This isn’t going to be a list of 40 songs with a short blurb about each one. This also isn’t going to be a deep dive into five songs that you already know well. We know that you know, for instance, what the Eagles’ Hotel California is about, or that both Eric Clapton’s Layla and the Beatles’ “Something” were written about the same woman – Pattie Boyd.
The following songs are not just famous, but great and even addictive to listen to. They also happen to have fascinating stories behind them. We just never knew about them. After reading this, you’re going to find it hard not to find the songs and give them a listen again. Only this time, it’ll be with a new perspective.
We will be covering the following songs:
Fastball – The Way
Survivor – Eye of the Tiger
Bill Withers – Ain’t No Sunshine
Moody Blues – Nights In White Satin
Lori Leiberman – Killing Me Softly (With His Song)
Ben. E. King, Leiber & Stoller – Stand By Me
You’ve heard Fastball’s The Way on the radio countless times once it came out in 1998. You’ve bobbed your head and probably sang along to the hit single. But have you ever really paid attention to the lyrics? And, if you have, did you realize that the story is actually true? Who knew that an elderly couple from Salado, Texas, with a truly tragic story, would inspire a chart-topping hit…
It all started with a summer tradition called Pioneer Day Festival in Temple, Texas. For Lela and Raymond Howard, it was a tradition that took on greater meaning than, let’s say, the Thanksgiving Parade or Easter. Pioneer Day was something these two attended every year.
Both Lela and Raymond were previously married and met each other in church. Despite Raymond being 88 and undergoing a recent brain surgery, and Lela being 83 and showing symptoms of memory loss, the two had a renewed lust for life and love.
“I think they just enjoyed going and doing things together. Nanny always used to – that’s the main word she stood by is ‘go,’” said Rhonda Alford Coleman, Lela’s granddaughter. One Saturday, on June 29, 1997, Lela and Howard were ready to “go.” The old couple were in love, and they liked to go places together. But their family was more than just a little concerned.
They started noticing Lela’s memory loss – her forgetfulness. Their concerns got to a point where they felt the need to prevent the two from driving. The children and grandchildren even hid their car keys for a while. By June 1997, after her grandson Hal Ray Copeland felt bad and gave her back her keys, Lela was doing most of the driving for the couple.
And when it came time for Pioneer Day, the family offered to assist. Copeland even asked his grandmother, “Do you want me to go with you and drive the car?” But Lela replied, “Oh no, we’ll be fine.” Famous last words…
“They made up their minds
And they started packing
They left before the sun came up that day
An exit to eternal summer slacking
But where were they going without ever knowing the way?”
The trip from their home in Belton to the festival in Temple was only 10 miles – 15 minutes tops. Coleman immediately knew something was wrong. “They’d stay until about 3 usually. When it got 5, and they weren’t home, and then it was 8, and they weren’t home, I went out to the TV stations, and they put it on TV that night,” Coleman recalled. The family drove to their local Wal-Mart, where the Howards typically stopped for a daily coffee and donut but found no sign of them there.
“Their children woke up
And they couldn’t find ’em
They left before the sun came up that day
They just drove off and left it all behind ’em
Leaving it all behind
But where were they going without ever knowing the way?”
The couple had simply vanished. Their disappearance created widespread media attention, including the Austin-American Statesman newspaper. Meanwhile, the manager of the Austin-based band Fastball encouraged the lead singer Tony Scalzo to look to the newspaper for some song inspiration. At the time, Fastball was running a college market, as Scalzo recalled, and they didn’t really have an established sound.
Scalzo, along with guitarist and singer Miles Zuniga and drummer Joey Shuffield, tried to come up with new material for their second album. So, Scalzo took their manager’s advice and looked at the newspaper for some inspiration. “I looked in,” he recalled, and “right away, this story sort of struck me.”
“It was sort of an ongoing story. Still no developments in the case of the missing couple,” he said. But as he kept reading about Lela and Raymond – the missing couple – the wheels in his mind started moving. “I just started getting these ideas; well, maybe they don’t want to be found, maybe they’re just like – they’re sick of being responsible and they just want to go out and have fun.”
Within a few hours, Scalzo already wrote the bulk of the song. In the meantime, authorities were searching high and low for the Howards. The police were getting all kinds of calls in the first week of their disappearance about spotting an older couple, which gave hope to the family.
According to Lela’s grandson, Randy Alford, “They got pulled over one time by a cop – he questioned them, but he let them go.” Reportedly, an officer in Arkansas – hundreds of miles from Salado and the festival – stopped the Howards for driving without their lights on. So, he just flicked them on and let the couple go.
Apparently, Lela had family in Arkansas and was familiar with the area. But no relatives were aware of their whereabouts. The stop by the officer did narrow the search area, but there were still no answers. Everyone was left scratching their heads and dreading the worst.
On day 13 of the search, there was a break. As two boys were walking home from a video store, they passed a little creek area. They noticed a strong smell, so when they got home, they told their parents. “And that’s when all of it started,” said Coleman.
“You can see their shadows wandering off somewhere
They won’t make it home
But they really don’t care
They wanted the highway
They’re happier there today.”
When police checked the area, they found the Howards’ maroon Oldsmobile at the bottom of a 25-foot cliff near Hot Springs, Arkansas. As tragic as it was, Alford described it as a “relief,” saying that “a lot of families don’t have that closure. And that must be very hard.”
As for Scalzo of Fastball, the song was ready, and the story was recounted. Their manager wanted The Way to be the single on their new album, All the Pain Money Can Buy.
The decision was made, and the track was sent to radio stations across the country. “Little by little, people started paying attention. The radio started paying attention. The label starts paying attention,” Scalzo explained.
But the Howards’ family didn’t even know, at the time, that The Way was about Lela and Raymond. Copeland recalled hearing the song, thinking how it “sounded like Momma and Mr. Howard – the way they died. You could tell by the way it sounded.” A few days later, his instincts were confirmed. The song that quickly rose to #1 was indeed a living tribute to his mother.
“I liked it, really. I liked the song (a lot),” Copeland said. “I was just blown away, I just couldn’t believe somebody would do something like that for my grandma,” Alford added. “Powerful, very powerful.”
Fastball’s album ended up going Platinum, making the band a worldwide sensation. For seven weeks, The Way topped the charts. The way Scalzo sees it, the song enhanced the Howards’ story. “No one else has a story like that. There are other stories, but it’s not this story,” said Scalzo. For Alford, the song is part of the closure.
“Yo, this is Sylvester Stallone. We need to talk.” When Sly calls you telling you he needs to talk, you listen. As it turns out, Rocky himself was the one who took the band Survivor to champion status with their hit single Eye of the Tiger. And it all started with a little movie called Rocky III.
The title track of Survivor’s third album, Eye of the Tiger, became the biggest song of 1982. It topped the U.S. singles chart for seven weeks straight and gave the band from Chicago a Grammy and an Academy Award nomination. The guys deserving of the credit? Guitarists/composers/producers Frankie Sullivan and Jim Peterik. Oh, and Sylvester Stallone, of course.
The actor (and director) was a fan of Survivor and impressed by their first few hits (i.e., Poor Man’s Son). Stallone called up his friend Tony Scotti, the Scotti Bros label boss, to see if Survivor would be interested in being part of the soundtrack to his upcoming film, Rocky III.
Peterik, who’s no longer with Survivor, recalls how Stallone left him and Sullivan identical voicemail messages: “Yo, Jim. This is Sylvester Stallone. Gimme a call. We need to talk.” At least, that’s how Peterik remembers it. Sullivan, on the other hand, begs to differ. “I love Jim, but he embellishes things a little,” he laughed.
As Sullivan recalls, although Sly did like their first few hits, it was Tony Scotti who “played cupid between Stallone and us.” What Peterik and Sullivan both agree on, though, is that Stallone insisted that the song have “a pulse” to accompany his glove-clad boxing fists being slammed into eye sockets.
That said, the song’s punchy, disjointed riff was the perfect soundtrack to the visuals. “Stallone sent the first 10 minutes of the film for us to watch, and I was so upset when it cut out,” Sullivan said. “So I told him I needed to see the rest of the movie to do it justice. It was totally untrue, I just wanted to know how it ended.”
As a matter of fact, Sullivan and Peterik offered a ballad of theirs called Ever Since The World Began, which they thought could be used instead. But the band broke through with the new anthemic rocker, making history along the way.
They recorded Eye of the Tiger as a demo on February 1, 1982, which was the version they used in the film. “Sly liked it so much he didn’t wait around for us to re-cut it, though the version on our record was done in a professional studio,” Sullivan explained.
On the VHS cassette of the film Rocky III – the one Stallone sent Sullivan and Peterik – it was Queen’s Another One Bites The Dust that sat in the place where Eye of the Tiger ended up. Sullivan added a little anecdote to that fact.
“When one of my idols, Brian May, attended one of our shows in Los Angeles in 1984, he brought up that subject. I offered to send him a copy of the tape, which I still own.” The single Eye of the Tiger was released three weeks after Rocky III hit theaters.
For Survivor, it was like winning the lottery, especially for Sullivan. Unlike his partners, he had been struggling to make ends meet. “My bandmates were making six figures a year on sessions and commercials. I couldn’t read music and didn’t know what a jingle was,” Sullivan confessed.
“Those guys all had nice cars and houses, whereas I could barely afford my $200-per-month apartment.” The band’s overnight success was something they had to swallow. “Going to the Golden Globes and winning Grammys at 24 years old, you have to pinch yourself,” said Sullivan. But after a 13-month tour and one more album in 1983, Caught In the Game, the beret-wearing lead singer Dave Bickler was suffering from worsening voice problems.
Bickler’s condition eventually forced him to leave the band and to be replaced by Jimi Jamison. “Playing five nights a week took its toll on Dave,” Sullivan recalled. “I think he knew he was done with Survivor when we made Caught in the Game.”
The band went on to do the theme song to Rocky IV, Burning Heart, but everything they did post-Rocky III will forever be in the shadow of their biggest hit. Sullivan, apparently, is comfortable with that. “Trying to compete with the past is for fools. But I’ll never, ever tire of playing Eye of the Tiger. That song still kicks butt, man.”
Believe it or not, the late, great Bill Withers never finished writing the lyrics to Ain’t No Sunshine, his 1971 breakthrough hit. Withers was actually a late starter by music business standards. By the start of the ‘70s, he was making aircraft toilet seats in a factory in Los Angeles.
In his spare time, he watched movies on TV and wrote songs on his guitar. Art imitated life – or vice versa – when Withers, at the age of 32, made a breakthrough and became a professional musician. The song that put him on the map and made him a star was indeed Ain’t No Sunshine.
Thanks to his newfound fame and fortune, Withers didn’t need to lay hands on another toilet seat again. Well, other than a certain gold one (you’ll soon see why). Withers wrote Ain’t No Sunshine after he saw the 1962 Blake Edwards film Days of Wine and Roses, the one with Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick as a couple who slide into alcoholism.
When asked why the film triggered his song, Withers was vague about it. “It’s just something that crossed my mind from watching that movie, and probably something else that happened in my life that I’m not aware of,” he (somewhat) explained.
The song was a simple bluesy ballad, albeit an addictive one. But the thing is, it was unfinished when his demo tape was sent to Sussex records, earning him a contract with the label. They then teamed him with producer Booker T Jones, the organ-playing lead singer of Booker T & the MGs.
As Withers dryly explained on a track from his 1971 debut album, Just As I Am, he felt out of element when he was in the studio with session players like Stephen Stills, Jim Keltner, and Booker T’s dazzling combo. But, even as he explained it, he sounded relaxed.
Maybe he was a bit too relaxed because when it came time to record Ain’t No Sunshine, he still wasn’t finished writing the lyrics. It’s the reason why he repeatedly improvised the words ‟I know, I know, I know” – they were only meant to be a temporary filler.
Booker T, who had already played on many hits for the Stax label, realized that it was this very curious two-word moaning that made the song distinctive. And even though Withers wanted nothing more than to replace that refrain – on his very first single, no less – the record was complete, even when the lyrics were not.
As Withers rather modestly explained to Rolling Stone, ‟I was this factory worker… so when they said to leave it like that, I left it.” But the humble factory worker didn’t mention that he wasn’t as inexperienced as he seemed.
You see, he released a 45 in 1967, a heavily revised version of the track that became Harlem, the A-side of the first single of his career. The DJs simply preferred the B-side, Ain’t No Sunshine. Withers’ song was an instant success, and Billboard ranked it among the top 25 bestsellers of 1971.
Thanks to his blue-collar ethic and direct way of communicating, he fit in well with the singer-songwriter genre of the early ‘70s. But Withers was no fool – he remained unconvinced that the music business would deliver security. Thus, he didn’t quit his day job.
Sussex records eventually presented him with a gold toilet seat instead of the more traditional gold disc. Withers took the hint. Many artists ended up covering the special song, which gave Withers a decent living for decades to come, but having been raised to be a hard-working guy, he didn’t fall for all the glitz and glamor. He once said, ‟My real life was when I was just a working guy.”
Having just been dumped by a girlfriend, frontman Justin Hayward remembered a gift another ex-girlfriend had given him, which prompted him to sit down and write. The resulting lyrics ended up becoming an era-defining, multimillion dollar classic. But he didn’t earn a penny (and you’ll see why).
It’s surprising considering the single has been a hit three times over, sold millions around the world, appeared on movie soundtracks, and inspired over 60 cover versions. Hell, there’s even been a theme park ride named after it (at Myrtle Beach’s Freestyle Theme Park). Still, about five decades later, Hayward still struggles to explain the song’s enduring appeal.
Moody Blues’ most famous song, Nights in White Satin, is what Hayward calls “a curious thing.” Why? Because when he listens to the record, “there’s just this big, empty space and those wonderful echoes that we had in the studios at Decca.”
But, as he explained, “there’s a strange power to the song.” He said it gave them a “style that suddenly seemed to work for us. I think it identified the Moodies’ sound.” Released for the first time in November 1967, the track was a masterpiece, bridging pop and symphonic prog (a progressive rock music sub-genre).
“Gazing at people, some hand in hand
Just what I’m going through they can’t understand
Some try to tell me thoughts they cannot defend
Just what you want to be, you will be in the end.”
The lyrics were also directly ripped from Hayward’s life (and heart), as he was mourning the end of one love affair while starting another, caught between ecstasy and despair. “There was a lot of emotion that went into the song,” Hayward admitted. “I was 19 or 20 at the time, living in a two-room flat in Bayswater.”
At the time, Hayward was living with Graeme Edge, Moody Blues’ drummer, and their girlfriends. Hayward explained that he came home one night after a gig, at about four or five in the morning, “when the birds were just twittering.”
It was then that he sat on the side of the bed and wrote a few verses. Back then, the only ones writing in the band were keyboard player Mike Pinder and himself. Pinder had been working on a song called Dawn Is a Feeling, and Hayward knew the guys were expecting something from him at rehearsal the next day.
He was in emotional turmoil and searching for some kind of metaphor when he remembered a recent gift he had been given. “Another girlfriend, who was neither the one that had just dumped me or the one that I was then going with, had given me some white satin sheets.”
Hayward explained that those very sheets just happened to be in his suitcase and he was “trying them out” in this apartment that he and Edge were living in. “They were very romantic-looking but totally impractical.” They were, however, quite inspirational.
When Hayward took the skeleton of the song into rehearsal the following day, his bandmates were less than enthusiastic, at least at first. Then Pinder said: “Play it again.” And so he did. When Pinder started to sing the melody refrain on Mellotron, it got everybody in the room interested.
“Suddenly, the others could see what parts they might play on it,” Hayward recalled. The track was shaped by producer Tony Clarke and arranger/conductor Peter Knight, who made it into an epic in the studio. Nights in White Satin formed the centerpiece of their second album, Days of Future Passed.
The dawn-to-darkness song, which was topped off by a spoken-word poem called Late Lament, Hayward’s song ended up being nearly seven-and-a-half minutes long. Deram, Decca’s new subsidiary label, wasn’t so convinced of its worth.
While the “plugger,” Tony Hall cried, “I can’t plug that!” and washed his hands of the whole thing, executive producer Hugh Mendl thought it was a perfect way to demonstrate the “Deramic” sound system, which was Decca’s initial purpose after all. Soon enough, the song took off in France. By February 1968, the single was peaking at #19 in the UK.
It became Moody Blues’ biggest success since Go Now hit #1 about three years earlier. While the album credits the London Festival Orchestra, Hayward insists that it was just a fictitious guise for Decca’s trusted in-house players.
“The Festival Orchestra was a name that we made up,” Hayward explains. “It was a group of session musicians that Peter Knight quickly put together.” Nights in White Satin was then reissued in 1972, this time reaching #2 on the U.S. Billboard chart. Seven years later, when it was covered by artists like Eric Burdon, Percy Faith, Giorgio Moroder, and The Dickies, the single charted again.
What about the part where he didn’t even make a penny off the chart-topping hit? Well, as it turns out, when Hayward was all of 18 years old, he signed an eight-year publishing contract as a songwriter with a folk artist and record producer Lonnie Donegan.
It proved to be a move that Hayward later regretted, seeing that it meant that the rights to all his songs written before 1974 would forever be owned by Donegan’s Tyler Music. A shame for Hayward, no less; a lucky move for Donegan, no less.
In 1971, when Don McLean performed Empty Chairs at Laurel Canyon’s Troubadour, Lori Lieberman had an intense emotional experience that changed the rest of her life. The singer-songwriter was so moved by McLean’s performance that she wrote her own feelings down on a tear-stained napkin.
After the show, she called her lover who was also her lyricist and manager, Norman Gimbel, to share her experience. It was at that moment that the buds of 1972’s Killing Me Softly began to bloom. Lieberman, Gimbel, and his business partner, Charles Fox, collaborated on the composition.
Lieberman’s poetic inspiration was set to music by Fox and supported lyrically by Gimbel. But it was Lieberman who paid attention to the integrity of her sentimental song. She recorded the track on her self-titled album for Capitol Records, but she wasn’t given credit as a writer.
That alone cost her both financial and musical recognition for the song she’s basically known for. While she liked the song she created, she felt embarrassed by it. “It almost embarrassed me because I didn’t want anybody to view me as a groupie who had gone to, you know, a concert. I just didn’t want to be seen like that.”
The song gained more popularity when it was covered by Roberta Flack in 1973, earning her more than one Grammy Award, and then again by the Fugees, who did their own version in 1996, which topped the charts internationally.
As for Lieberman, she received little to no recognition for the track, as Gimbel and Fox discredited her contributions. Gimbel went so far as to demand that Don McLean remove a reference he made to Lieberman’s participation in the song’s composition from his own website. Close to 50 years later, Lieberman’s relationship with the song changed dramatically.
“As a young girl,” Lieberman explained, “I was telling my story, and that was a story of a young girl.” Now, that story is something that she takes pride in. The song’s popularity and artistic perspectives let it reach many different genres and audiences. But she still considers it to be hers.
“When I hear the Fugees or Roberta Flack, I always think it’s like this little private secret that I have that, wow, that’s me. You know? That’s me, that’s my story. No one here in this restaurant knows that this is mine… It’s like a little secret.”
Stand By Me was first recorded by King in 1961, but it’s been recorded over 500 times by a remarkable range of artists, including John Lennon, Tracy Chapman, Florence & The Machine, and even Muhammad Ali.
The song’s transformation – from a hit to a standard, a “song sung at weddings and all,” as Stoller said – is something that took over 25 years after its original release. And it was all thanks to Rob Reiner’s film by the same name that he named after the song. It made no sense to Leiber & Stoller, but they nonetheless expressed gratitude.
As the late Leiber recalled, they were scheduled to have a rehearsal with Ben E. King, and he and Stoller got there early. They were set to rehearse in a small auditorium in a junior high school with a piano. King then came in, said hello, and asked, “Hey man, guess what? I wrote a song.” But King wasn’t a songwriter. He was a great performer, but not a songwriter.
“If the sky that we look upon
Should tumble and fall
Or the mountain should crumble to the sea
I won’t cry, I won’t cry
No, I won’t shed a tear
Just as long as you stand, stand by me.”
King sang his freshly written song, a cappella. He then finished with, “That’s all I wrote.” Leiber then said to him, “That’s pretty good. You want me to finish it for you? You want me and Mike [Stoller] to do it?” To which King replied, “Oh, yeah, man, that would be great.”
And so, Leiber and Stoller did just that – they finished King’s unfinished yet promising song, putting that iconic bass line on it. “We finished it right there,” Leiber revealed. “Like we did most of the stuff. We did it there.” That was Leiber’s recounting of the story…
As Stoller recalls it, they were in their own office (on 57th Street) and Leiber and King were fooling around with the lyric on Stand By Me. “I came in. Ben E. was singing it in the key of A. And I sat down at the piano, and I just felt this bass pattern, and I started working on a bass pattern, and within five minutes, I had the bass pattern, which is the bass pattern of the song,” Stoller stated.
Stoller also noted that the song was a hit when it came out. It only became “this wedding song and this everything song” when Rob Reiner made his movie.
He had met Reiner at a party, and apparently, he insisted on singing all of the Leiber & Stoller songs. Reiner also pressed Stoller to go play the piano while he sang. He called Stoller up months later (in 1986) and said, “I have this movie. It’s called The Body. And it’s been in the can for a while, and I like it.”
The film was based on a short story by Stephen King, and Reiner didn’t want people to think it was a horror film. As he explained to Stoller on the phone that day, it’s “really a coming-of-age movie. So I want to call it Stand By Me.”
It had been 24 years since the song was released, so Stoller was happy to let Reiner use the name. He told him, “Great! Be my guest.” But then he thought about it. He called Reiner back and said, “Hey, who do you think we can get to record it and put it into your film?”
Stoller then learned that Reiner wanted to use the original record since it was a period film. According to Leiber, the song had absolutely nothing to do with the film. But both composers agree that it was this move that made the song a “monster hit,” and they were grateful.