February 9, 2016

Famous Songs Inspired by Real People

by Gary Fearon, Creative Director, Southern Writers Magazine

A couple of years ago on the blog, in a post called Songs in the Key of Life, I chronicled some famous songs whose inspiration came from real-life situations in the writers' lives.  In this post, let's look at a few hits that were inspired by real people, some as well-known as the songs themselves.  I suspect you'll know several of these origins already, but some may surprise you.

This one goes back a ways, but 60s songster Jimmy Dean's claim to fame (long before he became a sausage king) was story songs about people, some imaginary, some drawn from life. While "Big Bad John" was fictional folklore, "P.T. 109" celebrated the heroic Navy background of President John F. Kennedy a year after he took office.

Speaking of JFK, his young daughter Caroline would not only make the cover of Life Magazine at four years old, but Neil Diamond would be so taken with the photo of her riding her pony that he'd write "Sweet Caroline" in her honor.

Don McLean was just a paperboy "the day the music died".  He was deeply affected when he saw the headline announcing the deaths of Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper and Richie Valens.  But he kept the music going after all with one of his biggest hits, "American Pie".

While the lyrics sing of "Daniel, my brother", Elton John's "Daniel" was inspired by the story of a wounded Vietnam War veteran who came home to a hero's welcome but wanted only to go back to his normal life.  Meanwhile, his "Candle in the Wind", written in memorial to Marilyn Monroe in 1973, served double duty when he rededicated it in 1997 to Princess Diana, changing the opening line from "Goodbye, Norma Jean" to "Goodbye, England's Rose".

Some songs have more ambiguous origins, as in the case of "Dude Looks Like a Lady" by Aerosmith.  One story goes that Steven Tyler, spotting Mötley Crue's Vince Neil from behind, mistook him for a chick.  Vince himself contends that the song title came when he and Tyler visited a bar where the waiters wore women's clothes. Other rumors abound, but they all seem to have something to do with Vince Neil.

The list goes on, and I invite you to check out my latest video to see and hear a few more famous connections from the Top 40, below or at

Inspiration for a song, a poem or a novel can be found everywhere you look.  It could even be the next person you meet.

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