Songwriters know that emotions connect all of us — including grief. Here are some of the great tribute songs written in memory of people who died.
1. “Here Today” by Paul McCartney
It shouldn’t be surprising to learn that there were many tribute songs written for John Lennon after his death in 1980. “Here Today” is Paul McCartney’s tribute to his fallen friend.
2. “Empty Garden (Hey, Hey Johnny)” by Elton John
As you think about tribute songs by Elton John, Marilyn Monroe and Princess Diana come to mind. Those songs appear on our list but did you know about “Empty Garden” as well? This is John’s tribute to John Lennon.
3. “Tears in Heaven” by Eric Clapton
One of the most gut-wrenching songs ever written, “Tears in Heaven,” was written by Eric Clapton after the accidental death of his son.
4. “Missing You” by Diana Ross
“Missing You” was written by Lionel Richie as a tribute to fellow Motown great Marvin Gaye. Gaye was killed by his father, who claimed he shot his son in self-defense.
5. “American Pie” by Don McLean
The next time you have an hour to burn, listen to “American Pie” and read about all the symbolism and imagery packed into it. The first part of the song was written as a tribute to Buddy Holly, who died in an airplane crash.
6. “I’ll Be Missing You” by Puff Daddy and Faith Evans
Biggie Smalls was murdered in 1997. This song, which borrows the tune of “Every Breath You Take” by The Police, was written in tribute to the young rapper.
7. “Happy Birthday” by Stevie Wonder
Even though most of the songs on our list so far are tributes to musicians who have died, this song is the exception. Stevie Wonder wrote his version of “Happy Birthday” to honor Martin Luther King, Jr.
8. “Angel of Harlem” by U2
Although U2’s song “Angel of Harlem” gives a nod to several great performers, it’s said that the song was written in tribute to Billie Holiday.
9. “Rock and Roll Heaven” by The Righteous Brothers
“If there is a rock and roll heaven, well, you know they got a hell of a band.” This song, by The Righteous Brothers, includes a laundry list of rock and roll greats who died — like Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, and Otis Redding.
10. “Candle in the Wind” by Elton John
This song was first written as a tribute to Marilyn Monroe. The original lyrics begin, “Goodbye, Norma Jean,” which was Monroe’s real first name. Later, Elton John repurposed the song to honor Princess Diana.
11. “Old Friend” by Waylon Jennings
Waylon Jennings wrote the song “Old Friend” for Buddy Holly. He remembers all the good times and the songs they used to sing — “Old friend, we sure do miss you, but you’ve not missed a thing.”
12. “Sleeps with Angels” by Neil Young
Kurt Cobain quoted Neil Young in his suicide note. Young wrote this song, “Sleeps With Angels” as a tribute to the singer.
13. “Better on the Other Side” by The Game, Chris Brown, Diddy, Usher, Mario Winans, Boyz2Men
This song, “Better on the Other Side,” was written and released after the death of the King of Pop, Michael Jackson, who died in 2009.
14. “No One But You (Only the Good Die Young)” by Queen
The three surviving members of Queen wrote and performed “No One But You” in memory of Freddie Mercury, who died in 1991.
15. “Muddy, Sam, and Otis” by Rod Stewart
It’s nice when musicians give a nod to the artists who influenced their work. Rod Stewart does so in “Muddy, Sam, and Otis.” He describes listening to the 45s of Muddy Waters, Sam Cooke, and Otis Redding.
16. “Johnny Bye Bye” by Bruce Springsteen
“You didn’t have to die. You didn’t have to die.” Bruce Springsteen wrote the song, “Johnny Bye Bye” in reference to the death of the King of Rock and Roll, Elvis Presley.
17. “They Killed Him” by Kris Kristofferson
“They Killed Him” was performed by several artists, including Johnny Cash. The song is a tribute to Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and Jesus Christ.
18. “Another Hero Lost” by Shadows Fall
This song was written as a tribute to the soldiers who died in the Iraq war.
19. “Where Were You When the World Stopped Turning?” by Alan Jackson
Although there were several songs written after the attacks on September 11, 2001, we thought it would be appropriate to give Alan Jackson’s song a nod. The song won many accolades — probably because its underlying theme is love, not retaliation.
20. “To Live is to Die” by Metallica
Metallica’s bassist died in 1986 as a result of a bus accident. The band released “To Live is to Die” to honor their fallen band member.
21. “XIX” by Slipknot
This song was written by members of the band Slipknot when their bass player died of a drug overdose. Its haunting lyrics are appropriate for a tribute song.
22. “Knock Me Down” by Red Hot Chili Peppers
One of the founding members of the Red Hot Chili Peppers died of a drug overdose. The song, “Knock Me Down,” is the surviving band members’ way of giving tribute to one so important to them.
23. “White Lightning” by Def Leppard
Def Leppard called its fallen band member “White Lightning” for his ability to move so quickly while playing guitar on stage. Steve Clark was the name of the guitarist, and this song is a tribute to him.
24. “All Those Years Ago” by George Harrison
Looking for another John Lennon tribute? George Harrison wrote “All Those Years Ago” in honor of his friend. Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr also play on the song.
25. “Back in Black” by AC/DC
Who knew that “Back in Black” was written as a tribute? This song was written about Bonn Scott, a former member of AC/DC, who died in 1980.
26. “Shine On, You Crazy Diamond” by Pink Floyd
One of the original band members of Pink Floyd struggled with mental health issues as well as drug addiction. The band wrote and performed “Shine On, You Crazy Diamond” about Syd Barrett.
27. “Man on the Moon” by R.E.M.
One of R.E.M.’s most famous songs, “Man on the Moon,” is about Andy Kaufman, the comedic actor who died in 1984.
28. “James Dean” by Eagles
The actor James Dean died in 1955 at the age of 24. This “rebel without a cause” received a tribute from The Eagles in 1974.
29. “Bette Davis Eyes” by Kim Carnes
This song was the biggest song of 1981. Even though Bette Davis wasn’t dead when the song was released, it still can be considered a tribute song, as it was written to pay homage to the legendary actress.
30. “Amadeus” by Falco
We learn quite a bit about Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart from the song “Amadeus” by German group Falco.
31. “Buddy Holly” by Weezer
The song “Buddy Holly” is the third on our list to call out this musician from the 1950s and 60s. If the name and style of the song don’t seem like a strong enough tribute to you, watch the video. Weezer performs in a virtual “Al’s Diner” from “Happy Days.”
32. “You Have Been Loved” by George Michael
George Michael wrote this song as a tribute to his lover, who died from AIDS-related complications. Michael died in 2016.
Find the Right Song
What have you learned from these songs about death? One thing you may have noticed is that all these tribute songs were written or performed by people who had a close relationship with the individual who died. Life is about building those close relationships with others.
You may have also noticed that these tribute songs act as a living memorial to those who have passed. People still think about John Lennon when they hear the song, “Empty Garden (Hey, Hey Johnny).” You always think of Marilyn Monroe when you hear the song, “Candle in the Wind.” Elton John gave both of these people living memorials that will live past his own death.
Maybe seeing this list of songs makes you think of your own mortality. A long life is not guaranteed. Are your final arrangements made? It’s time to begin your own end-of-life planning.