Goodbye England's Rose
Her sudden death in a car crash—20 years ago this summer—led to the top-selling single of all time. Here are 15 songs and the women who inspired them, beginning with the People's Princess.
Candle in the Wind (1997)
THE MUSE: Princess Diana
THE BACKSTORY: Originally about Marilyn Monroe—with the opening line "Goodbye, Norma Jean"—the lyrics were rewritten to pay tribute to Diana, Princess of Wales, after her death in a car crash in 1997.
UPDATE: The revised song, which Elton John played at Diana's funeral, became the biggest-selling single ever, according to the Guinness Book of World Records
Like a Rolling Stone (1965)
THE MUSE: Edie Sedgwick
THE BACKSTORY: "She was a great girl. An exciting girl, very enthusiastic," Bob Dylan said of the heiress, fashion model and Andy Warhol superstar. Although he never confirmed it, Sedgwick is widely believed to have been "Miss Lonely" in Dylan's first Top 10 hit, which reached No. 2.
UPDATE: Like Miss Lonely, Sedgwick suffered a terrible fall. She died in 1971, of a drug overdose, at the age of 28.
Sweet Caroline (1969)
THE MUSE: Caroline Kennedy
THE BACKSTORY: Nearly four decades after he recorded it, Neil Diamond revealed that a 1962 photo of JFK's daughter riding her pony Macaroni inspired this soft-rock single, which peaked at No. 4 but eventually went platinum.
UPDATE: Diamond finally met Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg in 2007, when he performed "Sweet Caroline" for her 50th birthday.
"My Love" (1973)
THE MUSE: Linda McCartney
THE BACKSTORY: Maybe Paul McCartney was still amazed at the lovely Linda when he wrote "My Love," the first of his post-Beatles love songs to top the charts.
UPDATE: Paul's wife and frequent collaborator inspired loads of "silly love songs" in the three decades before her death from cancer in 1998.
Oh! Carol (1959)
THE MUSE: Carole King
THE BACKSTORY: Neil Sedaka dated her in high school when she was still Carol Klein. After "Oh! Carol" became a Top 10 hit (it peaked at No. 9), King's husband Gerry Goffin wrote "Oh! Neil" in response. Sedaka promptly recorded it, but the sequel flopped.
UPDATE: More recently, Sedaka noted that he has written "four or five songs" about his wife, Leba. ("Otherwise, she'd have kicked me out.") They've been married since 1962.
The Lady in Red (1986)
THE MUSE: Diane Davison
THE BACKSTORY: Chris de Burgh (born Christopher John Davison) says this ballad, which rose to No. 3 in the U.S., was inspired by his memory of the first time he saw his wife. (The couple are pictured with their daughter Rosanna, who won the Miss World pageant in 2003.)
UPDATE: Chris and Diane have been married since 1977.
19th Nervous Breakdown (1966)
THE MUSE: Chrissie Shrimpton
THE BACKSTORY: Mick Jagger began dating supermodel Jean Shrimpton's kid sister when they were teenagers. Although this Rolling Stones song, which reached No. 2, isn't entirely about her, Chrissie reportedly inspired some of the lines.
UPDATE: In 2012, Shrimpton recalled attempting suicide over Jagger, but she doesn't hold a grudge: "We were both very, very young."
Brown Sugar (1971)
THE MUSE: Marsha Hunt
THE BACKSTORY: The singer-actress was having an affair with Mick Jagger when he co-wrote "Brown Sugar," a No. 1 hit for the Stones in 1971. By then Hunt had given birth to Jagger's first child, Karis.
UPDATE: Although he and Hunt went separate ways, Jagger is close to Karis. He attended her Yale graduation and wedding, and was at the hospital for the birth of her son—Mick's grandson—in 2004.
Sweet Child o' Mine (1988)
THE MUSE: Erin Everly
THE BACKSTORY: The daughter of Don Everly of the Everly Brothers inspired Guns N' Roses' first and only No. 1 hit. Then Axl Rose's girlfriend, she married the singer in 1990, despite an alleged history of domestic abuse. The marriage lasted a few months.
UPDATE: In 1994, Everly sued Rose for physical and emotional abuse (the case was settled), and in 2013 she put his letters and their marriage license up for auction.
Philadelphia Freedom (1975)
THE MUSE: Billie Jean King
THE BACKSTORY: The tennis star's friend Elton John asked lyricist Bernie Taupin to write a song with the title "Philadelphia Freedom" in King's honor. Although the No. 1 hit is dedicated to "B.J.K.," it's actually a salute to Philly soul music and the American bicentennial.
UPDATE: In the closet when they met, Elton and Billie Jean both went on to become champions of gay rights.
Heart-Shaped Box (1993)
THE MUSE: Courtney Love
THE BACKSTORY: Kurt Cobain claimed this Nirvana hit was about children with cancer. But the lyrics refer to a rocky romance, and Cancer is Courtney Love's astrological sign. As for the title, Love once gave Cobain a heart-shaped box containing a doll's head.
UPDATE: After Lana Del Rey performed a cover of "Heart-Shaped Box" in 2012, Love addressed her on Twitter: "You do know the song is about my vagina, right?"
Uptown Girl (1983)
THE MUSE: Christie Brinkley
THE BACKSTORY: Billy Joel wrote an early version of this song about another supermodel, his off-and-on girlfriend Elle McPherson. But when he and Brinkley began dating, the piano man rewrote the lyrics. The single reached No. 3.
UPDATE: Joel and Brinkley, who appeared in the "Uptown Girl" video, were married for nine years.
Peggy Sue (1957)
THE MUSE: Peggy Sue Gerron
THE BACKSTORY:This No. 3 hit for Buddy Holly was originally called "Cindy Lou," after Holly's niece. Then Crickets drummer Jerry Allison broke up with his girlfriend Peggy Sue Gerron (seen here at a 2009 opening of "The Buddy Holly Story"), and the song became a message to her.
UPDATE: Peggy Sue got married—to Jerry—but they eventually divorced.
THE MUSE: Yoko Ono
THE BACKSTORY: John Lennon called this ode to his wife—and to women in general—a "grown-up version" of the 1965 Beatles song "Girl."
UPDATE: Released as a single one month after Lennon's death, "Woman" quickly climbed to No. 2.
My Sharona (1979)
THE MUSE: Sharona Alperin
THE BACKSTORY: For the Knack's Doug Fieger, meeting 17-year-old Sharona was "like getting hit in the head with a baseball bat." Instantly inspired, he said this No. 1 hit took 15 minutes to write.
UPDATE: They broke up but stayed friends. Now an L.A. real estate agent (her website: mysharona.com), Alperin visited Fieger often just before his death from cancer in 2010, the year this photo was taken.
Fresh updates on icons from the past—from Bobbie Gentry to Bobby Vinton—who now keep a low profile
When Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr. and company ruled Las Vegas
Cool facts about the music and movie legend known simply as The Voice
His sources of inspiration weren't what you imagine—except when they were
Intriguing facts about The Doors' legendary lead singer
Holiday cheers for 15 performances that deserve a bigger spotlight