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.
“Photograph” by Def Leppard
Marilyn Monroe has been the inspiration for so much art for so long that it’s easy sometimes to not even notice it. Lead singer Joe Elliot of Def Leppard was just three years old when Monroe passed away in 1962, but that didn’t stop her from being his muse for one of the band’s first big hits: “Photograph,” about a deep longing for someone who is unattainable. Clearly, Elliot could never have Monroe, but at least he could put her photograph on the single cover art and hire her doppelganger to star in the song’s music video. Joe Elliot would say in later years that the song had nothing to do with Marilyn Monroe, but that seems a little unlikely, given the evidence to the contrary.
Def Leppard was among the most prominent bands in the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM) in the 1970s and 80s. They had a string of massive hits in the 80s that made them one of the most successful groups of the decade. Their style often fused fun, sex, and playfulness together with a truly powerful sonic attack. And 40 years later, they’re still going strong.
“Hey There Delilah” by Plain White T’s
“Hey There Delilah” is a bare-bones ballad detailing the pain and desire of a long-distance romance. When the relatively unknown Plain White T’s released it in 2005, it took over the world with its catchy melody and universal themes. So what and who is the song about? It so happens that the band’s lead singer Tom Higgenson had met champion long-distance runner, Delilah DiCrescenzo, and was immediately smitten with her beauty and charm. He told her that he had a song about her already. He was lying, but it was worth a try. Unfortunately, she turned him down, but he ended up writing the song anyway. And we’re happy he did.
So far, “Hey There Delilah” is Plain White T’s only number-one song. But what a song! In addition to selling gazillions of copies and making the band oodles of money, it was also nominated for a grammy, put on many critics’ lists of the best songs of the year, and even spoofed on Sesame Street.
“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.
“It Ain’t Me, Babe” by Bob Dylan
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.