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Did The Beatles rip off Nat King Cole for ‘Yesterday’?


The origin story of ‘Yesterday’ is one of the most well-known in music. McCartney woke up with the melody after a dream and ad-libbed the words “scrambled eggs” so that he that it wouldn’t slip his mind. It would seem he was simply fortunate that his breakfast fit the rhyming meter.

Owing to the fact it arrived as effortlessly as the posted next day delivery of a drunken order, he was convinced that it came so naturally it must have been lifted from one of his dad’s old jazz records. When he poured over the melody further and no similarities could be found the group ploughed on with the track. 

Since that story emerged many musicologists have trawled the archives to see if a jazz origin actually exists. British music buff Spencer Leigh believes that the melody may have seeded itself in McCartney’s musical cranium via Nat King Cole’s 1953 version of ‘Answer Me, My Love’. When the orchestral flourishes of Nat King Cole are cast to one side, the contours of the track prove very similar, but Leigh’s argument gains particular traction with the lyric, “Yesterday, I believed that love was here to stay, won’t you tell me where I’ve gone astray.” 

However, despite this McCartney’s spokesman once told the BBC: “To me, the two songs are about as similar as ‘Get Back’ and ‘God Save the Queen’.” Indeed, while on the one hand, certain similarities are striking, rhyming emphasis on ‘ay’ is one of the most common in music and the hanging notes that Nat King Cole utilises are also frequently occurring in many other Beatles ballads. 

Ultimately, if it wasn’t for McCartney revealing the origin it would probably have gone unnoticed as the tracks are very different in truth, and the main conclusion is that the unconscious mind is one hell of a strange place. In truth, there are similarities, but it is nowhere near close enough to be considered plagiarism. 

As Nick Cave once declared: “The great beauty of contemporary music, and what gives it its edge and vitality, is its devil-may-care attitude toward appropriation — everybody is grabbing stuff from everybody else, all the time. It’s a feeding frenzy of borrowed ideas that goes toward the advancement of rock music — the great artistic experiment of our era.” The Beatles were masters and pioneers of this. 

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Furthermore, the fact that their ‘Yesterday’ has now been covered by well over 2000 artists and had already amassed over six million radio plays almost two decades ago is testimony to this feeding frenzy. In short, it’s a song that proves almost impossible to imagine a world without. 

In fact, it’s so impossible to imagine the world without that McCartney dreaming it into existence brings to mind the following Hoagy Carmichael quote: “And then it happened, that queer sensation that this melody was bigger than me. Maybe I hadn’t written it all. The recollection of how, when and where it all happened became vague as the lingering strains hung in the rafters in the studio. I wanted to shout back at it, ‘maybe I didn’t write you, but I found you’.”