The Meaning Behind “Everything I Own” by Bread and David Gates’ Touching Dedication to His Dad

No songwriter/performer in the early ‘70s combined melodic ease with sensitive, heart-tugging lyrics like David Gates of Bread. One of his peak efforts came with the 1972 smash single “Everything I Own.” It’s a song that many hear as a love song, and it is, albeit one burdened by great loss.

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What is the song about? To whom was Gates referring? And what inspired him to write it? Let’s take a look back at all the nooks and crannies of “Everything I Own,” from its creation to its meaning.

A Band at a Peak

You think your band is having a good year? Well, compare it to what Bread did in 1972. In that single calendar year, they released a pair of studio albums that contained six Top 20 singles. That included “Everything I Own,” which appeared on the first of those ’72 albums (Baby I’m-A Want You) and went to No. 5 on the pop charts.

That year was the culmination of the band’s ascent. Gates had knocked around in the ‘60s both writing for other artists and attempting some solo singles. Bread formed when Gates joined fellow songwriter/multi-instrumentalists James Griffin and Robb Royer. Their first album did little, but the No. 1 hit “It Don’t Matter to Me” rocketed them into prominence in 1970, and the hits just kept coming from there for the next few years.

By the time of “Everything I Own,” Larry Knechtel had replaced Royer in the band, and he delivered a key component to the song by playing the lovely harpsichord part that gives the song a bit of a flourish. Gates comes through with an emotional vocal, one that wanders into his falsetto into the verses before dropping back into more authoritative tones for the emotional refrain.

A Tribute to Dad

It’s common for folks to hear “Everything I Own” as a kind of testament to what one would do to be with their significant other. Perhaps that’s why it’s been such sturdy cover material. In the United Kingdom, it’s been taken to No. 1 by both reggae singer Ken Boothe and Boy George of Culture Club fame.

Yet Gates didn’t have romance in mind when he wrote the song. Gates’ father had passed away right as his music career was beginning. And, as he told The Guardian, “Everything I Own” was his way of paying tribute to his father and the powerful influence he exerted:

“My father died in 1963 and I wanted to write a song in memory of him. He did live to see some of my early progress towards success, but not the major songs or stardom with Bread. As with all my songs, the music led and the words tried to keep up, but they came pretty quickly. I wrote the lyrics—‘I would give everything I own just to have you back again’—so that they could be interpreted as a love song, but when I played it for my wife, she knew right away that it was about my father. She cried.”

What is the Meaning of “Everything I Own”?

As Gates explained in the quote above, he managed to keep the emotional content of “Everything I Own” general enough so that it could apply to all types of relationships. He doesn’t mince words (You gave my life to me / Set me free, set me free), but he also shows a little playfulness with the language to keep things from getting too somber (You taught me how to love / What it’s of, what it’s of).

Gates does a wonderful job of finding unique ways to express the loss: Nobody else could ever know / The part of me that can’t let go. In the bridge, any pretense that this is somehow a song about a still-ongoing love affair drops when Gates gives advice to his audience about telling people you love them while you can: You may lose them one day / Someone takes them away / And they don’t hear the words you long to say.

At that point, “Everything I Own” goes charging back into the chorus, Gates explaining what he would do just to have you back again. That the song works as both love poem and eulogy is testament to what the songwriter accomplished on this, one of Bread’s surest emotional shots.

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Photo by Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

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