The “quiet Beatle” took his inner conflict between fame and privacy, secular and sacred, and turned it into a huge body of work.
George Harrison’s rich inner life yielded a prolific oeuvre that introduced the Western world to Eastern musical and spiritual influences.
George Harrison was known as the quiet Beatle, and he was also the quietest ex-Beatle.
His was not the way of the rock star, as he neither courted nor relished fame. Yet his seeming diffidence was deceptive, as he left behind an impressive legacy as a solo artist. Harrison’s 11 studio albums (not counting best-of’s) include the masterful All Things Must Pass (1970) and a memorable late-career milestone, Cloud Nine (1987). He was the first Beatle to tour the U.S. as a solo artist and also launched his own label (Dark Horse Records). Most important, Harrison wrote and sang about spirituality and transcendence. He immersed himself in Indian music at Beatlemania’s height and became a lifelong devotee of Hindu religion, Krishna consciousness and Vedic philosophy.
In hindsight, Harrison’s albums lay bare his conflicted sensibilities: real-world engagement vs. spiritual retreat and popular artist vs. private recluse. He titled one of his best-selling albums Living in the Material World (1973), and that summed up his quandary. Harrison forthrightly addressed weighty matters on record while making his ruminations appealing as popular music as well. Incorporating spirituality into popular music was not an easy thing to do, and it won him the respect of fans and colleagues. Derek Taylor, the Beatles’ publicist and a longtime friend, called him “the boldest man I ever met.”
Born in Liverpool in 1943, Harrison joined the Quarry Men, which included John Lennon and Paul McCartney, as lead guitarist at age 15. When they changed their name to the Beatles in 1960, he was only 17. Harrison’s influences ran to rockabilly heroes like Carl Perkins and British skiffle legend Lonnie Donegan. His retooled rockabilly licks were key to the Beatles’ early sound, while his sharp, innovative lead guitar was essential to later recordings. During the Beatles’ tenure, he introduced Western ears to Indian music. Harrison first played the sitar on Norwegian Wood (1965) and then unleashed a full-blown sitar showcase, “Within You Without You,” on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967). When Delaney Bramlett (of Delaney & Bonnie) introduced Harrison to slide guitar in 1968, he became a leading exponent of that style.
Harrison wrote some of the Beatles’ best-loved songs, including “If I Needed Someone,” “Taxman,” “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” “Something,” “Here Comes the Sun” and “I Me Mine.” He also figured prominently in the group’s decision to abandon live performances, where they were routinely drowned out by screams, and instead devote their time to the recording studio. Of life with the Beatles, he pithily remarked, “We met everyone in the world and never had a moment’s peace.” Harrison stormed out of sessions for Let It Be in 1969. Although he would return, he regarded the glare of fame as a Beatle with wary disdain. “They used us as an excuse to go mad, the world did,” he said in The Beatles Anthology, “and then blamed it on us.” In 1969, Harrison purchased a sprawling rural estate known as Friar Park, and it became his refuge from the world.
Soon after the Beatles’ breakup in 1970, Harrison released All Things Must Pass. It was his first true solo album (not counting Wonderwall Music, 1968, and Electronic Sound, 1969, experimental releases from the Beatles era). Harrison’s songwriting talent, largely kept under wraps in the Beatles, poured forth on the three-disc set, which contained two albums of songs and one of jams. Harrison’s spiritually slanted tunes were given the full “Wall of Sound” treatment by producer Phil Spector. Standout tracks include “Isn’t It a Pity,” “Beware of Darkness,” “What Is Life” and “My Sweet Lord.” Rolling Stone hailed the album as “Wagnerian, Brucknerian, the music of mountaintops and vast horizons.” Both All Things Must Pass and “My Sweet Lord” went to Number One. (Noting the resemblance of “My Sweet Lord” to “He’s So Fine,” by the Chiffons, the latter’s publisher sued Harrison, who was ultimately found guilty of “unconscious plagiarism.”) Re-released in 2002 on CD with bonus tracks and a new version of “My Sweet Lord,” All Things Must Pass remains among the most esteemed of all Beatles solo works.
Harrison’s next masterstroke was The Concert for Bangladesh, rock’s first large-scale benefit concert, organized to raise awareness and money for war-torn Bangladesh. Held on August 1, 1971, at Madison Square Garden, the star-studded affair included Bob Dylan, Leon Russell, Eric Clapton and Harrison’s Indian-music mentor, Ravi Shankar. Proceeds from the concert, soundtrack album and documentary film were earmarked for the United Nations Children’s Fund for Relief to Refugee Children of Bangladesh. It became a model for rock-benefit projects from Live Aid to The Concert for New York City. Over time, Harrison’s donations to UNICEF for Bangladesh from concert, film and album proceeds totaled more than $13 million.
Living in the Material World (1973), a single album, topped the album chart for five weeks and contained the Number One single ”Give Me Love (Give Me Peace On Earth),” as well as Harrison’s biting commentary on the Beatles’ ongoing legal travails, “Sue Me, Sue You Blues.” The next year Harrison launched Dark Horse, a record label (distributed by A&M) that would release albums by himself and others, including Ravi Shankar and Splinter. His ambitions were modest. “I want it to be reasonably small,” he said. By calling his new album and label Dark Horse, Harrison was implicitly stating that the Beatles’ dark horse—“The one that nobody’s bothered to put any money on,” said Harrison—was coming in a winner. Dark Horse charted highly, reaching Number Four, yet received lukewarm reviews. The North American tour that followed (the first stateside concerts by an ex-Beatle) proved problematic because Harrison had strained his voice in rehearsals. Another unremarkable album, Extra Texture (Read All About It), appeared in 1975.
Harrison rebounded with Thirty-three & 1/3 (1976), highlighted by “This Song” (Number Twenty-Five), a wry retort to the “My Sweet Lord” lawsuit, and “Crackerbox Palace” (Number Nineteen), a paean to his beloved Friar Park. During the three-year hiatus from recording that followed, Harrison divorced his first wife, Patti (who subsequently wed his close friend Eric Clapton), and married Olivia Trinidad Arias, with whom he would spend the rest of his life. He also launched HandMade Films, a production company that debuted with Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979). Over the next 11 years, HandMade released 27 movies, including Time Bandits (1981) and Mona Lisa (1986). Harrison greatly savored the television film All You Need Is Cash, a mock-documentary Beatles parody featuring the Rutles.
Harrison’s next solo album, George Harrison (1979), contained several of his loveliest songs, including “Blow Away” (Number Sixteen) and “Here Comes the Moon.” Next came Somewhere in England (1981), notable for “All Those Years Ago” (Number Two), written after John Lennon’s murder. With backing vocals from Paul and Linda McCartney and drumming by Ringo Starr, it became a sizable hit. The laid-back Gone Troppo appeared in 1982, and then Harrison didn’t record for another five years.
Keeping to himself for much of the Eighties, Harrison laid low at homes in England and Maui while pursuing such hobbies as Formula One car racing and gardening. He re-emerged in 1987 with Cloud Nine, a spirited comeback. “We used real guitars, real keyboards, real drums and real people playing real songs,” he noted wryly. Co-produced by Jeff Lynne of Electric Light Orchestra, Cloud Nine was Harrison’s most Beatles-esque solo record. Harrison had softened in his attitude toward the Beatles, as evidenced by the comically poignant “When We Was Fab.” The album yielded Harrison’s third Number One hit, “Got My Mind Set On You,” an infectious soul remake.
Harrison’s next project was the Traveling Wilburys, a low-key supergroup consisting of Harrison, Lynne, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty and Roy Orbison. It was Harrison’s first band since the Beatles. Their low-key albums—Volume One (1988) and Vol. 3 (1990)—were as pleasurable as they were unexpected. In 1992, Harrison undertook a tour of Japan (his first since the Dark Horse debacle 18 years earlier) with Eric Clapton and his band. The two-disc set Live in Japan was released in June of 1992. At the time he enthused, “Maybe it’s time to do some playing in England and Europe…maybe eventually even America.” But that would not come to pass.
The last 10 years of Harrison’s life were largely lived out of the limelight. In I Me Mine, a book of lyrics with autobiographical notes, Harrison wrote, “I’m really quite simple. I don’t want to be in the business full time because I’m a gardener. I plant flowers and watch them grow. I don’t go out to clubs and partying. I stay at home and watch the river flow.”
In 2000, All Things Must Pass was reissued in a two-CD box under Harrison’s auspices. He re-recorded its most famous track as “My Sweet Lord (2000)” and added several bonus tracks, as well as candid notes: “It’s been 30 years since All Things Must Pass was recorded…All these years later I would like to liberate some of the songs from the big production that seemed appropriate at the time, but now seem a bit over the top with the reverb in the wall of sound. Still, it was an important album for me and a timely vehicle for all the songs I’d been writing during the last period with the Beatles.”
He also worked on his final solo album, Brainwashed, up until his death. Brainwashed, co-produced by son Dhani Harrison and Jeff Lynne, was released posthumously in 2002. He wrote one last song, a philosophical summing-up entitled “Horse to the Water,” that appeared on British keyboardist Jools Holland’s Small World Big Band (2001). It’s somehow fitting that the quiet Beatle got in a final word before departing the material world.
George Harrison died of lung cancer on November 29, 2001, at a friend’s home in Los Angeles. He was 58 years old. Exactly a year later, Eric Clapton and Olivia Harrison organized The Concert for George—a tribute performance that involved the remaining ex-Beatles, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, as well as concert supervisor Clapton, Jeff Lynne, Tom Petty and Ravi Shankar. Proceeds went to Harrison’s Material World Charitable Foundation, which he’d founded back in 1973.
Inductee: George Harrison (guitar, vocals; born February 25, 1943, died November 29, 2001)