When I was young, my dad was a fan of Gordon Lightfoot, Don McLean and Simon & Garfunkel, played on 8-track tapes in his behemoth Lincoln Continental, gray with maroon leather interior. He’d crack the driver’s window a bit and light up one of his Merit 100s as I held my breath lying in the spacious backseat, huge enough for a child to stretch out on, with lots of room leftover. This was the 70s, when seat belts were “optional.”
Before I was born, he got wind of The Beatles’ “Rubber Soul” album, recorded and released in 1965, while he was serving in the Army in South Korea. Later, after the GI Bill paid for his dental school and he was out of the military, we had Beatles’ albums on 8-track, reel-to-reel tape, then vinyl and cassette. I learned the songs by heart: “Norwegian Wood,” “I’m Looking Through You,” “Girl,” “In My Life” and, of course, the song for which I was named.
The Grammy-winning love song “Michelle,” written by Paul McCartney and John Lennon, is the only Beatles’ song that has lyrics in both English and French. My dad fancied this tune while serving in Seoul. My sister was born in 1966, during his time overseas. When he finally got word of his first child’s birth, likely by telegram, he asked my mom to name her after the ballad. But my mom had already named the baby Jennifer.
Six years down the line, after my dad’s namesake, my brother Rick was born, I came along, and my dad got his wish to name a daughter “Michelle.”
Thanks to the Fab Four, it was a common name for that era. The name hit its height of popularity in the late ‘60s. When I was born, in 1972, it was declining as a favorite. Today, it’s pretty low on that scale, according to Behindthename.com.
The Beatles never released “Michelle” as a single, though it won the 1967 Grammy for Song of the Year, one of four Grammys awarded to the group.
“There are songs which we like but we wouldn’t like to have out as singles,” McCartney said in an interview. “’Cause it’s a very funny thing about putting a single out. We always used to think for a single, we’d have to have something pretty fast … So when we did ‘Michelle,’ we all thought it was OK, but we just didn’t want it out representative of us at the time.”
McCartney wrote “Michelle” in the finger-picking style of Chet Atkins’ instrumental “Trambone,” with a melody and bass line played simultaneously.
Though they may hint at it, the lyrics weren’t penned with a certain elusive and mysterious Parisian woman in mind. McCartney started toying with the tune in 1959 as a “party song,” to get girls to think he was French (trendy then) and come listen. His friend Jan Vaughan, a French teacher, came up with the rhyme “ma belle” and translated the phrase “these are words that go together well” into the French “sont les mots qui vont tres bien ensemble.” Lennon later came up with the “middle eight” section of the song, repeating “I love you” to add a bluesy edge, a la Nina Simone.
In 1999, BMI named it the 42nd most performed song in the 20th century, states the-paulmccartney-project.com.
Hearing McCartney’s sweet voice singing it always makes me smile, especially the original version.
One of my favorite renditions is Sir Paul singing it to Michelle Obama on June 2, 2010, at the White House when McCartney was honored with the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song.
“I hope the president will forgive me if I sing this one,” McCartney said. He needn’t have worried — the entire Obama family sang along.
My dad, who passed away in 1993 after a years-long battle with lymphoma, never got to see that. But he did hear me plunk away the song over and over … and over … on our upright piano when I was a young student of the instrument. I wasn’t a virtuoso. Not sure if it was still a favorite of his after that.
Michelle Karas is a Pennsylvania native who has called the Pikes Peak region home for four years. Previously a features writer and Best of the Springs editor for The Gazette, she became editor of Pikes Peak Newspapers in June 2019. Contact Michelle with letters to the editor, guest columns or story ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org.