The Faces Behind The Music: 35+ Muses Who Inspired Our Favorite Songs

By Sachin P December 19, 2023

This article was originally published on nostalgikingdom

Just like painters have muses, so do musicians. These are the people who inspire or serve as a catalyst that sparks a songwriter’s imagination. Often, you’ll find a singer singing about someone they truly loved, someone who hurt them, or just expressing their admiration for someone who inspired them.

Though some musicians are bold enough to call their songs after their muse, most prefer to be subtle and keep the audience guessing. For example, some of us are still struggling to decode the muses behind Taylor Swift’s biggest hits!

Since we know how exhausting it can be to play detective in such instances, we’ve compiled a list of known inspirations behind some of the world’s biggest hits. Stay tuned to find out, and don’t be shy about singing along whenever you come across your favorite hits.

Rosanna – Toto

When Toto released Rosanna in 1982, they were at their most successful. It was more than just an upbeat song; it was a composition about discovering and losing love. This tune established Toto as one of the biggest bands of the ’80s.

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Since the song’s release, there were rumors that the starlet Rosanna Arquette, who was dating the band’s keyboardist Steve Porcaro at the time, was the inspiration for the song. But for many years, songwriter and bandmate David Paich denied it. He only officially acknowledged it in 2016.

Day Dreaming – Aretha Franklin

Aretha Franklin had been engaged to Dennis Edwards of The Temptations when she wrote Day Dreaming. However, they never married. Years later, Edwards would acknowledge his mistake, saying the thought of getting married to such an influential superstar terrified him at the time.

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Aretha said that she had already come to terms with the circumstances and decided to move on to better things. Though she’s not here to confirm it, we’d say she found greener pastures. The Queen of Soul enjoyed an uber-successful career that lasted several decades.

Hearts and Bones – Paul Simon

Paul Simon’s 1983 Hearts and Bones album’s title track is a love song with a clear personal connection. Paul and actress Carrie Fisher were in the midst of a tumultuous one-year marriage when it was written. It’s incredible how pain and loss can bring forth the most beautiful things.

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Despite the fact that they had only been wed for a year before they went their separate ways, they later reconciled and stayed together for a while before finalizing their breakup for good. This hit was written as a tribute to the good times they shared.

And I Love Her – Paul McCartney

Among Paul MacCartney’s many legendary love songs, And I Love Her is said to have been the first ballad that he was truly happy with. The beloved song was inspired by Jane Asher, his then-fiancée. The press reportedly adored their relationship seeing as she was also in the limelight.

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She was a famous photographer and actor in Britain back in the 1960s. Unfortunately, this love was not meant to be, and within a year, they sadly split up. Paul eventually married Linda Eastman, who he stayed with until she passed on in 1998.

Shine on You Crazy Diamond – Pink Floyd

The tale behind this song’s writing and recording is quite strange. For those who may not know, it is a classic nine-part rock ballad written as an homage to Syd Barrett, Pink Floyd’s co-founder. He was also the band’s lead singer before he was asked to leave in ’68.

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But, as it often happens, the band just wasn’t the same without him, as his influence overshadowed them. So, they wrote Shine On You Crazy Diamond to rectify things. The strange part is that as they were recording it, Barret wandered into the studio, but the band members didn’t realize it for almost an hour!

Love of My Life – Freddie Mercury

This song was written by Freddie Mercury about his closest friend and ex-fiancee, Mary Austin. It made its debut on Queen’s well-known successful album, A Night at The Opera. Austin was 19 years old, while Mercury was 24 when they first met.

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They reportedly connected right away and quickly fell in love. But as you might know, they didn’t stay together because Mercury had to come to terms with his sexuality. That said, the two remained very close still, and he was actually the godfather to one of her children.

MacArthur Park

Richard Harris’ 1968 single MacArthur Park was a great success. Very few know this, but the idea for the song actually came from songwriter Jimmy Webb’s long and traumatic breakup. As we said, pain has a way of inspiring wonderful art.

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Since Jimmy was employed in an office building near MacArthur Park, he and the woman he was seeing at the time would frequently spend time there. The song’s lyrics capture Webb’s emotions as he tried to deal with the aftermath of the breakup and the memories of their good times around the park.

Lady in Red – Chris de Burgh

Lady in Red lovingly recounts the day Chris de Burgh first met Diane Davison, the woman he would eventually wed. His 1986 album “Into the Light” featured this famous classic that catapulted him from a little-known niche musician to a massive global success in an instant.

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All the TV stations gave the video, which featured a woman in red, a ton of airtime. To date, de Burgh’s career has been closely linked to that particular song. He found the love of his life, and we got ourselves a banger!

Uptown Girl – Billy Joel

Billy Joel first dated Elle MacPherson before moving on to Christie Brinkley, whom he later married. Although Christie was the love of his life by the point the song was published, it appears he initially penned Uptown Girl with Elle in mind.

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As you may have guessed, the song is about an ordinary guy trying to woo a girl who comes from wealth. Interestingly, the song was originally going to be called ‘Uptown Girls’ because, at the time, those were the kinds of women in Billy’s life, with him being a rockstar and all.

Layla – Eric Clapton

At the time this song was being written, Eric Clapton thought that the best plan of action for winning his best friend’s wife’s heart was to create a barely disguised love song for her. Yes, it may sound complicated, but that happened when he met Pattie Boyd.

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The song was also inspired by a 7th-century love story from Arabia between Layla and Majnun. In the end, Layla became a very popular rock song and one of Clapton’s greatest compositions. And as it turns out, he eventually got the woman he sang it for, and they were married from 1979 to 1989.

Brown Sugar – The Rolling Stones

Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones, and Marsha Hunt, a musician, actress, and model (who would later go on to establish herself as a renowned author), had a covert but incredibly passionate relationship in 1970. Karis, their daughter, was born around November of that same year.

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So, it’s not that surprising that she served as the inspiration for one of the band’s most popular songs. The claim that Hunt was the song’s inspiration hasn’t been without controversy, though. Others have asserted that Claudia Lennear, a soul singer, was the muse.

Hey There Delilah – Plain White Ts

The hit song Hey There Delilah describes the agony and longing often experienced in a long-distance relationship. It swept the globe once the barely known Plain White Ts debuted it in 2005, thanks to its loveable infectious tune and effortless reliability.

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Tom Higgenson, the band’s lead singer, had encountered long-distance running champion Delilah DiCrescenzo and became instantly enamored with her. He approached her and told her he’d written a song about her, but sadly, she declined his advances. It worked for Clapton and Pattie, but Tom wasn’t in luck.

Photograph – Def Leppard

Def Leppard’s lead singer Joe Elliot was only three when Marilyn Monroe tragically passed on in 1962. But that did not deter him from using her as inspiration for one of the group’s first significant songs. Monroe was obviously out of Elliot’s reach, but he still channeled his love and admiration for her.

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He used her photo as the cover art for the song and cast her doppelganger in the song’s video. Later, Elliot claimed that his song had nothing whatsoever to do with Marilyn Monroe, but that was simply hard to believe, considering how prominent the actress’ influences were on it.

True Blue – Madonna

Sean Penn and Madonna had already started dating by the point she penned True Blue in 1986. To her, he was positively the most incredible man she had ever come across, so she felt obligated to compose a song in his honor.

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Tragically, the union lasted only four years amid speculations and accusations of Penn’s mistreatment. Madonna always had feelings of affection for her ex-husband, while Penn has disputed the accusations and even brought down a lawsuit against those who alleged them.

Sweetest Thing – U2

U2’s Bono apologized to his spouse Ali Hewson in Sweetest Thing for neglecting her for long stretches of time owing to his demanding rock star lifestyle and for missing her birthday because of responsibilities related to the band’s “The Joshua Tree” record production.

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Well, that is one way of saying sorry! All the proceeds from the song were later donated to Ali’s preferred charity. This was such a sweet gesture, and it is no wonder that they are still together four decades later.

The Boxer – Simon and Garfunkel

The folk-rock group Simon and Garfunkel’s The Boxer proved to be one of the band’s greatest successes and emotionally stirring tunes. The symbolic significance of the song was the subject of conflicting stories and interpretations almost immediately after it was released.

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One well-known theory suggested that Bob Dylan, who later did a cover of the song and was actually an amateur boxer during his younger days, was the inspiration behind it. To date, none of the explanations suggested have ever been supported by the song’s author, Paul Simon.

The Hurricane – Bob Dylan

Speaking of Bob Dylan, he and Jacques Levy wrote the song The Hurricane, which was inspired by Rubin ‘The Hurricane’ Carter. The American pro-fighter served over two decades in prison for crimes that many thought he was not guilty of.

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They used the song to draw focus on Carter’s situation. Prior to the song’s release, Bob was asked to redo it because his management had concerns about the lyrics. They feared some of the content could be used by the trial’s witnesses to sue them for defamation.

Woman – John Lennon

Considering that Yoko Ono served as John Lennon’s inspiration for over a decade prior to his unfortunate death, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that his song Woman, which also pays tribute to all women globally, was influenced by her.

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It came out as a single only a few weeks following John Lennon’s demise and is part of the Lennon and Ono collaborative album “Double Fantasy.” As often happens with posthumous releases, Woman became a massive hit as fans listened to it in sorrow over the sudden passing of the influential pioneer.

Vera – Pink Floyd

During WWII, British vocalist Vera Lynn enjoyed enormous popularity. She is most frequently linked to the song We’ll Meet Again. Roger Waters of Pink Floyd suggests that his subject in the song, The Wall would actually never meet his dad again while mentioning Vera Lynn and We’ll Meet Again.

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He does so in his trademark sardonic style. It almost seems as though Vera disregarded her word. Given that “Vera” is the Russian word for faith, it’s even conceivable that Waters meant the title of the song to be a play on words about losing faith.

The Ballad of Jayne – L.A Guns

L.A. Guns’ first gold record was “Cocked & Loaded.” It was also the band’s second album. The Ballad of Jayne, the album’s main track, was influenced by Jayne Mansfield’s story. She was a famous actress and singer known for her extraordinary beauty and is considered one of Hollywood’s first ‘blonde bombshells.’

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Jayne was also one of the first Playboy Playmates. Despite being intelligent, she exploited her beauty and used it to advance her career through every conceivable type of PR stunt. Sadly, she passed on due to a road accident in 1967.

Suzanne – Leonard Cohen

When Judy Collins covered this song in 1967, it launched Leonard Cohen, who at the time was unknown, into stardom. The year before, Cohen originally composed it as a poem, and not long after Collins did hers, he recorded his version of it for his debut album.

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The song speaks of his close relationship and attraction to a woman called Suzanne Verdal. They would travel to Montreal, as the lyrics say, and take leisurely strolls while enjoying both each other’s company and the many attractions of the historic city.

Tears in Heaven – Eric Clapton

After the passing of his young son and his buddy Stevie Ray Vaughn in the same year, Eric Clapton felt that he needed to take some time off for the sake of his mental well-being. When he got back to work, he started working on the Rush soundtrack.

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Eric co-wrote the song Tears in Heaven with lyricist Will Jennings for the movie. According to him, music was a great source of solace and happiness. Something most of us can relate to. There’s nothing like a beautiful song to uplift your spirit.

Man on the Moon – REM

The 1992 smash song Man on the Moon by REM is chock full of all different kinds of pop culture allusions. Although other REM members contributed to the song’s composition, lead singer Michael Stipe wrote the majority of the lyrics, and Andy Kaufman served as the muse.

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According to bassist Mike Mills, Andy Kaufman provided the ideal guide for a journey of challenging culturally accepted beliefs. It was easy to see the cultural inconsistencies via him, given his own obscure and enigmatic personality. The song was a massive hit in the early ’90s.

Maybe I’m Amazed – Paul McCartney

So many of The Beatles’ legendary songs can be credited to Paul McCartney. He often came up with them either alone or with his talented bandmate John Lennon. The quality of his romantic songs is simply exceptional. Maybe I’m Amazed was one of his first hits after they all went solo.

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The song is dedicated to his spouse Linda for the continuous support she gave him while the Beatles were disbanding. Paul spent almost 30 years married to her, and he devotedly penned numerous songs for her before she sadly passed in 1998.

Sweet Child o’ Mine – Guns n’ Roses

This song by Guns n’ Roses was inspired by Axl Rose’s then-girlfriend Erin Everly, who was the daughter of Don Everly of the Everly Brothers. Given the song’s tremendously vivid lyrics, she certainly proved to be quite the muse. Sweet Child o’ Mine was a tune from the band’s first album.

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It is among the most popular and significant breakthrough albums in the annals of recorded music. Additionally, the song transformed mainstream music for over a decade by incorporating the then-popular hair metal movement and rendering it more intense and immediate.

She’s Always a Woman – Billy Joel

Billy Joel has penned so many beloved hits. His song She’s Always a Woman is among the artist’s most expressive and enduring works. It chronicles a man’s eternal affection for a resilient, modern, and flawed woman. We’re certain it’s not a surprise that the man in question is Joel himself.

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His then-wife Elizabeth Weber served as the inspiration for the song. She’s Always a Woman ranks among the finest soft rock ballads of all time, and its eerie key and time signatures linger in the listener’s mind well after the song has ended.

The Girl from Ipanema – Astrud and João Gilberto with Stan Getz

The Portuguese title of the jazz bossa nova song The Girl from Ipanema was “Menina Que Passa” (The Girl Who Passes By). It deals with the nostalgic yearning to relive the fleeting splendor of youth. Helô Pinhero, the song’s muse, was immortalized by the song.

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She went on to become a model, store owner, and as of 1987, a Brazilian Playboy Playmate. The 1960s saw The Girl from Ipanema become a global Grammy-winning smash both in its original Portuguese version and its more well-known English rendition.

Peggy Sue – Buddy Holly

Buddy Holly had originally intended for this track to be called “Cindy Lou.” He altered it to Peggy Sue to help his drummer Jerry Allison’s love life. Later, the song would go on to develop into perhaps the most well-known of Buddy Holly’s hits.

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Holly intended to do everything he could to assist Allison and Peggy Sue Gerron to get back together after their breakup. And he succeeded! Their rekindled romance led to their marriage, which was commemorated by the less popular hit, Peggy Sue Got Married.

My Sharona – The Knack

Up to the moment he met Sharona Alperin, The Knack’s guitarist and lead singer Doug Feiger was experiencing a writing slump. He fell madly in love and began to write track after track, all of which were motivated by the new, gorgeous girl in his world.

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One of those songs, My Sharona, would later go on to develop into one of the industry’s greatest global blockbuster hits. Together, Feiger and The Knack’s lead guitarist Berton Averre wrote the song, basing it around Feiger’s lyrics and Averre’s distinctive riff.

Happy Birthday – Stevie Wonder

Stevie Wonder has no agenda beyond utilizing his talents and influence to try to make the planet a better place. He is frequently at the heart of social and political matters. This song showcased his political ideals in a creative way that’s unique to Stevie Wonder himself.

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He wrote Happy Birthday as part of his ongoing campaign to make Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday a nationwide holiday. It would eventually become law in 1983 by President Ronald Reagan. The holiday was first observed nationally in 1986. And that’s the power of music, folks!

Hey Jude – Paul McCartney

Paul McCartney became concerned about the well-being of Lennon’s son Julian while Lennon’s marriage with Cynthia was breaking down. This was in the wake of Lennon’s romance with Yoko Ono. So, Paul made the decision to compose a song for the kid (originally titled “Hey Jules”).

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He intended the song to support and uplift the child during that trying period. The song ended up breaking records. It was the longest song to reach the top spot at that point and spent the most time there of any Beatles song.

Sweet Caroline – Neil Diamond

The muse of Neil Diamond’s popular song would not be revealed for over forty years. The Diamond family ultimately revealed the girl in question was President John F. Kennedy’s daughter. Neil came across a picture of a four-year-old Caroline Kennedy riding a pony in Life magazine.

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Before finally penning the classic song, the artist let the image simmer in his rich imagination over five years. Ultimately, Neil Diamond told everybody the tale when he was requested to give a performance on Caroline Kennedy’s 50th birthday in 2007.

Wild World – Cat Stevens

Prior to his major breakthrough in 1970, Cat Stevens had a romantic relationship with the actress Patti D’Arbanville. She served as the inspiration for no fewer than two of his best-known songs, notably Lady D’Arbanville and perhaps his biggest hit to date, Wild World.

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The song gives off an almost paternal vibe since it’s essentially an appeal to Stevens’ former girlfriend to take care of herself. He asks her to be safe as she decides to depart from him despite all his passionate affection for her.

Athena – The Who

The Who, led by Pete Townsend, was in a precarious situation by 1982. Although they continued to sell records and tickets, something was missing. Townsend encountered starlet Theresa Russell at a Pink Floyd performance one night while he was inebriated.

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Theresa rejected his advances despite his feelings for her. Consequently, he rushed back home, used the rejection as inspiration, and penned a very intimate song called ‘Theresa.’ When it was time to start the recording, he altered the song’s name to Athena to make it sound less personal.

Killing Me Softly – Lori Lieberman

Norman Gimbel created Killing Me Softly on a concept and poem that singer Lori Lieberman sent him. She had written the poem as a concept for a song that was motivated by a different song that had profoundly affected her; Don McLean’s Empty Chairs.

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The song was the title track from Don’s ground-breaking 1971 album “American Pie.” On a napkin, she scrawled some songwriting ideas and then gave it to Gimbel, and what followed is legendary. Don McLean continually conveyed thanks for being the source of such a timeless song.

Always – Irving Berlin

Irving Berlin’s marriage to heiress Ellin Mackay was a controversial occasion that garnered national attention and considerable media coverage. Mackay’s father, a very wealthy businessman, quickly disowned his daughter, but Berlin intervened by giving his wife the earnings from his love song Always.

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He did this in order to compensate for what she lost for loving him. For Mackay, it ended up being a fantastic decision since the song will always (see what we did there?) be remembered as one of the most memorable wedding gifts in history.

I Will Always Love You – Dolly Parton

Porter Wagoner’s discovery of Dolly Parton was a match made in musical heaven. She became a regular on his television program over the course of seven years, and the two of them co-wrote many duets. But Parton desired to become a solo singer and venture out.

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Making the choice to go solo was one of the most difficult decisions she had to make. But, she went through with it, and to lessen the blow, she wrote Porter this beautiful parting song in which she expressed her unending thanks for all that he provided for her.

Coyote – Joni Mitchell

The difficulties two individuals encounter while attempting to connect if their backgrounds are diverse are the subject of Joni Mitchell’s song Coyote. In the song, Mitchell describes a romance between the song’s narrator and a farmhand she refers to as “Coyote.”

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Sam Shepard was allegedly the subject of the song, according to a woman named Chris O’Dell, who made this claim in her book from 2009. Shepard, who was married, reportedly held an affair with O’Dell before leaving her for Mitchell. However, all these are mere allegations.

You Oughta Know – Alanis Morisette

Although you can tell that Alanis Morissette gives her lyrics a lot of attention, don’t go to her for an explanation. She claimed that because her songs are such an intimate depiction of her feelings, she would never reveal who inspires them.

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But people still speculate. One name that keeps coming up as the inspiration behind You Oughta Know is Dave Coulier, the actor best known for his work on Full House. He dated Morissette briefly and even confessed that a few of the song’s lyrics were kinda familiar to him.

Angel of Harlem – U2

In 1988, U2 surprised many of their listeners with their upbeat yet heartfelt song Angel of Harlem. It was the Rattle and Hum album’s follow-up single. Bono was quite willing to provide the answer whenever anybody was curious about who this “angel” was.

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The renowned jazz and pop vocalist Billie Holiday, whose impact on contemporary music is incalculable, was honored in Bono’s lyrics. She grew up in Harlem, New York, and had been pretty active in the vibrant jazz community there since the 1930s.

American Pie – Don McLean

The Big Bopper, Buddy Holly, and Ritchie Valens were three pioneers of rock ‘n’ roll who perished in a horrific plane accident in 1959. Their lives are honored in the titular track of Don McLean’s ground-breaking 1971 album American Pie.

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Due to the incident’s profound cultural influence, the plane accident is now frequently referred to as “The Day the Music Died.” Aside from the primary event depicted in the song, American Pie contains a number of vague cultural allusions that have sparked decades of discussion and conjecture.

Time After Time – Cyndi Lauper

The honor of the greatest and most acclaimed debut album in pop music goes to Cyndi Lauper. Time After Time, a powerful and touching ballad, was her inaugural number-one hit single. Even as we’re writing about it, we can’t help but hum it in our minds.

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Dave Wolff, her boyfriend at the time, was the inspiration behind the song. He also served as her manager while she was just starting out in the music business and recording her debut album. Additionally, he served as the male protagonist in the video.

Cinderella – Mac Millar

From 2016 – 2018, Ariana Grande and Mac Miller were a couple. Following their breakup, Mac Miller dropped a song called Cinderella which is quite graphic and contains many risqué aspects of his romance with the Thank U, Next singing sensation.

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According to Grande, a number of the X-rated lyrics do, in fact, reference the connection she had with Miller. Therefore, despite the fact their romance is over, at the very least, we can all always listen to this song and recall their days as a couple.

Donna – Ritchie Valens

Today, Ritchie Valens is more famous for his timeless song La Bamba. But the tender love song Donna, which was dedicated to his high school flame Donna Ludwig, was actually his most successful single on the charts. In 1959, it peaked at number two on Billboard.

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Donna kept in touch regularly with his family and was an enormous comfort to them after he tragically passed away on February 3, 1959, in the same plane disaster that also tragically claimed the lives of Buddy Holly as well as the Big Bopper.

Suite: Judy Blue Eyes – Crosby, Stills, and Nash

Perhaps the only thing more satisfying than composing a song in memory of a loved one is creating four of them and combining them into a timeless suite. For the self-titled first album of his folk-rock group Crosby, Stills, and Nash from 1969, Steven Stills did exactly that.

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The woman in question was Judy Collins, a fellow folk musician who Stills dated between 1967 to 1969. Since the song is a musical suite, the title makes use of the homophonic quality of the word “suite” and also refers to the dashing blue eyes of Judy Collins.