Skip To Content
    Updated on Jul 21, 2020. Posted on Jul 19, 2020

    24 Famous Songs I Never Realised Were Tributes To People Who Have Died

    Happy Birthday is about Martin Luther King Jr?

    Songwriters are known to draw inspiration from many sources, and sometimes these sources can be difficult personal experiences, or tragic historical events.

    Atlantic Records / Via lowgif.com

    Of course, we all know certain songs like Elton John's "Candle in the Wind" and Wiz Khalifa's "See You Again" are tributes to people who have died, but did you know these 24 songs are also tributes?

    1. "Back In Black" by AC/DC

    A black and white image of AC/DC with the lyrics I kept looking at the sky cos it's gettin' me high forget the hearse cos I'll never die on top
    Jean-Claude Coutausse/AFP / Via Getty Images

    Y'all know this track with its iconic opening riff, but did you know it was a tribute song? In fact, the song comes from AC/DC's seventh studio album of the same name – the first album not to feature their original vocalist Bon Scott, who died of alcohol poisoning in February 1980. The entire album, but particularly this song, is dedicated to Bon, and features vocals from the band's newly hired lead singer, Brian Johnson. Back In Black would take AC/DC to new heights of success and has become one of the best selling albums in the history of music.

    2. "Who Knew" by P!nk

    LaFace Records / Via weheartit.com

    Though many have guessed already with its regretful lyrics and stripped back guitar, P!nk wrote this song for a late friend who died of a drug overdose when P!nk was 14 years old. Released on her fourth studio album I'm Not Dead, "Who Knew" is a beautiful and relatable track about the grief of losing a close friend. P!nk has said that the song has taken on a new meaning to her since it came out, and can relate to many people she has known in her life, including her husband and grandmother.

    3. "Wake Me Up When September Ends" by Green Day

    Warner Records / Via pinterest.com

    If you didn't already know, this Green Day hit from their iconic 2004 album American Idiot is actually about lead singer Billie Joe Armstrong's dad. Andrew Armstrong died from esophageal cancer in September 1982 when Billie was ten years old, and this song marks the first time Billie ever wrote about his loss. A standout on the album due to its largely incongruous subject matter, the music video features Jamie Bell and Evan Rachel Wood as a couple who are broken up by the Iraq War.

    4. "Fair Chance" by Thundercat feat. Ty Dolla $ign & Lil B

    NPR Music / Via gfycat.com

    On 7 September 2018, rapper and producer Mac Miller passed away from an accidental drug overdose at his home. News of his death rocked the music world, and many of his contemporaries have since paid tribute to him. This super chill track from Thundercat's album of this year, It Is What It Is, is one such example. The singer, who was a frequent collaborator with Mac, has said the entire album is about love, loss, and life's ups and downs.

    5. "Hear You Me" by Jimmy Eat World

    Warner Bros. Pictures / Via tenor.com

    Fans of the 2004 epic A Cinderella Story will likely recognise "Hear You Me" as the song that plays when Sam and Austin finally kiss at the end of the film. The song has a very uplifting tone, but its lyrics are intensely mournful. Supposedly the song is about twins Mykel and Carli Allan, who were big into the early-90s LA rock scene, and were well known supporters of Weezer and Jimmy Eat World, often providing the latter a place to stay during their tours. The pair were killed in a car crash in 1997. The song's title is a reference to a phrase they apparently often used in online fan forums.

    6. "What The Water Gave Me" by Florence + The Machine

    Island Records / Via giphy.com

    This song, which also happens to be my favourite song in the entire world, comes from Florence's melancholic 2011 album, Ceremonials. It honours two famous women – English writer Virginia Woolf and Mexican painter Frida Kahlo. The title is a reference to Frida's work "Lo que el agua me dio", literally meaning "what the water gave me", while the lyrics pay homage to Virginia. Many now believe Virginia, who died by drowning herself, suffered from bipolar disorder, and Florence was moved to write a paean to her after visiting a country estate that the writer used to frequent.

    7. "In The Aeroplane Over The Sea" by Neutral Milk Hotel

    The album In The Aeroplane Over The Sea by Neutral Milk Hotel showing a woman and a young child of front of an ocean with the lyrics there are light in the clouds anna's ghost all around hear her voice as it's rolling and ringing through me soft and sweet
    Merge Records / Via Buzzfeed

    Curiously, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea – the second album by American indie-rock band Neutral Milk Hotel – as well as its title track seem to have been inspired in part by German-Dutch diarist and Holocaust victim, Anne Frank. Lead singer Jeff Mangum was so deeply affected by reading The Diary of a Young Girl that he spent three days crying and imaging he could go back in time and rescue her. Resultantly, the album includes many references to Anne, as well as descriptions of the dreams Jeff had about her.

    8. "Help Me" by Alkaline Trio

    Dark image of the band Alkaline Trio on stage with the lyrics you're up there took the stairs to the stars all alone you left the lights burning but nobody's home on top
    Noel Vasquez / Via Getty Images for Rebel Waltz Management

    Did you know that the 2008 hit "Help Me" by Chicago-based punk rock band Alkaline Trio is a tribute to the late Ian Curtis? Ian was a singer-songwriter and the lead vocalist of post-punk English group Joy Division, who died by suicide aged 23. When watching Control (the Ian Curtis biopic) in 2007, Alkaline Trio singer and guitarist Matt Skiba said he was moved to pay homage to the band: "Our artwork and song is a tribute to a melancholic beauty that can never be replicated."

    9. "Jesus to a Child" by George Michael

    George Michael kneeling on stage with the lyrics and the lover that I kissed is always by my side on the lover I still miss was Jesus to a child on top
    Gabriel Bouys/AFP / Via GettyImages

    This single comes from George's third studio album Older, and is actually a loving and yet discreet tribute from George to his boyfriend Anselmo Feleppa, who died of an AIDS-related brain haemorrhage in 1993. George's sexuality was not public knowledge when the song came out, and so the intensely personal lyrics are written in second person. After his death in 2016, Dame Esther Rantzen, the founder of ChildLine, told the BBC that George had secretly donated all of the single's royalties to the children's charity and emergency helpline.

    10. "To Be Young, Gifted and Black" by Nina Simone

    Black and white image of Nina Simone with the lyrics in the whole world you know there are billion boys and girls who are young gifted and black and that's a fact on top
    Staff / Via Getty Images

    Many associate this anthem by legendary pianist and singer Nina Simone and American composer Weldon Irvine with the civil rights movement of the 1960s, but did you know it's also a tribute to playwright Lorraine Hansberry? Author of A Raisin in the Sun, Lorraine died of cancer in 1965, which much affected Nina. Before she passed, Lorraine was working on a play of the same name, and Nina decided to use the title for a song inspired by the late playwright. It was Nina's ambition for the song to "make black children all over the world feel good about themselves, forever."

    11. "Edge of Seventeen" by Stevie Nicks

    Close up of Stevie Nicks on stage with the lyrics when I went searching for an answer up the stairs and down the hall not to find an answer just to hear the call of a nightbird on top
    Kristian Dowling / Via Getty Images

    As legend has it, this song dates back to a conversation Stevie had with Tom Petty's first wife, Jane Benyo, about how the couple had met. Stevie misheard her say "at the age of seventeen", but liked the title so much so banked it for a future song. Fast-forward to December 1980 when, in the same week, John Lennon and Stevie's uncle both passed away. Distraught and unable to process her loss, Stevie wrote the song, which was also inspired by the events leading up to her uncle's death. The "white-winged dove" in the song is symbolic for the spirit leaving the body.

    12. "Chelsea Hotel No. 2" by Leonard Cohen

    Leonard Cohen on stage with the lyrics I remember you well in the Chelsea Hotel you were famous you heart was a legend on top
    Jemal Countess / Via Getty Images

    Many know Janis Joplin as an icon of '60s rock and a prominent member of the "27 Club". Janis died of an accidental heroin overdose in 1970, and in 1971 poet and singer Leonard Cohen began writing what would become "Chelsea Hotel No. 2" from his album New Skin for the Old Ceremony – so-called because there exists a longer, live version. Even though the song was written in memory of her, Leonard later regretted naming Janis as the inspiration behind the song because of the audacious lyrics.

    13. "Fix You" by Coldplay

    Parlophone / Via data.whicdn.com

    Chris Martin penned iconic sad song "Fix You" from Coldplay's third studio album X&Y in memory of his then wife Gwyneth Paltrow's father, Bruce. Even though the song has a generally sombre and poetic tone, the lyrics were written specifically for Gwyneth to comfort her after her father passed away. Chris has also said he used a keyboard Bruce Paltrow had bought just before he died to help compose the track.

    14. "The Greatest" by Sia

    RCA Records / Via cdn.lowgif.com

    In the midst of Sia's 2010s renaissance, she released a song that was a certifiable banger, and yet seemingly borrowed from a lot of her previous work in terms of production and lyrics. Little did I know that "The Greatest" was actually a powerful tribute to the victims of the massacre at Pulse nightclub in Orlando in June 2016. The accompanying music video features 49 dancers, including Maddie Ziegler, representing the 49 people who were killed.

    15. "Revenge" by XXXTENTACION

    T.Aubrey / Via tumblr.com

    Rapper, singer, and songwriter XXXTENTACION, who himself was killed in June 2018 at the age of 20, began his career by releasing songs on SoundCloud. In August 2017, X released his debut album called 17, which features multiple songs recounting the death by suicide of his friend Jocelyn Flores, who killed herself in the bathroom of X's hotel room while visiting him. XXXTENTACION has said that 17 was made for people struggling with depression, and that the entire album is an "entry" in to his mind.

    16. "Man on the Moon" by R.E.M.

    Warner Records / Via tumblr.com

    Fans of alternative rock band R.E.M. will know this song as one of the group's biggest hits, but did you ever clock the allusions to late American comedian Andy Kaufman in the lyrics? The track was released as the second single on the band's iconic 1992 album Automatic for the People, and was written by Michael Stipe as a tribute to Andy, referencing him by name and alluding to his comedy, his films, and his wrestling career.

    17. "7 Years" by Lukas Graham

    Warner Records / Via pa1.narvii.com

    This track is undoubtedly pensive AF, but did you know the lyrics specifically pay tribute to lead singer Lukas's father? In the song, Lukas recounts his own life up until the age of 60, stopping at certain milestones to explain what has changed and what he is doing at that point in time. The reason he doesn't go past 60 years old? Lukas's own father died at 61. He has said "I need to pass it to believe it... My biggest dream is not to be some negative old dude, but to have my kids' friends say, 'You’re going to visit your dad? Say hi! He’s awesome.' I had a perfect father."

    18. "Gypsy" by Fleetwood Mac

    Warner Records / Via pinterest.com

    This iconic track and fan-favourite was actually penned by Stevie Nicks for her 1980 debut solo album, Bella Donna, but it ended being held back for Fleetwood Mac's 1982 album Mirage. The reason for this was that Stevie had begun writing the track about her time living a nomadic existence in San Francisco with Lindsey Buckingham, but paused to reflect on the song after her best friend Robin Anderson died of leukemia. After working on the track some more, it also became a tribute to Robin.

    19. "How to Save a Life" by The Fray

    Epic Records / Via static.wixstatic.com

    We all remember this 2005 hit, right? Well if you thought the clinical title, the heavy lyrics, and the not-so-subtle music video all point towards this song being a tribute to someone who has passed, you were absolutely right. Lead singer of The Fray, Isaac Slade, has said the song was influenced by his experience as a mentor for troubled youth. Isaac connected with one guy in particular, a musician, who was struggling with depression. The verses of the song describe an adult struggling to get through to the guy, while the chorus relays Isaac's own failure to give him the support he needed.

    20. "2000 Miles" by The Pretenders

    Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders leans against a tree in snowy apparell in her music video for 2000 miles with the lyrics in those frozen and silent nights sometimes in a dream you appear on top
    Sire Records / Via youtube.com

    Best known as a song that gets cracked out at Christmas – even though it's a banger for every szn, I'll have you know – this well known hit from British-American rock band The Pretenders is actually a tribute to their original guitar player, James Honeyman-Scott who died in 1982. While people often think it's about a couple in a long-distance relationship, Chrissie Hynde has said the song was written for James. It was released in November 1983 a year after his death.

    21. "Black Velvet" by Alannah Myles

    Atlantic Records / Via youtube.com

    This raw, bluesy, almost country-sounding single was actually the work of Canadian songwriters Christopher Ward, David Tyson, and Alannah Myles – who also recorded vocals for the song. It's one of many many tributes out there to Elvis Presley, whose likeness is often painted on black velvet. Christopher first started writing the song whilst on a tour bus packed with Elvis stans heading to Memphis!

    22. "Mary" by Scissor Sisters

    Polydor Records / Via youtube.com

    This catchy piano ballad appears on the group's eponymous debut album, which came out back in 2004. The song was written by lead singer Jake Shears for his best friend, Mary Hanlon, who died two years later from a brain aneursym. The music video features an incredible fairytale-like animated sequence produced by Don Bluth, the American animator behind The Land Before Time and Anastasia.

    23. "The Edge Of Glory" by Lady Gaga

    Interscope Records / Via i.gifer.com

    Who knew that Lady Gaga's massive 2011 disco hit was a tribute to her grandfather? I certainly didn't. Hailing from her second studio album, Born This Way, Gaga has said the song was inspired by the way her ailing grandfather looked at his wife on his deathbed, like he'd won at life – "He won at love with Grandma, and he’s on the edge of a glorious moment." Gaga has since penned two more songs that pay tribute to lost loved ones – "Joanne" for her aunt, and "Grigio Girls" for her friend and collaborator, Sonja Dunham.

    24. "Happy Birthday" by Stevie Wonder

    NBC / Via gifimage.net

    I bet you didn't know that Stevie Wonder composed "Happy Birthday" with civil rights icon Martin Luther King, Jr. in mind, did you? This tune may be a popular and infinitely superior alternative to the hackneyed traditional birthday song, but it certainly didn't begin life with that intention! Stevie wrote the song to bolster the campaign to make MLK's birthday into a national holiday in the US. It took 15 years, but Stevie's support drew national attention to the cause and eventually Martin Luther King Jr. Day was celebrated for the first time in 1986.

    You can listen to and follow the Spotify playlist here.

    embed.spotify.com

    Did we miss any out? Are there any other songs out there you were surprised were a tribute to somebody? Tell us in the comments below!