#60: Eleanor Rigby by the Beatles
Paul McCartney was born in Liverpool in 1942. He attended the Liverpool Institute High School for Boys and met fellow classmates George Harrison on a school bus. When Paul was 14 his mom died from a blockage in one of her blood vessels. In his early teens McCartney learned to play trumpet, guitar and piano. He was left-handed and restrung the strings to make it work. In 1957, Paul met John Lennon and in October he was invited to join John’s skiffle band, The Quarrymen, which Lennon had founded in 1956. After Paul joined the group his suggested that his friend, George Harrison, join the group. Harrison became one of the Quarrymen in early 1958, though he was still only 14. Other original members of the Quarrymen, Len Garry, Rod Davis, Colin Hanton, Eric Griffiths and Pete Shotton left the band when their set changed from skiffle to rock ‘n roll. John Duff Lowe, a friend of Paul’s from the Liverpool Institute, who had joined the Quarrymen in early 1958 left the band at the end of school. This left Lennon, McCartney and Harrison as remaining trio. On July 15, 1958, John Lennon’s mother died in an automobile accident.
John Winston Lennon was born in Liverpool in 1940. His middle name was after Britain’s current Prime Minister Winston Churchill, during World War II. In 1957, Lennon wrote his first song titled “Hello Little Girl”. It became a Top Ten hit in the UK in 1963 for the Merseybeat band the Fourmost. George Harrison was born in Liverpool in 1943. His father bought him his first guitar in 1956 when Harrison was 13 years old.
Richard Starkey was born in Liverpool in 1940. As a child he was sick with appendicitis, peritonitis and finally tuberculosis. The latter illness had him spend two years in a sanitorium from 1953 to 1955. Out of school for this duration, Starkey remained at home after his return from the sanatorium. He got involved with a skiffle band initially called the Eddie Miles Band which morphed into Eddie Clayton and the Clayton Squares. Starkey next joined Al Caldwell’s Texans which eventually became Rory Storm & The Hurricanes. By the fall of 1959, Starkey changed his professional name to Ringo Starr and his drum solos during their concerts were billed as ‘Starr Time.’ Beginning October 1, 1960, Rory Storm & The Hurricanes began a gig at the Kaiserkeller club in Hamburg, Germany. They alternated sets with The Beatles. On October 18, 1960, with Pete Best on an errand to find drumsticks, Ringo Starr stood in for Best to play a set with McCartney, Lennon and Harrison. This was the first time the Fab Four performed together.
The Quarrymen went through some name changes, including Johnny and the Moondogs. In January 1960, Stuart Sutcliffe joined the band and suggested they name themselves the Beatals as a tribute to Buddy Holly and The Crickets. The name changed to the Silver Beetles in May and in August 1960 they became the Beatles. The name was a cross between the insect cousin of a cricket and a nickname for rock ‘n roll: ‘the beat’. That same month the Beatles hired Pete Best to become the bands drummer. Now a five-piece band, they headed to Hamburg, Germany, on August 17, 1960, for a three-and-a-half month stint. In early 1961 Sutcliffe left the Beatles as they continued to return for more engagements in Germany. On June 22, 1961, Bert Kaempfert produced “My Bonnie”, “Ain’t She Sweet” and eight other songs. Later in 1961, “My Bonnie” climbed to #4 on the Hamburg pop charts and #32 on the German pop charts.
Meanwhile, the Beatles were developing a following back in Liverpool. Between February 9, 1961, and August 3, 1963, the group played at The Cavern Club 292 times. The group got a recording contract with EMI’s Parlophone label in the UK. At the June 6, 1962, studio session, producer George Martin objected to Pete Best remaining with the Beatles due to his poor drumming skills. In August Ringo Starr from Rory & The Hurricanes accepted Paul McCartney and John Lennon’s invitation to became the Beatles new drummer. The first EMI Parlophone single “Love Me Do”/”PS I Love You” climbed to #17 on the UK charts in the fall of 1962. “Please Please Me” climbed to #2 on the UK pop charts in early 1963. And in April 1963 “From Me To You” became the bands first #1 hit on the UK charts staying on top for seven weeks in a row. It became the first Beatles song on the Vancouver pop charts was in June 1963. It charted on C-FUN together with the cover version by Del Shannon. The song stalled at #116 on the Billboard Hot 100, but the Beatles climbed to #14 in Vancouver in July ’63.
In 1963 “She Loves You” topped the UK charts for six weeks and “I Want To Hold Your Hand” wrapped up the year on top for five weeks in the British Isles. Beginning on December 21, 1963, “She Loves You” topped the C-FUN charts for four weeks. It was replaced on January 18 by “Please Mr. Postman”, and on January 25 by “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” for six weeks. On March 7 “All My Loving” took over the #1 spot, subsequently sharing the #1 spot with the B-side “This Boy” through to April 4. After sixteen weeks at #1 the Beatles were knocked out of the top spot by the Dave Clark Five’s “Bits And Pieces”. During their streak at #1 in Vancouver from December 21, 1963, to April 4, 1964, “All My Loving”/”This Boy” kept the #1 hit in the USA, “Can’t Buy Me Love” stalled at #2 here on the west coast. Between December 14, 1963, and September 17, 1966, the Beatles had up to five songs in the Top Ten in Vancouver for 107 out of 146 weeks.
Beatlemania reached North America with three appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show in February 1964. But in Vancouver they were already a craze by December ’63. In April 1964 the Beatles released The Beatles’ Second Album. It featured a number of tracks that were hit singles. These included “Thank You Girl”, “She Loves You”, “Please Mr. Postman”, “You Can’t Do That” (also released as a track on A Hard Days Night). In June the German version of “She Loves You” titled “Sie Liebt Dich” began to chart, and became a Top Ten hit in Vancouver in July.
In June the band released the film and soundtrack album A Hard Days Night. The theme song from the film climbed to number one in August. The B-side in North America to “A Hard Day’s Night” was “I Should Have Known Better”. (In the UK the B-side was “Things We Said Today”). Then in July the Beatles released Something New. The album contained the following single releases: “I’m Happy Just To Dance With You”, “I’ll Cry Instead“, “Things We Said Today”, “Matchbox”, “Tell Me Why”, “And I Love Her”, and “If I Fell“.
In 1965 the Beatles had two number-one hits to start off the year: “Eight Days A Week” in March, and “Ticket To Ride” in May. In Vancouver, the B-side “Yes It Is” also charted. In the summer of 1965 the Beatles kept on releasing number-one hits. “Help!” had a B-side titled “I’m Down“. The next release, “Yesterday”, was a number-one hit in Vancouver, as was the B-side “Act Naturally”.
n October 1965, the Beatles were back on top of the pop charts with “Yesterday”, and “Day Tripper”/”We Can Work It Out” in December. In early 1966 the Beatles were back in the Top Ten in Vancouver with “Michelle”/”Norwegian Wood”. Their next chart-topper in Vancouver was “Nowhere Man”. The B-side, “What Goes On”, was also a hit in the city.
In March 1966, John Lennon had an an interview with Evening Standard reporter Maureen Cleave. Lennon commented, “Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink … We’re more popular than Jesus now—I don’t know which will go first, rock and roll or Christianity. Jesus was all right but his disciples were thick and ordinary.” The comment was yawned at in Britain, but it caused a furore when it was reported in Datebook’s August edition in America. Suddenly there were protests that involved the burning of Beatles records. The Ku Klux Klan staged protests against the Beatles and nailed their albums to a wooden cross. There were also death threats against Lennon. This development was a catalyst for the band’s decision to cease touring. On August 19th two concerts were scheduled in Memphis, Tennessee. Both were cancelled by the city council who wouldn’t let municipal facilities be used by people who were trying to “ridicule anyone’s religion.” Meanwhile, the Fab Four had more hit records including “Nowhere Man” and “Paperback Writer”. The B-side to “Paperback Writer” was “Rain“.
Next up, the Beatles released “Yellow Submarine”/”Eleanor Rigby”.
Like most songs recorded by the Beatles, “Eleanor Rigby” was credited to Paul McCartney and John Lennon. McCartney wrote most of this song, though at times John Lennon contested this. He got the name “Eleanor” from the actress Eleanor Bron, who appeared in the 1965 Beatles film Help!. “Rigby” came to him when he was in Bristol, England, and spotted a store: Rigby and Evens Ltd Wine and Spirit Shippers. He liked the name “Eleanor Rigby” because it sounded natural and matched the rhythm he wrote.
McCartney explained at the time that his songs came mostly from his imagination. Regarding this song, he said, “It just came. When I started doing the melody I developed the lyric. It all came from the first line. I wonder if there are girls called Eleanor Rigby?” He wasn’t sure what the song was going to be about until he came up with the line “picks up the rice in a church where a wedding has been.” That’s when he came up with the story of an old, lonely woman. The lyrics “wearing the face that she keeps in a jar by the door” are a reference to the cold-cream she wears in an effort to look younger.
The song tells the story of two lonely people. First, we meet a churchgoing woman named Eleanor Rigby, who is seen cleaning up rice after a wedding. The second verse introduces the pastor, Father McKenzie, whose sermons “no one will hear.” This could indicate that nobody in coming to his church, or that his sermons aren’t getting through to the congregation on a spiritual level. In the third verse, Eleanor dies in the church and Father McKenzie buries her. “Father Mackenzie” was originally “Father McCartney.” Paul decided he didn’t want to freak out his dad and picked a name out of the phone book instead.
Paul McCartney recounted this song’s origin story in a 2018 interview with GQ. He said: “When I was really little I lived on what was called a housing estate, which is like the projects – there were a lot of old ladies and I enjoyed sitting around with these older ladies because they had these great stories, in this case about World War II. One in particular I used to visit and I’d go shopping for her – you know, she couldn’t get out. So I had that figure in my mind of a sort of lonely old lady.Over the years, I’ve met a couple of others, and maybe their loneliness made me empathize with them. But I thought it was a great character, so I started this song about the lonely old lady who picks up the rice in the church, who never really gets the dreams in her life. Then I added in the priest, the vicar, Father McKenzie. And so, there was just the two characters. It was like writing a short story, and it was basically on these old ladies that I had known as a kid.”
“Eleanor Rigby” was originally written as “Miss Daisy Hawkins.” He told a paper in 1966, “The first few bars just came to me. And I got this name in my head – “Daisy Hawkins picks up the rice in the church where a wedding has been.” I don’t know why … I couldn’t think of much more so I put it away for a day. Then the name “Father McCartney” came to me – and “all the lonely people“. But I thought people would think it was supposed to be my dad, sitting knitting his socks. Dad’s a happy lad. So I went through the telephone book and I got the name McKenzie. According to Rolling Stone magazine, when McCartney first played the song for his neighbor Donovan Leitch, the words were “Ola Na Tungee, blowing his mind in the dark with a pipe full of clay.”George Harrison came up with the hook, “Ah, look at all the lonely people.” Ringo Starr contributed the line “writing the words of a sermon that no one will hear” and suggested making “Father McCartney” darn his socks, which McCartney liked.
The lyrics represent a departure from McCartney’s previous songs, in their avoidance of first- and second-person pronouns and by diverging from the themes of a standard love song. The narrator takes the form of a detached onlooker, akin to a novelist or screenwriter. Beatles biographer Steve Turner says that this new approach reflects the likely influence of Ray Davies of the Kinks, specifically in Davies songs “A Well Respected Man” and “Dedicated Follower of Fashion“. As well, in post-WWII England, there were many widows who lost husbands during the war and never remarried. The lives of many women living into their senior years, alone, was a familiar story to listeners in the mid-60s.
During recording, microphones were placed very close to the instruments to create an unusual, vaguely distorted sound. Because of the string section, this was difficult to play live, which The Beatles never did.
Ray Charles covered the song in 1968 and his version peaked at #35 on the Billboard Hot 100. In 1969, Aretha Franklin recorded a version of “Eleanor Rigby” which climbed to #17. In 1966, “Eleanor Rigby” won the Beatles a Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Pop Vocal Performance, Male.
“Eleanor Rigby” peaked at #1 in Vancouver (BC), San Francisco, Toronto, Seattle, Miami, Vancouver (WA), Sacramento (CA), Des Moines (IA), Davenport (IA), Boston, San Jose (CA), Phoenix, Hamilton (ON), Santa Barbara (CA), Edmonton (AB), Minneapolis/St. Paul, Fort Worth (TX), Troy (NY), Pittsburgh, San Diego, Lansing (MI), Louisville (KY), Springfield (MA), Roanoke (VA), Albany (NY), Providence (RI), Indianapolis (IN), Hartford (CT), Kelowna (BC), Milwaukee (WI), Washington D.C., Winnipeg (MB), Manchester (NH), Omaha (NE), Los Angeles, Orlando, Atlanta, Cleveland, Fresno (CA), Duluth (MN), Columbus (OH), Worcester (MA), Wilmington (DL), Topeka (KS), Tulsa (OK), Burbank (CA), Stockton (CA), and Denver, #2 in Philadelphia, Honolulu, Salt Lake City, Kansas City (MO), Corpus Christi (TX), Cincinnati (OH), New York City, Dayton (OH), Houston, Dallas, Las Vegas, Quincy (IL), and Flint (MI), #3 in Toledo (OH), Montreal, Modesto (CA), Shreveport (LA), Tucson (AZ), Medicine Hat (AB), Madison (WI), Little Rock (AR), Greenville (MS), and Chicago, #4 in Detroit, Battle Creek (MI), Kalamazoo (MI), #5 in Gary (IN), Winston-Salem (NC), and Regina (SK), #8 in Syracuse (NY), and Lynchburg (VA), #9 in Grand Rapids (MI), #10 in Birmingham (AL), Boise (ID), and Oklahoma City.
Internationally, “Eleanor Rigby” peaked at #1 in Australia, Belgium, Canada, New Zealand and the UK, #6 in Finland, and #11 on the Billboard Hot 100.
In 1967 the band enjoy Top Ten hits with “Penny Lane”/”Strawberry Fields”, “All You Need Is Love” and “Hello, Goodbye”/”I Am The Walrus”. The band released Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which topped the Billboard 200 Album charts for 15 weeks.
In early 1968 the band had another hit single with “Lady Madonna”. The B-side, “The Inner Light”, also charted in Vancouver.
The Beatles charted dozens of singles onto the pop charts in Vancouver between the summer of 1963 and the spring of 1970. One of the features of The Beatles was that they mostly recorded singles and tracks from their albums they wrote themselves. The exceptions were songs like “My Bonnie”, “Please Mr. Postman”, “Roll Over Beethoven” and “Ain’t She Sweet.”
The Beatles would become the most influential rock ‘n roll band of the 20th Century. They have sold over one billion records. They began recording upbeat love songs like “I Want To Hold Your Hand” and later composed more complex songs, including on their award-winning 1967 album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The Beatles were on the cusp of whatever was new and were often the trend-setting reason for the next new thing. In 1967 they got involved with Transcendental Meditation. When they released “Hey Jude,” they had one of those rare singles that was longer than 7 minutes climb to the top of the charts. At the time, the standard formula for singles was around two to three minutes in length.
Before the group broke up they enjoyed more hit records with “Get Back”, “The Ballad of John & Yoko”, “Something”/”Come Together”, “Let It Be” and “The Long And Winding Road”. The Beatles split in 1970 after the release of the Let It Be album. Paul McCartney told Howard Stern in 2018 that John Lennon walked into a room one day in 1970 and announced that he was leaving the Beatles.
For more information about the Beatles after the 1970 breakup, see my other articles on the band.
February 15, 2023
David Fricke, “Paul McCartney Looks Back: The Rolling Stone Interview,” Rolling Stone, August 10, 2016.
Ben Quinn, “Paul McCartney ‘saw God’ After Taking Drugs During Beatles Heyday,” Guardian, September 2, 2018.
Stephen Rodrick, “Being Ringo: A Beatle’s All-Starr Life,” Rolling Stone, April 15, 2015.
“Interview: John Lennon and Ringo Starr in Los Angeles,” Los Angeles Times, August 23, 1964.
Mick Brown, “A Conversation With George Harrison: The ‘Fab Four’ is Done For, and George Couldn’t be Happier Doing his Own Thing,” Rolling Stone, April 19, 1979.
Dave Laing and Penny Valentine, “George Harrison: The Most Handsome but Underrated Beatle, he Came into his Own as a Solo Artist and Film Producer,” Guardian, December 1, 2001.
“John Lennon Died 35 Years Ago Today: Read Original Associated Press Story,” Billboard, December 8, 2015.
Johnathan Cott, “John Lennon: The Last Interview: Three days before he died, John Lennon talked with ‘Rolling Stone’ for nine hours. For the first time, we present this extraordinary interview,” Rolling Stone, December 23, 2010.
Rodriguez, Robert, Revolver: How the Beatles Reimagined Rock ‘n’ Roll, (Backbeat Books, 2012).
Turner, Steve, The Beatles ’66: The Revolutionary Year, (Blackstone 2016).
“C-FUNTASTIC FIFTY,” CFUN 1410 AM, Vancouver, BC, August 13, 1966.
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