The accepted wisdom is that Bob Dylan wrote “It Ain’t Me Babe” for his girlfriend at the time, Suze Rotolo, whom he dated from 1961 until 1964. She was studying in Italy in 1963, and Dylan went there looking for her and wrote the song during his journey. ‘It Ain’t Me Babe” has become one of Dylan’s most popular and most covered songs. Probably the most popular version, even more so that his own, was the one recorded by another girlfriend of his, Joan Baez, that same year. Dylan and Baez had a very rocky relationship that covered the period between Dylan’s obscurity and his superstardom. They broke up after a big fight in 1965. Soon after, when Dylan was in the hospital with an illness, Baez showed up to make amends, only to find him there with his new girlfriend and future wife, Sara Lownds.
Few artists in history have been both more famous and more mysterious than Bob Dylan. Having radically reinvented himself more times than most artists have songs, he has been a driving force in folk music, folk-rock, electric rock, spiritual music, and much more besides. And he has been touring virtually non-stop for longer than many readers of this article have been alive.
“Brown Sugar” by The Rolling Stones
Around 1970, Rolling Stones frontman Mick Jagger had a discreet but very intense affair with Marsha Hunt, a model, actress, and musician (she would later become an acclaimed writer). Jagger’s first child, daughter Karis, was born to Hunt in November of that year. No surprise then that she would inspire one of Jagger’s and the Stones’ most popular songs. The attribution to Hunt for inspiring the song has not been uncontroversial, however. Some have claimed that it was soul singer Claudia Lennear.
She herself made that claim in a BBC radio interview many years later, saying that she and Jagger had been spending a lot of time together in those days. But Marsha Hunt has stuck to her guns and insists she’s the one. And what a song! There’s the irresistible catchy groove. The chunky bluesy riff. The classic Jagger whiny wail. And then there are the lyrics. Very controversial at the time, to the point that Mick himself has said that he couldn’t have even written the song today.
“Wild World” by Cat Stevens
For a couple of years before his big breakout in 1970, Cat Stevens was romantically involved with actress Patti D’Arbanville. She was the muse for at least two of his songs, including “Lady D’Arbanville” (obviously) and possibly the biggest hit of Stevens’ career, “Wild World.” Both songs were released in 1970.
The song, for all its romantic love and longing, is almost a paternal sort of warm protective plea for Stevens’ former lover to take care of herself and not get hurt as she chooses to abandon his watchful embrace. D’Arbanville, a former fixture of Andy Warhol’s New York scene, has appeared in numerous movies and television shows over the years. Cat Stevens followed “Wild World” with a string of hits over the next few years before shocking his fans by largely retiring from the music business in 1978 to focus on his spiritual journey as a religious Muslim with the new name Yusuf Islam. Since 1995 he has returned to the spotlight, performing music in public once again.
“Hey Jude” by The Beatles
As John Lennon’s marriage to Cynthia was disintegrating in the wake of his affair with Yoko Ono, friend and bandmate Paul McCartney grew concerned for the welfare of their son Julian. He decided to write a song (originally titled “Hey Jules”) for the boy to comfort and encourage him through that difficult time. A couple of months after the separation, Paul took a drive out to the country to visit Cynthia and Julian. She had been close to the band since they had been unknown, and he found it strange that there was now a sort of wall between them. He composed much of the song as he was driving to see them, and it warmed her heart and her son’s to see Paul’s show of friendship.
“Hey Jude” turned out to be a record-breaking song. At over seven minutes long, it was the longest number one at the time, as well as spending the longest time at number one of any Beatles song. It is on many critics’ and fans’ lists of the greatest songs of all time and continues to inspire to this day.
“Happy Birthday” by Stevie Wonder
Stevie Wonder has been one of the most powerful people in the music industry since the 1960s, and he was not above using his power to try to do good in the world. Whether it was politics or social issues, you could often find Stevie Wonder at the forefront. “Happy Birthday” was not written for a friend celebrating growing a year older; it came from Wonder’s long-time advocacy on behalf of making the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. a federal holiday. Ronald Reagan would eventually sign it into law in 1983, and it was observed nationwide for the first time in 1986.
Ironically, the same Ronald Reagan would be the subject of another scathing Stevie Wonder track, 1987’s “Skeletons.” Stevie Wonder famously performed “Happy Birthday” at the 1986 concert commemorating the first national Martin Luther King Jr. Day. He also performed it for the late Queen Elizabeth II in 2012 at her Diamond Jubilee Concert.