It’s pretty fair to say that the majority of songs written by men are about women. Whether these songs are love songs, lust songs, breakup songs, or make up songs, these singers found that the best way to deal with their emotions was to sing about them.
In many cases, these songs weren’t just about some abstract girlfriend. In fact, many of these singers were inspired by a real girl they knew, loved, or wish they were dating. And if this girl wasn’t famous before the song hit the airwaves, well, she is now. So, without further ado, this is our list of the women who inspired some of the world’s greatest songs.
“Peggy Sue, Peggy Sue
Oh, how my heart yearns for you.”
Inspiration: Peggy Sue Gerron
Peggy Sue was named after drummer Jerry Allison’s girlfriend and future wife, Peggy Sue Gerron Rackham. The couple was actually broken up at the time, and this was Holly’s way of helping his friend out.
According to her memoir, Whatever Happened to Penny Sue?, Gerron said that when she first heard the song, she was “so embarrassed, I could have died.” Well, the song worked, and Gerron and Allison quickly got back together. However, their reconciliation was short-lived. After being married for most of the ‘60s, the pair called in quits. Gerron went on to become a dental assistant and eventually remarried.
“‘Cause I love my girl,
Donna, where can you be?”
Inspiration: Donna Ludwig
Donna was written by Richie Valens to his high school sweetheart, Donna Ludwig. The song was so popular that it reached the number two spot on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.
Unfortunately, Valens died in a plane crash along with Buddy Holly and J. P. Richardson, just eight months into his music career. He was only 17 years old. She first learned of the song Donna after Valens called her up one night to tell her that he had written a little something for her. “Of course, I cried,” Ludwig later told reporters at ABC. “It was just very, very touching.”
“Tall and tan and young and lovely
The girl from Ipanema goes walking”
Inspiration: Helô Pinheiro
Her full name is actually Heloísa Eneida Menezes Paes Pinto (say that five times fast), and had she not looked so good walking down the beaches of Rio de Janeiro, the world would have been deprived of one of the greatest elevator songs of all time.
Jokes aside, The Girl from Ipanema was so popular that it won a Grammy Award for Record of the year in 1965. Crazy! The hit song not only launched Stan Getz into the limelight but Pinheiro as well. Soon after the song’s release, Pinheiro began her career as a model and successful businesswoman. She became a Brazilian Playmate in the ’80s and then again in 2003.
“I’m not the one you want, babe
I will only let you down.”
Inspiration: Suze Rotolo
While singer-songwriter Bob Dylan hasn’t outright said who It Ain’t Me, Babe is about, his biographers all agree that the song was inspired by his former girlfriend. Dylan supposedly wrote the song while traveling in Italy in 1963.
His girlfriend at the time, Suze Rotolo, was studying there, and Dylan popped over to say hello. Rotolo was a huge influence on Dylan’s music during that period. She is the woman on the cover of his ’63 album The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. But after the two broke up in ’64, Dylan’s next girlfriend, Joan Baez, recorded her version of the song that same year.
“Is she breathing? Yes, very low
Whatcha doing, Jennifer, my love?”
Inspiration: Jenny Boyd
Oh, those alluring Boyd sisters. Two years before her older sister Pattie became the subject of Eric Clapton’s Layla, Jenny Boyd inspired a much sunnier tune. Donovan’s Jennifer Juniper was inspired by the ’60s IT girl, despite the fact they were never in a relationship. Donovan (Donovan Phillips Leitch) did, however, admit that he had a huge crush on Jenny. The same year the track was released, Jenny traveled to Rishikesh, India, along with the Beatles, Donovan, and her older sister Pattie for a training session in Transcendental Meditation.
“I am yours, you are mine
You are what you are”
Inspiration: Judy Collins
Stephen Stills penned this song as a farewell to his girlfriend of two years, Judy Collins. Unfortunately for Stills, Collins (who was known for her piercing blue eyes) fell in love with her co-star Stacy Keach, whom she met while appearing in the New York Shakespeare Festival musical production of Peer Gynt. Stills was devastated by the possible (and eventual) breakup, and in fact, the supergroup Crosby, Stills, and Nash was formed so they could record his song.
Good times never seemed so good.”
Inspiration: Caroline Kennedy / Marcia Murphey
In an interview from 2007, Neil Diamond said that the inspiration behind this song actually came from a photograph of John F. Kennedy’s daughter, Caroline, sitting on her horse with her family behind her. Diamond said that the photo was so great that he needed to create a story behind it. The rest of the song came together about five years after seeing the photograph. Diamond later changed his story, probably after receiving loads of backlash, and said that the song was actually about his then-wife Marcia.
“Layla, you’ve got me on my knees
Layla, I’m begging, darling, please.”
Inspiration: Pattie Boyd
Pattie Boyd and Eric Clapton first met in the late ’60s, when Boyd was married to his good friend, George Harrison. The singer was in love with his best friend’s wife, but at the time, she wouldn’t leave her husband to be with him. So, what did Clapton do? He began dating Pattie’s sister Paula. It’s kind of the same, right? But when Paula heard Layla, she realized that Clapton was only dating her because he couldn’t have her sister, and she ended the relationship. He later married Pattie Boyd in 1979, they divorced 10 years later.
“I’ll light the fire, you place the flowers in the vase
That you bought today.”
Inspiration: Joni Mitchell
Graham Nash and his girlfriend Joni Mitchell moved in together (along with her two cats) in 1968. They chose a cute, little house in Laurel Canyon, Los Angeles. Seeing that Nash was a songwriter, he looked for inspiration everywhere, and buying this house was no different. The pair went out for breakfast one morning and bought a vase for a great price on Ventura Boulevard. Nash then decided to write about this very ordinary but beautiful moment while Mitchel went outside to pick flowers from the garden.
“I can hear her heartbeat for a thousand miles
And the heavens open every time she smiles.”
Inspiration: Janet “Planet” Rigsbee
The most important woman in singer-songwriter Van Morrison’s life is his first wife, Janet Rigsbee, whom he called “Janet Planet.” When Rigsbee first met Morrison, she was making ends meet as a model and actress. Soon after the two met, Morrison faced deportation, so Rigsbee agreed to marry him. The couple had a daughter named Shana, who would go on to share the stage with her father. Unfortunately, Rigsbee and Morrison’s love didn’t last, and they divorced in ’73.
“Two of us riding nowhere
Spending someone’s hard-earned pay.”
Inspiration: Linda McCartney
Linda McCartney was the inspiration for several of Paul’s songs. Their initial courtship and travel adventures were captured in Two of Us, while Paul expressed their deep connection in Maybe I’m Amazed. Long-Haired Lady is about his first impression of his future wife, and My Love shows the passion he felt towards Linda. It just goes to show how the right person can make you feel so many emotions. Paul and Linda remained married until her untimely death in ’98.
“Oh, baby baby, it’s a wild world
It’s hard to get by just upon a smile.”
Inspiration: Patti D’Arbanville
Patti D’Arbanville was a model, actress, and member of Andy Warhol’s Factory scene. While working as a model in London in the late ’60s, D’Arbanville met and fell in love with singer-songwriter Cat Stevens. The two dated for around two years, but D’Arbanville was always leaving Stevens so she could pursue her career in Paris and New York. Stevens took these leaves of absences pretty hard. “So, while I was in New York, for him, it was like I was lying in a coffin,” D’Arbanville later said of Wild World.
“Brown sugar, how come you taste so good, baby?
Ah, come down, brown sugar”
Inspiration: Marsha Hunt
The identity of the woman who inspired Rolling Stone’s controversial song Brown Sugar has been debated for years. While one of the band’s backup singers claims that the song was about her, Mick Jagger’s baby mama, Marsha Hunt, says that Jagger wrote the song about her. Hunt and Jagger first met after he asked her to pose for an ad for Honky Tonk Women, which she ended up turning down. The two ended up dating for ten months. Jagger is also the father of her only child, Karis.
“Yeah, but you got away, didn’t you, babe?
You just turned your back on the crowd.”
Inspiration: Janis Joplin
Chelsea Hotel #2 is a track on Leonard Cohen’s 1974 album New Skin for the Old Ceremony. The lyrics detail a private night he shared with Janis Joplin at the famous Chelsea Hotel in New York. Cohen was very upfront about the night they spent together and talked about it for years. But Cohen later regretted making his private life so public. He released an apology in 1994, which read, in part, that the “song was an indiscretion for which I’m very sorry.”
“Isn’t she lovely? Isn’t she wonderful?
Isn’t she precious?”
Inspiration: Aisha Morris
The hit track, Isn’t She Lovely, was released by Stevie Wonder in 1976. And while most of these songs on our list were inspired by girlfriends or wives, this song was actually inspired by the birth of Wonder’s daughter Aisha Morris. The album version of the song starts off with Morris’ first cry after she was born. How sentimental is that? The radio version, however, edited the crying sounds out so they could make the song shorter for radio play.
“‘Cause I live and breathe
This Philadelphia freedom.”
Inspiration: Billie Jean King
Elton John asked writer Bernie Taupin to pen a tribute to his good friend, Billie Jean King. Taupin reportedly replied that he was flattered for the honor but that “I can’t write a song about tennis.” King was a member of a World Team Tennis squad called The Philadelphia Freedom. The song isn’t exactly about Philadelphia or tennis, but it was a catchy enough tribute to top the charts, peaking at the number three spot. The track also became an alternate theme song for the American bicentennial.
“You just slip out the back, Jack
Make a new plan, Stan.”
Inspiration: Carrie Fisher
Paul Simon wrote this song not long after leaving his wife, Peggy Harper, to be with actress Carrie Fisher. Simon and Fisher were together for seven years, but their relationship was far from perfect. The pair wed in 1983 only to divorce less than a year later and then date again. 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover was about his relationship with Carrie and it is his biggest solo hit. The track peaked at number one on the Billboard Hot 100, making it his only number one as a solo artist.
“My, my, my, ay, ah, woh!
Inspiration: Sharona Alperin
Doug Fieger was 25 when he fell head over heels for 17-year-old Sharona Alperin. “He was nine years older than me,” Alperin, who was actually introduced to the musician by his girlfriend. “And within a month or two later, he told me that, ‘I’m in love with you, you’re my soulmate, you’re my other half, we’re going to be together one day.'” But unfortunately for Fieger, Alperin was “madly in love” with her boyfriend at the time. Around a year later, Alperin left her boyfriend and began dating Fieger. I guess the song worked.
“Woman, I can hardly express
My mixed emotions at my thoughtlessness.”
Inspiration: Yoko Ono
In an interview with Rolling Stone Magazine in December 1980, just days before his murder, John Lennon said that he came across an idea for this song while spending time in Bermuda with his wife, Yoko Ono. “It suddenly hit me what women do for us. Not just what my Yoko does for me, although I was thinking in those personal terms,” the songwriter explained. “What dawned on me was everything I was taking for granted. Women really are the other half of the sky.”
“Just one word from her, and my troubles are long gone
But I think I’ll get along.”
Inspiration: Theresa Russell
Pete Townshend first wrote Athena after a night out with actress Theresa Russell. The pair saw Pink Floyd in concert, along with Russell’s friend Bill Minkin. Russell was set to wed director Nic Roeg, but Townshend was smitten and decided to shoot his shot anyway. The actress was unimpressed by his attempts to romance her. “I was really out of my mind with frustration and grief because she didn’t reciprocate,’ Townshend later said of the incident.
“She’s been living in her uptown world
I bet she’s never had a backstreet guy.”
Inspiration: Christie Brinkley
If you’ve seen the music video for this song, then you know that Billy Joel’s inspiration for this song was his supermodel girlfriend and future wife, Christie Brinkley. But did you know that this is only half the truth? According to an interview with Howard Stern, Joel originally wanted to call the track Uptown Girls, and that the song was originally about his relationship with another supermodel, Elle Macpherson. But before Joel finished writing the lyrics, the relationship ended, and Joel began dating Brinkley.
“I see your face every time I dream
On every page, every magazine.”
Inspiration: Marilyn Monroe
Joel Elliot from Def Leppard was only three years old when actress and model Marilyn Monroe died in 1962. The band would often dedicate Photograph to Monroe before performing it in concert, and the music video even has a Monroe lookalike. However, Elliot later said that the song wasn’t really about her. They just wanted to express extreme infatuation for a woman and Monroe was a good way to promote the track. We’re not buying it, though.
“Oh, Sherrie, our love
Holds on, holds on”
Inspiration: Sherrie Swafford
Steve Perry wrote this track as a tribute to his girlfriend, Sherrie Swafford, who also played the object of his affection in the music video. While the relationship didn’t last (the couple broke up after six years of dating), Oh Sherrie is one of two of Perry’s hit songs (after Don’t Stop Believin’, of course). The track peaked at number three on the U.S. Pop charts and number one on the U.S. Rock charts. It seems that Swafford was the love of Perry’s life as he has never married.
“How can you just walk away from me?
When all I can do is watch you leave.”
Inspiration: Andrea Bertorelli
Musician Phil Collins is known for his pop hits and semi-sappy songs. And while he is a very talented musician, most people don’t associate his name with deeply emotional songs. Yet, Against All Odds is one of the most heartbreaking songs in pop history. Collins’ penned the track after ending his five-year marriage with Andrea Bertorelli. He found himself all alone in the house with no wife and no kids. Collins later told interviewers at that he hoped this song would bring the couple back together (which never happened).
“The lady in red is dancing with me, cheek to cheek,
There’s nobody here, it’s just you and me.”
Inspiration: Diane Davison
Sure, the Lady in Red is a staple in yogurt commercials nowadays, but back in the 1980s, the song was a smash hit. Released on Chris de Burgh’s album Into the Light, the track was inspired by the memory of when the singer first saw his would-be wife, Diane Davison. The couple went on to marry and have three kids. Their only daughter, Rosanna, went on to win Miss World in 2003.
“All my instincts, they return
The grand facade, so soon will burn”
Inspiration: Rosanna Arquette
While Peter Gabriel never announced that this song was about Rosanna Arquette, we can safely assume that it was, especially since the two were living together at the time. When film director Cameron Crowe wanted to use the song in his film, Say Anything…, Gabriel refused. But Arquette came to the rescue and ended up convincing Gabriel to let Crowe use it. The song was used in the film’s trailer, as well as in the iconic scene where Lloyd Dobler serenades his ex-girlfriend with the track.
“I wanted to run, but she made me crawl
Oh, oh, oh, the sweetest thing.”
Inspiration: Ali Hewson
Bono of U2 wrote Sweetest Thing as an apology to his wife, Ali Hewson. The singer felt horrible after neglecting her for months at a time (and even missing her birthday) because of all the hours he spent recording his band’s album Joshua Tree. The track was released as a single, and U2 donated all of the profits to a charity of Hewson’s choice: Chernobyl Children’s Project International. How sweet is that? Hewson sure is one lucky girl!
“Whoa, oh, oh
Sweet child o’ mine.”
Inspiration: Erin Everly
Singer Axl Rose penned this song about his girlfriend Erin Everly (the daughter of Don Everly of the Everly Brothers). After dating for four years, the two officially tied the knot in a quicky Las Vegas wedding, but their relationship was far from happily ever after. Less than a month later, Everly filed for divorce, but the couple quickly reconciled. But after suffering a miscarriage a few months later, the two just couldn’t make it work. The marriage was annulled just nine months after their wedding day (with Everly citing physical and emotional abuse).
“And it seems to me you lived your life
Like a candle in the wind.”
Inspiration: Princess Diana
Elton John’s first version of Candle in the Wind, which was released in ’73, was a tribute to Marilyn Monroe. But following Princess Diana’s untimely death in ’97, John’s lyricist Bernie Taupin adjusted the words to fit the princess’s circumstances. John sang the tune at Diana’s funeral in September 1997, and as the world mourned, copies of the single seemed to fly off the shelves. Candle in the Wind 1997 remains one of the two best-selling singles of all time.
“Cause I’d miss you, babe
And I don’t want to miss a thing.”
Inspiration: Barbara Streisand
Surprisingly enough, Barbara Streisand is the inspiration behind Aerosmith’s ballad, I Don’t Wanna Miss a Thing. It all began when songwriter Diane Warren saw Streisand on a 20/20 episode with Barbara Walters. The singer was telling a story about her relationship with then-fiancé James Brolin. ‘I don’t want to fall asleep,'” Brolin told Streisand. “And so, I say, ‘Why not?’ And he says, ”Cause then I’ll miss you.'” Warren immediately scribbled down the title I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing, and the rest is history.
“Never know what she means to me
I fell for the girl that’s on TV.”
Inspiration: Jennifer Love Hewitt
Every girl on earth wants her boyfriend to write a song about her, right? Well, when that girl is a famous actress, and her boyfriend is in a band, then that’s bound to happen. According to several sources, Jennifer Love Hewitt actually asked her then-boyfriend Rich Cronin from LFO to write her a song. But while the track was a hit, it didn’t stop Hewitt from dumping Cronin the following year. Cronin later revealed that Hewitt had cheated on him.
“You told me you love me
Why did you leave me all alone?”
Inspiration: Britney Spears
In 2002, Justin Timberlake launched his solo career with a bang. His first album, Justified, went multi-platinum, and his lead single, Cry Me a River, ended up winning a Grammy for Best Male Vocal Performance. While everyone speculated that the song was about his ex-girlfriend Britney Spears, Timberlake denied it. He kept with the story for years even though no one believed him. But then, in 2011, producer Timbaland confirmed that the song was, in fact, about Spears.
“Like Moses has power over sea
So, you’ve got power over me.”
Inspiration: Gwyneth Paltrow
Remember when actress Gwyneth Paltrow was married to Chris Martin from Coldplay? Well, in case you’ve forgotten, this song might jog your memory. Martin later said that this song is “about falling in love with the most beautiful woman in the world,” aka his ex-wife. The title of the song later served as inspiration for the couple’s second son, whom they also named Moses. Unfortunately, the couple was unable to make things work and “consciously uncoupled” in 2016.
“Hey there, Delilah
What’s it like in New York City?”
Inspiration: Delilah DiCrescenzo
The real-life Delilah, who was a competitive cross-country runner at Columbia University in New York City, never actually dated Tom Higgenson from the Plain White Ts. And although Higgenson has said that the relationship between the two was indeed fiction, he did admit to hoping that the song would impress her. However, Delilah was dating someone else at the time and wasn’t all too interested. It also didn’t help that the song seemed to follow her wherever she went.