The real story behind Rick Springfield's Jessie's Girl
Rick Springfield's 1981 hit Jessie's Girl elevated him from soap star to new wave superstar - he recalls how the song came to life
C’mon, who hasn’t experienced it? Your best pal strikes it lucky by hooking up with a hottie, the Green Eyed Monster bowls up and before long you’re wondering: 'Where can I get myself one of those? Or maybe even the original model…'
This awkward scenario befell Rick Springfield in the late 70s. Except he wasn’t a gangly, testosterone-charged teenager, but a grown man of 27.
And after names were changed to protect the innocent, the experience provided the Australian-born, Californian-based singer and actor with the song Jessie’s Girl, a Grammy-winning power-pop gem that became his one and only US No.1 and turned him into a superstar at the very dawn of the MTV era.
“As a child I was insecure, I had a problem with too much wanking,” Springfield confides with some candour. “At school I was always girl-obsessed but unbelievably shy. I didn’t get a whole lot of satisfaction, so to speak. So Jessie’s Girl was based on something that happened to me later on.”
The singer had come across the girl in question when she began dating an acquaintance of his named Gary, with whom he had taken a stained glass-making class in Pasadena, California. Springfield never spoke directly to the subject of his ardour – in fact he didn’t even know the name of the girl he found himself “panting over from afar”. And when he left the class after a few months he lost touch with the couple.
But the girl stuck in his mind. And in late 1980, when Springfield was throwing around ideas for his fifth album, Working Class Dog, he decided to turn his experience into a song. By the time guitarist Neil Giraldo joined the recording line-up, Springfield had already fused the song’s confessional lyric to a killer hook.
“The riff came first,” he remembers. “And although it’s a pretty simple-sounding song it wasn’t easy to write. It took about two months, working on the guitar and piano. Neil added a vibe to the song, but it was the producer, Keith Olsen, who convinced me to shorten a long guitar solo I’d played on the demo which was right out of the seventies. It’s a bubbly and vivacious song, but it’s dark. It’s also covetous, which a lot of my music is.”
With lines such as ‘Cos she’s watching him with those eyes/And she’s loving him with that body’ Springfield relived his thwarted obsession. But he made one crucial change to the story. Although his friend who unwittingly inspired the song was called Gary, the singer decided to change the name of his love rival to Jessie – a name he’d spotted on the back of a softball shirt. “I almost called the song Randy’s Girl,” he says with a laugh. “I’m so glad I didn’t.”
Jessie’s Girl was released as a single in February 1981. Thanks to an instantly memorable chorus, and a video that gave a skinny-tied Springfield a chance to show off his acting chops, it was a huge hit in the US (in fact it was No.1 the week MTV was launched, in August 1981).
It also gave Springfield’s musical career a huge boost. Despite having made records since the early 70s, at the time he was better known as an actor because of a spell in the daytime TV soap General Hospital. The success of Jessie’s Girl and its parent album Working Class Dog (which also produced another hit single, the Sammy Hagar-written I’ve Done Everything For You) brought him genuine cross-cultural appeal. Jessie’s Girl would eventually win a Grammy for Best Rock Vocal Performance (the album itself was also nominated, for its sleeve, which featured his pet pooch Ronnie).
In the 35 years since its original release, the song has had an afterlife that’s almost as unlikely as its conception. In 1982, squeaky-voiced cartoon critters The Chipmunks covered it, albeit in amusingly bastardised form. “I loved that they changed the lyric to ‘I wish that I had Jessie’s squirrel,’” says Springfield. It subsequently featured on the soundtracks to the films 13 Going On 20 and acclaimed 1997 porn industry-themed drama Boogie Nights. “I thought its darkness was a pretty good fit in Boogie Nights,” says Springfield.
More recently it was covered on hit TV show Glee, although it had a more fitting resurgence as part of Dave Grohl’s Sound City project. Jessie’s Girl was recorded at Sound City studio in Los Angeles, and Springfield joined the Foo Fighters mainman on stage to play the song at a series of gigs. Grohl described the performance as a “bucket-list moment”, while Springfield is similarly effusive about the younger musician. “Dave’s a great guy,” he says. “A love of music drips from everything he does.”
Springfield admits the song casts “a long shadow over any new music that I make”, but denies that his best-known hit feels like a millstone. In fact he’s re-recorded it for his new unplugged album and DVD set, Stripped Down.
But despite the song’s perennial popularity, there is one big mystery surrounding it: the identity of the real-life Jessie’s girl. Springfield never met her again, even after the song became a global hit. When researchers from The Oprah Winfrey Show tried to track her down they drew a blank.
“Nobody ever came up to me and professed to be her, and I guess that’s kind of a shame,” says Springfield. “I don’t know if she’s aware that Jessie’s Girl is about her. In later years she may have read that Gary was part of the song’s background, seen the reference to stained glass and put two and two together, but it’s more than likely that she doesn’t know. Hey, I got a pretty good song out of it so I’m okay with the deal.”
This article originally appeared in Classic Rock issue 210
Sound And Vision
Before Jessie’s Girl broke big, Rick Springfield was a bigger name as an actor than he was as a musician. He had been encouraged to try acting in the mid-70s by his then girlfriend, Exorcist star Linda Blair. His breakthrough role was as Dr Noah Drake in popular US soap General Hospital – he was still playing the part when Jessie’s Girl went to No.1.
Springfield returned to the show in 2005, and has occasionally reprised his role since. He’ll be seen alongside Colin Farrell and Vince Vaughan in the second series of True Detective, and alongside Meryl Streep in upcoming film Ricki And The Flash. “I play the boyfriend of Meryl’s character, who sings in a covers band,” he explains. “They wanted an actor who could play guitar, and I guess I fit the bill.”