It was 54 years ago today (June 14th, 1965) that the Beatles recorded “Yesterday” — the Paul McCartney-written classic, which stands as the most covered song of all time. “Yesterday” was taped at London's Abbey Road Studios on a day that perhaps showed the truest account of McCartney's songwriting and performing abilities. In addition to “Yesterday,” the Beatles tackled not only the future folk-rock classic “I've Just Seen A Face,” but the spleen-splitting hard rock “Help!” B-side, “I'm Down.” “Yesterday” was first released on the UK Help! album on August 6th, 1965.
On September 13th, 1965, the night of the single's release, the “Fab Four's” fourth live performance on The Ed Sullivan Show spotlighted the song, featuring McCartney performing for the first time on American TV alone on acoustic guitar accompanied by a string ensemble — but without John Lennon, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr.
Paul McCartney says that even now he's still amazed that he wrote the song, which has gone on to become one of the most beloved tunes in popular music history: “I think, y'know, the most successful has been 'Yesterday,' and it's the strangest one ever, 'cause I dreamed it. I haven't had any other song that's happened that way. I just woke up one morning and just (sings melody), and I went around to people for about two weeks saying, 'Listen, what's this?' They would say, 'Oh, it's good. I don't know' — I think they thought I was trying to sell it. After about two weeks of everyone saying, 'Well, I don't know what it is,' y'know, I said, 'Well, I must have written it then.'”
McCartney admits that he's still astounded at the continuing popularity of song so long after it was first released: “My most successful song was 'Yesterday' that got covered by just everyone. 3,000 people including Ray Charles, Marvin Gaye, Elvis (Presley), Frank Sinatra — I mean, I should be so lucky. It's just unbelievable. But that one song; I woke up one morning and I had dreamed it. See, I don't know where it came from. I just woke up (sings melody) — I had that song. So, I believe in magic.”
McCartney credits not only Beatles producer George Martin's score for the song in helping its popularity — but Martin's choice of string players for the recording: “It was basically studio musicians that George Martin would book. ‘Cause George was the one who knew the classical field — we didn’t have a clue at all. George was always very good; he always got the best people.”
Bill King, publisher of Beatlefan magazine, says that the inclusion of the few Beatles songs — especially “Yesterday” — in Paul McCartney's 1976 Wings Over America comeback tour pushed emotional buttons that up till that point weren't felt at your average rock concert: “It was nostalgia, it was a chance to finally see a Beatle doing a Beatles song live in concert — which many of us had not had. Already, even at that age — and most of us who were original fans were still in our 20's when he toured in '76. But already, even at that relatively young age, we had nostalgia. And it was an emotional moment for a lot of people to see him doing that song. It was a song they had never expected to see him do live.”
Paul McCartney explained that even though some of the songs in his setlist date back over 50 years, as a father and grandfather he's able to find new emotions in the tunes that he couldn't possibly have imagined back in his Beatles days: “A song like 'Yesterday' I wrote when I was 20, or 21, or something. And so, it was a quite a young man writing about yesterday — I didn't have many yesterdays, it was only about few years of them. It's much more emotional now for me, because, y'know, my yesterdays involve bringing up children now, and when they were little babies. As you go on, the songs seem to have more depth. Y'know, words that I just wrote because I liked the sound of them — now I like the meaning of them.”
“Yesterday,” which was not released in England as a single until 1976 — long after the Beatles' split — hit Number One on the Billboard Hot 100 on October 9th, 1965 — John Lennon's 25th birthday, overtaking the McCoys' “Hang On Sloopy.”
The single's B-Side, the Ringo Starr-vehicle, “Act Naturally” — which was also performed on the Sullivan Show telecast — peaked at Number 47 on the Billboard charts, with Cash Box charting it as high as Number 28.
The instant evergreen held down the top spot for a solid month, until toppled by the Rolling Stones' follow-up to “(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction,” with the two week Number One “Get Off My Cloud.”
In recent years, Paul McCartney has raised the issue of reversing the official credits to “Yesterday,” from Lennon/McCartney to McCartney/Lennon, seeing as how — admittedly — John Lennon had nothing to do with the song's composition and/or arrangement. To McCartney's chagrin, Yoko Ono has refused to allow the signature songwriting credit to be changed.
Save for the past couple of years, “Yesterday” has been a McCartney live staple since 1975. When now performed in concert, he uses the same Epiphone Texan acoustic guitar used on the original Beatles recording session.