The name was a misspelling of the Vanderbilt family, the US dynasty of Dutch descent whose patriarch, Cornelius Vanderbilt, made a fortune in the 19th century through rail and shipping empires.
The lyrics, however, contained little more than a passing mention to the family – notably in the lines “When your pile is on the wane/You don’t complain of robbery”, a reference to the family’s financial decline in the 20th century. Instead, McCartney used the name as a starting point for a scenario of his own invention.
‘Mrs Vandebilt’ was a good one. I didn’t know anything about her but I just knew she was like… a rich person.
The opening lines were adapted from music hall comedian Charlie Chester’s radio show. “Down in the jungle, living in a tent/Better than a prefab – no rent!” was a regular chant from the natives in Chester’s serial Tarzan Of The Tapes.
The forced laughter which closed ‘Mrs Vandebilt’ was also influenced by Chester’s effects on his studio audience. Wings added more laughter in London’s AIR Studios after returning from Lagos, Nigeria.
The laughing? It started off in Africa. We were doing sort of daft laughs at the end. When we got back we eventually overdubbed this crowd of people who were laughing. It was great listening to the tapes, trying to select the little bit of laughter that we would use. Most of it was us, but we need a little bit to cushion it up. It was great listening to a roomful of people laughing in stereo. They were getting into all these laughing bits, and we were on the floor.
Paul McCartney In His Own Words, Paul Gambaccini
A power cut occurred while the basic track was being recorded in Lagos. Work continued with backup electricity generators, although the musicians were worried that the noise would leak through onto the tapes.
‘Mrs Vandebilt’ was not issued as a single in the United Kingdom or North America, but was released in Europe and Australia in early 1974. The b-side of the single was ‘Bluebird’.
The song was not a regular part of McCartney’s solo concerts until it topped a 2008 poll on a Ukrainian website asking for fan requests. It was performed at a free concert in Kiev that year, where it was introduced by McCartney with the words “We were asked to perform this song” in Ukrainian.