Behind the Hits

The following article is from Uncle John’s Factastic Bathroom Reader.

Another edition of a longtime Bathroom Reader favorite— the secret stories and hidden factoids behind popular songs.

(YouTube link)

The Song: “I Shot the Sheriff” (1973)

The Artist: Bob Marley

The Story: Reggae superstar Marley had an international hit with this song about a man and his feud with a sheriff (but not the deputy). But according to Jamaican filmmaker Esther Anderson, who played a big part in Marley’s early success— and who was having an affair with Marley at the time he wrote the song— the song has a secret meaning few people would ever suspect. In her award-winning 2011 documentary Bob Marley: The Making of a Legend, Anderson claims Marley wanted her to have his child and was unhappy that she was using birth control. According to Anderson, the “sheriff” in the song was the doctor who prescribed birth control, which would explain the song’s cryptic “seed” lyric: “Sheriff John Brown always hated me / For what, I don’t know / Every time I plant a seed / He said kill it before it grow.” Whether or not Anderson’s claim is true is anyone’s guess. (Marley, it should be noted, had eleven kids with seven different women.)

(YouTube link)

The Song: “The Way” (1998)

The Artist: Fastball

The Story: The Austin, Texas, rockers hit Billboard’s #1 spot in 1998 with this song about an elderly couple who find happiness by leaving their home and possessions behind and hitting the road. “They wanted the highway,” the song’s refrain says, “they’re happier there today.” Lead singer Tony Scalzo got the idea for the song from a story in the Austin American-Statesman about Lela and Raymond Howard, who left their Salado, Texas, home in June 1997 to drive to a nearby music festival… and disappeared. It was later reported that the Howards, both in their 80s, were suffering from cognitive disabilities due to medical conditions. The song— with its happy ending— was finished before the couple was finally discovered, two weeks later, dead in their car at the bottom of a ravine near Hot Springs, Arkansas— more than 400 miles off their planned course. Exactly how or why they ended up there is unknown.

(YouTube link)

The Song: “Ticket to Ride” (1965)

The Artist: The Beatles

The Story: What’s a “ticket to ride”? According to Barry Miles’s authorized biography of Paul McCartney, Many Years from Now, it had to do with the town of Ryde, on the Isle of Wight, just off England’s south coast. McCartney had a cousin who owned a pub in Ryde, and he and John Lennon had hitchhiked there in 1960. The inspiration for the song came from that trip to Ryde. But according to the book A Hard Day’s Write by Steve Turner, “ticket to ride” has a much less family-friendly meaning. Turner quotes British journalist Don Short:

The girls who worked the streets in Hamburg had to have a clean bill of health, so the medical authorities would give them a card saying that they didn’t have a dose of anything. I was with the Beatles when they went back to Hamburg in June 1966 and it was then that John told me that he had coined the phrase “a ticket to ride” to describe these cards. He could have been joking— you always had to be careful with John like that— but I certainly remember him telling me that.

(YouTube link)

The Song: “Just the Way You Are” (1977)

The Artist: Billy Joel

The Story: Joel wrote this song for his first wife, Elizabeth Weber. “I dreamt the melody,” he told USA Today in a 2008 interview. “I remember waking up in the middle of the night and going, ‘This is a great idea for a song.’ A couple of weeks later, I’m in a business meeting and the dream recurs to me right at that moment, because my mind had drifted off from hearing numbers and legal jargon.” He left the meeting immediately, went home, and wrote the song, “all in one sitting.” Bonus: Joel almost didn’t release it. He thought it wasn’t rock-and-roll enough, dismissing it as “a gloppy ballad” and “a chick song.” Luckily, he changed his mind. It won the 1979 Grammy for Song of the Year.

(YouTube link)

The Song: “Save the Last Dance for Me” (1960)

The Artist: Doc Pomus

The Story: Songwriter Pomus and his partner, Mort Shuman, wrote dozens of hits from the 1950s until the 1970s, including Elvis Presley’s “Little Sister,” “Surrender,” and “Viva Las Vegas.” But the song “Save the Last Dance for Me,” which was a huge success for the Drifters in 1960, probably has the most “aw”-inspiring backstory. In the song, a couple is at a dance, and the singer tells his sweetie she’s free to dance with other guys as long as she saves the last dance for him. Pomus wrote the song after his own wedding, where he watched his brother, as well as other guests, dance with his new wife— something Pomus himself could not do: he had polio and used a wheelchair.

Bonus: Besides the Drifters #1 hit version, the song has been recorded by Emmylou Harris, Ike and Tina Turner, Dolly Parton, Buck Owens, Michael Bublé, the Beatles, Jay and the Americans, Harry Nilsson, the Walkmen, Bruce Willis (yes, Bruce Willis), and many others.


The article above is reprinted with permission from Uncle John’s Factastic Bathroom Reader. The 28th volume of the series is chock-full of fascinating stories and facts, and comes in both the Kindle version and paper with a classy cloth cover.

Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts. If you like Neatorama, you'll love the Bathroom Reader Institute's books - go ahead and check 'em out!

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