(John Lennon/Paul McCartney)
“Michelle” started out as a joke. John Lennon and Paul McCartney would frequent art parties and Paul would often sit in a corner and play the guitar and pretend to be French. The only problem with this ruse was that Paul didn’t speak a lick of French. Instead, he groaned in French, obfuscating his nonsense lyrics.
The tune was inspired by Chet Atkins’ “Trambone”. Paul was enamoured of Chet Atkins’ guitar playing, and was trying to learn to finger-pick. By his own admission, he never did.
John encouraged Paul to turn it into a real song, for inclusion on the Rubber Soul album. Paul consulted a French instructor named Jan Vaughan, the wife of long-time confrere Ivan Vaughan, for help with the lyrics. He liked the name Michelle and asked her for a phrase that would rhyme. “Ma belle” was the rapid response. It means “my beauty” in French. Paul came up with the next line and asked her to translate it, and “Michelle” was well on its way to being fleshed out.
John Lennon and George Martin also had a hand in this group effort. John supplied the bridge, inspired by a recording he had heard of Nina Simone singing “I Put a Spell on You”. George penned the guitar riff that is heard in the middle and end of the recording.
“Michelle” was recorded on 3rd November 1965 at Abbey Road. In 1967, it won a Grammy for best song, beating out more conventional recordings such as “Born Free” and “Strangers in the Night”. It was also a #1 hit in France and Norway. According to BMI, it ranks #42 amongst the most-covered tunes in the 20thcentury.
The Singers Unlimited recordings
BASF M 15159 A
- Paul McCartney: Many Years From Now by Barry Miles (Henry Holt and Company, Inc.)