The Real People Who Inspired 21 Popular Songs
Every few years, when an up-and-coming musician releases an album after their high-profile breakup is splashed across the front pages of tabloids, people are surprised to re-learn that the inspiration for songs sometimes comes directly from the lives of people who wrote them. This has happened virtually since the beginning of songwriting itself, but contemporary music has become a constantly expanding repository of classics whose origins sprung up from their most painful and profound experiences, the relationships that dominated portions of the artists’ lives, or just chance encounters that lodged in their memories and touched their souls. In some cases, these artists intended to memorialize these important individuals, calling them out by name. But more often, their identities faded into obscurity while the songs about them became a part of the cultural firmament.
Mental Floss already made a list about one of music's most famous muses, Pattie Boyd, whose relationships with George Harrison, Eric Clapton, and then-future Rolling Stones member Ronnie Wood led to no fewer than 10 different songs. But scanning the recent (and not-so-recent) history of popular music, there are many men and women whose exploits, and their impact, became the basis for some stone-cold classics across many different genres. We’ve collected just a few of the biggest hits to reveal the real-life people now immortalized in art.
1. Johnny Cash // "I Walk The Line" (1956)
In the Johnny Cash biopic of the same name, the iconic country-western singer created the track as a defining moment in his musical career, which later became an interlude to woo June Carter. But a more detailed history of the song reveals that it was actually written specifically for and about his first wife, Vivian, in a powerful declaration of fidelity since he’d just married her a few years prior.
2. Astrud Gilberto with Joao Gilberto and Stan Getz // "The Girl From Ipanema" (1964)
Few songs have set off a wave of interest in a previously unknown genre more fervently than this song did for bossa nova, the Brazilian form of jazz that become a worldwide phenomenon. The composers wrote it about 17-year-old Heloisa Eneida Menezes Paes Pinto, the woman described so attractively in the song, who would pass by—and occasionally pop in to buy cigarettes for her mother—at the Veloso cafe where they would work. She later became a model and a swimsuit store owner in São Paolo, but she was best immortalized with this timeless standard.
3. The Beatles // "Something" (1969)
The aforementioned Pattie Boyd was, by all accounts, a powerful inspiration for rock artists of the 1960s and 1970s, beginning with George Harrison, her first husband. Boyd confirmed her influence on the song in an autobiography, recalling a conversation where he admitted as much, but Harrison later denied it, suggesting it reflected his encroaching interest in Indian culture and the Hindu deity Krishna. Nevertheless, it became one of The Beatles’s most beautiful and famous songs.
4. Johnny Cash // "A Boy Named Sue" (1969)
With a title this conspicuous, Johnny Cash’s famous tune had to have been about somebody real, right? Well, it was, but first of all: he didn’t write the song himself. Where The Sidewalk Ends author Shel Silverstein did—about his friend and fellow writer Jean Shepherd (the narrator of A Christmas Story, which is based on his stories), who endured endless teasing as a child because of his feminine-sounding name.
5. The Rolling Stones // "Wild Horses" (1971)
Originally written as a lullaby for Keith Richards’s two-month-old son, Mick Jagger took the song and rewrote it to focus on his then-relationship with fellow performer Marianne Faithfull. This led to two versions of the song, one by Gram Parsons, but it became a staple of their discography and one of the most delicate love songs ever recorded.
6. Carly Simon // "You’re So Vain" (1972)
Although Carly Simon has declined to publicly name all of the individuals who inspired this song that famously calls out a subset of the Hollywood glitterati for their narcissism, she admits that the second verse is actually about Warren Beatty, a famously attractive (and perhaps justifiably self-obsessed) movie star who was one of her former lovers.
7. Roberta Flack // "Killing Me Softly" (1973)
Before Lauryn Hill covered the song as a member of The Fugees, and even before Roberta Flack made it her signature song, “Killing Me Softly” was first co-written and performed by Lori Lieberman in 1971, about songwriter and performer Don McLean. McLean, famous for “American Pie”—his tribute to early rock 'n' roll legends Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper, and Richie Valens, who died in a 1959 plane crash—performed at a club where Lieberman was attending. She was so stricken by his music that she began jotting down lyrics, which were fleshed out by veteran songwriter Norman Gimbel and given music by Charles Fox. Fox and Gimbel later attempted to take credit for the song, minimizing Lieberman’s contributions, but there were too many accounts from all three in print by that point, ensuring that the young singer would remain attached to the mesmerizing tune for good.
8. Dolly Parton // "I Will Always Love You" (1974)
Many people associate this song singularly with Whitney Houston after she recorded one of the barn-burner covers of all time for The Bodyguard soundtrack, but Dolly Parton was actually the author of this song a decade and a half earlier. Parton has since revealed that she wrote this and her signature song “Jolene” in the same night, but this single, which quietly and elegantly says goodbye to a former partner, was inspired by her mentor Porter Wagoner after the two ended a seven-year collaboration.
9. Fleetwood Mac // "Go Your Own Way" (1976)
Few subgenres feature more direct inspiration for their content and lyrics than breakup songs, and few acts have mined that territory for more musical gold than Fleetwood Mac. Not one but two songs on their 1977 album Rumours came from the romantic turmoil of its members, particularly Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks. Though their relationship had soured by the recording of their eleventh album, the duo managed to get through the recording process in the best way they could: by recording all of its parts separately and overdubbing them in the studio.
10. Phil Collins // "In The Air Tonight" (1981)
Many stories have been associated with Phil Collins’s leadoff single from his solo career after working as the drummer for Genesis, including the supposition that it’s about a suicidal friend he rescued. But if the inspiration is slightly less specific, Collins has indicated its bleak tone was inspired by his divorce from his first wife, Andrea Bertorelli, which additionally prompted him to go on hiatus from Genesis and led to his hugely successful solo career.
11. Journey // "Don’t Stop Believin'" (1981)
Karaoke singers and drunk barflies know this iconic Journey song by chapter and verse, but its conception was inspired by failure. Not long after keyboardist Jonathan Cain moved to Los Angeles to pursue his musical dreams, he would call his father for advice and a pep talk. His father would repeatedly tell him, "don’t stop believing, or you’re done." He eventually turned those words of wisdom into the hook for one of the most famous songs ever recorded about perseverance.
12. Billy Joel // "Uptown Girl" (1983)
This doo-wop song from piano man Billy Joel is one of the few examples from our list that’s kinda-sorta about two different people, not just one. Although Joel originally wrote it about supermodel Elle Macpherson, who was his girlfriend at the time, it eventually became about Christie Brinkley, whom he later married.
13. Peter Gabriel // "In Your Eyes" (1986)
Rosanna Arquette was a muse for more than one musical artist, with at least one song directly named after her—Toto’s "Rosanna." But she was living with Peter Gabriel at the time this song was released, and it was later her influence that convinced the singer to license it to Cameron Crowe for the movie Say Anything…, which re-popularized it three years later.
14. Alanis Morissette // "You Oughta Know" (1995)
With the release of her third studio album Jagged Little Pill, Alanis Morissette made a stark transition from the bubblegum pop that established her in Canada to gritty, honest alt-rock, starting with this first single. Like her musical successor Taylor Swift, Morissette isn’t one to kiss and tell—she has never publicly confirmed who the song is about—but comedian and Full House star Dave Coulier has said in interviews that not only do details in the lyrics correspond to circumstances in their relationship, but that she later told him it was about him. (Though he has also denied that the song is about him, so ...)
15. No Doubt // "Don’t Speak" (1996)
No Doubt frontwoman Gwen Stefani has not only inspired some great songs, but written them herself, and this Grammy-nominated mid-tempo ballad may be among the best. Although she and her brother Eric originally wrote it as a love song, Stefani modified the lyrics to reflect her relationship with No Doubt bandmate Tony Kanal after their seven-year relationship came to an end.
16. Amy Winehouse // "Me & Mr. Jones" (2006)
Amy Winehouse frequently spun hay into gold with her personal relationships, most frequently with her one-time husband Blake Fielder-Civil. But she also drew generously from the music and good experiences in her life, as on this tune that came out of a Nas concert she attended in Brixton in 2005. Nas has since confirmed that the song is about him, but the clues are there in the lyrics, even if she never mentions the rapper by name—instead referencing his daughter and the bit of trivia that they all share the same birthday.
17. Pink // "So What" (2008)
No one would mistake this track from Pink’s album Funhouse for a romantic tribute, with lyrics like “I guess I just lost my husband / I don't know where he went." But during a particularly strained moment in their relationship, the performer carved out this song about her husband, motocross racer Carey Hart. They were estranged at the time, but he appeared in the music video for the song. After they later reconciled, Pink—who described the tune as a "vomiting of truths" about their relationship—invited him to appear in the song’s music video, which he reportedly didn’t realize was about him until he showed up and started listening to the lyrics.
18. Taylor Swift // "Dear John" (2010)
Taylor Swift is frequently targeted by critics for turning her tumultuous love life into fodder for the pop charts—as if hundreds of artists before her haven’t done the same. But this track from her 2010 album Speak Now was written about and inspired by John Mayer, who she dated a year prior. Swift never officially confirmed that the song was about him, but Mayer did it for her, as the narrator sings about a troubled relationship with an older man. In 2012, Mayer told Rolling Stone that he was "really humiliated" by the song. "It made me feel terrible, because I didn’t deserve it. I’m pretty good at taking accountability now, and I never did anything to deserve that. It was a really lousy thing for her to do."
19. John Legend // "All Of Me" (2013)
John Legend has always been a balladeer, but this Grammy-winning, piano-driven song ranks among his most memorable, about his then-fiancée (and soon-to-be-wife) Chrissy Teigen. Legend has undoubtedly written more about his wife in the years since, but Teigen told HuffPost which lyric confirmed that this was a big one: “The first line of it is ‘What would I do without your smart mouth,’ so if that's not about me I don't know what is,” she said.
20. Ariana Grande // "Thank U, Next" (2018)
In her short career, Ariana Grande has been associated with several famous exes, and she mentions them all on this song of empowerment and liberation. Delightfully, Grande succinctly characterizes her time with each—rappers Big Sean and the late Mac Miller, soccer player Ricky Alvarez, and comedian Pete Davidson—while encouraging her fans to seek grace in dealing with their romantic pasts, even if the goal is simply to let go and move on to the next one.
21. Blake Shelton // "Turnin' Me On" (2018)
Decades after she penned the iconic breakup song "Don’t Speak," Gwen Stefani became the subject of a tribute by her then-boyfriend (now-fiancée) Blake Shelton. Shelton doesn’t mention Stefani's name, but in true media conglomerate fashion, he name-drops the company with which she has a cosmetics endorsement deal, singing, "She's Revlon red in the blackest night."