The melody came to Paul in a dream sometime in late 1963 or early 1964 - he called it a gift from his subconscious. Paul, as quoted in the Beatles Anthology: "I woke up one morning with a tune in my head and I thought, 'Hey, I don't know this tune - or do I?' It was like a jazz melody. My dad used to know a lot of old jazz tunes; I thought maybe I'd just remembered it from the past. I went to the piano and found the chords to it, made sure I remembered it and then hawked it round to all my friends, asking what it was: 'Do you know this? It's a good little tune, but I couldn't have written it because I dreamt it.' " (Anthology, p. 175)
To make sure he remembered the tune, Paul put ridiculous lyrics to the melody ("Scrambled eggs, oh my baby how I love your legs") and started to play it for a variety of people to see if anybody could place the melody. Two such people were Dick James, who published the Beatles' songs, and Chris Hutchins, editor of Disc magazine. This is amusingly depicted in Peter Ames Carlin's biography of Paul McCartney: "[I]t didn't impress Dick James at all. 'Dick's face fell,' Hutchins says. 'And he said, "Have you got anything with yeah, yeah, yeah in it?" ' And Paul was shattered." (Carlin, p. 95)
Once Paul figured out that the melody was original - that he hadn't inadvertently stolen it - he then had to decide what to do with it. It certainly wasn't standard Beatles material, so he started offering the song to other singers to record. (I seem to recall reading somewhere that Paul offered the song to Marianne Faithful, but I have been unable to locate any evidence for that notion. If he did offer it to Faithful, she either declined or failed to record it before the Beatles did.) In "The Beatles Diary, Volume 1: The Beatles Years", author Barry Miles quotes from Eric Burdon's autobiography an account between Burdon and blues singer Chris Farlowe about McCartney offering Farlowe the song:
"One day he [Farlowe] phoned me at my Duke Street pad. 'Hey Eric, how ya doin', it's Chris Farlowe here,' he said in his hoarse voice. I asked how he was getting on. 'Oh, I'm OK. 'Ere listen, you'll never guess what happened. Paul McCartney - you know Paul out of the Beatles?' Yes, I had heard of him. 'Well he came round to our house in the middle of the night. I was out doing a show, but me mum was in and he left her a demo disc for me to listen to.' This was wonderful news. When was Chris going into the studio to cut this gift from the gods? 'Ah,' he growled. 'I don't like it. It's not for me. It's too soft. I need a good rocker, you know, a shuffle or something.' 'Yeah, but Chris,' I said. 'Anything to give you a start, man, I mean even if it's a ballad, you should go ahead and record it.' 'No, I don't like it,' he inssited. 'Too soft.' 'So what are you gonna do with the song?' 'Well, I sent it back, didn't I?' 'What was the title of the song?' 'Yesterday.' " (Miles, p. 211)
The first take, recorded at Abbey Road Studios on June 14, 1965, features Paul singing and playing a finger-picking pattern on an acoustic guitar. George Martin suggested adding strings as accompaniment, but Paul disliked the idea. He seriously considered an electronic backing, going as far as contacting Delia Derbyshire of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop to inquire about the possibility. Derbyshire is best-known for composing the theme song to Dr. No. But the notion of an electronic accompaniment was eventually scrapped, and Martin's suggestion of strings was adopted - but Paul insisted on a string quartet (rather than orchestra) playing with absolutely no vibrato because he didn't want it to sound like Mantovani. (Probably to his chagrin, Mantovani did record a cover.) The Beatles' final version, as it appears on Help!, features a string quartet in addition to Paul's vocals and guitar playing.
Marriane Faithful and Chris Farlowe both recorded covers - but only after the Beatles' recording was released and achieved tremendous acclaim and success. "Yesterday" has gone on to be the most-covered song in history. In 1980 Paul called it "probably my best song. I like it not because it was a big success, but because it was one of the most instinctive songs I've ever written. I was so proud of it. I felt it was an original tune - the most complete thing I've ever written. It's very catchy without being sickly." (Miles, p. 205)
Steve Turner notes another anecdote about "Yesterday" in his book "A Hard Day's Write: The Stories Behind Every Beatles Song": "Iris Caldwell remembered an interesting incident in connection with the song. She had broken up with Paul in March 1963 . . . and, when he later called up to speak to Iris, her mother told Paul that her daughter didn't want to speak to him because he had no feelings. Two and a half years later, on Sunday August 1, 1965, Paul was scheduled to sing 'Yesterday' on a live television programme, Blackpool Night Out. During that week, he phoned Mrs Caldwell and said, 'You know that you said that I had no feelings? Watch the telly on Sunday and then tell me that I've got no feelings.' " (p. 84)
Beatles. The Beatles Anthology. Chronicle Books, San Francisco, CA, 2000.
Carlin, Peter Ames. Paul McCartney: A Life. A Touchstone Book, published by Simon & Schuster, New York, NY, 2009.
Miles, Barry. The Beatles Diary, Volume 1: The Beatles Years. Omnibus Press, New York, NY, 2001.
Turner, Steve. A Hard Day's Write: The Stories Behind Every Beatles Song. It Books, an imprint of Harper Collins Publishers, New York, NY, 2005.