Music Lists #9: Songs About Famous People

Most of you, by now, are familiar with my obsessive need to put everything into lists. It's a sickness. I make no apologies. Here's another one - this time about songs that have a famous person as its subject matter. There's only three rules:

1. This is a list of songs I like. No crappy songs allowed on list.

2. It cannot be about a fellow band member, family member or girlfriend. Otherwise this list would go on forever. Here's a few examples:
Layla - Derek & the Dominoes (Pattie Boyd)
Shine On You Crazy Diamond - Pink Floyd (Syd Barrett)
Maybe I'm Amazed - Paul McCartney (Linda McCartney)
Hey Jude - The Beatles (Julian Lennon)

3. Lastly, the song cannot just mention him or her once or twice. The song doesn't need to be a mini-biography, it can simply be inspired by the individual. But a quick namedrop doesn't count. So, "Mrs. Robinson" by Simon & Garfunkle is disqualified since it mentions Joe DiMaggio only once and isn't about him at all.

So, here's the list in no particular order. I've put the song's inspiration/subject matter in parentheses where it's not obvious.

Rosanna - Toto (Rosanna Arquette)
Abraham, Martin and John - Dion (Lincoln, MLK Jr., JFK)
Sir Duke - Stevie Wonder (Duke Ellington)
Philadelphia Freedom - Elton John (Billy Jean King)
Bela Lugosi's Dead - Bauhaus
Andy Warhol - David Bowie
Timothy Leary - Moody Blues
Sexy Sadie - The Beatles (Maharishi Yogi)
Pablo Picasso - Burning Sensations (originally recorded by The Modern Lovers)
She's Not There - The Zombies (Twiggy)
American Pie - Don McLean (numerous musical figures)
Faron Young - Prefab Sprout
Alec Eiffel - The Pixies (Alexandre Gustave Eiffel)
Buddy Holly - Weezer
King Tut - Steve Martin
Black Superman - Johnny Wakelin (Muhammad Ali)
The Ride - David Alan Cole (Hank Williams)
Man on the Moon - REM (Andy Kaufman)
Don Henly Must Die - Mojo Nixon
Night Shift - Commodores (Marvin Gaye)
Michael Caine - Madness
Biko - Peter Gabriel (Stephen Biko)
Bette Davis Eyes- Kim Carnes
Suedehead- Morrissey (James Dean)
Empty Garden - Elton John (John Lennon)
Candle in the Wind - Elton John (Marilyn Monroe)
Midnight Rambler - Rolling Stones (serial killer Albert De Salvo)
Pride - U2 (MLK Jr.)
Killing Me Softly - Roberta Flack (Don McLean)
Calypso - John Denver (Jacques Cousteau)
Rock Me Amadeus - Falco

And here's two I absolutely hate, just 'cause:
When Smokey Sings - ABC (Smokey Robinson)
Henry VIII - Herman's Hermits

I'll also mention "Something" by The Beatles: generally considered to be about his woman, Patty Boyd, but George Harrison claimed it was for Ray Charles. The verdict is still out. The same goes for Carly Simon's "You're So Vain" which probably is about her (ex)beau Warren Beatty, but it's still up for debate.

If you've got some more glaring omissions, please send them my way!


  1. Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead -- XTC. All 'bout JFK.

  2. Here are few I can think of:

    Crosby, Stills and Nash - Suite: Judy Blue Eyes (1969) - folk singer Judy Collins

    Alannah Miles - Black Velvet (1989) - The King (The late Elvis Presley)

    The Commodores - Nightshift (1985) - the late Marvin Gaye and Jackie Wilson

    Dianna Ross - Missing You (1984) - the late Marvin Gaye

    Billy Joel - We Didn't Start the Fire (1989) - various historical figures from the first 50 years of Billy Joel's life

    P.S. I would like to see a top ten list defining who has the most songs written about them. John Lennon, JFK, Marvin Gaye? Just curious.

  3. Billy Joel did "The Ballad Of Billy The Kid", and The Eagles did "James Dean", but I don't think either were based much on facts, more of a fictionalized account.

    As far as "enery

    "Second verse, same as the first,
    a little bit slower and a little bit worse"

  4. Mike SchaeferSeptember 10, 2009

    er, Rosanna Arquette *was* the girlfriend of Toto's Steve Porcaro when he wrote the song...

  5. Punk Rock Girl by the Dead Milkmen mentions Mojo Nixon, but it's not really about him.

    The Replacements have a song about Alex Chilton.

    10,000 Manics have a song about Jack Kerouac.

  6. Two Warren Zevon songs come to mind:

    1. "Frank & Jesse James," which he claimed was actually inspired by the Everly Brothers (he had played in their band for a while)

    2. "The Envoy," which was inspired by diplomat Philip Habib

  7. Mike SchaeferSeptember 10, 2009

    And may I STRONGLY disagree with your opinion of "When Smokey Sings" -- easily one of the best pop singles of the '80s (IMHO).

  8. And who can forget Brian Wilson's ode to "Johnny Carson" by The Beach Boys.

  9. "So Long Frank Lloyd Wright" by Simon and Garfunkle comes to mind.

  10. Bananarama did "Robert DeNiro's Waiting". Some other girl group did a song about David Duchovny; can't recall who.

    Steely Dan had a song called "Parker's Band", a tribute to Charlie Parker.

  11. Good suggestions, everyone. Hitch, you maybe missed "Night Shift" on my list.

    Mike- I stand corrected on the Toto song. And let's agree to disagree on the ABC song - not real sure why I don't like it, maybe it's just TOO poppy.

    Also, didn't the Bare Naked Ladies have a song about Brian Wilson? Then there was the Gorillaz song "Clint Eastwood", but those are not exactly retro. Plus "Galileo" by the Indigo Girls.

    Then there's "Sandra Dee" sung by Stockard Channing in Grease.

  12. I love me some Falco! I listened to that tape so much in the 80's that it wore out!

  13. And how could we forget "Rock and Roll Heaven"? Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Otis Redding, Jim Morrison, Jim Croce, Bobby Darin! They've only found another place to play.

  14. Diamonds on My Windshield by Tom Waits is about Kerouac. Good tune.
    Sufjan Stevens has a song on his album Illinois called "John Wayne Gacey Jr." Haunting.

  15. Viva Las Vegas written about yours truly performed by...The King! Hee hee hee!

  16. This comment has been removed by the author.

  17. "Ciao, Baby" written about Edie Sedgwick & "Nico" written about...why, Nico, of course! Both performed by The Cult (one of my all-time favorite bands!)

    "Just Like a Woman" was reportedly written about Edie Sedgwick by Bob Dylan.

    "Angie" was written about Bowie's first wife, Angela Barnett by The Rolling Stones.

    "Sara" was reportedly written by Stevie Nicks regarding an abortion fathered by Don Henley of The Eagles....

    And who can forget "God Save The Queen" by The Sex Pistols written in honor of Queen Elizabeth's Silver Jubilee!

  18. "Cold Blooded" by Rick James in honor of Linda Blair.

    "Tonight's The Night" by Rod Stewart in honor of Britt Ekland who also appears in the video & speaks a few French phrases for the European recording.

    Both "Photograph" by Def Leppard & "Killer Queen" by Queen reportedly are inspired by Marilyn Monroe.

    "You're So Vain" by Carly Simon is written about Warren Beatty.

    "Suicide Blonde" by INXS was written about Kylie Minogue.

    "Billie Jean" is about one of Michael Jackson's crazed stalkers.

  19. "Alister Crowley" by Ozzy Osborne.

    How far back is retro? In the 90s Living Color did "Elvis is Dead" with Little Richard rapping.

  20. "Vincent" (AKA Starry Starry Night) - Don McLean - tribute to Vincent van Gogh.

  21. OK, this is pushing it, but

    The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald - Gordon Lightfoot

  22. To make up for the last one -

    "Peggy Sue" - Buddy Holly and the Crickets -in reference to Crickets drummer Jerry Allison's girlfriend (and future wife), Peggy Sue Gerron.

    (Also one of the most used names in rock music including (P.S. I Love you)

  23. How about "Carrie-Anne" by the Hollies? They wrote it about Marianne Faithful but changed the name.

  24. Mmmmm Suedehead, love it. This is a great list.

  25. And of course, John Fogerty penned a couple of heartfelt tributes to his former boss, Saul Zaentz: Vanz Kant Danz and Mr. Greed.

  26. "The Right Profile" by the Clash (Montgomery Clift)
    "Who Killed Marilyn" by the Misfits (Marilyn Monroe)
    "Hurricane" by Bob Dylan (Rubin Carter)
    "Love Kills" by the Ramones (Sid & Nancy)
    "Ripper" by Judas Priest (Jack the Ripper)

  27. "Kiss the, for me" by Siouxie and the Banshees and "Ballad of Jayne" by LA guns were 2 for my favorite actress, Jayne Mansfield

  28. THEM, sorry!

    Love your blog BTW. I try to read it daily!

  29. "Elvis is Everywhere" -Mojo Nixon (Elvis Presley)
    "Where Oh Where Are You Tonight" -Hee Haw Cast (You!!!) ...just kidding.

  30. "Picasso's Last Words (Drink to Me)" by Paul McCartney.

    Band on the Run.

  31. "Steve McQueen" by Sheryl Crow
    and "Straw Hat & Old Dirty Hank" by Barenaked Ladies
    The second song is about Helen Reddy & the farmer that stalked her ! Clever song.

  32. Great comment, love it...i think you left out the song called 'the King is Gone' refer to Elvis Presley, by Ronnie McDowell, year 1977.

  33. Sounds of Silence - Simon & Garfunkel (about JFK)

  34. Solid Air - John Martyn (about Nick Drake)

  35. AnonymousJune 17, 2012

    Rasputin-Boney M (about Grigori Rasputin, a healer in Russia)

  36. DIRE STRAITS - Calling Elvis (1991) -- a play on Elvis' song "Return to Sender"

    DUCK SAUCE - Barbra Streisand (2010)

    EURYTHMICS - Beethoven (I Love To Listen To...) (1987)

    MAROON 5 / CHRISTINA AGUILERA - Moves Like Jagger (2011) -- Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones

    SPACE feat. CERYS MATTHEWS of Catatonia - The Ballad of Tom Jones (1998)

    MIKA - Grace Kelly (2007)

    U2 - Angel of Harlen (1989) - about Billie Holliday... also mentions John Coltraine

    DAVID ESSEX / MICHAEL DAMIAN - Rock On - mentions James Dean

    DANIEL BEDINGFIELD - James Dean (I Wanna Know) (2002) -- mentions James Dean

    L.A. STYLE - James Brown Is Dead (1992) -- released 14 years before James Brown actually died.