The Surprising Backstories of 7 Iconic Songs

When it comes to writing and music, inspiration can be found anywhere. Some of the greatest songs in history were written about an unexpectedly deep subject matter. Others, on the other hand, were completely spontaneous. Of course, once the song is out in the world, it takes a life of its own and gains an individual meaning for each listener. But sometimes the original backstory is too fascinating to forget. The following 7 timeless hits, for example, have such surprising and memorable backstories we just had to share them with you. 


1. Michael Jackson - Billie Jean (1988)

The story behind this beloved hit by Michael Jackson is actually pretty terrifying and allegedly derived from a real-life experience the singer had in 1981. According to Jackson’s biographer J. Randy Taraborrelli, he started receiving letters from a woman who claimed he was the father of her child. The author of the letters was relentless, constantly proclaiming her love for Jackson and trying to convince him to start a new life with her. The letters were so disturbing for the singer, that he suffered nightmares because of them.

One day, Jackson received a package from the woman which contained a letter, a photo, and a gun. In the letter, she wrote that she wanted him to take his own life and that she would kill herself and her baby so that they could be together in the next life. Of course, Jackson was absolutely horrified and had a hard time dealing with this unwanted attention. Writing ‘Billie Jean’ was his way of expressing his feelings about the whole incident.

2. The Beatles - Let It Be (1970)

This unforgettable Beatles classic was inspired by a dream Paul McCartney had about his mother. McCartney was struggling with personal issues at the time and delved deeper into abusing drugs and alcohol. He recalls waking up one morning and realizing he had dreamed of his mother Mary (which gives a double meaning to the lyric ‘Mother Mary comes to me’), whom he lost to cancer when he was only 14. 

"My mother appeared, and there was her face, completely clear, particularly her eyes, and she said to me very gently, very reassuringly: 'Let it be,'" McCartney said. "It was lovely. I woke up with a great feeling. It was really like she had visited me at this very difficult point in my life and gave me this message: Be gentle, don’t fight things, just try and go with the flow and it will all work out." 

3. Bob Marley - I Shot the Sheriff (1974)

During his lifetime, Bob Marley maintained an air of mystery around the meaning behind ‘I Shot the Sheriff’. The only explanation Marley offered is that the sheriff was a metaphor for “wickedness”, yet many listeners took the lyrics quite literally, and the song became a symbol for resistance against injustice and corruption.

After Marley’s death in 1981, a different, rather surprising meaning, surfaced. According to Esther Anderson, a former girlfriend of Marley’s who co-directed the 2011 documentary 'Bob Marley: The Making of a Legend', the lyrics actually expressed the singer’s stance against her taking birth control. Apparently, Marley believed using birth control was a sin, and “the doctor who prescribed those baby-killing pills became the sheriff”. Song lyrics often bend themselves to personal interpretation, so it’s hard to determine where the truth lies (probably somewhere in the middle). 

Related: The Unforgettable Hits of the 20th Century

4. Dolly Parton - Jolene (1974)

Did you know that the Jolene with flaming locks of auburn hair and eyes of emerald green, who inspired the Dolly Parton hit song, was actually eight years old? But she wasn’t the only one. There was another red-headed woman who entered Parton’s life around the same time.

The little red-haired girl named Jolene was a fan of Parton, who waited for an autograph after a broadcast of the singer's television show in the late 1960s. The second woman was a bank teller who had developed a crush on Parton’s real-life husband. The little girl gave Jolene from the song her physical features and name but it was the bank teller who turned her into a homewrecker. “It was kinda like a running joke between us — when I was saying, "Hell, you’re spending a lot of time at the bank,” Parton told NPR. “I don’t believe we’ve got that kind of money." So it’s really an innocent song all around but sounds like a dreadful one.

Related: 10 of the Most Influential Songs of All Time

5. Ray Charles - What'd I Say (1958)

Unlike other artists on this list, Ray Charles didn’t have the time to dig deep for inspiration for writing ‘What'd I Say’, but it only proves what a talented lyricist he was. One night in December 1958, Ray Charles and his band were scheduled to play a four-hour set at a Pittsburgh dance hall. 15 minutes before the end of the show, they realized they had exhausted their entire catalog, and didn’t have anything left to play. Charles knew he had to fill the remaining 15 minutes or he risked not being paid for the night’s performance. To save the night, and his own paycheck, Charles created the song on the spot. 

“I said to the guys, ‘Hey, whatever I do, just follow me,’” Charles later recalled in an interview with David Letterman. “And I said the same thing to the girls, I said, ‘Whatever I say, just repeat it, I don’t care what it is.’” The audience loved it. 'What'd I Say' ultimately became the closing number for the majority of Charles’s shows and was his first top 10 single. 

6. The Kinks - Lola (1970)

The lyrics of ‘Lola’, by the Kinks, tell the love story between a man and a beautiful woman he meets on the dance floor. According to Ray Davies, the band’s lead singer and guitarist, who wrote the song, it is based on a true story that happened to the band’s manager. Only the beautiful woman turned out to be a man! 

“It was a real experience in a club,” Ray said. “I was asked to dance by somebody who was a fabulous looking woman. I said, ‘No thank you.’ And she went in a cab with my manager straight afterward. It’s based on personal experience. But not every word.” 

7. Journey - Don't Stop Believin' (1981)

Journey’s ‘Don’t Stop Believing’ is the best selling digital track of the entire 20th century. In his memoir, the song’s author Jonathan Cain has opened up about the origins of Journey’s signature anthem. In the early 70s, well before Cain was a famous rock star, his dog was hit by a car. Fortunately, the dog’s life was saved, but Cain had to call his father to help him pay the medical bill, which he hated doing. 

“I said, ‘Dad, should I just give up on this thing and come home? It seems like I might be pushing it back to Chicago.’ ‘No, no, don’t come home. Stick to your guns. Don’t stop believin’. I went, ‘OK.’ Cain told The Mercury News. He took his dad’s advice to heart, turned it into a song, and the rest is history. 

Cover image source: National Archief / Wikimedia Commons

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