Paul McCartney wrote most of this song. He got "Rigby" from the name of a store (Rigby and Evens Ltd Wine and Spirit Shippers) and "Eleanor" from actress Eleanor Bron. He liked the name "Eleanor Rigby" because it sounded natural.
McCartney explained at the time that his songs came mostly from his imagination. Regarding this song, he said, "It just came. When I started doing the melody I developed the lyric. It all came from the first line. I wonder if there are girls called Eleanor Rigby?"
McCartney wasn't sure what the song was going to be about until he came up with the line, "Picks up the rice in a church where a wedding has been." That's when he came up with the story an old, lonely woman. The lyrics, "Wearing the face that she keeps in a jar by the door" are a reference to the cold-cream she wears in an effort to look younger.
The song tells the story of two lonely people. First, we meet a churchgoing woman named Eleanor Rigby, who is seen cleaning up rice after a wedding. The second verse introduces the pastor, Father McKenzie, whose sermons "no one will hear." This could indicate that nobody in coming to his church, or that his sermons aren't getting through to the congregation on a spiritual level. In the third verse, Eleanor dies in the church and Father McKenzie buries her.
"Father Mackenzie" was originally "Father McCartney." Paul decided he didn't want to freak out his dad and picked a name out of the phone book instead.
After Eleanor Rigby is buried, we learn that "No one was saved," indicating that her soul did not elevate to heaven as promised by the church. This could be seen as a swipe at Christianity and the concept of being saved by Jesus. The song was released in August 1966 just weeks after the furor over John Lennon's remarks, "Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. I needn't argue about that; I'm right and I will be proved right. We're more popular than Jesus now."
For the most part, the song eluded controversy, possibly because the lilting string section made it easier to handle.
A string section scored by Beatles producer George Martin consisting of four violins, two violas and two cellos were used in recording. Paul may have been inspired by the classic composer Vivaldi.
The Beatles didn't play any of the instruments on this track. All the music came from the string players, who were hired as session musicians.
Paul McCartney (from Observer Music Monthly November 2008): "When I was a kid I was very lucky to have a real cool dad, a working-class gent, who always encouraged us to give up our seat on the bus for old people. This led me into going round to pensioners' houses. It sounds a bit goody-goody, so I don't normally tell too many people. There were a couple of old ladies and I used to go round and say, 'Do you need any shopping done?' These lonely old ladies were something I knew about growing up, and that was what 'Eleanor Rigby' was about - the fact that she died and nobody really noticed. I knew this went on."
There is a gravestone for an Eleanor Rigby in St. Peter's Churchyard in Woolton, England. Woolton is a suburb of Liverpool and Lennon first met McCartney at a fete at St Peter's Church. The gravestone bearing the name Eleanor Rigby shows that she died in October 1939, aged 44. However Eleanor was not like the lonely people in McCartney's song, as she was married. Another of the gravestones there has the word "McKenzie" written on it. McCartney has denied that that is the source of the names, though he has agreed that they may have registered subconsciously.
This was originally written as "Miss Daisy Hawkins." According to Rolling Stone
magazine, when McCartney first played the song for his neighbor Donovan Leitch, the words were "Ola Na Tungee, blowing his mind in the dark with a pipe full of clay."
The lyrics were brainstormed among The Beatles. In later years, Lennon and McCartney gave different accounts of who contributed more of the words to the song.
Microphones were placed very close to the instruments to create and unusual sound.
Ray Charles reached #35 US and #36 UK with his version in 1968; Aretha Franklin took it to #17 US in 1969. A year later, an instrumental by the group El Chicano went to #115. The song reached the chart again in 2008 when David Cook of American Idol fame took it to #92.
Because of the string section, this was difficult to play live, which The Beatles never did. On his 2002 Back In The US tour, Paul McCartney played this without the strings. Keyboards were used to compensate.
This song was not written in a normal chord, it is in the dorian mode - the scale you get when you play one octave up from the second note of a major scale. This is usually found in old songs such as "Scarborough Fair."
Vanilla Fudge covered this in a slowed-down, emotional style. They've done this with many songs, including hits by *NSYNC, and The Backstreet Boys. Their version of "You Keep Me Hangin' On" was a #6 US hit in 1968. Says Fudge drummer Carmine Appice: "Most of the songs we did, we tried to take out of the realm they were in and try to put them where they were supposed to be in our eyes. 'Eleanor Rigby' was always a great song by The Beatles. It was done with the orchestra, but the way we did it, we put it into an eerie graveyard setting and made it spooky, the way the lyrics read. Songs like Ticket To Ride, that's a hurtin' song, so we slowed it down so it wouldn't be so happy. We would look at lyrics and the lyrics would dictate if it was feasible to do something with it or not." (Info courtesy of Carmine, who spoke with us about the song. His website is carmineappice.net
In 1966, this song took home the Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Pop Vocal Performance, Male. It was awarded to Paul McCartney.
In August 1966, the long-defunct British music magazine Disc And Music Echo asked Kinks frontman Ray Davies to review the then newly released Revolver album. This is how he reacted to this song: "I bought a Haydn LP the other day and this sounds just like it. It's all sort of quartet stuff and it sounds like they're out to please music teachers in primary schools. I can imagine John saying: 'I'm going to write this for my old schoolmistress'. Still it's very commercial."
The chorus of this song was sampled as part of Sinead O'Connor's 1994 song "Famine," which is based on the story of the potato famine in Ireland.
In 2008 a document came to light that showed that McCartney may have had an alternative source for the Eleanor Rigby name. In the early 1990s a lady named Annie Mawson had a job teaching music to children with learning difficulties. Annie managed to teach a severely autistic boy to play "Yellow Submarine," on the piano, which won him a Duke of Edinburgh Silver Award. She wrote to the former Beatle telling him what joy he'd brought. Months later, Annie received a brown envelope bearing a 'Paul McCartney World Tour' stamp. Inside was enclosed a page from an accounts log kept by the Corporation of Liverpool, which records the wages paid in 1911 to a scullery maid working for the Liverpool City Hospital, who signed her name "E. Rigby." There was no accompanying letter of explanation. Annie said in an interview that when she saw the name Rigby, "I realized why I'd been sent it. I feel that when you're holding it you're holding a bit of history."
When the slip went up for auction later that year, McCartney told the Associated Press: "Eleanor Rigby is a totally fictitious character that I made up. If someone wants to spend money buying a document to prove a fictitious character exists, that's fine with me."
This was released simultaneously on August 5, 1966 on both the album Revolver
and as a double A-side with "Yellow Submarine
The thrash band Realm covered this song on their 1988 album Endless War
. It is a speed metal version of the song that got them signed to Roadrunner Records.
McCartney told Q magazine June 2010 that after recording the song, he felt he could have done better. He recalled: "I remember not liking the vocal on Eleanor Rigby, thinking, I hadn't nailed. I listen to it now and it's… very good. It's a bit annoying when you do Eleanor Rigby and you're not happy with it."
Former US President Bill Clinton has stated that this is his favorite Beatles song.