Was The Beatles song ‘Eleanor Rigby’ based on a real person?
The Beatles were not one for using real names in their material and, instead, opted to use fantastical sounding names that listeners didn’t need telling were fictional—take, for example, ‘Mean Mr. Mustard’. But even with that said, was ‘Eleanor Rigby’ the exemption to the rule?
The song famously sees Paul McCartney curate the story of a lonely woman named Eleanor Rigby and an inept pastor named Father McKenzie who, as part of the tale, delivers the sermon at Rigby’s funeral after she dies alone to an empty service.
McCartney originally believed that he made up the surnames in the track and decided to use the name ‘Eleanor’ because of Eleanor Bron, an actress who appeared in The Beatles’ film Help!. The surname of the Eleanor Rigby character was originally Bygraves before Macca changed it to Rigby after seeing a Bristol wine merchant called ‘Rigby & Evens Ltd, Wine & Spirit Shippers’.
The priest in the song originally labelled ‘Father McCartney‘ because the name found a perfect fit with the beat. However, the Beatle didn’t want to freak his Dad out so decided to have a look through the phone book and landed on ‘McKenzie’ and that was that, ‘Eleanor Rigby’ was finished.
Some years later, however, McCartney would admit that he was, on some level, subliminally influenced by his adolescence. This revelation happened after a number of eagle-eyed fans noticed something intriguing near his childhood home in Woolton, Liverpool, in the graveyard of St. Peter’s Church which is a location McCartney would frequent with John Lennon in his youth.
At the graveyard, there was a headstone that read ‘Eleanor Rigby’ and nearby to Rigby’s grave there is another headstone which reads ‘McKenzie’, which may have subliminally both been soaked up into McCartney’s subconsciousness.
In The Beatles Anthology he would discuss this and whether with hindsight this did influence him or was it all just a huge coincidence: “I thought, I swear, that I made up the name Eleanor Rigby. But it seems that up in Woolton Cemetery, where I used to hang out a lot with John, there’s a gravestone to an Eleanor Rigby. Apparently, a few yards to the right there’s someone called McKenzie.”
In an interview with GQ in 2018, McCartney would go into detail about the real people that he knew from his childhood that gave him a reference point for the ‘Eleanor Rigby’ character, 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.”
He continued: “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.”
Like with most storytellers, McCartney took influence from an array of different areas which he fused together to create this tale that has remnants of truth, a method with allowed his mind fill in the blanks, both consciously and subconsciously in this case.