Music

The Muse Behind the Music: Meet the People Who Inspired Some of the Best Songs in History

Sometimes we are so moved by our favorite songs that we feel as though the lyrics were written especially for us. Unfortunately, in reality, you are one of a million that feels that way. But that is what makes a good song; when audiences across the world deeply identify with its message. This notion raises the question; how were some of the most successful musicians able to write songs so relatable and meaningful? What happened in their own lives that pulled on their heartstrings and inspired them to write those poetic lyrics that so deeply speak to the masses.

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As you may have guessed, most of these songs do actually have real-life backstories, and many times the inspiration behind the lyrics are people that have somehow influenced the artist’s lives. These people might be old girlfriends, personal heroes, or random chance encounters. Here are the inspirations behind some of the most beautiful songs today. You might just recognize some of these names.

“Sweet Caroline” by Neil Diamond 1969

Diamond has two stories for this sing-along hit. After the song’s success following its release, the singer claimed that the lyrics were inspired by a LIFE Magazine cover which featured a young Caroline Kennedy horseback riding.

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45 years later, in 2014, Diamond went back on this claim and confessed that the song was actually written for his wife Marcia but that the name Caroline fit better in the song.

“Photograph” by Def Leppard 1983

This song, released as part of the band’s third studio album Pyromania, talks about a guy who’s crazy about a girl but all he has is her photograph. Lead singer, Joe Elliott spoke about how this song was inspired by photographs of Marilyn Monroe.

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Although the beauty icon passed away in 1962, through her legacy she still continued to capture the hearts of many, including Elliot who was only three at the time of her death. The band even included a Monroe lookalike in the songs music video.

“I Will Always Love You” by Dolly Parton 1973

Did you know that Whitney Houston’s iconic song was originally written and performed by Dolly Parton almost 20 years earlier? Parton wrote the song for her close friend and co-host, Porter Wagoner. The two rose to fame together through their country duets and Wagoner was very much a mentor for Parton.

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The song was written as a farewell when she decided to pursue her solo career. She wanted to express her appreciation for the time they spent together and to help ensure that there were no hard feelings with the split.

“You’re So Vain” by Carly Simon 1971

This is a song that everyone is curious about. Who is the egotistical man that fired Simon up enough to write the hit single? She was right about one thing; many men thought that this song was about them. Candidates included Warren Beatty, Mick Jagger, David Bowie, and Dan Armstrong.

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Simon has been teasing the world with hints for years and has slowly revealed three letters A, E, and R. She even said she concealed the name in a black played-whisper of the song. Simon later revealed that the song is actually about three different men, one of which being her ex-fling Warren Beatty and the other rumored to be an unknown man named David.

“My Sharona”  by The Knack 1979

Singer, Songwriter of The Knack, Doug Fieger was shopping with his then-girlfriend when he saw Sharona Alperin behind the counter of a clothing store. After inviting her to a show, Fieger then decided to break off his relationship to fully pursue his new love interest. Fieger describes this chance encounter saying he fell in love with her instantly, “like getting hit in the head with a baseball bat.”

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Sharona was still dating someone else when Fieger began writing songs about her, but she eventually gave in to his persistent serenades and joined the band on tour.  The two dated for four years before Alperin broke it off saying she “needed to become her own Sharona.” She now works in real estate and says she still gets asked about the song on the daily.

“Layla” by Derek and the Dominos 1970

Now this story sounds like a real-life soap opera. Eric Clapton wrote the song “Layla” as a way to win the heart of Pattie Boyd, who was then married to Clapton’s close friend George Harrison. The two became close friends but did not end up running off together as Clapton had hoped.

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Years later, after The Beatles had broken up, George fell into a dark place and was caught having an affair with Ringo Starr’s wife, Marie. In 1974 the couple divorced and Eric continued to pursue Pattie. Clapton finally won her heart and Pattie agreed to marry him. This marriage only lasted until 1988.

“Philadelphia Freedom” by Elton John 1975

I bet you didn’t realize this song was written for a tennis player. Not just any though, but one regarded by many as one of the greatest women’s tennis players of all time. Elton John and tennis champion, Billie Jean King were great friends and even though the song itself doesn’t say much about serves and drop shots, the title and the chorus of the song were dedicated to King and her professional tennis team, the Philadelphia Freedoms.

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To make the dedication clear, the singer also included a message on the record reading “with Love to B.J.K.” King is not only a tennis legend but she is also known for her role in advocating for gender equality. Elton and Billie co-founded the World Tennis Smash Hits, a charity function benefiting AIDS charities. If they aren’t friendship goals then I don’t know what is.

“I Wish It Would Rain” by The Temptations 1967

This song was written by Motown lyricist Roger Penzabene. He wrote the mournful tune after catching his wife having an affair with another man. Unfortunately, Penzabene never got to experience the song’s success.

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He was so distraught that he took his own life just two weeks after the song’s release. His heartbreak also inspired the lyrics for the song “ I Could Never Love Another.”

“Lola” by the Kinks 1970

Lead singer and guitarist of The Kinks, Ray Davies explained that he based the lyrics in “Lola” on a real-life experience that had happened to the band’s manager. He was dancing with a beautiful blonde all through the night but as night turned to day, it became clear that the woman he was dancing with was actually a cross-dresser by the name of Candy Darling.

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Darling was a member of famed artist Andy Warhol’s entourage at the time. The song details the confusion towards Lola who “walked like a woman but talked like a man.” The single reached number two on the UK Singles Chart and number nine on the Billboard Hot 100.

“Woman” by John Lennon 1980

I imagine that the inspiration behind this song won’t surprise you as much as some of the others on this list. After The Beatles split up, John Lennon continued his music career alongside his wife, Yoko Ono. Many blame the band parting ways on John’s relationship with Yoko.

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“Woman” was the second single from Lennon’s 1980 album “Double Fantasy,” which released three weeks before his murder.  Naturally, Lennon dedicated this song to his wife, adding that it is the evolution of the song “Girl,” released by The Beatles in 1965.

“Vera” by Pink Floyd 1979

Vera refers to Vera Lynn, one of the most popular British singers during World War two who hosted the BBC radio program called Sincerely Yours. Dubbed during the war as “the forces’ sweetheart,” Vera used to perform her songs for the British Armed Forces.

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The song, “Vera” which appears in the 1979 album The Wall, tells a story about a boy who lost his father during the war. The lyrics refer to Vera Lynn’s classic song “We’ll meet again.”

“American Pie” by Don McLean 1971

This might sound like an upbeat love song but the song actually refers to something much more somber. The hit song, which topped the charts worldwide, was written in dedication to rock and roll performers Jiles Perry Richardson Jr., Buddy Holly, and Ritchie Valens.

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These three legends sadly passed away in a plane crash in 1959. The verse “the day the music died” heard throughout the song is a touching tribute to their passing and to the huge influence that they had on the music of their time.

“Wild World” by Cat Stevens 1970

Cat Stevens must have been head over heels for his girlfriend of two years, Patti D’Arbanville. The model inspired not one but two hit songs for Stevens. One song, very indiscreetly titled “Lady D’Arbanville” and the other, written after the couple split up, titled “Wild World.” Stevens later explained that although D’Arbanville might have helped inspire the song, he actually wrote the lyrics to himself.

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Stevens explained, “I was trying to relate to my life. I was at the point where it was beginning to happen and I was myself going into the world. I’d done my career before, and I was sort of warning myself to be careful this time around because it was happening. It’s talking about losing touch with home and reality – home especially.”

“The Ballad of Jayne” by L.A. Guns 1990

Jayne refers to Jayne Mansfield, a popular actress and pin-up girl in the 50s and 60s. The blonde bombshell, often compared to Marilyn Monroe, was a major Hollywood sex symbol of her time. Although her career was short-lived, she did manage to make her mark in television history by being the first actress with a nude scene in a Hollywood motion picture.

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The song includes the verse,  “now she’s breaking hearts in heaven, shining bright in the sky.” These solemn lyrics acknowledge the automobile accident that tragically took Mansfield’s life at the young age of 34.

“Isn’t She Lovely” by Stevie Wonder 1976

Wonder wrote this beautiful song to celebrate the birth of his daughter, Aisha. Considering the song starts with a recording of a baby crying, the meaning seems pretty obvious.

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Released as part of the 1976 album Songs in the Key of Life, the song quickly became a crowd favorite and continues to be covered by various artists. Wonder’s daughter, Aisha, is also featured at the end of the song as listeners can hear her splashing around during bathtime.

“Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” by Crosby, Stills & Nash 1969

Stephen Stills wrote this multi-part suite as an ode to his then-girlfriend, singer and actress, Judy Collins. Collins had beautiful big blue eyes, hence the song title. The pair dated from 1967 until 1969.

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In the song, Still’s talks about the end of their rocky relationship, which was prompted by Collins falling for a co-star of hers, Stacy Keach. The song was the first single on the band’s debut album.

“True Blue” by Madonna 1986

Not everyone can receive the honor of having a Madonna song written after them. One lucky man deemed worthy is actor Sean Penn. Madonna and Penn were married for four years and she released this title track to express her feelings for her then husband.

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Although the marriage didn’t last, we are glad that such a good song came out of their time together. “True Blue” was an international success and both the song and album broke records across the world.

“Candle in the Wind” by Elton John 1997

This song had two significant influences. The original song released in 1973, was written in memory of Marilyn Monroe. Elton John rewrote the lyrics in 1997 as a tribute to his dear friend, Princess Diana after her tragic passing.

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The pair met in 1981 at Prince Andrew’s 21st birthday party and the two danced together throughout the evening. It was friendship at first sight. After Diana’s passing, Elton had the honor of performing “Candle in the Wind” at her funeral. Since then, the song remains the second best-selling single of all time.

“Man on the Moon” by REM 1992

Judging by the title, you might assume that this song is about Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moon, but that isn’t the case. The song is not dedicated to an astronaut but rather comedian Andy Kaufman. Lead singer Michael Stipe saw Kaufman on Saturday Night Live and found his comedy to be very influential throughout his life.

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The song makes numerous references to Kaufman’s career. The title sets a comparison between moon landing conspiracy theories and the rumors about Kaufman’s death in 1984 being fake. The biographical film starring Jim Carry was appropriately given the same title.

“Maybe I’m Amazed” by Paul McCartney 1970

Throughout their relationship, Beatles singer Paul McCartney wrote many songs for his wife Linda. She even sang alongside her husband after The Beatles broke up and they recorded an album together titled Ram. Linda passed away from breast cancer in 1998 but thanks to Paul, her memory lives on through song.

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“Maybe I’m Amazed” was released in 1970 as apart of an album simply titled McCartney, which Paul dedicated entirely to his wife. He wrote the song as a way to credit Linda for helping him through The Beatles break-up. McCartney not only wrote the lyrics and sang the vocals but he also played all the instruments in the recording of the song.

“And I Love Her” by The Beatles 1964

Linda was not the only one that inspired Paul McCartney to express himself in song. As the fifth track in The Beatles album, A Hard Day’s Night, Paul wrote “And I Love Her” as an ode to his fiance at the time, Jane Asher.

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Asher was not just McCartney’s song muse, she was a successful actress and an iconic figure in the 60’s UK entertainment industry. Safe to say, Paul and Linda were a power couple of their time. The two stars were together for five years before going their separate ways.

“Hearts and Bones” by Paul Simon 1983

Paul Simon and Star Wars legend, Carrie Fisher (aka Princess Leia) were married for one year from 1983 to 1984. A year following, the two got back together and resumed their relationship for several years.

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During their time together, Simon wrote a few songs dedicated to his wife and girlfriend. “Hearts and Bones,” which Simon wrote shortly after their marriage, puts his whirlwind love life with Fischer into song. Other songs he wrote about the star include “Allergies” and “She Moves On.”

“Killing Me Softly with His Song” by Lori Lieberman 1971

According to Leiberman, this song originated as a poem she wrote in dedication to Don McLean and his song “Empty Chairs.”She wrote the poem after seeing him perform at a concert in Los Angeles.

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She was so inspired by his performance that she immediately wrote the short poem that would later turn into song: “I felt all flushed with fever / Embarrassed by the crowd / I felt he had found my letters / And read each one out loud / I prayed that he would finish / But he just kept right on.” Don McLean said he was honored when he found this out.

“Time After Time” by Cyndi Lauper 1984

If you were in high school in the ’80s then you definitely had at least one slow dance to this romantic love ballad. This was the top hit on Lauper’s debut studio album She’s So Unusual. The song was inspired by her manager David Wolff.

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Cyndi and David had been dating at the time. The line about the ticking clock is a direct reference to a clock that Wolff gave to Cyndi. He also makes an appearance in the song’s music video.

“Brown Sugar” by The Rolling Stones 1971

Lead singer Mick Jagger and model-singer Marcha Hunt had a brief fling from 1969 to 1970. During their short time together, they had a child named Karis. Marcha also managed to inspire a hit song.

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“Brown Sugar” sits at number 5 on Rolling Stone Magazine’s“100 Greatest Guitar Songs of All Time.” Others claim that the song was inspired by Claudia Lennear but it seems clear to most that the mother of his first child and girlfriend at the time, Hunt was the real muse.

“Dude Looks Like a Lady” by Aerosmith 1987

This dance hit was actually inspired by another legendary rock band at the time, Mötley Crüe. Steven Tyler and the rest of Aerosmith met up with the members of Mötley Crüe and couldn’t help but notice how much they used the word ‘dude.’

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Tyler describes the meeting saying, “We met Mötley Crüe, and they’re all going, ‘Dude!’ Dude this and Dude that, everything was Dude.” It humored them so much that it inspired a song. Tyler had also said that when they first spotted Vince Neil of Mötley Crüe, his big blonde hair made them mistake him for an attractive woman.

“Athena” by The Who 1982

The Who guitarist and vocalist, Pete Townsend wrote this song as part of his efforts to win over actress, Theresa Russell, whom he met at a Pink Floyd performance. Theresa was engaged at the time and did not reciprocate his love.

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He was so overwhelmed with disappointment that he wrote the song the next day. The song was initially titled “Theresa”  after the actress, but given the fact that Townsend had married Karen Astley by the time they recorded the song, he felt it appropriate to rename it “Athena.”

“Walk Away Renee” by The Left Banke 1966

Keyboard player Michael Brown wrote this hit song about singer Renee Fladen-Kamm. Renee had been dating bass player Tom Finn at the time and would join them during band practice.

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Brown, who was only 16 at the time would get so distracted by Renee’s beauty that his hands would shake and he could not play until she left the room. The Left Banke also wrote two other songs about Renee, “Pretty Ballerina” and “She May Call You Up Tonight.”

“Jersey Girl” by Tom Waits 1980

This melodic love song was written for musician and artist Kathleen Brennan. Waits and Brennan met in New Jersey after he ended his rocky relationship with Rickie Lee Jones. They met on the set of the film One From The Heart, which Waits wrote the music for and Brennan was a script supervisor.

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Tom said that Kathleen had saved him. They got married just months after meeting, the same year of the song’s release. “Jersey Girl” has been covered by big names such as Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band.

“Higher and Higher” by The Moody Blues 1969

As the intro of this song might suggest, Moody Blues drummer, Graeme Edge wrote “Higher and Higher” in dedication to the Apollo 11 moon landing. This was the first full-length song ever written by Edge.

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The band wanted to include recordings from the actual NASA launch in its intro but ended up creating their own sound effects in the studio. The song was such a hit that the crew of Apollo 15 even admitted to listening to it during their launch into space in 1971.

“Chelsea Hotel No.2” by Leonard Cohen 1974

Cohen lived in the Chelsea Hotel in New York City when he wasn’t at his home in Montreal. He would introduce this song in concert by telling the crowd a story about a chance encounter he had with another singer on the elevator of the hotel.

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This meeting led to a short fling which then inspired the song. The musician on the elevator was eventually revealed to be Janis Joplin. Leonard later apologized for revealing the details of their meeting to the public.

“Don’t Speak” by No Doubt 1995

Gwen Stefani wrote this song for her then-boyfriend and band member, bassist Tony Kanal. Stefani and Kanal were together for eight years before they split. The singer stated that the song used to be more of an upbeat Seventies rock song but after the break up she modified it to be a sad, break up song.

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Either way, the song was a hit for the band. Stefani went on to marry the lead singer of Bush, Gavin Rossdale in 2002. They divorced in 2015 and she got together with country star Blake Shelton, who co-starred with Stefani on The Voice.

“Aint Seen Nothing Yet” by BTO 1974

This song dedication was more of an accident that stemmed from an inside joke. When Randy Bachman was in the studio, he recorded a joke track stammering all the words in the song. He did this as a way to tease his brother, Gary who had a horrible stammer at the time. He initially had no intention to include this track on the album.

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However, producer, Charley Fach loved it and called it a potential hit so they released it as a single of their Not Fragile album. It turned out to be the band’s only major hit single, peaking at #2 on the UK Singles Chart.

“Cats in the Cradle” by Harry Chapin 1974

This beautiful song originated as a poem that Harry’s wife Sandy wrote. She said the poem was inspired by seeing her first husband’s relationship with his father slowly fade through the years until they had little to no relationship or communication. Harry decided to turn the poem into a song after the birth of his son, Josh.

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All in all the song is meant to relay the message that we should put family before our career and take advantage of the time that we have with our loved ones. The single topped the Billboard Hot 100 in 1974 and remained Chapin’s most well-known song throughout his career. It was included in the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2011.

“Like a Rolling Stone” by Bob Dylan 1965

Many believe that Dylan’s 1965 hit throws some punches at artist Andy Warhol. Dylan’s folk image was disappearing to be taken over by a growing interest in art. Model, actress, and socialite Edie Sedgewick had a chance encounter with Dylan at an art show and fell head over heels for him.

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Dylan was not that interested in the young model, but they began spending more time together. At this time, Warhol’s relationship with his muse Edie Sedgwick had deteriorated. Dylan blamed Warhol for allegedly mistreating Sedgwick, and fans have theorized that some of the lyrics such as “He took from you everything he could steal” — were directed at Warhol.

“Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)” by Green Day 1997

Green Day singer and guitarist Billie Joe Armstrong waited a full seven years before releasing this song.  It was intended to be released on the band’s first major-label album, Dookie, in 1994. Both the band and their label agreed that it was a great song, but didn’t fit the vibe of the punk album.

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The song was written during a bitter moment in Armstrong’s life. His girlfriend had ditched him back in 1990 to move to Ecuador. The song was held back and released on their 1997 Nimrodalbum. Today it is used at memorable events as a tearjerker, to reflect on nostalgic moments and joyful times in life.

“In Your Eyes” by Peter Gabriel 1986

According to Gabriel, the lyrics “In Your Eyes” refer to either the love between a man and a woman or the relationship between a person and God. Although Peter Gabriel has never confirmed it, many believe that actress and film director, Rosanna Arquette was the one to inspire the songs famously romantic lyrics.

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Rosana and Peter dated throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s. Gabriel lived with Rosanna during this time. This song was also used in the iconic boombox scene from the late 1980’s rom-com “Say Anything.”

“Me and Mr. Jones” by Amy Winehouse 2006

Rapper, songwriter, Nas’, born Nasir bin Olu Dara Jones, and Amy Winehouse had a strong bond through their music. The lyrics in “Me and Mr. Jones,” is a clear shoutout to Nas. The lyrics suggest that Winehouse wasn’t letting anyone come between their relationship. She also references a shared birthday with the artist in the song.

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They only met in person once, but Amy and Nas were close friends.“I didn’t get a chance to really know her that much. I knew her through music, I knew her through Skype, I knew her through texting, I knew her through telephone, I knew her through hanging out one time, in London. It was like we always knew we were supposed to be cool. And that’s as far as it goes. She was like a sister to me.”

“Cry Me a River” by Justin Timberlake 2002

Justin Timberlake and Britney Spears ended their three-year relationship in 2002, and that same year, Timberlake released “Cry Me a River.” The pop star revealed he wrote the song in just 2 hours. His intense feelings fueled his creativity. “I’ve been scorned. I’ve been pissed off. I didn’t plan on writing it,” Timberlake writes in his new book. “You don’t have to say what you did,” he sings. “I already know, I found out from him.”

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The song seems to hint Britney was unfaithful, resulting in their split.  A Spears look-alike was even cast for the music video. Justin Timberlake only needed a couple of hours to write one of the biggest — and most personal — songs of his career. “People heard me and they understood it because we’ve all been there.”

“Suzanne” by Leonard Cohen 1967

Like many other songs before it, the song Suzanne, written by Leonard Cohen, started off as a poem. It was first presented as a song in 1966 by Judy Collins. Cohen’s version did not make its debut until two years later in his 1968 album, Songs of Leonard Cohen. The Suzanne that inspired the words and hypnotic melody of this song is Suzanne Verdal, the wife of Canadian sculptor Amand Vaillancourt.

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Although Suzanne and Leonard only had a platonic bond, the song talks about Cohen’s romantic longing that it seems Verdal had respectfully turned down. Verdal later explained “I didn’t want to spoil that preciousness, that infinite respect that I had for him… I felt that a sexual encounter might demean it somehow.”

“Sweet Child O’ Mine” by Guns and Roses 1987

The lyrics of this undeniable hit came from a poem that Axl Rose was working on for his girlfriend, Erin Everly. “I had written this poem, reached a dead end with it and put it on the shelf,” Rose explained. “Then Slash and Izzy were working together on songs and all of a sudden this poem popped into my head.” Everly, daughter to Don Everly of the Everly Brothers was a model at the time and dated Axl Rose throughout the late ’80s and ’90s.

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“Sweet Child O’ Mine” was the third single of the band’s first album, Appetite for Destruction and topped the Billboard Hot 100 in 1988. The song’s success came as a huge surprise to the band. Guitarist, Slash said he was just messing around with a little riff as a warm-up and did not agree with Axl when he said they should use it. After the song was complete, Slash was still not convinced, calling it “a very sappy ballad.”

“Uptown Girl” by Billy Joel 1983

We have gotten some mixed messages from Billy Joel about who specifically inspired this song as it seems many ladies in his life helped raise this upbeat medley to fame. The singer had originally claimed that his girlfriend at the time Elle Macpherson was the muse behind the song.

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Later however he spoke about the song being about a downtown man such as himself falling for sophisticated upper-class women. He found inspiration from his times hanging out with big-time 80s stars such as Whitney Houston and Christie Brinkley. Brinkley even made an appearance in the songs music video and ended up marrying Billy Joel two years later, so it seems evident that she had a big part to play.

“You Oughta Know” by Alanis Morisette 1995

Alanis has confirmed that this song is about a specific person but she has chosen to let the rumors run wild as she keeps the truth to herself. Although not confirmed by the singer herself, comedian, and star of Full House, Dave Coulier claims that this hit song might actually be about him.

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He has referenced a few lines in this claim, one of which being “an older version of me,” referring to the time that the two dated in 1992; Morisette was only 18 while Coulier was 33. He is not the only rumored muse, however. Other theories include the Friendsactor, Matt LeBlanc or musician Leslie Howe.

“November Rain” by Guns and Roses 1992

Singer, songwriter Axl Rose began working on this song in 1983. However, it was his tumultuous relationship with supermodel Stephanie Seymour that helped inspire it’s debut more than a decade later in 1992. The release was well worth the wait as it quickly gained its reputation as one of the greatest power ballads of all time.

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The music video for “November Rain” was the most expensive of its time. It includes Seymour and Rose getting married in a white chapel in the middle of the desert. The couple got engaged in real life the following year only to separate shortly after. Stephanie Seymour also appeared in the music video for “Don’t Cry” in 1991.

“Oh Sherrie” by Steve Perry 1984

This dedication is less of a mystery than the other songs discussed. Perry, the lead singer of Journey, wrote “Oh Sherrie” as a tribute to Sherrie Swafford. It was released as part of his first solo album Street Talk and was a huge hit, topping the charts in the U.S.

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Swafford was Perry’s girlfriend at the time and was featured in the songs music video. Even though their relationship did not last long, it certainly left a mark on 80’s music history.