Davis's bail. "Angela Davis must go free," Franklin told Jet. "Black people will be free. I've been locked up [for disturbing the peace in Detroit] and I know you got to disturb the peace when you can't get no peace. Jail is hell to be in. I'm going to see her free if there is any justice in our courts, not because I believe in communism, but because she's a black woman and she wants freedom for black people. I have the money; I got it from black people—they've made me financially able to have it—and I want to use it in ways that will help our people." Davis was eventually released (a local dairy farmer posted her $102,500 bail) and acquitted of all charges.

  1. In The Blues Brothers, Aretha Franklin had wanted to sing "Respect" instead of "Think."

Aretha Franklin appeared in two non-documentary films, and both times she played a singing diner waitress, Mrs. Murphy. Director John Landis wrote the part specifically for Franklin, which she played in 1980's The Blues Brothers. In it, the script called for Franklin, as a sassy diner owner, to sing her song "Think" to her guitarist husband as a way to dissuade him from joining Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi's band.

Franklin had other ideas for her song number, though—she wanted to sing her biggest hit, "Respect," instead of "Think," a song she'd co-written and that had become her seventh Top 10 hit back in 1968. "We had written 'Think' into the script, with the dialogue leading into the song and the song actually furthering the plot of the film, so we didn't want to change it," Landis told The Hollywood Reporter. Franklin obliged but asked to change the piano part of the prerecorded track herself. "She sat down at the piano with the mic and, with her back to us, started playing and singing," Landis said. "Her piano playing actually made a difference. It was more soulful."

But, as usual, the Queen eventually got her way. In the 1998 sequel Blues Brothers 2000, she sang "Respect."

  1. Aretha Franklin didn't like to perform with air conditioning on.

In 1998, for the first annual VH1 Divas Live telecast—which also featured Mariah Carey, Celine Dion, Gloria Estefan, Carole King, and Shania Twain—Franklin refused to rehearse because the conditions were not right. "The reason she didn't rehearse was because she had requested that the air conditioning be turned off to protect her vocal cords," Divas director Michael Simon told The Hollywood Reporter. "I was in the control booth and there was near-hysteria. 'Why wasn't the air conditioning turned off?' Everybody kept asking but nobody had an answer. I'm guessing some house guy at the Beacon Theater whose job it was to turn on and off the air conditioning messed up. So there was no rehearsal for Aretha. And you could sort of tell during the program."

During her 2015 Kennedy Center Honors performance, Franklin famously wore a mink coat but dropped it mid-performance. "I wasn't sure about the air factor onstage, and air can mess with the voice from time to time," she told Vogue. "And I didn't want to have that problem that evening. It's been a long time since I've done Kennedy Center, and I wanted to have a peerless performance. Once I determined that the air was all right while I was singing, I said, 'Let's get out of this coat! I'm feeling it. Let's go!'"

  1. NASA named an asteroid after Aretha Franklin.

Franklin racked up innumerable accolades throughout her life, including 18 Grammy Awards (out of 44 nominations, and a streak of eight Best R&B Solo Vocal Performance awards from 1968-1975). In 1987, she became the first woman to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. She sang at Dr. Martin Luther King's memorial service, and she performed "My Country, 'Tis of Thee" at Barack Obama's 2009 inauguration. In 2005, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her civil rights work, and in April 2019 became the first woman to ever be awarded a Special Citation Pulitzer Prize. But perhaps the honor that best encapsulates her otherworldly talent came in 2014, when NASA named an asteroid after her.

  1. You can finally see her famed concert film, Amazing Grace.

In 1972, at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in L.A.'s Watts neighborhood, Franklin recorded her double live album Amazing Grace, which would become her best-selling record and the best-selling gospel album of all time. Sydney Pollack (who was already an Oscar-nominated director at that point) directed the concert but failed to use clapperboards to sync images with audio; therefore the film couldn't be edited, and Pollack abandoned the project.

In an interview with Vulture, producer Alan Elliott said in 1990 he decided to purchase the footage and assemble it himself. To buy all of the footage, records, do the editing, and pay for insurance and lawyers, Elliott had to mortgage his home several times over the course of nearly 30 years. Franklin sued numerous times to prevent the movie from being screened, including in 2011 when Elliott showed it to friends and family and again just before its planned world premiere at the 2015 Telluride Film Festival.

"It isn't that I'm not happy about the film, because I love the film itself," Franklin told Detroit Free Press in 2015. "It's just that—well, legally I really should just not talk about it, because there are problems."

However, Franklin's Amazing Grace bassist Chuck Rainey told The New York Times that "she didn't like the film at all." According to the Times, "He thought her resistance derived from a feeling that the film wound up being more about style and celebrity than about the music or the worship—or even about Franklin."

Sabrina Owens, Franklin's niece and executor of the will, invited Elliott to Franklin's funeral. He returned a couple of weeks later and screened the film for Franklin's family. Finally, Owens and Elliott worked out a deal so the film could screen in public. In November 2018 the film premiered at DOC NYC, and in April 2019, Neon distributed it in NYC and L.A. theaters.

"It's the craziest story that I know of in show business," Elliott said.

10 Rad Gifts for Hikers

Greg Rosenke/Unsplash
Greg Rosenke/Unsplash

The popularity of bird-watching, camping, and hiking has skyrocketed this year. Whether your gift recipients are weekend warriors or seasoned dirtbags, they'll appreciate these tools and gear for getting most out of their hiking experience.

1. Stanley Nesting Two-Cup Cookset; $14

Amazon

Stanley’s compact and lightweight cookset includes a 20-ounce stainless steel pot with a locking handle, a vented lid, and two insulated 10-ounce tumblers. It’s the perfect size for brewing hot coffee, rehydrating soup, or boiling water while out on the trail with a buddy. And as some hardcore backpackers note in their Amazon reviews, your favorite hiker can take the tumblers out and stuff the pot with a camp stove, matches, and other necessities to make good use of space in their pack.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Osprey Sirrus and Stratos 24-Liter Hiking Packs; $140

Amazon

Osprey’s packs are designed with trail-tested details to maximize comfort and ease of use. The Sirrus pack (pictured) is sized for women, while the Stratos fits men’s proportions. Both include an internal sleeve for a hydration reservoir, exterior mesh and hipbelt pockets, an attachment for carrying trekking poles, and a built-in rain cover.

Buy them: Amazon, Amazon

3. Yeti Rambler 18-Ounce Bottle; $48

Amazon

Nothing beats ice-cold water after a summer hike or a sip of hot tea during a winter walk. The Yeti Rambler can serve up both: Beverages can stay hot or cold for hours thanks to its insulated construction, and its steel body (in a variety of colors) is basically indestructible. It will add weight to your hiker's pack, though—for a lighter-weight, non-insulated option, the tried-and-true Camelbak Chute water bottle is incredibly sturdy and leakproof.

Buy it: Amazon

4. Mappinners Greatest 100 Hikes of the National Parks Scratch-Off Poster; $30

Amazon

The perfect gift for park baggers in your life (or yourself), this 16-inch-by-20-inch poster features epic hikes like Angel’s Landing in Zion National Park and Half Dome in Yosemite National Park. Once the hike is complete, you can scratch off the gold foil to reveal an illustration of the park.

Buy it: Amazon

5. National Geographic Adventure Edition Road Atlas; $19

Amazon

Hikers can use this brand-new, updated road atlas to plan their next adventure. In addition to comprehensive maps of all 50 states, Puerto Rico, Canada, and Mexico, they'll get National Geographic’s top 100 outdoor destinations, useful details about the most popular national parks, and points on the maps noting off-the-beaten-path places to explore.  

Buy it: Amazon

6. Adventure Medical Kits Hiker First-Aid Kit; $25

Amazon

This handy 67-piece kit is stuffed with all the things you hope your hiker will never need in the wilderness. Not only does it contain supplies for pain, cuts and scrapes, burns, and blisters (every hiker’s nemesis!), the items are organized clearly in the bag to make it easy to find tweezers or an alcohol wipe in an emergency.

Buy it: Amazon

7. Hiker Hunger Ultralight Trekking Poles; $70

Amazon

Trekking poles will help increase your hiker's balance and stability and reduce strain on their lower body by distributing it to their arms and shoulders. This pair is made of carbon fiber, a super-strong and lightweight material. From the sweat-absorbing cork handles to the selection of pole tips for different terrain, these poles answer every need on the trail. 

Buy it: Amazon

8. Leatherman Signal Camping Multitool; $120

Amazon

What can’t this multitool do? This gadget contains 19 hiking-friendly tools in a 4.5-inch package, including pliers, screwdrivers, bottle opener, saw, knife, hammer, wire cutter, and even an emergency whistle.

Buy it: Amazon

9. RAVPower Power Bank; $24

Amazon

Don’t let your hiker get caught off the grid with a dead phone. They can charge RAVPower’s compact power bank before they head out on the trail, and then use it to quickly juice up a phone or tablet when the batteries get low. Its 3-inch-by-5-inch profile won’t take up much room in a pack or purse.

Buy it: Amazon

10. Pack of Four Indestructible Field Books; $14

Amazon

Neither rain, nor snow, nor hail will be a match for these waterproof, tearproof 3.5-inch-by-5.5-inch notebooks. Your hiker can stick one in their pocket along with a regular pen or pencil to record details of their hike or brainstorm their next viral Tweet.

Buy it: Amazon

Sign Up Today: Get exclusive deals, product news, reviews, and more with the Mental Floss Smart Shopping newsletter!

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

25 Facts About John Lennon For His 80th Birthday

Before he was one of the world's most iconic musicians, John Lennon—who was born in Liverpool on October 9, 1940—was a choir boy and a Boy Scout. Let's take a look at some facts you might not have known about the leader and founding member of The Beatles.

1. John Lennon grew up near Strawberry Field.

By the time he was 5 years old, John Lennon had been all but abandoned by his parents, so instead went to live with Mimi and George Smith, his aunt and uncle, in Woolton, England. He lived near a local Salvation Army orphanage, and loved to explore its garden, which was known as Strawberry Fields. In Barry Miles’ book Many Years From Now, Paul McCartney recalled how it was "a secret garden. John's memory of it [was] … There was a wall you could bunk over and it was a rather wild garden, it wasn't manicured at all, so it was easy to hide in.”

2. John Lennon was a choir boy and a Boy Scout.

Yes, John Lennon—the great rock 'n' roll rebel and iconoclast—was once a choir boy and a Boy Scout. Lennon began his singing career as a choir boy at St. Peter's Church in Liverpool, England and was a member of the 3rd Allerton Boy Scout troop.

3. John Lennon’s first instrument was the banjo.

Getty Images

The first song John Lennon learned to play as a teenage rock ‘n’ roll fan was Buddy Holly’s “That’ll Be the Day.” But he didn’t master the tune on any instrument you might pose with in front of the mirror. “My mother Julia taught it to me on the banjo, sitting there with endless patience until I managed to work out all the chords,” Lennon once said. The infamous banjo went missing after Julia’s death in 1958 and became the subject of the 2012 novel Julia’s Banjo, which spawned the stage adaptation Lennon’s Banjo.

4. John Lennon hated his own voice.

Incredibly, one of the greatest singers in the history of rock music hated his own voice. Lennon did not like the sound of his voice and loved to double-track his records. He would often ask the band's producer, George Martin, to cover the sound of his voice: "Can't you smother it with tomato ketchup or something?"

5. Songwriting was “torture” to John Lennon.

Lennon wrote some of the most indelible pop songs of the 20th century—and he apparently hated every minute of it. Speaking with Rolling Stone just days before his death, Lennon revealed that songwriting was “absolute torture” for him. “I always think there’s nothing there, it’s sh*t, it’s no good, it’s not coming out, this is garbage ... and even if it does come out, I think, 'What the hell is it anyway?'" he said. The only exceptions, he added, were the “10 or so songs the gods give you and that come out of nowhere.”

6. "Twist and Shout" was not kind to John Lennon's vocal cords.

On February 11, 1963, The Beatles spent one very long day recording 10 songs that would appear on their debut album, Please Please Me. At the end of the 12-hour session, they tackled “Twist and Shout,” a song that required Lennon—who was already hoarse—to shred what remained of his voice.

“The last song nearly killed me,” Lennon said of “Twist and Shout” in 1976. “My voice wasn’t the same for a long time after; every time I swallowed it was like sandpaper. I was always bitterly ashamed of it, because I could sing it better than that; but now it doesn’t bother me. You can hear that I’m just a frantic guy doing his best.”

7. John Lennon was dissatisfied with all of The Beatles' records.

While dining with his former producer, George Martin, one night years after the band had split up, Lennon revealed that he'd like to re-record every Beatles song. Completely amazed, Martin asked him, "Even 'Strawberry Fields'?" "Especially 'Strawberry Fields,'" answered Lennon.

8. John Lennon was the only Beatle who didn't become a full-time vegetarian.

George Harrison was the first Beatle to go vegetarian; according to most sources, he officially became a vegetarian in 1965. Paul McCartney joined the "veggie" ranks a few years later. Ringo became a vegetarian not so much for spiritual reasons, like Paul and George, but because of health problems. Lennon had toyed with vegetarianism in the 1960s, but he always ended up eating meat, one way or another.

9. John Lennon’s signature eyeglasses were far from trendy.

While filming the 1967 black comedy How I Won the War, John Lennon took a liking to the round spectacles that were part of his soldier character’s wardrobe. These weren’t designer glasses, but rather the utilitarian handiwork of the UK's National Health Service. Lennon loved the ugly “granny” frames so much that he made them his signature look for the rest of his life.

10. John Lennon loved to play Monopoly.

During his Beatles days, Lennon was a devout Monopoly player. He had his own Monopoly set and often played in his hotel room or on planes. He liked to stand up when he threw the dice, and he was crazy about the properties Boardwalk and Park Place. He didn't even care if he lost the game, as long as he had Boardwalk and Park Place in his possession.

11. John Lennon was the first Beatle to get married.

Lennon wed Cynthia Powell, whom he’d met in art school, on August 23, 1962. The reason for their union: Cynthia was pregnant, and on April 8, 1963, she gave birth to the couple’s only child, a son named Julian. Beatles manager Brian Epstein worked to keep John’s marriage a secret, but his efforts were futile. When the Fab Four performed on The Ed Sullivan Show on February 9, 1964, a caption reading “Sorry girls, he’s married” appeared on screen when Lennon got his closeup during “’Till There Was You.”

12. John Lennon was the last Beatle to learn how to drive.

John Lennon at a press conference on September 11, 1964.Vern Barchard, Public Domain // Wikimedia Commons

Lennon got his driver's license at the age of 24 (on February 15, 1965). He was regarded as a terrible driver by all who knew him. He finally gave up driving after he totaled his Aston-Martin in 1969 on a trip to Scotland with his wife, Yoko Ono; his son, Julian; and Kyoko, Ono's daughter. Lennon needed 17 stitches after the accident.

When they returned to England, Lennon and Ono mounted the wrecked car on a pillar at their home. From then on, Lennon always used a chauffeur or driver.

13. There’s only one Beatles song featuring just John Lennon and Paul McCartney.

In 1969, while honeymooning in Paris with Yoko Ono, Lennon began writing a song about the controversy surrounding their recent marriage. When he got back to London, Lennon went over to McCartney’s house to finish the composition, which he had already titled “The Ballad of John and Yoko.” Lennon and McCartney then quickly booked a session at Abbey Road and recorded the song as a duo (Starr was filming The Magic Christian with Peter Sellers and Harrison was on vacation).

“John was in an impatient mood so I was happy to help,” McCartney said. “It’s quite a good song; it has always surprised me how with just the two of us on it, it ended up sounding like The Beatles."

14. John Lennon reportedly used to sleep in a coffin.

According to Allan Williams, an early manager for The Beatles, Lennon liked to sleep in an old coffin. Williams had an old, abandoned coffin on the premises of his coffee bar, The Jacaranda. As a gag, Lennon would sometimes nap in it.

15. John Lennon recorded one of pop’s first diss tracks.

Everyone remembers Lennon’s 1971 album Imagine for the utopian title track. But the LP also features “How Do You Sleep,” a rather nasty attack on Paul McCartney. “Those freaks was right when they said you was dead,” Lennon sings in the opening verse, referencing the infamous “Paul Is Dead” myth. Lennon later sings, “The only thing you done was yesterday,” referring to the Paul-penned Beatle favorite “Yesterday.” In fairness, Lennon was responding to a handful of subtler lyrical jabs on McCartney’s 1971 album Ram.

16. The last time John Lennon saw Paul McCartney was on April 24, 1976.

William Lovelace, Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

McCartney was visiting Lennon at his New York apartment. They were watching Saturday Night Live together when producer Lorne Michaels, as a gag, offered the Beatles $3000 to come on the show. Lennon and McCartney almost took a cab to the show as a joke, but decided against it, as they were just too tired. (Too bad! It would have been one of the great moments in television history.)

17. John Lennon was supposed to sing lead on The Beatles' first single, 1962's "Love Me Do."

Lennon sang lead on a great majority of the early Beatles songs, but Paul McCartney took the lead on their very first one. The lead was originally supposed to be Lennon, but because he had to play the harmonica, the lead was given to McCartney instead.

18. John Lennon stole the harmonica heard on “Love Me Do.”

Lennon is known as the bad boy of The Beatles, and true to form, he added a bit of delinquency to the group’s 1962 debut single, “Love Me Do.” The song is notable for John’s use of harmonica, and he reportedly played the signature riff on a mouth organ he swiped from a music shop in Arnhem, The Netherlands, in 1960. In terms of musicianship, Lennon didn’t exactly commit thievery, but he based his harmonica lick on the one heard in Bruce Channel’s “Hey! Baby

19. "All You Need Is Love" was the best lyric John Lennon ever wrote.

A friend once asked Lennon what was the best lyric he ever wrote. "That's easy," replied Lennon, "All you need is love."

20. John Lennon wanted Jesus and Hitler for the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

After British pop artist Peter Blake came up with the cover concept for Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band—the band surrounded by cardboard cutouts of famous figures from throughout history—he asked all four Beatles to make lists of people to include. One of Lennon’s picks was Jesus Christ, even though he’d recently gotten into a heap of trouble for saying The Beatles were “more popular” than the Christian messiah. Blake’s team never actually made up a Jesus cutout, but they did create one for another of John’s controversial selections: Adolf Hitler. The Führer apparently made the final cover, but he’s behind the band, so you can’t see him.

21. John Lennon was the final Beatle to have a #1 solo hit in America.

By the time John Lennon released 1974’s Walls and Bridges, Paul McCartney had topped the Billboard Hot 100 three times. George Harrison and Ringo Starr (yes, Ringo) had each reached the summit twice. Among ex-Beatles, only Lennon had yet to notch a #1 single. That finally changed with “Whatever Gets You Thru the Night,” a jaunty dance number featuring Elton John on piano and backup vocals. It reached #1 on November 16, 1974, giving Lennon his first—and only—U.S. chart-topper.

22. John Lennon had a deep and abiding love of cats.

Though Lennon did have a couple of dogs, he was absolutely crazy for cats. He had many of them over the years, each one holding a very special place in his heart. As a kid, he had a cat named Elvis—named after Elvis Presley—but discovered that Elvis was a female when she gave birth to a litter of kittens. Still, the name stuck. More than a dozen feline friends would follow over the years.

23. John Lennon made his final concert appearance after losing a bet.

After helping Lennon record “Whatever Gets You Thru the Night,” Elton John bet the former Beatle that the single would reach #1 in America. A doubtful Lennon took the wager, agreeing to perform with John at Madison Square Garden if he lost. Sure enough, the song topped the Hot 100 on November 16, 1974, and 12 days later—on Thanksgiving night—Lennon joined John for three songs, including the Beatles classics “Lucy In the Sky with Diamonds” and “I Saw Her Standing There.” It would be Lennon’s final proper concert appearance.

24. John Lennon was into new wave and punk.

John Lennon seen in 1966.Hulton Archive/Getty Images

On December 6, 1980, two days before he was murdered, John Lennon sat for an interview with Andy Peebles of the BBC. During the chat, Lennon professed his admiration for punk provocateurs the Sex Pistols, English ska revivalists Madness, and American new-wave party-starters The B-52’s, among others. Lennon credited his assistant Fred Seaman with hipping him to these new artists, even though he was initially reluctant to listen.

25. The last photographer to snap John Lennon’s picture was Paul Goresh.

Ironically (and sadly), Lennon was signing an album for the person who was to assassinate him a few hours later when he was snapped by amateur photographer Paul Goresh on December 8, 1980.

Lennon obligingly signed a copy of his latest album, Double Fantasy, for Mark David Chapman. Later that same day, Lennon returned from the recording studio and was gunned down by Chapman, the same person for whom he had so kindly signed his autograph.

Morbidly, a photographer sneaked into the morgue and snapped a photo of Lennon's body before it was cremated the day after his assassination. Yoko Ono has never revealed the whereabouts of his ashes or what happened to them.

This post has been updated for 2020.