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Who’s the Muse?: The Stories Behind Your Favorite Tunes

If you’ve ever wondered who was the inspiration behind these beloved popular songs, one author got the scoop

spinner image musicians Stevie Wonder, Loretta Lynn, and Gladys Knight in vintage performance photos
(Left to right) Stevie Wonder, Loretta Lynn, Gladys Knight and Gordon Lightfoot
George Wilkes/Hulton Archive/Getty Images; Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images; ABC Photo Archives/Disney General Entertainment; Jeff Goode/Toronto Star/Getty Images

You’ve heard these hit songs countless times; on one those listenings, you might have wondered, “Who’s that song really about?” In his two volumes of oral histories, music journalist Marc Myers interviewed singers and songwriters and got the real stories behind 100 popular tunes. Turns out they are populated with lovers, rivals, drifters and other colorful characters.

‘Love’s in Need of Love Today’

Stevie Wonder, 1976

spinner image Stevie Wonder, American musician, singer and songwriter. A child prodigy, he developed into one of the most creative and loved musical figures of the late 20th century.
George Wilkes/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Wonder: I wrote the song’s basic idea in late 1974 in my hotel room in New York, when Yolanda [Simmons] was pregnant with our daughter, Aisha. The concept I had in mind was that for love to be effective, it has to be fed. Love by itself is hollow. I didn’t have all the words for the song at first, only the title phrase.

To this day, I never sit down and formally write songs. They emerge from the process of listening to what I’m doing on the keyboard. I get my inspiration from experiences that can be painful or beautiful.

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Life is endless, so there will forever be songs about things that happen in life. But hearing the song back in the studio hurt, because it was so emotional. When I performed it in New York recently, I broke down. I’ve seen people come and go, and live and die, cry and laugh. It all came rushing back.

‘Fist City’

Loretta Lynn, 1968

spinner image Loretta Lynn poses for a publicity still circa 1965
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Lynn: The inspiration for “Fist City” was a girl who had moved close to our home so she could make a play for my husband, Doo [Oliver “Doolittle” Lynn]. I could see what was going on between them when I saw them together. The last straw was hearing rumors about them while I was recording in Nashville. Driving home that afternoon in my Cadillac, I was real mad and wrote “Fist City” in my head during the 75-mile trip. All I could think about was what she was doing to my family and what I wanted to say to her. The further I drove, the madder I got.

Doo and I never did talk about the song and the meaning of all the words, but I sensed he knew exactly what it was about. I’m sure the woman I had in mind knew the song was about her. After the record came out, she stayed away for a good long time.

‘She’s Gone’

Hall & Oates, 1973

spinner image Daryl Hall and John Oates in 1975
Daryl Hall (left) and John Oates
Chris Walter/WireImage/Getty Images

John Oates: One night in Greenwich Village, I ended up at the Pink Teacup on Bleecker Street at 2 a.m. In came this gal in a pink tutu with cowboy boots but no coat. Hardly anyone was there, so we started talking. She said her name was Freddy Littlebird. Hey, it was the early ’70s.

At some point, I asked her if she wanted to get together that Sunday night on New Year’s Eve. She said yes. But on Sunday, Freddy never showed. She was gone. Bummed, I sat on the sofa strumming my acoustic guitar and started singing a folky refrain about being stood up.

I saw Freddy here and there in the Village in the months ahead. I never asked her why she didn’t show New Year’s Eve. By then, Daryl and I were touring. Talk about she’s gone — I was gone. The past didn’t matter much anymore.

‘Groovin’ ’

The Young Rascals, 1967

spinner image The Young Rascals (later known as the Rascals) posed circa 1965
GAB Archive/Redferns/Getty Images

Felix Cavaliere (singer and cowriter): Back in 1966, I was hopelessly in love with a girl I was dating named Adrienne. I had met her at a friend’s house in Pelham Manor, New York, where I’m from, and she became my muse.

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Adrienne was my first serious girlfriend, and our relationship lasted about a year. Many of my best songs were written about her — or because of her — including “Lonely Too Long,” “Girl Like You” and “How Can I Be Sure.” Like most musicians, I always worked Friday and Saturday nights — which meant Adrienne and I only had Sundays together. “Groovin’ ” expressed the bliss I felt relaxing with her, watching the world go by.

Adrienne knew “Groovin’ ” was written about her and us. When I played her the single, she smiled and said, “Wow, that’s lovely.” Adrienne was an angel who came into my life and left.

‘If It Makes You Happy’

Sheryl Crow, 1996

spinner image Sheryl Crow lying on guitar case, 1995
Interfoto/Alamy Stock Photo

Jeff Trott (guitarist and cowriter): I started writing “If It Makes You Happy” right after my girlfriend, Quinn, broke up with me in 1994. Starting the song was part of the grieving process. I opened a crappy $1 bottle of sherry and sat at my little Baldwin Acrosonic piano. I thought about what I could have done to keep her in L.A. I turned on my little cassette player-recorder and started ranting.

Crow: When Jeff played me what he had for “If It Makes You Happy,” I heard it as a message to quit complaining. By that point, my first album had sold 6 million copies, so how could everything be so bad?

Trott: After the Sheryl Crow tour, I reached out to Quinn and I asked if she’d heard “If It Makes You Happy.” I told her that she was the inspiration. The line went quiet. Then she said, “Oh, wow.” Today, Quinn and I live in Nashville, Tennessee. We married in 2005 and have two sons.

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‘Midnight Train to Georgia’

Gladys Knight & the Pips, 1973

spinner image Gladys Knight in concert, August 27, 1973
Gladys Knight
ABC Photo Archives/Disney General Entertainment

Jim Weatherly (songwriter): One evening in 1970, I called Lee Majors, an actor friend who had just started dating model Farrah Fawcett. Farrah answered. She said Lee wasn’t home and that she was packing to take a midnight plane to Houston to visit her folks. “What a great line for a song,” I thought. I grabbed my guitar and wrote “Midnight Plane to Houston” in about 45 minutes.

Cissy Houston (who recorded the song in 1972): I loved the song, but I wanted to change the title. My people are originally from Georgia, and they didn’t take planes to Houston or anywhere else.

Knight: While recording that single [later], I was thinking about my own situation. My husband was unhappy because I was often on the road or recording. I was going through the same thing that I was singing about — which is probably why it sounds so personal.


Gordon Lightfoot, 1974

spinner image Gordon Lightfoot being interviewed by the Toronto Star's Peter Goddard at the Pilot Tavern in 1975.
Jeff Goode/Toronto Star/Getty Images

Lightfoot: I was living with a woman named Cathy.

Late one afternoon in July, Cathy said she was going into town for a night with her girlfriends. I wasn’t happy about that. After she left, I watched the sun set slowly out back. I felt tremendous jealousy. Once the ball of orange disappeared behind the hills, I grabbed my Gibson 12-string guitar and began writing a song. As I wrote, I couldn’t help imagining that Cathy was chatting up guys.

The sunset was so beautiful that evening; it made me mellow and aware of what I was feeling and how saving the relationship was pretty much impossible. But I was happy the relationship was winding down. You can hear my two different emotions in the song — a sense of blues and relief.

‘Hello It’s Me’

Todd Rundgren, 1973

spinner image Todd Rundgren
LFI/Photoshot/Everett Collection

Rundgren: Senior year in high school, I had a crush on a girl named Linda. One day, a friend dropped us off at Linda’s house. Her father hated me on sight. He turned the garden hose on me. Long hair on a guy was a red flag for parents.

A day or two later, Linda told me she was forbidden to see me. That Christmas, I wanted to make a gesture to win her back. I saved up and bought her a pantsuit. When I went to her house, the only person there was her sister, who invited me in. When I left, I realized I had to stop this. Writing my song, I decided to make the lyrics about our breakup. But instead of being the victim, I turned the song’s story around so I was breaking up with her. This gave me a little power and allowed me to imagine how I might have done things differently over the phone.


Joni Mitchell, 1971

spinner image Canadian singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell playing an Appalachian dulcimer, 1971.
GAB Archive/Redferns/Getty Images

Mitchell: My friend Penelope and I went to see what Matala [a fishing village on Crete] was all about. Most of the hippies there slept in caves carved into a cliff. Penelope and I walked down to the beach. An explosion went off behind us. I turned around just in time to see this guy with a red beard blowing through the door of a café. He was wearing a white turban, white Nehru shirt and white cotton pants. I said to Penelope, “What an entrance — I have to meet this guy.”

He was American and a cook at one of the cafés. Apparently, when he had lit the stove, it blew him out the door. That’s how Cary Raditz entered my life — kaboom! Soon I moved into one of the caves. I enjoyed Cary’s company, and his audacity. I wrote “Carey” as a birthday present. As for the extra “e,” that was a misspelling on my part.

Adapted from Anatomy of a Song © 2016 by Marc Myers and Anatomy of 55 More Songs © 2022 by Marc Myers. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher, Grove Press, an imprint of Grove Atlantic Inc. All rights reserved.

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