CJ Baker is a published writer who recently started the podcast Ongoing History of Protest Music.
Cult of Personality
As humans we seem to have a certain fascination with celebrities. Famous people have always been popular fodder for tabloids. With the advent of social networking our appetite for the latest celebrity gossip has only increased.
Considering society's obsession with the rich and famous, it should be no surprise that famous people have long been the subject of popular music. Songs have been written about famous musicians, actors, writers, athletes and those that are famous for a variety of other reasons. Tunes have been written and sung from a number of different perspectives. Some have been composed as loving tributes while others are character studies used as the basis for social commentaries. There are also those songs which were written as tongue and cheek novelty tunes.
Now we will consider a list of 14 tunes about famous people.
John F. Kennedy
Abraham, Martin and John - Dion
Written by Dick Holler, "Abraham, Martin and John" was first recorded by Dion and appeared on his 1968 self titled album. The title of the song refers to Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King and John F. Kennedy. The song also makes reference to Robert Kennedy as well.
Not only were all four individuals assassinated, but they were also considered important figures of social change. The song is a loving tribute which mourns the untimely death of these famous leaders. The song also ended up becoming a modern day standard being covered by a diverse array of artists from Andy Williams, Leonard Nimoy, Marvin Gaye, Paul Weller and countless others.
Abraham, Martin and John by Dion (Video)
American Pie - Don McLean
"American Pie" was recorded for Don McLean's 1971 album of the same name. The song refers to the 1959 plane crash death of Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and The Big Bopper. The event is referred to as "the day the music died."
Even though McLean has long been silent about the cryptic nature of the lyrics, he did shed light on one of the lyrics. During an interview he acknowledged that he learned of the death of Buddy Holly at 13 years old delivering newspapers on February 3rd, 1959. This fact was mentioned in the lyric "February made me shiver/with every paper I'd deliver."
In an editorial written for CNN, McLean acknowledged that writing the song was an outlet for coping with the grief over Holly's death.
American Pie by Don McLean (Video)
Candle In The Wind - Elton John
"Candle In The Wind" was first recorded for Elton John's 1973 album Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. The song is a touching tribute to Marilyn Monroe ("Goodbye Norma Jean" referred to Marilyn's birth name). A 1986 live version appeared on the 1987 album, Live in Australia with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. That live version was also released as a single in 1988 becoming a hit on both the UK and US charts.
The tune was also a thought provoking social commentary on the price of fame. It dealt with the dark side that comes from society's fascination with the rich and famous ("Even when you died, the press still hounded you").
The song became an even bigger hit in 1997 when it was reworked as a tribute to Princess Diana ("Goodbye England's rose"). It is considered to be the biggest selling single since the advent of the pop charts in the 1950s.
Sir Elton John still performs the original, but he only performed the 1997 version once during Diana's memorial service on September 6th, 1997. He has stated that he would only ever perform that version again if he was specifically requested by Diana's sons.
Candle In The Wind by Elton John (Video)
Black Superman (Muhammad Ali) - Johnny Wakelin & The Kinshasa Band
"Black Superman (Muhammad Ali)" appeared on Johnny Wakelin's 1975 album Black Superman. Wakelin decided to write this reggae influenced homage to the then World Heavyweight Boxing Champion Muhammad Ali after Ali's October 30th, 1974 bout against George Foreman which took place in Kinshasa. This famous bout is referred to as the "Rumble in the Jungle".
The song features many of Ali's catchphrases. Also concerning the Superman comparison, in 1978 DC Comics published Superman Vs. Muhammad Ali.
The Black Superman (Muhammad Ali) by Johnny Wakelin & The Kinshasa Band (Video)
Michael Caine - Madness
"Michael Caine" is from Madness' 1984 album Keep Moving. It was a bit of a judgment call because the song is not really about Michael Caine. The tune is sung from the perspective of an IRA informer living during the turmoil in Northern Ireland. But the song does feature a vocal sample of the actor himself stating "I am Michael Caine". Michael Caine initially declined the band's request to provide his voice, but he eventually agreed because his daughter was a fan of the band.
Michael Caine by Madness (Video)
Martin Luther King Jr - I Have a Dream Speech
MLK - U2
This was a coin toss between U2's "MLK" & "Pride (In The Name of Love)". Both songs are about Martin Luther King Jr. and both songs are from U2's 1984 album The Unforgettable Fire. I opted for "MLK" because it was the less predictable choice.
Bono described the song as a lullaby to King. The lyrics make reference to King's famous "I Have a Dream" speech with the line "and may your dreams be realized." It is a beautifully moving tribute to the assassinated civil rights leader.
MLK by U2 (Video)
Levi Stubbs' Tears - Billy Bragg
"Levi Stubbs' Tears" is from Bragg's 1986 album Talking With the Taxman About Poetry. Levi Stubbs was the lead singer of the legendary Motown group The Four Tops. Along with Stubbs the song also references other Motown alumni such as Barrett Strong, Norman Whitfield and the Holland–Dozier–Holland song writing team.
Even though some of the lyrics are cryptic and don't seem to directly relate to Stubbs, the song's emotional nature is a fitting tribute to Stubbs' passionate vocal style.
Levi Stubbs' Tears by Billy Bragg (Video)
Elvis Presley Jailhouse Rock Promo Photo
Elvis Is Everywhere - Mojo Nixon & Skid Roper
This was a tossup between Nixon & Roper's "Elvis Is Everywhere" and "Debbie Gibson Is Pregnant with My Two-Headed Love Child". I decided that since Elvis Presley is more famous than Debbie Gibson I would opt for "Elvis Is Everywhere". The song is from Mojo Nixon & Skid Roper's 1987 album Bo-Day-Shus!!!
This satirical psycho-billy classic provides social commentary on the fact that Elvis continues to live on beyond the grave. The song links Elvis to numerous conspiracy theories. This is appropriate since no one has created more tabloid fascination than "The King." The song is goofy fun.
"Elvis Needs Boats."
Elvis Is Everywhere by Mojo Nixon & Skid Roper (Video)
James Brown Is Dead
James Brown Is Dead - L.A. Style
"James Brown is Dead" is a 1991 single from L.A. Style which also appeared on their 1993 self titled album. L.A. Style was a short lived electronic dance music duo from the Netherlands.
At the time of the song James Brown was very much alive. This fact was also acknowledged in the song lyrics, "the hardest working man in show biz is alive."
There has been a variety of speculations on the intent of the song. Some speculate that it was based on false news reports concerning the death of the "The Godfather of Soul." Others felt it was a commentary on the frequent sampling of James Brown which was taking place in techno music. Regardless the song is now considered a rave classic.
The song also inspired the answer song "James Brown Is Still Alive" from fellow Dutch techno artists Holy Noise. James Brown has since passed away on December 25th, 2006.
James Brown Is Dead by L.A. Style (Video)
Man on the Moon - R.E.M.
"Man on the Moon" is from R.E.M.'s 1992 classic album Automatic for the People. It is a loving tribute to comedian Andy Kaufman. It makes many references to Kaufman's life such as his Elvis' impersonations, his pro wrestling and the movie My Breakfast with Blassie. The song also makes references to conspiracy theories involving Elvis and the moon landing as a way of alluding to the rumors that Kaufman has faked his own death.
The 1999 Andy Kaufman biopic Man on the Moon was named after the R.E.M. song. The film starred Jim Carrey playing the role of Kaufman. The song was also featured as part of the movie's soundtrack.
Man On the Moon by R.E.M. (Video)
Van Halen - Nerf Herder
"Van Halen" is from Nerf Herder's 1996 self titled debut album. As the name of the song suggests, it is about the band Van Halen. It is about a fan's love/hate relationship with the group. The protagonist is a fan of the David Lee Roth era, but has no love for Sammy Hagar. The song contains many references to Van Halen's songs. It is a fun little ditty.
Van Halen by Nerf Herder (Video)
Kurt Cobain Performing With Nirvana
Kurt Cobain - Wesley Willis
There is no shortage of Wesley Willis songs which would have qualified for this list. Famous musicians was a popular subject matter for the Chicago based outsider artist. "Kurt Cobain" is from Willis' 1996 album Rock 'n' Roll Will Never Die.
As the title suggest the song is about the Nirvana front man. He sings the praises of Cobain, relating details of a Nirvana concert he attended. The song sounds like just about every other Willis song, but he does seem sincere in his praise of Cobain.
Kurt Cobain by Wesley Willis (Video)
I'm Afraid of Britney Spears - Live on Release
"I'm Afraid of Britney Spears" from the all female Canadian pop punk band Live on Release was first featured on the soundtrack of the 2000 film Dude, Where's My Car? It also appeared on their 2002 debut album Seeing Red.
Along with Britney Spears, the song also mentions Christina Aguilera, Backstreet Boys & N'Sync. The song is a catchy indictment on the state of pop music.
I'm Afraid of Britney Spears by Live On Release (Video)
Are you Afraid of Britney Spears Poll
John Wayne Gacy, Jr - Sufjan Stevens
"John Wayne Gacy, Jr" is from Sufjan Stevens' 2005 concept album Illinois. The song deals with the notorious Chicago based serial killer John Wayne Gacy.
The song highlights different details from Gacy's life (such as dressing like a clown). It could be viewed as provocative for its sympathetic view of a serial killer. Take for example one of the most striking lines in the song, "and in my best behavior, I am really just like him / Look beneath the floorboards for the secrets I have hid." The song is a compelling character study which make thought provoking comments on human nature. According to Stevens we are all potentially capable of doing what Gacy did.
John Wayne Gacy Jr by Sufjan Stevens (Video)
© 2013 CJ Baker
Any songs about famous people that you would like to share? Feel free to leave any other feedback.
CJ Baker (author) from Parts Unknown on July 31, 2014:
Hey Sara, thanks for the read and the comment. If I ever get around to editing this Hub, maybe I'll need to consider including a Bowie song.
Sara Psychedelic from Cincinnati, OH on July 30, 2014:
Interesting! I thought the same thing as e-five, though, as far as including some David Bowie x)
CJ Baker (author) from Parts Unknown on December 06, 2013:
Thanks for the read and comment, Bat115. Glad you enjoyed this collection of songs about famous people.
Tim from Los Angeles, CA on December 06, 2013:
Another fun hub!
Cat from New York on May 29, 2013:
Oh my visit wasn't a waste of time at all! I actually wanted to watch the videos following the awesome write-ups you had about them. You're right about the modern day tributes and yeah, I guess they do serve some kind of a purpose and I do enjoy some and find some funny, but we lose some pretty decent people all the time, I'd like to see some more tributes to these people that will become classics in years to come.
.... and thanks, you're awesome!
CJ Baker (author) from Parts Unknown on May 29, 2013:
Hey Cat, I truly appreciate the visit and the comment. I am sincerely glad that you enjoyed the read. Sorry if I was responsible for you wasting an hour from your day. I agree that there doesn't appear to be as many tribute songs now a days. Most modern songs about famous people are either fun novelty tunes or social commentary (which both serve a purpose as well). Thanks again for the kind words, you truly are awesome!
Cat from New York on May 29, 2013:
Wow, there was definitely some songs here that I knew well, but severals I hadn't ever heard of. This is extremely informative and really interested. I think I just spent an hour here :D
I don't think they do tributes like they used to. I suppose R.E.M.'s "Man on the Moon" is the most recent one you have here and that I can think of that I really like. But most of the ones from back in the day are sad and really serve a purpose aside from entertaining. Awesome hub! I love these "Songs About..." hubs that you do, I'll have to make it a point to get to the others.
CJ Baker (author) from Parts Unknown on May 21, 2013:
Thanks e-five for the further suggestions. I will be the first to admit that 15 songs barely scratch the surface. There are no shortage of songs about famous people.
John C Thomas from Chicago, Illinois, USA on May 21, 2013:
Also, Simon and Garfunkel had a nice song called "Goodbye, Frank Lloyd Wright" and "Mrs. Robinson" mentions Joe DiMaggio prominently.
John C Thomas from Chicago, Illinois, USA on May 21, 2013:
Good overview. Not as famous, but I'd add David Bowie's "Andy Warhol" and "Song for Bob Dylan" from his Hunky Dory album, and The Clash's "The Right Profile" about Montgomery Clift.