Every piece of music is influenced by a foreign object to varying degrees. This could be consciously, but, more often than not, the inspiration plays out on a subconscious level that even the artist is unaware of, such as with the link between The Beatles and Nat King Cole.
There has never been a more covered song in the history of music than The Beatles’ now-iconic hit ‘Yesterday’, and its sheer unrefined beauty explains why. Paul McCartney maintains that the melody arrived at him as he awoke from a dream. While this facet of the song’s origin has never been doubted, years later, a theory arose that suggested that perhaps the track wasn’t entirely as original as we were led to believe.
‘Yesterday’ wasn’t a track that McCartney had to work tirelessly to create, and it unexplainably arrived at the bass player fully formed. “I was living in a little flat at the top of a house and I had a piano by my bed. I woke up one morning with a tune in my head and I thought, ‘Hey, I don’t know this tune – or do I?’ It was like a jazz melody,” he commented in Anthology.
He added: “My dad used to know a lot of old jazz tunes; I thought maybe I’d just remembered it from the past. I went to the piano and found the chords to it, made sure I remembered it and then hawked it round to all my friends, asking what it was: ‘Do you know this? It’s a good little tune, but I couldn’t have written it because I dreamt it.'”
These comments understandably made some fans attempt to try to decipher which old jazz tune potentially seeped into McCartney’s mind during childhood.
In 2003, musicologist Spencer Leigh came forward with his theory and, with it, appeared on BBC Radio 4’s flagship Today programme. He said that while Leigh didn’t believe McCartney was a plagiarist, he felt the song was significantly influenced by Cole’s version of ‘Answer Me, My Love’, which also includes the line, “Yesterday, I believed that love was here to stay”.
Leigh told the radio show: “I think he would have heard it when he was 10 or 11, he certainly would have known the song. McCartney said he woke with this wonderful melody in his head, and he felt it had come from somewhere else”.
However, this claim was rebuffed by McCartney’s spokesperson, who told BBC News: “To me, the two songs are about as similar as ‘Get Back’ and ‘God Save the Queen’“.
McCartney has always been open about not knowing where the melody originated from in his mind, with the Nat King Cole theory aligning to his previous remarks in Anthology. It’s the kind of record his father would play around the house, and even if he didn’t know the song by name, that line seemingly found a way to nestle into his psyche, later providing the necessary influence for him to write ‘Yesterday’.