14 Famous Songs We Didn't Realize Were About Actual People

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Vote up the people from songs you're surprised to learn are real.

Many artists and creatives draw inspiration for their art from their personal lives, and musicians are certainly no exception. In many cases, some of their biggest hits were written about other people, who become immortalized in song, whether they like it or not. Sometimes the person turned inspiration is another celebrity, like in the case of Eric Clapton's song “Layla.” In other instances, the famous name from a song, like Sharona of “My Sharona,” is a regular person who leads an otherwise normal life. 

When singing along to many of these name-filled songs, we often don't even realize they are about actual people. From the love stories, to the humorous tales, to the darker inspirations, the people behind these songs turned out to be surprisingly real.

  • ‘Jolene’ Was Written About A Woman Who Flirted With Dolly Parton’s Husband
    Video: YouTube
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    ‘Jolene’ Was Written About A Woman Who Flirted With Dolly Parton’s Husband

    Dolly Parton released the song “Jolene” in 1973 and it became an instant classic that would be covered by many artists in years to come. Many women couldn’t help but sympathize with Parton's song, as she pleads with another woman not to take her man “just because you can.”

    As it turns out, Jolene, with her auburn hair and eyes of emerald green, was a real woman, a red-headed bank teller, who Parton knew was flirting with her husband Carl Thomas Dean. Parton told NPR:

    She got this terrible crush on my husband… And he just loved going to the bank because she paid him so much attention. It was kinda like a running joke between us - when I was saying, “Hell, you're spending a lot of time at the bank. I don't believe we've got that kind of money.”

    Parton wrote the song to speak to a universal sense of inadequacy that even she's fallen prey to:

    She had everything I didn't, like legs - you know, she was about 6 feet tall. And had all that stuff that some little short, sawed-off honky like me don't have… So no matter how beautiful a woman might be, you're always threatened by certain... You're always threatened by other women, period.

    It seems Parton had nothing to worry about with the real Jolene, however, as she and Dean have been happily married since 1966. And though the bank teller inspired the character of the song, there's a sweeter inspiration behind the name “Jolene.” Parton recalled:

    One night, I was on stage, and there was this beautiful little girl - she was probably 8 years old at the time… And she had this beautiful red hair, this beautiful skin, these beautiful green eyes, and she was looking up at me, holding, you know, for an autograph. I said, “Well, you're the prettiest little thing I ever saw. So what is your name?” And she said, “Jolene.” And I said, “Jolene. Jolene. Jolene. Jolene.” I said, “That is pretty. That sounds like a song. I'm going to write a song about that.” 

  • Sharona from 'My Sharona' Is Now A Real Estate Agent Who Uses The Song To Her Advantage
    Photo: Capitol

    While Sharona may not be a very common name, the Sharona in the hit song by the Knack is a very real person. Sharona Alperin dated the band’s lead singer, Doug Fieger, for about three years and toured with them during that time. The sleeve of the single features an actual picture of Alperin; according to her, the photo shoot took a mere 10 minutes:

    [T]hat’s just what I would walk around in, a t-shirt and Levis… I guess it was considered raunchy since you can see my nipples through the shirt. Nowadays, that outfit would be considered tame.

    Alperin has shared that she has had an overwhelmingly positive experience being the inspiration behind the song.The song spent six weeks in the No. 1 spot on the Billboard chart in 1976. It was the song of that year's summer, and later got another popularity boost after it was featured in the 1994 film Reality Bites. Alperin said that while she did reach a point where she had to turn it off when it came on the radio, she now always keeps it on:

    How many people have a song written about them?… I mean, who would I be to say “it’s too much”? I don’t tire of it…

    About 70 percent of the people I meet, as soon as I introduce myself as Sharona, they say “My Sharona"… And another 20 percent, you can tell, they’re thinking it in their heads. It’s so funny.

    In a stroke of marketing genius, Alperin, who is now a real estate agent in West Los Angeles, has used both the song and lyrics for her real estate website mysharona.com. So if you’re in the market for a home, maybe Sharona Alperin could be your Sharona. 

  • ‘Stacy’s Mom’ Was Inspired By Fountains of Wayne Singer Adam Schlesinger’s Grandma
    Video: YouTube

    When you hear “Stacy's Mom,” it's hard not to mouth along the words “has got it going on.” The 2003 hit was nominated for a Grammy and reached No. 1 on the iTunes Most Downloaded Chart. Fountains of Wayne singer Adam Schlesinger wrote the song, and described getting inspiration after one of his friends was attracted to Schlesinger’s grandmother:

    Well, one of my best friends told me that he thought my grandmother was really hot, that added a little bit to the song. That’s a true story. And my grandmother was pretty hot. 

    Schlesinger also pulled inspiration from Simon & Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson.”

  • ‘Come On Eileen’ Was About An Actual Taboo Relationship In A Catholic Setting
    Photo: Ueli Frey / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA 4.0
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    ‘Come On Eileen’ Was About An Actual Taboo Relationship In A Catholic Setting

    Often dubbed a “one-hit wonder,” Dexys Midnight Runners found international success with their 1982 song, “Come On Eileen.” The popular tune was written by lead singer Kevin Rowland, trombone player Jim Paterson, and guitarist Al Archer. 

    The song was based on a real girl, Eileen, whom Rowland had grown up with and had a relationship with while they were teenagers. The pair grew up in a very strict Catholic community and attended church together. The song touches on the conflicting feelings that teenagers encounter when they face Catholic shame and guilt along with a burgeoning sense of sexuality. Rowland explained to Melody Maker:

    It’s absolutely true all the way. I was about 14 or 15 and sex came into it and our relationship had always been so clean. It seemed at the time to get dirty and that’s what it’s about. I was really trying to capture that atmosphere.

    The song was the only American No. 1 hit for the group and is considered an '80s classic despite not having any of the typical sounds or instruments of the era's hits.

  • Despite Its Romantic Lyrics, ‘Barbara Ann’ Was The Songwriter’s Sister
    Photo: Hotstar90 / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA 4.0

    While the song “Barbara Ann” by the Regents may not sound familiar to more recent generations, it was a big hit when it was released in 1961. Unfortunately for the Regents, the version of the song most likely to come to mind today is probably the cover released by the Beach Boys in 1965. 

    Perhaps more surprising than the Beach Boys version being a cover is the story behind “Barbara Ann.” The song was written by Fred Fassert, and its titular inspiration was actually Fassert's younger sister, Barbara Ann. This makes the lyrics, about a guy going to a dance and becoming smitten with a girl named Barbara Ann, a bit awkward to say the least. But Fred Fassert wasn't singing the song. He gave it to the Regents because his brother, Charles, was a member of the band. This left Charles Fassert singing the song named after his sister, written by his brother. 

    Then again, when you can make that catchy of a chorus out of one name, who cares who it belongs to?

  • In Real Life, ‘Jessie’s Girl’ Was Actually ‘Gary’s Girl’
    Video: YouTube

    Rick Springfield is an Australian artist most famous for his classic rock tune, “Jessie’s Girl.” Despite having been released over 40 years ago, it remains a popular sing-along song. Perhaps it’s the theme (the song revolves around a guy who's in love with his best friend's girl) that still resonates. It’s a timeless tale and one that Springfield found himself in in the 1970s. 

    The inspiration came from his younger days, where, as Springfield describes, “I was always girl-obsessed but unbelievably shy. I didn’t get a whole lot of satisfaction, so to speak.” 

    While taking an art class, Springfield befriended a guy named Gary (not Jessie) who was dating a girl that Springfield secretly had a crush on. Springfield never made his feelings known, nor even spoke to the girl he was “panting over from afar.” He eventually lost touch with the couple, but Springfield didn’t forget Gary's girl or the feelings the situation evoked in him. The result? A Grammy-winning pop song that charted at No. 1 the same week it was released. 

    Many today can still relate to the following chorus

    …Jessie's girl

    I wish that I had Jessie's girl

    Where can I find a woman like that?

    Of the cheery tune's subject matter, Springfield said, “It’s a bubbly and vivacious song, but it’s dark. It’s also covetous, which a lot of my music is.”