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.

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Why Do Orchestras Tune to an A Note?
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iStock

When orchestra members tune their instruments before a performance, it almost always sounds the same. That’s because across the world, most orchestras tune to the same A note, using a standard pitch of 440 hertz.

This is the result of international standards that have been in place since the 19th century, according to WQXR, a classical music radio station in New York City. Currently, standard tuning frequency is set by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), an international group that makes recommendations on everything from what safety labels should look like to how big the hole in a pen cap should be. A standard called ISO 16, first recommended in 1955 and confirmed in 1975, “specifies the frequency for the note A in the treble stave and shall be 440 hertz.”

The ISO didn’t pull that frequency out of thin air. During the Industrial Revolution, a rush toward standardization and universality led to multiple international meetings that aimed to bring orchestras all over the world to the same pitch. Standardizing pitch had important ramifications for the international music scene.

Historically, the pitch that orchestras tuned to could differ wildly depending on where the musicians were playing. “In the course of the last 400 years in Europe, the point that has been considered ideal for a reference pitch has fluctuated by some 5 or 6 semitones,” musicologist Bruce Haynes explained in his book, A History of Performing Pitch: The Story of ‘A.’ In the 17th century, a French performer might tune his or her instrument a whole tone lower than their German colleagues. The standards could even change from one town to the next, affecting how music written in one location might sound when played in another.

As a writer for London's The Spectator observed in 1859, “It is well known that when we are performing Handel's music (for example) from the very notes in which he wrote it, we are really performing it nearly a whole tone higher than he intended;—the sound associated in his ear with the note A, being nearly the same sound which, in our ear, is associated with the note G.”

In the 19th century, a commission established by the French government tried to analyze pitch across Europe by looking at the frequencies of the tuning forks musicians used as their reference while tuning their instruments. The commission gathered tuning forks from different cities, finding that most were pitched somewhere around 445 hertz. Over the years, due to bigger concert halls and more advanced instruments, pitch was rising across most orchestras, and instruments and voices were being strained as a result. So the commission recommended lowering the standard to what was known as “the compromise pitch.”

In 1859, the French commission legally established diapason normal, the standard pitch for the A above middle C, at 435 hertz. (The music world would still be debating whether or not pitch had risen too much more than a century later.) Later, 435 hertz became enshrined as a standard elsewhere, too. In 1885, government representatives from Italy, Austria, Hungary, Prussia, Russia, Saxony, Sweden, and Württemberg met to establish their own international standard, agreeing on 435 hertz. The agreement was eventually written into the Treaty of Versailles in 1919.

But not everyone was on board with 435 hertz. The Royal Philharmonic Society in London believed the French pitch standard was pegged to a specific temperature—59°F—and decided to adjust their pitch upward to compensate for their concert halls being warmer than that, settling on 439 hertz. Meanwhile, in 1917, the American Federation of Musicians declared 440 hertz to be the standard pitch in the U.S.

In 1939, the International Standardizing Organization met in London to agree on a standard for concert pitch to be used across the world. A Dutch study of European pitch that year had found that while pitch varied across orchestras and countries, the average of those varied pitches was around 440 hertz. So it made sense for the ISO to choose A 440. Furthermore, radio broadcasters and technicians like the BBC preferred A 440 to the English A 439 because 439 was a prime number and thus harder to reproduce in a laboratory.

World War II delayed the official launch of the 1939 ISO agreement, but the organization issued its A 440 decision in 1955, then again two decades later. A 440 was here to stay. That said, even now, pitch does vary a little depending on the musicians in question. The Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra notably tunes to 443 hertz rather than the standard 440 hertz, for instance. While A 440 may be the official “concert pitch” across the world, in practice, there is still a little wiggle room.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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10 Facts About Louis Armstrong
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Getty Images

With his infectious smile and raspy voice, Louis Armstrong (who actually pronounced his own name "Lewis") won over fans worldwide. To untold millions, every note that he let loose made the world feel a bit more wonderful, and his music is still being discovered by new generations of fans. Here are 10 facts about the life of one of the 20th century's most important jazz musicians.

1. ARMSTRONG SPENT HIS ADULT LIFE CELEBRATING THE WRONG BIRTHDAY.

Armstrong used to say that he’d been born on July 4, 1900. Turns out, he was 13 months off. In 1988, music historian Thaddeus “Tad” Jones located a baptismal record at New Orleans’s Sacred Heart of Jesus Church. According to this document, the performer’s actual birth date was August 4, 1901.

No one’s quite sure why Armstrong lied about his age, but the most popular theories maintain he wanted to join a military band or that he figured he'd have a better shot at landing gigs if he was over 18 years old.

2. AS AN ADULT, HE WORE A STAR OF DAVID PENDANT TO HONOR THE JEWISH FAMILY WHO HAD EMPLOYED HIM.

While growing up, Armstrong did assorted jobs for the Karnofskys, a family of Lithuanian-Jewish immigrants. “They were always kind to me,” Armstrong once reflected, “[I] was just a little kid who could use a little word of kindness.” Apart from monetary compensation, Armstrong was given a hot meal every evening and regular invitations to Karnofsky Shabbat dinners. One day, they even advanced him the $5 he used to buy his very first horn.

3. SOMETIMES, ARMSTRONG WOULD USED A FOOD-BASED SIGN-OFF.

Pops” had a special place in his heart for both Chinese and Italian food. But, as a Bayou State native, Armstrong’s favorite dish was always rice and beans. In fact, before marrying his fourth wife, he made sure that she could cook a satisfactory plateful. To grasp how much the man adored this entrée, one need only check out his letters, which were often signed “Red Beans and Ricely Yours.”

4. DURING A FAMOUS RECORDING, HE ALLEGEDLY DROPPED HIS SHEET MUSIC AND IMPROVISED.

At one point in “Heebie Jeebies”—a 1926 song released by Armstrong and his "Hot Five” band—the singer vocalizes a series of nonsensical, horn-like sounds. Music historians recognize this as the first popular, mass-market scat ever recorded. Ironically, Armstrong later wrote the whole thing off as a big blunder on his part. In a 1951 interview with Esquire, Armstrong claimed to have come prepared with printed lyrics that day. Midway through the recording session, he accidentally dropped them and scatted to fill the ensuing silence. “Sure enough,” he explained, “they … [published] ‘Heebie Jeebies’ the same way it was mistakenly recorded.” However, most biographers believe that Armstrong made up this anecdote and had planned on scatting all along. It's also worth noting that even though he brought it into popularity, Armstrong in no way invented the technique, which dates back to at least 1906.

5. HE USED TO GIVE AWAY LAXATIVES AS GIFTS.

Between 1952 and 1955, Armstrong shed 100 pounds. Losing weight proved difficult at first, but his luck changed once he learned of an herbal laxative called “Swiss Kriss.” The artist promptly went out, bought a box, and became a lifelong spokesman. After trying it, he said that defecation sounded like “Applause.” Enamored, the musician began handing out packets to admirers, loved ones, and band members. Though he was the product's biggest cheerleader, Armstrong neither requested nor received any payment from its manufacturers.

6. SEGREGATION LAWS DROVE HIM TO BOYCOTT HIS OWN HOME STATE.

The year 1956 saw Louisiana prohibit integrated bands. Outraged, Armstrong refused to stage another concert within the state's borders. “They treat me better all over the world than they do in my hometown,” he said. “Ain’t that stupid? Jazz was born there and I remember when it was no crime for cats of any color to get together and blow.” Nine years later—after this ban had finally lifted—he again took the stage in New Orleans on October 31, 1965.

7. WHILE PLAYING BEFORE THE ROYAL FAMILY, ARMSTRONG GAVE KING GEORGE V A NEW NICKNAME.

At His Majesty’s command, several of the biggest names in jazz took their talents to Buckingham Palace, and in 1932, Armstrong was requested for a royal performance. Evidently, the show went well. According to Armstrong, that night’s “biggest laugh” came right before his group started playing “You Rascal, You.” Without warning, he looked straight up at the monarch and hollered, “This one’s for you, Rex!”

8. HE WENT ON SEVERAL GOODWILL TOURS DURING THE COLD WAR.

Fresh off the wild success of his “Hello, Dolly!” cover, Armstrong made a trip to communist East Berlin in 1965, where he gave a two-hour concert that earned a standing ovation. While not officially government-sponsored, there are some who believe the concert was arranged by the CIA, which would make this just one of the many taxpayer-funded appearances he’d make abroad during the Cold War in an effort to strengthen diplomatic relations overseas. Previously, Armstrong had performed throughout Europe, Asia, and Africa—though he famously canceled a planned 1957 Soviet Union tour, citing the recent Little Rock crisis. “The way they are treating my people in the South,” declared Armstrong, “the government can go to hell.”

9. “WHAT A WONDERFUL WORLD" WAS ORIGINALLY PITCHED TO TONY BENNETT.

The song for which Pops is most widely remembered, “What a Wonderful World,” was almost never his song at all. After completing the optimistic anthem, songwriters Bob Thiele and George David Weiss thought that Tony Bennett would eat it right up. He subsequently passed, so the duo contacted Armstrong in August 1967.

10. "WHAT A WONDERFUL WORLD" DIDN'T MAKE A SPLASH IN THE U.S. UNTIL WELL AFTER ARMSTRONG'S DEATH.

The first recording of “What a Wonderful World” was produced by ABC Records, which made no attempt to advertise it domestically. Although the ballad topped the 1968 charts in Great Britain, American sales were abysmal. When Pops (who adored Thiele and Weiss’ masterwork) passed away on July 6, 1971, “What a Wonderful World” seemed destined for stateside obscurity.

Then along came a bare-knuckled comedy called Good Morning, Vietnam (1987). The joyous tune perfectly and ironically clashed with the wartime horrors depicted in one montage, so director Barry Levinson added it to his film’s soundtrack. “What a Wonderful World” struck a chord with moviegoers and was re-released that year, becoming an oft-requested radio hit.

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