When one learns that the inspiration behind a certain painting or song is a “muse,” one often believes said muse is some young, goddess-like creature. Such is not the case with the Beatles’ classic “Eleanor Rigby.” Paul McCartney wrote most of the lyrics, but stories of how the 1966 hit came to be or who was the source behind it have gotten muddled over the years.
First, the inspiration. According to the singer-songwriter, he knew several little old ladies, thanks to growing up during Bob-a-Job Week. He explained that as “when Scouts did chores for a shilling, and you’d get a shilling for cleaning out a shed or mowing a lawn.”
McCartney says he does not remember how he met “Eleanor Rigby.” According to McCartney, “I found out that she lived on her own, so I would go around there and just chat, which is sort of crazy if you think about me being some young Liverpool guy. Later, I would offer to go and get her shopping. She’d give me a list and I’d bring the stuff back, and we’d sit in her kitchen. I still vividly remember the kitchen because she had a little crystal radio set.
“That’s not a brand name; it actually had a crystal inside it. Crystal radios were quite popular in the 1920s and ‘30s. So, I would visit and just hearing her stories enriched my soul and influenced the songs I would later write.”
While the 80-year-old rocker knew he wanted to pay homage to the older women in his neighborhood, there was also the matter of what to name the song, its origins having changed over the years. Despite wandering around the cemetery at St. Peter’s Church with fellow Fab Four bandmate John, McCartney says he does not recall ever seeing the gravestone of a person named Eleanor Rigby. McCartney also believes he was going to name the character “Eleanor” and claims to have gotten “Rigby” from a shop sign. McCartney wrote the song at the home of then-girlfriend, actress Jane Asher. Shortly afterward, he played the song for his piano teacher, but the teacher was not impressed.
Nevertheless, the fictional Eleanor Rigby has received quite the honor through song and with a bronze sculpture on Liverpool’s Stanley Street. The piece by Tommy Steele was unveiled in 1982 as a tribute to the Beatles. It depicts a woman seated on a stone bench with a handbag, shopping bag and a copy of the Liverpool Echo newspaper. Poking from the shopping bag is a bottle of milk. Behind the figure is an inscribed plaque which reads, in part:
“All the lonely people”