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33 Fascinating Stories Behind Famous Songs

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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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Pop Culture
How Jimmy Buffett Turned 'Margaritaville' Into a Way of Life
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Few songs have proven as lucrative as “Margaritaville,” a modest 1977 hit by singer and songwriter Jimmy Buffett that became an anthem for an entire life philosophy. The track was the springboard for Buffett’s business empire—restaurants, apparel, kitchen appliances, and more—marketing the taking-it-easy message of its tropical print lyrics.

After just a few years of expanding that notion into other ventures, the “Parrot Heads” of Buffett’s fandom began to account for $40 million in annual revenue—and that was before the vacation resorts began popping up.

Jimmy Buffett performs for a crowd
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

“Margaritaville,” which turned 40 this year, was never intended to inspire this kind of devotion. It was written after Buffett, as an aspiring musician toiling in Nashville, found himself in Key West, Florida, following a cancelled booking in Miami and marveling at the sea of tourists clogging the beaches.

Like the other songs on his album, Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes, it didn’t receive a lot of radio play. Instead, Buffett began to develop his following by opening up for The Eagles. Even at 30, Buffett was something less than hip—a flip-flopped performer with a genial stage presence that seemed to invite an easygoing vibe among crowds. “Margaritaville,” an anthem to that kind of breezy attitude, peaked at number eight on the Billboard charts in 1977. While that’s impressive for any single, its legacy would quickly evolve beyond the music industry's method for gauging success.

What Buffett realized as he continued to perform and tour throughout the early 1980s is that “Margaritaville” had the ability to sedate audiences. Like a hypnotist, the singer could immediately conjure a specific time and place that listeners wanted to revisit. The lyrics painted a scene of serenity that became a kind of existential vacation for Buffett's fans:

Nibblin' on sponge cake,
Watchin' the sun bake;
All of those tourists covered with oil.
Strummin' my six string on my front porch swing.
Smell those shrimp —
They're beginnin' to boil.

By 1985, Buffett was ready to capitalize on that goodwill. In Key West, he opened a Margaritaville store, which sold hats, shirts, and other ephemera to residents and tourists looking to broadcast their allegiance to his sand-in-toes fantasy. (A portion of the proceeds went to Save the Manatees, a nonprofit organization devoted to animal conservation.) The store also sold the Coconut Telegraph, a kind of propaganda newsletter about all things Buffett and his chill perspective.

When Buffett realized patrons were coming in expecting a bar or food—the song was named after a mixed drink, after all—he opened a cafe adjacent to the store in late 1987. The configuration was ideal, and through the 1990s, Buffett and business partner John Cohlan began erecting Margaritaville locations in Florida, New Orleans, and eventually Las Vegas and New York. All told, more than 21 million people visit a Buffett-inspired hospitality destination every year.

A parrot at Margaritaville welcomes guests
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Margaritaville-branded tequila followed. So, too, did a line of retail foods like hummus, a book of short stories, massive resorts, a Sirius radio channel, and drink blenders. Buffett even wrote a 242-page script for a Margaritaville movie that he had hoped to film in the 1980s. It’s one of the very few Margaritaville projects that has yet to have come to fruition, but it might be hard for Buffett to complain much. In 2015, his entire empire took in $1.5 billion in sales.

As of late, Buffett has signed off on an Orlando resort due to open in 2018, offering “casual luxury” near the boundaries of Walt Disney World. (One in Hollywood, Florida, is already a hit, boasting a 93 percent occupancy rate.) Even for guests that aren’t particularly familiar with his music, “Jimmy Buffett” has become synonymous with comfort and relaxation just as surely as Walt Disney has with family entertainment. The association bodes well for a business that will eventually have to move beyond Buffett’s concert-going loyalists.

Not that he's looking to leave them behind. The 70-year-old Buffett is planning on a series of Margaritaville-themed retirement communities, with the first due to open in Daytona Beach in 2018. More than 10,000 Parrot Heads have already registered, eager to watch the sun set while idling in a frame of mind that Buffett has slowly but surely turned into a reality.

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The Time Freddy Krueger Became a Nightmare for Will Smith
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Fans of Will Smith’s music career may think they’ve heard every album and seen every music video from the actor’s days as one half of the hip-hop duo DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince. Thanks to one ill-timed and poorly conceived effort, however, there’s one performance that aired only a handful of times before being permanently pulled. It has never resurfaced on compilations, on MTV, or even on YouTube. And the fault lies solely with Freddy Krueger, who used something even more dangerous than his razor-fingered glove: a small army of lawyers.

A promotional image of Robert Englund as Freddy Krueger
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Back in early 1988, Smith and his musical partner Jazzy Jeff (a.k.a. Jeffrey Allen Townes) released their second album, He’s the DJ, I’m the Rapper. It would eventually go platinum, selling 2.5 million copies through 1989 and spinning off the duo’s most successful single, “Parents Just Don’t Understand.”

In late 1987, Townes composed another single, “Nightmare on My Street,” that played with the premise established by the A Nightmare on Elm Street series. In the song, Smith’s dreams are haunted by a scarred bogeyman named “Fred”; a voice modulator mimics the raspy delivery of actor Robert Englund, who portrayed slasher movie icon Freddy Krueger in the Nightmare on Elm Street films. After his run-in, Smith tries calling Jeff to warn him of the threat but it was too late: The killer has gotten to his partner.

Zomba, the parent company behind the album's label, decided the song might be of interest to New Line Cinema, the studio behind the Nightmare film franchise. With the fourth installment, A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master, due to hit theaters in August 1988, Zomba executive Barry Weiss approached New Line with the possibility of collaborating and forwarded a tape of the song.

Weiss’s timing was spot-on. New Line had recently conducted research that indicated that 40 percent of A Nightmare of Elm Street's audience was black, and they felt that tying Krueger into the burgeoning rap and hip-hop industry would help cement his appeal to the demographic. But New Line and Weiss couldn’t come to a financial agreement. Instead, the studio went with The Fat Boys and granted permission for the song “Are You Ready for Freddy?” The video, complete with an appearance by Englund (in character), was released just a few months prior to A Nightmare on Elm Street 4 to raise awareness of the sequel.

Although New Line found their collaborators, Zomba didn’t appear willing to give up on the idea of a Freddy takeoff. “Nightmare on My Street” remained on the album, and Smith and Townes recorded a video intended for distribution on MTV. In it, Smith is stalked by a Freddy-like character who appears in a trench coat and has a wrinkled face. Smith’s lyrics make overt reference to a Krueger-esque appearance. (Fred is “burnt like a weenie.”) The eerie house Smith calls home even bears a passing resemblance to the house in the original Nightmare film.

If Zomba thought they could declare the song and video a parody and be safe from legal action, they were mistaken. Almost immediately, New Line's legal team sent a stern letter demanding the music label recall all copies of the song. When that didn't happen, the studio next sought a preliminary injunction to prevent “Nightmare on My Street” from being aired on MTV or elsewhere, citing copyright infringement and a concern that the video would detract from their collaboration with The Fat Boys.

"We own both a character, Freddy Krueger, and the theme music from Nightmare on Elm Street, both of which are protected under the copyright laws," Seth Willenson, New Line's senior vice president of telecommunications, told the Los Angeles Times in August 1988. “By using Freddy in the Jazzy Jeff song, they've infringed our copyright. We're protecting our rights the same way that George Lucas does, because as far as we're concerned, Freddy Krueger is the Star Wars of New Line Cinema."

Weeks before the release of the film, a judge in New York’s United States District Court would have to decide whether Zomba was entitled to a fair use exemption over a fictional child murderer.

Will Smith appears at the Grammy Awards
Matt Campbell/Getty Images

To Zomba’s dismay, judge Robert Ward didn’t buy their argument that “Nightmare on My Street” was nothing more than a Weird Al-style satire. Screening the entire first installment of the film series and the music video, Ward noted that the latter drew considerable influence in tone, mood, and characteristics from the feature. Fred’s voice was scratchy like Englund’s; his glove, though it featured phonograph needles instead of razors, was obviously meant to invoke Krueger’s weapon of choice. Where Zomba saw parody, Ward saw little more than a derivative work of a copyrighted property.

“It is in this month that many individuals will make their decision whether Nightmare IV is a film that they are interested in viewing,” wrote Ward in his decision. “Thus, the telecast of the lower quality DJ Jazzy Jeff video with the somewhat silly and less frightening Freddy could dissuade an unspecified number of individuals from seeing the film.” The injunction was granted, with a full hearing to be held at a later date.

That didn’t happen—both parties settled out of court. While the song remained on the record, it began to ship with a disclaimer that it wasn’t associated with New Line; the video, which had aired only briefly on MTV, was pulled, and the court ordered that all copies be destroyed. Whether or not that happened is hard to substantiate, but if the video is lurking in storage somewhere, it has never been excavated. “Nightmare on My Street” has never resurfaced.

If Smith and Townes were bothered by the outcome, they didn’t voice it publicly. Smith even dressed up as Krueger in a 1990 episode of his sitcom, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. But there is one additional bit of film trivia to come out of the case: In seeking to resolve the issue, New Line offered DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince a two-film option. If they accepted the roles, their salaries would be deducted from the settlement payout. One of those projects was 1990’s House Party, which the two declined. The roles eventually went to Kid ‘n Play.

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