“It was just sexual angst, really,” says Rick Springfield. “I liked a girl and she had a boyfriend and wouldn’t give me the time of day. I took my angst to the music room and wrote the song.”
The song was “Jessie’s Girl,” and it would go on to become Springfield’s biggest hit, sitting atop the Billboard Hot 100 for two weeks in 1981, going multiplatinum, and eventually earning him a Grammy Award for Best Male Rock Vocal Performance.
The track was released on Springfield’s 1981 album Working Class Dog, which, on the strength of “Jessie’s Girl,” was certified platinum and eventually sold more than three million copies in the U.S. All of that, thanks to a pop-infused rock song that advocated hitting on your friend’s girlfriend. “I was younger and didn’t have as strong of a moral ethic back then,” Springfield explains.
While the Australian Springfield continues to make music, including a forthcoming new album, he’s also been busy honing his craft as a novelist and an actor, with a part in True Detective’s second season and a chance to kiss Meryl Streep in the forthcoming Jonathan Demme/Diablo Cody film Ricki and the Flash.1
Acting isn’t a new gig for Springfield, who, since 1981, has appeared off and on as the daytime soap opera General Hospital’s Dr. Noah Drake.
I talked to the multihyphenate singer-songwriter-scribe-thespian about the secrets and story behind “Jessie’s Girl.”
How He Wrote the Song
“I wrote it in about a week. I had the riff first — that introductory guitar riff. I wrote part of it on the guitar and part of it on the piano. At one point, they were separate songs, but then I joined them together because they seemed to really fit. I wrote the lyrics after the music was complete. I usually start out with a title or a basic idea of what the song is going to be about and then complete the music. Occasionally, I write them together, but not that often. Certainly some of the words for ‘Jessie’s Girl’ came with the music.”
Did He Have Any Idea It Would Be Popular?
“No, no, I just thought it was a good song for the album that I was writing, but I felt like there were better songs on there. But I guess I was wrong!”
How the Song Was Released
“It wasn’t released as a single. ‘I’ve Done Everything for You’ was the first single they released off the album, which Sammy Hagar wrote. I think they were hoping to cash in on whatever popularity Sammy had at the time. They didn’t even really consider ‘Jessie’s Girl’ as a single. Then radio started with ‘I’ve Done Everything,’ but it didn’t really do anything.
“It didn’t chart or anything, and they were floundering and not sure what to do with the album. Then the radio started playing ‘Jessie’s Girl’ just because they liked the song. That wouldn’t really happen today, because the playlists are so strict, so structured, and there’s not a lot of room for DJs to experiment and try new things. But they did back then. A couple of DJs started playing it, and it got a really great reaction. Phone calls and everything. They told the record company, and they went, ‘Duh, guess we should release it.’ But it was really the DJs of America that found that song. It had nothing to do with the record company at all.”
When He Knew It Was Going to Be a Hit
“It took a really long time climbing the charts. It was close to 20 weeks on the charts before it hit no. 1. It was a really long, slow climb. I knew it was going to be a hit when I played it live and the audience recognized it. That was the first time that ever happened in my music career — that I played a song and people actually knew it — and I had been playing music for 15 years.”
The Song’s Longevity
“It might be because it’s a familiar topic. The lyrics aren’t very cliché. There’s some thought in the lyrics. It’s a good melody. The rest is just other people picking up on it. I think it’s a well-structured pop song. There’s not a down moment in it. It’s got a catchy opening, and the bridge — which is usually the weak part of the song — is actually the high point of this song. But I don’t know why it is what it is. If I knew, I would write a million of ’em. I think it’s always a mystery why certain songs get picked up and others that are just as good if not better get brushed aside. I think it’s just the way the world works. Some cosmic joke.”
Playing the Song Live
“It gets a great reaction. It’s like a parent who has a favorite, exceptional child that they love trotting out for the uncles and aunts. It’s pretty hard not to like the song when it’s that popular.”
His Favorite Memory of Playing ‘Jessie’s Girl’
“[It was] the first time I really got a reaction from the audience. I really remember it. It was at an outdoor Beach Boys Fourth of July show with like 50,000 people. I started the opening riff and everyone started cheering. It was pretty powerful, because as a kid growing up, I had done the same thing for other bands. When they would play a part of a song that I recognized, I would start screaming and yelling. It was a pretty powerful moment for me, to have that happen to me for a song that I wrote.”
Melissa Locker (@woolyknickers) is a writer and music fan in New York.