Released in March 1968, this account of an exhausted, probably single mother facing down daily problems is as lean and rootsy as 1967’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was layered and kaleidoscopic. Named in a clear reference to his Catholic upbringing, “Lady Madonna” also served as a stopgap as the Beatles prepared for a trip to India where they’d study meditation with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.
“‘Lady Madonna’ was me sitting down at the piano trying to write a bluesy boogie-woogie thing,” Paul McCartney said in Barry Miles’ Many Years From Now. “I got my left hand doing an arpeggio thing with the chord, an ascending boogie-woogie left hand, then a descending right hand. I always liked that, the juxtaposition of a line going down meeting a line going up. That was basically what it was. It reminded me of Fats Domino for some reason, so I started singing a Fats Domino impression.”
McCartney’s intro likewise tipped his hat to Humphrey Lyttelton’s 1956 hit “Bad Penny Blues,” which was also produced by George Martin. Lyttelton later revealed that he took this quote at the piano as a compliment.
“I’ve never had any sympathy with the notion of ‘Here are some guys, they’re worth a fortune. Let’s try and get some of it,'” Lyttelton said. “Although none of the Beatles cared for traditional jazz, they all knew and liked ‘Bad Penny Blues,’ because it was a bluesy, skiffley thing rather than a trad exercise.”
Listen to Humphrey Lyttelton’s ‘Bad Penny Blues’
McCartney’s dad sidelined as a jazz musician, but this latest tribute to steadfast women was mainly inspired by his mom – a midwife who served as the family’s principal breadwinner before her too-early death. So, “Lady Madonna” was tougher than “Eleanor Rigby” or “Lovely Rita” – and far more worldly.
Every line is sharpened to a knife’s edge, as she muscles her way through another difficult week. The Beatles’ only look back from this gritty scene arrives with the line “see how they run,” a double entendre about her worn-out stockings that echoes a John Lennon lyric from the previous year’s “I Am the Walrus.”
The spark for McCartney came courtesy of a photograph of a Malayo-Polynesian woman caring for three small children, taken for National Geographic in 1965 by Howard Sochurek.
“I saw that as a kind of Madonna thing, mother and child, and I just – you know, sometimes you see pictures of mothers and you go, ‘She’s a good mother,'” McCartney told National Geographic in 2017. “You could just tell there’s a bond and it just affected me, that photo. And so I was inspired to write ‘Lady Madonna,’ my song, from that photo.”
Watch the Beatles’ ‘Lady Madonna’ Video
Still, it wasn’t all so serious. Lennon and George Harrison joined McCartney for background vocals that imitated brass instruments during the instrumental break before bringing in four saxophonists – including the legendary Ronnie Scott – to complete the session. Unfortunately, Scott’s solo was buried in the mix until the Anthology series salvaged it by combining elements of takes three, four and five.
“Lady Madonna” entered the U.K. charts at No. 5 in late March, then spent two weeks at the top. The single was halted at No. 4 in the U.S., but nevertheless made history of another sort.
The Beatles had originally considered releasing “Across the Universe,” but Lennon withdrew the song because he wasn’t happy with the arrangement. Harrison was the beneficiary, as they paired “The Inner Light” with “Lady Madonna” to fashion his first original B-side. In a cool twist, Fats Domino also covered “Lady Madonna,” and it became his 77th – and final – U.S. charting song.
Only later did it occur to McCartney that the song had a timeline error. “I was writing the words out to learn it for an American TV show and I realized I missed out Saturday; I did every other day of the week, but I missed out Saturday,” McCartney told Miles. “So, I figured it must have been a real night out.”
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