Music can be influenced by anything, from personal relationships and life-changing experiences to fictional characters. Some of the most famous songs were inspired by real women, leading to iconic love songs, pop anthems, and emotional tributes. Knowing the real women behind the songs adds another level of connection to the music, even if the listener has heard it many times before.
“Alison” by Elvis Costello
The song “Alison” is from Costello’s debut album “My Aim is True.” Although it didn’t achieve much success in the US, Linda Ronstadt’s cover of the song did well. Costello donated the proceeds from the cover to the African National Congress, as Ronstadt defied the apartheid boycott and performed in South Africa. Costello remained vague about the meaning of the song over the years, but in his 2015 autobiography he revealed that the song was about disappointing a beautiful checkout girl he was in love with. The name Alison became more popular in the decade after the song’s release. Costello later wrote “Veronica” with Paul McCartney, which is about Costello’s grandmother who had Alzheimer’s but still remained happy and defiant.
“Jolene” by Dolly Parton
Dolly Parton’s song “Jolene” is a haunting tune that pleads with a woman not to take away her man. Parton has stated that the song was inspired by a bank clerk who flirted with her husband, but the name of the song came from a young fan who visited her backstage. The power of the song, the repetition of the lyrics, and the universal feeling of insecurity it evokes has contributed to its longevity as a classic. If someone can steal away Dolly Parton’s partner, it could happen to anyone.
“My Sharona” by The Knack
“My Sharona” is a hit song by the band The Knack that topped the charts in 1979. It gained more popularity after being featured in the film “Reality Bites.” The song is notable for its guitar solo, but the subject matter is controversial, as it was written about the lead singer’s girlfriend who was only 17 at the time.
“Layla” by Derek and the Dominos
The original version of “Layla” performed by Derek and the Dominos is considered better than the Eric Clapton “Unplugged” version due to its exceptional slide guitar solo by Duane Allman and its memorable piano coda, which was featured in the film “Goodfellas.” Clapton wrote the song inspired by a Persian love poem from the 12th century, “The Story of Layla and Majnun,” and also due to his unreciprocated love for Patti Boyd, who was George Harrison’s wife at the time. Ultimately, Boyd ended up leaving Harrison for Clapton, showing the song’s immense power to influence and make an impact on a woman’s life.
“Ruby Tuesday” by the Rolling Stones
Keith Richards wrote the hit song “Ruby Tuesday” about his former girlfriend Linda Keith, who left him for Jimi Hendrix. The song features a beautiful piano introduction and is one of the few rock songs with a memorable recorder part. The song also inspired the name of a popular fast casual restaurant chain of the same name, but it has no connection to the Rolling Stones or Jimi Hendrix.
“Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” by The Beatles
“Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” is considered the best Beatles song named after a woman, beating out other songs such as “Eleanor Rigby,” “Michelle,” and “Sexy Sadie.” Despite the LSD reference in the title and psychedelic lyrics, the band has always denied that the song was meant to be a reference to the drug. Instead, the song was inspired by a drawing made by Julian Lennon of a classmate named Lucy. The song has a futuristic and “Alice in Wonderland” feel and is considered one of the defining songs of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” There are also cover versions of the song, including a well-received version by Elton John and a less successful one by William Shatner.
“Roxanne” by The Police
“Roxanne” is a song composed by Sting and was named after a character from the play “Cyrano de Bergerac.” It was created based on Sting’s attraction towards a prostitute. This was the first big hit for the band, The Police, and Sting continues to perform it in his concerts. The song is characterized by its distinctive guitar parts, tango rhythm, and an amusing incident at the start of the recording where Sting sat on a keyboard and was credited for playing “butt piano.”
“The Wind Cries Mary” by Jimi Hendrix
Jimi Hendrix wrote “The Wind Cries Mary” as a result of a disagreement with his girlfriend, Kathy Mary Etchingham, about mashed potatoes. The song was recorded quickly after recording another song, “Fire,” also about Etchingham. The song expresses feelings of heartbreak and solitude and features poetic language and Hendrix’s exceptional guitar skills. Eventually, Etchingham returned and appreciated the song, possibly leading to improved mashed potatoes.
“Darling Nikki” by Prince
“Darling Nikki” is a song recorded by Prince and included on his sixth studio album, “Purple Rain.” The song is known for its sexually explicit lyrics and has been described as a funk and rock song. The lyrics tell the story of Prince encountering a woman named Nikki who is sexually adventurous and open-minded. The song caused controversy when it was included in Tipper Gore’s book “Raising PG Kids in an X-Rated Society,” leading to the creation of the Parental Advisory Label on music. Despite this, “Darling Nikki” remains one of Prince’s most popular and well-known songs.
“Barbara Ann” by The Beach Boys
The song “Barbara Ann” is performed by the Beach Boys, with lead vocals shared by Brian Wilson and Dean Torrence of Jan & Dean. It was originally performed by The Regents, but the Beach Boys version was the big hit. The song is straightforward, it’s about a girl named Barbara Ann, there’s a dance, they decide to take a chance and it leads to a lot of fun. Although the song is simple, the Beach Boys initially didn’t want to release it as a single, but their record label, Capitol Records, decided to release it anyway. There is also an entertaining cover version by The Who, featuring Keith Moon’s enthusiastic vocals and Pete Townshend on guitar.
“Mary Jane’s Last Dance” by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
“Mary Jane’s Last Dance” by Tom Petty earned him a Video Music Award in 1994 for its music video featuring him playing a creepy mortician. The song was originally called “Indiana Girl” but was later renamed as “Mary Jane’s Last Dance.” Its lyrics may refer to a breakup that Petty was going through, as he was ending his marriage with his wife Jane. However, the title could also allude to the use of marijuana. Petty later stated that Mary Jane is an older version of the girl from his song “American Girl.”
“Rosanna” by Toto
Toto member David Paich stated in an interview that the song “Rosanna” was inspired by a teenage sweetheart of his, but her name wasn’t actually Rosanna. The name was derived from actress Rosanna Arquette who was dating Toto’s keyboardist, Steve Porcaro, during the recording of the song. Paich said that Porcaro wanted to title a song after her name and it fit perfectly for “Rosanna”. However, the song is not about Arquette, but about another high school sweetheart, which is often how songs are created. Arquette has claimed that she inspired the song, but Toto members have stated that they just used her name for the title and she didn’t inspire the song itself.
“Uptown Girl” by Billy Joel
The song “Uptown Girl” by Billy Joel is a popular pop rock tune that tells the story of a working-class guy who falls in love with an upper-class girl. The catchy melody and relatable lyrics have made it one of Joel’s classics. Many people believe the song is about model Christie Brinkley, who appeared in the music video as the titular “Uptown Girl”. However, Joel revealed that the song was inspired by a different model, Elle Macpherson, whom he dated briefly before Brinkley. He wrote the song when he was with Macpherson and it was originally called “Uptown Girls”. But when he started dating Brinkley, he rewrote the song to focus on her and changed the title to “Uptown Girl”.
“Sweet Caroline” by Neil Diamond
Neil Diamond stated that he wrote “Sweet Caroline” after he saw a picture of Caroline Kennedy on the cover of a magazine while she was riding a horse. He performed the song for her on her 50th birthday in 2007. However, he later changed his story and said that it was actually about his second wife, Marcia, but he changed her name to “Caroline” because it had a better rhythm. The song gained popularity again in 2002 when it was played during the 8th inning of every home game of the Boston Red Sox, despite there being no relation to the team or the city of Boston. Neil Diamond is originally from Brooklyn.
“Maybe I’m Amazed” by Paul McCartney
Paul McCartney started his solo career after the breakup of the Beatles in 1970 and released his first solo album “McCartney” that same year. One of the most notable songs on the album is “Maybe I’m Amazed,” which was written by McCartney as a tribute to his wife Linda McCartney. The song expresses his love and gratitude towards Linda for her support during the post-Beatles period. Linda was not only a source of inspiration for McCartney but also his musical collaborator. The couple worked together in McCartney’s solo work and as members of the band Wings, where Linda played the keyboard and sang. Paul and Linda were married in 1969 and remained together until Linda’s death from breast cancer in 1998. The song “Maybe I’m Amazed” reminds us of their deep love and respect for each other.
“I Walk the Line” by Johnny Cash
Johnny Cash is a renowned singer known for his unique voice that has captivated audiences in various genres such as country and rock. He is famous for his tough music, including his live album recorded at Folsom State Prison. However, Johnny also had a soft side, which is reflected in one of his most famous songs, “I Walk the Line”. According to NPR, this song was written for his first wife, Vivian Liberto, to remind him to stay on the right path and not fall into temptations while on tour. However, despite the song, Cash did experience addiction issues on the road, which caused trouble in his relationship with Liberto. They eventually divorced and Cash later married June Carter. Though he is often remembered for his relationship with Carter, it was his love for Liberto that inspired this hit song.
“Candle in the Wind” by Elton John
Elton John has given us some of the most memorable pop-rock songs, including “Bennie and the Jets” and “Tiny Dancer”. However, he and his songwriting partner Bernie Taupin have also created emotional tunes. One such example is “Candle in the Wind” which was written in 1973 to pay tribute to Marilyn Monroe. 24 years later, the song was reworked in memory of Princess Diana after her death in a car crash in 1997. The lyrics were modified by Taupin to reflect the Princess’s life and impact. John, who was a close friend of Diana, performed the song at her funeral. Despite John’s declaration that he would not perform “Candle in the Wind 1997” again, the song became a huge success, reaching number 1 on the Hot 100 chart and staying there for several weeks.
“Sweet Child O’ Mine” by Guns N’ Roses
“Sweet Child O’ Mine” by Guns N’ Roses is a rare exception to the typical depiction of love in hard rock music. The song, which starts with a well-known guitar line from Slash, is a loving tribute to someone special, with lyrics that express a safe, innocent and powerful love. This song became one of Guns N’ Roses’ most famous and was highly appreciated by listeners, reaching the top spot on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1988. The inspiration behind the lyrics was Axl Rose’s girlfriend at the time, Erin Everly, who also appeared in the music video. The couple got married in 1990 but their relationship was tumultuous and they eventually separated in 1991. Everly also sued Rose for abuse in 1994, but the lawsuit was settled outside of court.
“Go Your Own Way” by Fleetwood Mac
Fleetwood Mac caused a stir in the rock music scene in the late 1970s with their album “Rumours” and its popular song “Go Your Own Way.” The song tells the story of a failed love and reached number 10 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in 1977. The song was written by Fleetwood Mac guitarist Lindsey Buckingham after his breakup with fellow bandmate and former girlfriend, Stevie Nicks. Nicks also wrote a song about the breakup, the hit “Dreams.” Both songs serve as a musical expression of the end of their relationship.
“Maggie May” by Rod Stewart
Rod Stewart wrote the song “Maggie May” about an older woman who lost his virginity to him at a young age of 16 at a jazz festival. The actual sexual encounter lasted only a few seconds but the song is nearly six minutes long. The song is unique because it lacks a chorus and the main instrument used is a mandolin, which was so memorable that the mandolin player, Ray Jackson, sued for a songwriting credit. Despite this, Jackson was not credited in the album liner notes, with the notes only stating that the mandolin was played by the mandolin player in Lindisfarne, whose name was forgotten.