33 Fascinating Stories Behind Famous Songs

In this week's episode of mental_floss on YouTube, the Gregory Brothers stop by to share a little music history.

Don't miss an episode—subscribe here! (Images and footage provided by our friends at Shutterstock. This transcript comes courtesy of Nerdfighteria Wiki.

Andrew: Hey, I’m Andrew. 
Michael: I’m Michael. 
Evan: I’m Evan. 
Sarah: I’m Sarah. Together we’re The Gregory Brothers, and this is mental_floss on YouTube. 
1. M: Writing songs can take a lot of work, and sometimes inspiration strikes at the most random times. 
E: And all you have on hand is a wedding invitation and a pen to write your thoughts down. At least that's what happened to Doc Pomus of The Drifters when he was writing “Save the Last Dance For Me.” 
A: The lyrics encourages the girl to dance and have fun, but also to remember that she’s coming home with him at the end of the night. The song was written by polio-stricken Doc, who scribbled them down at his own wedding after watching a line of able-bodied men dance with his bride, a Broadway dancer. 
S: And that’s the first of many fascinating songwriting stories that we will be talking about today. 
2. A: Let’s start our playlist with Kris Kristofferson, the renowned singer-songwriter-slash-history-professor-slash-janitor-slash-helicopter-pilot who combined three of those five skills into one amazing songwriting pitch. In 1969, as Johnny Cash later recalled it, he and June Carter Cash were at their Nashville-area home, when a helicopter landed on their lawn. Kristofferson stepped out of the chopper with a beer in hand, and announced, “I thought this might be the best way to get a song to you—bring it right out of the sky.” Kristofferson, however, says that Cash wasn’t even at home when the helicopter arrived. Either way, the song “Sunday Morning Coming Down” was a number-one hit for Cash the following year. 
3. M: Kristofferson isn’t the only off-beat guy to write songs for the Man in Black. Shel Silverstein—yes, the children’s author—wrote one of Cash’s biggest hits. It’s long been rumored though not confirmed that “A Boy Named Sue” was inspired by a friend of Silverstein’s who also had an ambiguous name. Jean Shepherd, who wrote the book “A Christmas Story” was based on and narrated the movie version. 
4. E: One of the greatest songs ever written was originally an ode to protein, written when a young Paul McCartney woke up with a little tune in his head, picked it out on the piano; until the real lyrics came to him quite some time later—“Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away...”—McCartney made do with the nonsensical lyrics: “Scrambled eggs, oh my baby, how I love your legs.” 
All: “Scrambled eggs, oh, my baby, how I love your legs.” 
5. S: Speaking of mid-slumber song inspiration, on May 9th, 1965, Keith Richards woke up in the middle of the night with a riff in his head. Instead of going back to sleep, Richards dragged himself out of his bed, picked up his trusty acoustic, and recorded about 60 seconds of the guitar part. 

Those 60 seconds would become the basis for “Satisfaction.” 
6. A: Upon hearing Bob Dylan’s protest song “Blowin’ in the Wind” on the radio, Sam Cooke apparently exclaimed, “Jeez! A white boy writing a song like that?”—leading him to write “A Change Is Gonna Come” the following year. 
7. M: Bonnie Raitt’s 1991 hit “I Can’t Make You Love Me (If You Don’t)” was inspired by a man who was in court for shooting at his girlfriend’s car. The judge asked the man if he had learned anything, and the man replied: “I learned, your honor, that you can’t make a woman love you if she don’t.” But what’s even more fascinating is that the song was written by former NFL lineman, Mike Reid, who was the #7 draft pick in 1970. Between seasons, he was a pianist for various respected symphony orchestras across the U.S. He also won a Grammy for writing a country song in 1984, making him the only NFL player to do so, ever. In all time. Throughout the universe. 
8. E: In 1986, respected newsman Dan Rather was walking down Park Avenue on his way home, when two well-dressed men randomly attacked him, repeatedly demanding to know the answer to the question: “What is the frequency, Kenneth?” The men fled into the night as a doorman came to Rather’s aid. Once assailant William Tager was arrested and identified by Rather, the disturbed man admitted that he mistook the news anchor for the vice president of the future—I have made that same mistake—a politician apparently named Kenneth Burroughs. Michael Stipe was perplexed by this odd event, calling it the “premier unsolved American surrealist act of the 20th century,” leading him to write “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” 
9. S: Another ripped-from-the-headlines song is “Heartbreak Hotel,” popularized by Elvis. This song was co-written by Mae Boren Axton and Tommy Durden. Durden found his inspiration in a newspaper article about a man who committed suicide, whose suicide note read, “I walk a lonely street.” 
10. A: Many people try to find that deep, hidden meaning in Cream’s “White Room,” due to its mysterious lyrics, such as, “In the white room with black curtains near the station.” Writer Pete Brown once expressed his astonishment that the song was a hit, saying, “It was a miracle it worked, considering it was me writing a monologue about my new flat.”

11. M: “Smoke on the Water” by Deep Purple came about when the band was at a Frank Zappa concert in Switzerland. Someone in the audience shot a Roman candle into the ceiling mid-show, causing a massive fire. There were no injuries, but the building burned down to the ground. As the members of Deep Purple sat in the nearby hotel room while firefighters tried to thwart the flames, they noticed Lake Geneva was completely engulfed in a haze. “Smoke on the Water.” Of course. 
12. E: Even The Who liked to impress critics sometimes. When they were writing “Tommy,” Pete Townshend played some of it for music reviewer Nick Cohen. Cohen told Townshend that the God stuff was passé and dull. But knowing that Cohen was fan of pinball, Townshend asked, “What if Tommy was a pinball champion?” Cohen perked right up, so Townshend added it in, reworked the music to incorporate the pinball theme. Townshend later called it “the clumsiest thing he ever wrote.” 
13. S: For decades, no one knew who Caroline of Neil Diamond’s 1969 hit “Sweet Caroline” was. Nearly 40 years after its release, Diamond finally revealed that he was struck by the innocence of a picture he saw in a magazine while on tour in the ‘60s: a little girl riding a pony. The girl? Caroline Kennedy. Diamond was able to tell his muse this story when he played the song for her at her 50th birthday party in 2007. 
14. A: Murderous cult leader Charles Manson wrote a song for The Beach Boys? It’s called “Cease to Exist,” with uplifting Mansonesque lyrics like, “Submission is a gift, go on, give it to your brother.” The Boys turned it into a song called “Never Learn Not to Love,” keeping the “submission is a gift” lyric. 
15. M: At a Chinese restaurant, Paul Simon saw something called “Mother and Child Reunion” on the menu, a dark reference to a chicken-and-egg dish. Having recently experienced the death of the family dog, Simon had death on the brain and connected the reference in the dish’s name to his wife dying. And so “Mother and Child Reunion” was written. 
16. E: Harry Nilsson wrote the song “One Is the Loneliest Number” after trying to call someone and getting a busy signal. For those of you who’ve never heard a busy signal before, it sounds like [imitates] boop, boop—[Michael and Sarah join in]—boop, boop, boop. He stayed on the line and used the signal tone while writing, and that tone became the opening notes of the song. 
17. S: Eminem’s Academy Award-winning song “Lose Yourself” was written and recorded on the set of “8 Mile.” He had a studio on-set and apparently recorded all three verses in one single session. Boo-yah! He was described by his co-workers as a very hard worker, which may be why he slept through the Oscar ceremony. 
18. A: Eric Clapton wrote “Layla” after one of his friends gave him a copy of “The Story of Layla and Majnun,” a Persian story about unrequited love from the 12th century. But who was his unrequited love for? George Harrison’s wife. After she divorced George Harrison and married Eric Clapton, they got divorced too. Eric Clapton and George Harrison made up and went on tour together. 
19. M: “Hey Jude” started as “Hey Jules,” a song written by Paul McCartney for Julian Lennon, who was going through a difficult time because his parents were divorcing. Julian didn’t even know, until, like, 20 years later. 
20. E: Michael Jackson wrote “Billie Jean” while driving. He claimed that his car lit on fire while driving on the highway because he was so enamored with the song as he was writing it. A motorcycle luckily drove past Jackson and alerted him to the car trouble. “Hey, your songwriting is lighting your car on fire!” 
21. S: Nirvana didn’t like “Smells Like Teen Spirit” when Kurt Cobain first played it for them, so he forced the group to play the riff for an hour and 30 minutes. Eventually, inspiration struck and the group was convinced that the song would work, after deciding to slow the tempo down a bit. 
22. A: The late great Ray Charles’s song “What’d I Say” came from a moment of improvisation at the end of a performance, when he had no songs left to play but 12 minutes left in the concert. Before writing it on the spot, he said the orchestra who was accompanying him, “Listen. I’m gonna fool around. Y’all just follow me.” 
23-28. M: Let’s go through some songs written about people you may have heard of. Alanis Morrisette’s “You Oughta Know” was written about Full House’s Dave Coulier. Uncle Joey. “Back in December” by Taylor Swift was written as an apology to Taylor Lautner, more cryptic than the song “Tim McGraw” about one of her favorite singers. Bruno Mars claims that he wrote “Locked out of Heaven” about Halle Berry. The song “Me and Mr. Jones” by Amy Winehouse is about rapper Nas. Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters wrote “I’ll Stick Around” about Courtney Love. 
29-33. S: Billy Joel’s hit “Uptown Girl” was written about model Elle Macpherson. Post-divorce, Katy Perry wrote “Wide Awake” about comedian Russell Brand. “Black Velvet” by Alannah Myles is about Elvis. Actress Rosanna Arquette inspired both “In Your Eyes” by Peter Gabriel as well as Toto’s “Rosanna.” Clearly Toto was a little less subtle. 
A: Thanks for joining us for another Mental Floss on YouTube, which was made with the help of all these kind people. We’re The Gregory Brothers. If this video made you hungry for more songs, come check out our channel here and after you, like, really, really like it, you can subscribe over here. 
M: Every week we endeavor to answer one of your mind-blowing questions. This week’s question comes from vloggingwithmaddy, who asks, “Is it true that some people see colors differently than other people? Like their blue could be my yellow?” And yes. It’s possible that people could be viewing all colors differently. But as you can imagine, it’s an impossible phenomenon to test. 
S: If you have a question you’d like answered, leave it in the comments. Thanks for watching, and DFTBA.

Samir Hussein, Getty Images
One of Michael Jackson's 'Billie Jean' Gloves Can Be Yours (For the Right Price)
Samir Hussein, Getty Images
Samir Hussein, Getty Images

Three things usually come to mind when people recall Michael Jackson's stratospheric fame in the 1980s: His music videos were events unto themselves; he toted around a chimp named Bubbles (who once bit Quincy Jones's daughter Rashida); and Jackson was often seen wearing a single white sequined glove.

There's no official count on how many gloves Jackson owned and wore during his career, but one performance-used mitt is now up for sale via GWS Auctions and their Legends of Hollywood & Music Auction. Used by Jackson during his 1997 HIStory tour, the Swarovski crystal-covered glove is unique in that Jackson had it made for his left hand, as he wanted to keep the wedding ring—courtesy of his marriage to nurse Debbie Rowe—visible on his right. (Though wedding rings are traditionally worn on the left hand, Jackson was known to wear his on the right.)

A white glove worn by Michael Jackson during his 1997 HIStory tour
GWS Auctions

According to Jackson associate John Kehe, Jackson allegedly got the idea for the glove in 1980, when he was touring a production company and saw a film editor at a control panel wearing a white cotton glove. Jackson himself wrote in his autobiography, Moonwalk, that he had been wearing a single glove since the 1970s. Either way, it was Jackson's performance of "Billie Jean" during a television appearance for Motown's 25th anniversary in May 1983 that cemented the accessory in the eyes of the public. That particular glove sold for $350,000 in 2009.

The HIStory glove will be up for auction March 24; pre-bids currently have it in excess of $5000. The Legends of Music and Hollywood Auction is also set to feature a prescription pill bottle once owned by Frank Sinatra and a hairbrush used by Marilyn Monroe.

Getty Images
The Stories Behind 10 Johnny Cash Songs
Getty Images
Getty Images

Johnny Cash, who was born on this day in 1932, once wrote, “I love songs about horses, railroads, land, judgment day, family, hard times, whiskey, courtship, marriage, adultery, separation, murder, war, prison, rambling, damnation, home, salvation, death, pride, humor, piety, rebellion, patriotism, larceny, determination, tragedy, rowdiness, heartbreak and love. And Mother And God."

That sums the Cash discography up pretty well. He covers at least 20 of those themes in the 10 songs below. Here are the backstories behind some of the Man in Black's most famous songs—and maybe a little insight into why he loved those topics so much.


In the song, Cash explains that he always wears black to performances and public appearances because of social injustices, “just so we’re reminded of the ones who are held back.” It’s a great story, but it’s not 100 percent true. In 2002, he told Larry King that black was his signature color simply because he felt most comfortable in it, although he preferred light blue in summer. “You walk into my clothes closet. It’s dark in there,” he said.

Rolling Stone wrote that the inky wardrobe was also helpful when it came to hiding dirt and dust in the early touring days.


Cash didn’t always wear black. In the video above, he’s dressed in bright yellow, accessorized with a powder blue cape.

Sound a little off-brand? It was. In the early ‘80s, Cash felt that Columbia, his record label, was ignoring him and failing to promote his music properly. He decided to record a song so awful that it would force Columbia to cut his contract early. The plan worked, but it came at a price. “He was kind of mocking and dismantling his own legacy,” daughter Rosanne later said. Here’s a sampling of the lyrics, in case the video is too painful to watch: “I put your brain in a chicken last Monday, he’s singing your songs and making lots of money, and I’ve got him signed to a 10-year recording contract.”


Written in just 20 minutes, Cash’s (arguably) greatest hit  was intended as a reminder to himself to stay faithful to his first wife, Vivian, while he was on the road opening for Elvis in the mid-1950s. "It was kind of a prodding to myself to 'Play it straight, Johnny,'" he once said. According to other interviews, that wasn’t the song’s only meaning: He also meant it as an oath to God. Although Sam Phillips from Sun Records said that he wasn’t interested in gospel songs, Johnny was able to sneak “I Walk the Line” past him with the story about being true to his wife.


In 1969, Johnny and June threw a party at their house in Hendersonville. As you might imagine, it was a veritable who’s-who of music: Bob Dylan, Graham Nash, Joni Mitchell, Kris Kristofferson, and Shel Silverstein. Everyone debuted a new song at the party—Dylan sang “Lay Lady Lay,” Nash did “Marrakkesh Express,” Kristofferson played “Me and Bobby McGee,” and Mitchell sang “Both Sides Now.” Silverstein, who was a songwriter in addition to an author of children’s books, debuted “A Boy Named Sue.”

When the party was over, June encouraged Johnny to take the lyrics to “Sue” on the plane the next day. They were headed to California to record the famous live At San Quentin album. Johnny wasn’t sure he could learn the lyrics fast enough, but he did—and the inmates went crazy for it. They weren’t the only ones: "A Boy Named Sue" quickly shot to the top of the charts. And not just the country charts—it held the #2 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 for three weeks.

The song was originally inspired by a male friend of Silverstein’s with a somewhat feminine name—Jean Shepherd, the author of A Christmas Story.


The story behind this one depends on who you believe. The Carter-Cash family has always maintained that June and guitar player Merle Kilgore co-wrote the song about June falling in love with Johnny despite being worried about his drug and alcohol problem.

But according to Johnny’s first wife, Vivian, June had nothing to do with “Ring of Fire.” “The truth is, Johnny wrote that song, while pilled up and drunk, about a certain private female body part,” Vivian wrote in her autobiography. She claims he gave June credit for writing the song because he thought she needed the money.

Either way, June’s sister Anita originally recorded the song. After Johnny had a dream that he was singing it with mariachi horns, he recorded it that way. 


“Ring of Fire” isn’t the only time Johnny had a dream that inspired a song. In his later years, Cash had a dream that he walked into Buckingham Palace and encountered Queen Elizabeth just sitting on the floor. When she saw him, the Queen said, “Johnny Cash, you’re like a thorn tree in a whirlwind!” Two or three years later, Cash remembered the dream, decided that the reference must be a biblical one, and wrote what he called “my song of the apocalypse”—“The Man Comes Around.”


This one is another early song inspired by Vivian. From the summer of 1951 through the summer of 1954, Cash was deployed in Germany with the Air Force. At the end of three years, he turned down the option to re-enlist, feeling homesick for his girl and his home. On the journey back from Germany, he penned “Hey Porter” about the excitement and relief he felt to finally be coming home.


After seeing Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison, Cash was inspired to write a song about it. Too bad that song already existed as “Crescent City Blues,” written by Gordon Jenkins.

Jenkins sued for copyright infringement in 1969 and received $75,000. Cash later admitted that he heard the song when he was in the Air Force, but borrowing the tune and some of the lyrics was subconscious; he never meant to rip Jenkins off. Oh, but the famous “I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die” line—that was all Johnny.

9. "CRY! CRY! CRY!"

After Cash returned home from the Air Force and signed with Sun Records, he gave Sam Phillips “Hey Porter.” Phillips asked for a ballad for the B-side, so Cash went home and quickly wrote “Cry! Cry! Cry!” literally overnight. It became his first big hit—not bad for an afterthought.


Though “Get Rhythm” eventually became the B-side for “I Walk the Line,” Cash originally wrote it for Elvis. It might have been recorded by Presley, but when he went to RCA, Sam Phillips refused to let him take “Get Rhythm” with him.


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