The Story Behind People and Events Mentioned In Hit Songs


Some song meanings are fairly obvious. For example, everyone pretty much figured that Gordon Lightfoot was singing about a vessel that sank in Lake Superior in The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, but some references aren’t as clear unless you know the backstory. Here are some hit songs and the notable stories behind them.


When actor Richard Harris recorded a 7-minute version of MacArthur Park in 1968, it went to No. 2 on the Billboard pop chart in the U.S. Just 10 years later, Donna Summer’s disco version went all the way to No. 1. It turns out that composer Jimmy Webb used to spend a lot of time at San Francisco’s MacArthur Park, often meeting his girlfriend, Susan Horton, there for lunch. After they broke up, Webb would go to the park and watch all the happy people picnicking, while he wallowed in his misery. One afternoon, he observed a birthday party in the park. A sudden cloudburst soaked an elaborately decorated cake that had been set out, and inspiration struck.

The story behind the Aerosmith song Dude Looks Like a Lady starts in a bar. It seems that Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler was in a bar late one night and was about to comment on an attractive woman, when he realized it was actually Vince Neil of Mötley Crüe. Steven joked to his pals, “that dude looks like a lady” and that quickly became the catchphrase around their table for the rest of the evening and the inspiration for the hit song.

The lyrics of Neil Diamond’s Cracklin’ Rosie seem to indicate that she was a “lady of the evening,” but it turns out that the Rosie in question is actually liquor. When Diamond was touring through Canada in the late 1960s, he happened to hear about some First Nations tribes where the men outnumbered the women by a large percentage. The men who were alone on Saturday nights soothed their loneliness with a special fortified homemade wine similar to rosé.

Sharona Alperin (on the cover and inset today) was just 16 years old when Doug Fieger walked into the clothing store where she worked part-time. He was with a girlfriend, but introduced himself to the high school girl anyway and invited her to come see his band, The Knack, at a local showcase they were playing. Fieger ditched his girlfriend shortly after and began pursuing Sharona, even though he was 9 years older and she had a steady boyfriend. Nevertheless, she dropped in on her lunch hour to hear the band rehearsing and they began playing an unfinished tune that featured her name in the chorus: “my-my-my Sharona.” A year later, Sharona invited Doug home to meet her parents, and once they determined that he was a “nice boy,” they gave their permission to let their 17-year-old tour the world with The Knack. Fieger and Alperin dated for 4 years, and even though they eventually married other people, they remained friends. She was at his bedside as he was dying from lung cancer in 2010.