Berry’s hits, such as ‘Maybellene’, ‘Roll Over Beethoven’ and ‘Johnny B Goode’, were a formative influence on the young Beatles, with McCartney describing the American rock’n’roll legend’s songs as like life-changing poems. A few years before he died, Berry was asked if there was one song by someone else that he wished he had penned. “It would be ‘Yesterday’,” Berry told Fox 2 news channel. “I wish I could have written the song ‘Yesterday’. It was one of the main influences on my life and the lyrics follow the trend of my life.”
In the movie Yesterday, a young singer-songwriter called Jack Malik (played by Himesh Patel) wakes up after a freak accident to find that he is the only person alive who knows about The Beatles. At first the young musician from Suffolk admits, “I didn’t write it, Paul McCartney wrote it,” but the wannabe star soon starts taking credit for Beatles’ songs, including ‘Yesterday’, when he realises he won’t be found out.
So what makes this melancholy song – one of the most covered tracks in history – so special and enduring?
The tune to ‘Yesterday’ was written in the attic
At the end of 1964, 21-year-old Paul McCartney was staying at 57 Wimpole Street, London, the family home of Richard and Margaret Asher, while dating their daughter Jane Asher. Though he and the teenager were sharing a small attic room, McCartney had managed get an upright piano into the top garrett, by the window. “That was the piano that I fell out of bed and got the chords to ‘Yesterday’ on,” said McCartney in 1981. “I woke up with a lovely tune in my head. I thought, That’s great, I wonder what that is? I got out of bed, sat at the piano, found G, found F-sharp-minor seventh – and that leads you through then to B to E minor, and finally back to G. It all leads forward logically. I liked the melody a lot, but because I’d dreamed it I couldn’t believe I’d written it. I thought, No, I’ve never written like this before. But I had the tune, which was the most magic thing.”
At first it was just called ‘Scrambled Egg’
Initially, McCartney came up with the tune alone. He played around with jokey lyrics, including the lines “Scrambled Egg/Oh my baby how I love your legs”, and then spent several months in 1965 trying to finish the song. During the making of the film Help!, he played it incessantly. “It got to the point where I said to him, ‘If you play that bloody song any longer I’ll have the piano taken off stage. Either finish it or give it up,’” recalled director Richard Lister.
Paul wrote the lyrics in the car
McCartney’s girlfriend slept through the creation of the music and was asleep beside him again when the famous lyrics (“Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away”) came to him during a “long, hot” car journey through Portugal in June 1965. He was on his way to stay at a villa owned by The Shadows’ guitarist Bruce Welch. “Suddenly these little one-word openings to the verse came to me,” McCartney said. Though he sometimes co-wrote with John Lennon, ‘Yesterday’ was a lone Beatle composition. “That’s Paul’s song and Paul’s baby,” said Lennon in 1980. “Well done. Beautiful – and I never wished I’d written it.”
He didn’t like the strings at first
McCartney said that it took numerous attempts in June 1965, at EMI Studios, to get the right sound for the song. George Martin said that when he first mooted the idea of adding strings to it, McCartney hated the idea and said, “I don’t want Mantovani!” Martin then suggested a small classical quartet to accompany McCartney on acoustic guitar. “He thought that was interesting,” added Martin, who arranged the song for violinists Tony Gilbert and Sidney Sax, viola player Kenneth Essex and cellists Kenneth Essex and Francisco Gabarro.
The two-minute single was an instant success
Just days after ‘Yesterday’ was recorded at EMI’s studios in London, cellist Gabarro met McCartney in the canteen and The Beatles’ star said, “We have a winner with that ‘Yesterday’.” He was proved right. After being released as a single, on 13 September 1965, ‘Yesterday’ went to the top of the charts around the world, including Belgium, Holland, Norway, Sweden, America and the UK. ‘Yesterday’ won the Ivor Novello Award for Outstanding Song Of 1965. According to The Rough Guide To The Beatles, the song was broadcast on American radio more than seven million times in its first 30 years.
There are an estimated 3,000-plus covers of ‘Yesterday’
McCartney’s “instinctive song” made it into the Guinness Book Of Records as the most covered pop song of all time. There are now estimated to be more than 3,000 versions of ‘Yesterday’.
Many of the music world’s best-selling singers have tackled ‘Yesterday’ – including Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, Shirley Bassey, Aretha Franklin, Michael Bolton, Max Bygraves, Sammy Davis Jr, Perry Como, Judy Collins, John Denver, Neil Diamond, Placido Domingo, Val Doonican, Tom Jones, Brenda Lee and Barry Manilow – and versions have been done in classical, jazz, country, soul and pop styles.
The song has appealed to brilliant singer-songwriters such as James Taylor and Bob Dylan, whose 1968 version included George Harrison on guitar and backing vocals. John Lennon only ever sang it at a party, and McCartney’s band Wings recorded a live version that appears on Wings Over America.
Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard joined forces for a country duet version of the song. Pop acts such as Boyz II Men, S Club 7 and Wet Wet Wet have put out their own interpretations, as have the 12 cellists of the Berlin Philharmonic.
Jazz greats such as Oscar Peterson and Sarah Vaughan have also recorded ‘Yesterday’. Perhaps the best jazz version was by Count Basie. In 1966, on his Verve Records album Basie’s Beatles Bag, he plays some neat piano supporting guest vocalist Bill Henderson.
Perhaps because ‘Yesterday’ is such a gorgeously simple, maudlin ballad, it takes something special to bring a freshness to it. Two of the most moving versions are by soul singers. The version by Ray Charles is haunting, while Marvin Gaye brings a gospel grace to his plaintive 1970 interpretation.
The Yesterday movie version
Former EastEnders actor Himesh Patel landed the lead role in Yesterday after impressing with his version of the song at the screen test. Boyle, who says Patel’s version is “pure” said that the 28-year-old actor, who has been playing the guitar since he was 13, “has this ability to make you feel The Beatles’ songs anew… they’re familiar, but strange at the same time”.
Looking for more? Discover the Beatles songs in the Yesterday film.