“I reckon ‘Yesterday’ is probably my best song. I like it not only because it was a big success, but because it was one of the most instinctive songs I’ve ever written. I was so proud of it. I felt it was an original tune- the most complete thing I’ve ever written. It's very catchy without being sickly" -Paul McCartney.
“Yesterday,” written entirely (or almost entirely- read on) by Paul McCartney, is the most widely recorded song of all-time. To date, at least 4,000 different versions of the classic Beatles tune have been recorded by artists as diverse as Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Liberace, Tammy Wynette, Daffy Duck (!), The Mamas and the Papas, Marvin Gaye, Ray Charles and Placido Domingo.
In the mid-sixties, long before “Yesterday" was known to the general public, singer Billy J. Kramer said he was looking for a new song to record and Paul played him “Yesterday.” Poor Billy turned it down because he said it wasn't right for him. Chris Farlowe also turned down the number, telling Paul, “It's not for me. It's too soft. I need a good rocker, a shuffle or something.”
Although “Yesterday" has been covered by thousands of different and diverse artists, only four versions have actually made the charts: those by the Beatles, Matt Monro, Ray Charles and Marianne Faithfull.
“It was the only song I ever dreamed,” said McCartney. True- “Yesterday" came to Paul McCartney in a dream. Paul woke up one morning, late in 1963 in the attic bedroom of Jane Asher's house (Jane was his then-girlfriend) with a complete melody in his head and set some nonsense lyrics to it.
The original title was actually “Scrambled Eggs.” Although the melody was magnificent, Paul's original lyrics were slightly sophomoric: “Scrambled eggs, oh you've got such lovely legs, scrambled eggs. Oh, my baby, how I love your legs."
Paul was initially unsure whether he had actually thought up the song himself or if he had unintentionally stolen it from another composer. He played the tune to the other Beatles and recalled: “It was like handing in something you'd found at the police station and waiting to see if anyone claimed it. After two weeks they hadn't in this case so I felt entitled to collect it and call it my property.” Still unsure, Paul played the melody to several other musicians and composers, but each one assured him that the song was his and he didn't unintentionally steal it from another source.
Nowadays, and in every McCartney interview since 1980, Paul has claimed complete 100% authorship and ownership of the song. But, as with so many "facts" in the history of the Beatles, this now-gospel is disputed by other sources.
According to author John C. Winn, author of an excellent recent Beatles book That Magic Feeling: The Beatles Recorded Legacy, when Paul first played the song to his fellow Beatles, it was John who suggested the three-syllable title “Yesterday." In a pre-1980 interview, John also stated: “The song was around for months and months before we completed it" (note the "we"). Lennon continued, in the same interview: “Paul wrote nearly all of it. We just couldn't find the right title" (note the "nearly”).
But by 1980, even John had changed his tune (no pun intended), saying in his Playboy interview that “Yesterday" was entirely Paul's and that he had nothing whatsoever to do with it. “I never wished I’d written it and I don't believe in yesterday".
Whether or not “Yesterday" is indeed 100% Paul's song or whether John helped in any way with it joins the scores of other "mysteries of the Beatles" that will undoubtedly remain a bit baffling and will be "unsolved completely" for the ages. Okay, let's not nitpick, suffice to say the song was definitely a “Paul work,” with a possible very, very minor contribution from John.
The inspiration for the song? Obviously, a great majority of Beatle songs were about a man's love for a woman, and this seems almost too obvious. But another school of thought says Paul's "unconscious inspiration" was his beloved mother Mary, a nurse who died of cancer when Paul was just 14. Although Paul denies this theory, he does allow for it's possibility.
It apparently took almost two full years for “Yesterday" to be recorded. According to Beatles producer George Martin, Paul first played the song for him in Paris in January of 1964 and told him he thought the title “Yesterday" might be "too corny,” but Martin assured him it was not. Witnesses recall Paul fooling and noodling around with the tune during the filming of the Beatles' second movie Help! in early 1965. It was finally recorded officially in June of 1965.
At first, they tried different ideas, including with John playing the organ, but eventually everyone finally decided it should be a Paul solo. Thus, “Yesterday" became the first-ever Beatle song recorded with only one Beatle and one Beatle alone. The other "evolutionary" factor in the recording was the bringing in of a string quartet to back up Paul on the song. This was quite a huge breakthrough at the time, for a mere "pop record". These two factors were not without minor repercussions i.e. jealousy from the other Beatles. (Interestingly, “Yesterday,” in spite of all its huge worldwide success, was to be an early indicator of the chinks and cracks in the armor of early Beatle unity.)
“Yesterday" was released on the Beatles Help! album in 1965. The song was never released as a single in Britain until after the band had officially split up (the “Yesterday” as a single idea was vetoed by John, George and Ringo).
George Martin knew it was a “Paul song" and thought it should be released as such. But Beatles' manager Brian Epstein quickly put the kibosh on this idea: “No. It is the Beatles.” According to Martin: “He did not want to divide his holy quartet. Though it wasn't the Beatles at all, it had to remain so, as part of their recordings. I don't think it irritated Paul at the time because he considered himself a Beatle above all other things.”
True, John did reap one-half of the composing royalties from “Yesterday" although it was Paul's baby, but very shortly thereafter, Paul would reap the same one-half from songs completely written by John (“Strawberry Fields Forever,” “Come Together,” “I Am The Walrus,” “Revolution" and many others). The truth is, as great as John and Paul were as a writing team, they had each always written songs alone, not needing the help of a co-writer.
There was a fairly major flap between Paul and Yoko Ono in the mid-1990's, when Paul tried to get the composing credit of “Yesterday" changed from the customary “Lennon/McCartney" to “McCartney/Lennon.” Yoko (as usual) was not amused, and refused Paul's humble request in typically unequivocal fashion.
When the Beatles began touring in June of 1965, Paul initially didn't play “Yesterday" because he thought it might upset John. When the Beatles appeared on Blackpool Night Out in August of 1965, Paul performed “Yesterday".
Apparently John didn't like this solo spot idea and made sarcastic remarks all through Paul's rehearsals. (As an interesting sidebar, at the <>Blackpool Night Out performance, Paul reportedly dedicated the song to his ex-girlfriend, Iris Caldwell. Other sources claim Iris had once called Paul "unemotional" and he called Iris up and played “Yesterday" to her over the phone to prove otherwise.)
On August 14, 1965, Paul performed the song on The Ed Sullivan Show. When he finished the number, John cuttingly said: “Thank you Paul, that was just like him.”
George was to complain about Paul's going on and on about “Yesterday": “Blimey! He's always talking about that song. You'd think he was Beethoven or somebody.” Despite the other Beatles' occasional grumbling under their breath, Paul was to perform the song solo at many of their live concerts during their 1965-66 tours. The Beatles all sang a drunk-like, sarcastic version of the song on their 1965 Christmas record.
Even the great Bob Dylan joined the anti-“Yesterday" chorus, saying: “If you go to the Library of Congress you can find a lot better songs than that.....there are millions of songs like “Michelle" and “Yesterday" written in Tin Pan Alley". (Ironically, Dylan was to record his own version of the song four years later. It was never released.)
Despite the puerile jealousies of his friends and colleagues, “Yesterday" remains a classic, easily the best-known and most beloved of Paul McCartney's legions of compositions- his "signature song" (Interestingly, Lennon's best-known work and "signature song" is “Imagine,” a song he wrote and recorded after the Beatles' split.)
In 1997, “Yesterday" was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. “Yesterday" was voted the best song of the 20th century in a BBC2 poll of music experts and listeners. It was voted #1 pop song of all-time by MTV and Rolling Stone magazine. Broadcast Music Incorporated (BMI) asserts that “Yesterday" was performed over 7 million times in the 20th century alone.
[Ed. note: Paul McCartney turns 72 years old today. Happy Birthday, Sir Paul!]