En español | A perfect love song can feel like a beautifully written short story, as if you're dropping in for a few minutes on a great romance, a new fling or a torrid affair in decline. But sometimes the origin stories for these songs can be even more compelling — with enough passion, humor, coincidences and quirky characters to fill a novel. Here, a playlist of songs with unexpected backstories that you may never be able to listen to the same way again.
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"I Will Always Love You” by Dolly Parton (1973)
If you've heard Whitney Houston's 1992 cover from The Bodyguard, you might assume this bittersweet ballad was written at the end of a romantic relationship, but it was actually something more akin to a resignation letter. Parton, now 75, appeared on The Porter Wagoner Show for seven years and recorded a dozen albums with her musical mentor, but by 1973 she hoped to strike out on her own, and she wrote this song as a musical farewell. While it was designed to soften the blow, its impact was debatable: In 1979, Wagoner filed a $3 million lawsuit for breach of contract, and the two were estranged for years. They later reconciled, and Parton inducted Wagoner into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2002.
"Eight Days a Week” by the Beatles (1964)
Blame this sweet pop hit on Paul McCartney, 78, having a bit of a lead foot. In 1963, McCartney was fined £31 and had his driver's license revoked for a year after receiving too many speeding tickets. Later, as a chauffeur drove him out to John Lennon's house in Weybridge for a songwriting session, McCartney started making small talk. “I said, ‘How've you been?'” he recalled in the 2000 Beatles Anthology book. “'Oh, working hard,’ he said, ‘working eight days a week.'” McCartney ran inside the house, knowing he had a perfect title, and the duo wrote the song in the next hour.
"Layla” by Derek and the Dominos (1971)
If you've listened to this rock classic or the 1992 Unplugged version, you might assume Eric Clapton, 75, was truly, madly, deeply in love with a woman named Layla — but it turns out that the real story goes back more than a millennium. A Muslim friend of Clapton's had given the guitar legend a copy of the 12th-century Persian poem “Layla and Majnun,” which was itself based on a 7th-century Arabian story, about a young man driven mad by his unrequited love for a woman from a rival clan. When Clapton fell in love with Pattie Boyd, 76, George Harrison's wife, he turned to the poem for inspiration; he once wrote the following inside a book he gave her: “Dear Layla, for nothing more than the pleasures past I would sacrifice my family, my God, and my own existence, and still you will not move.” Though “Layla and Majnun” ends with both lovers dead, Clapton and Boyd eventually married. She inspired the 1977 hit “Wonderful Tonight"; they divorced in 1989.
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"Save the Last Dance for Me” by the Drifters (1960)
Stricken with polio as a child, songwriter Doc Pomus later began using a wheelchair after a bad fall down the stairs. During his wedding to Broadway actress Willi Burke, he was unable to join her on the dance floor, and she danced instead with his brother, Raoul Felder. In the book Lonely Avenue: The Unlikely Life and Times of Doc Pomus, author Alex Halberstadt recounts a story about how Pomus later found a wedding invitation in a hatbox and jotted down the lyrics as the memories of that night came flooding back. “But don't forget who's takin’ you home, and in whose arms you're gonna be,” he wrote. “So darling, save the last dance for me.” First recorded by the Drifters, the song has been covered by the likes of Emmylou Harris, Dolly Parton, Leonard Cohen and Michael Bublé. In a rock history twist, Pomus’ daughter later gave the lyrics-covered invitation to a friend from the neighborhood: Lou Reed.
"Unchained Melody” by the Righteous Brothers (1965)
The second you hear the first strains of this emotion-packed classic, you might think back to that sensual pottery scene in Ghost. But the song can trace its roots to a different film entirely — one that explains that mysterious title. The song first appeared in the 1955 prison film Unchained, in which a character sings an acoustic version to his cellmates, but it almost didn't come to fruition. When composer Alex North reached out to Tin Pan Alley songwriter Hy Zaret about writing lyrics, he said he was too busy painting his house. And when Zaret later agreed to take on the project, he flatly denied the film producers’ request to include the word “unchained” somewhere in the song. In 1955, three different versions of the song reached the Billboard Top 10 in the U.S., four charted in the U.K., and it was nominated for an Oscar for best original song — a full decade before the Righteous Brothers released their version.
"Total Eclipse of the Heart” by Bonnie Tyler (1983)
Songwriter Jim Steinman, 73, is known for the bombastic power ballads he collaborated on with Meat Loaf, 73, but perhaps no song better encapsulates his almost Wagnerian scope than this dramatic radio hit by husky-voiced Welsh singer Bonnie Tyler, 69. If you've seen the iconically creepy music video, set in a Gothic sanatorium with glowing-eyed schoolboys, you might guess there's something darker at play: It turns out that Steinman originally called the song “Vampires in Love” and wrote it for a musical version of Nosferatu, giving new meaning to lyrics like “Forever's gonna start tonight” and “I'm always in the dark.” Steinman later recycled the song for his 2002 Broadway musical Dance of the Vampires.
"I Don't Want to Miss a Thing” by Aerosmith (1998)
Songwriter Diane Warren, 64, has earned 11 Oscar nominations for her original film songs, including this power ballad from the 1998 disaster epic Armageddon. In the movie, it's the love anthem for Ben Affleck and Liv Tyler (the daughter of Aerosmith frontman Steven Tyler, 72), but the spark for the song came from another budding Hollywood romance: Barbra Streisand, 78, and James Brolin, 80. Warren was watching a 20/20 interview with the new couple, when Streisand told Barbara Walters, 91: “And we're just about to fall asleep, I thought, and he says, ‘I don't want to fall asleep.’ And so I say, ‘Why not?’ and he says, ‘'Cause then I'll miss you.'” Warren jotted down the eventual title, and the rest is history.