George Harrison MBE (February 25, 1943 – November 29, 2001) was a popular British songwriter, musician and film producer best known as a member of the Beatles. According to Harrison, his birthday was really February 24. His sister has said that their mother wrote in her diary that he was born ten minutes after midnight on February 25.
Harrison married twice. His first wife was the model, Pattie Boyd, for whom Harrison is sometimes supposed to have written the song ‘Something.’ Following their divorce, Boyd married Eric Clapton (said to have written ‘Layla’ for her after their earlier affair). Harrison married for a second time to Olivia Trinidad Arias, in September 1978. The ceremony took place at their home, with Joe Brown acting as best man. They had one son, Dhani Harrison, born the previous month.
Born in Liverpool, England, and raised as a child at 12 Arnold Grove, he first attended school at Dovedale Infants, just off Penny Lane. Later on, he attended the Liverpool Institute, a ‘smart school’, but was regarded as a poor student, and contemporaries described him as someone who would ‘sit alone in the corner’. In the mid-1950s he met Paul McCartney (also a Liverpool Institute student) and later played lead guitar in the band (initially called the Quarry Men) that eventually became the Beatles.
At the height of the Beatles’ popularity, he was often characterized as the ‘Quiet Beatle’, noted for his introspective manner and his growing interest in Hinduism. In the mid 1960s he began playing the sitar, which influenced the sound of the Beatles’ music in such songs as ‘Norwegian Wood,’ ‘Love You To‘, and ‘Within You Without You‘. His experimentation with the instrument brought him into contact with the sitar virtuoso Ravi Shankar, who became a close friend and mentor.
It was his meeting with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi that led him first into meditation. In the summer of 1969, the Beatles produced the single ‘Hare Krishna Mantra’, performed by Harrison and the devotees of the London Radha-Krishna Temple that topped the 10 best-selling record charts throughout UK, Europe, and Asia. The same year, he and fellow Beatle John Lennon met Swami Prabhupada A.C. Bhaktivedanta, the founder of the Hindu sect International Society for Krishna Consciousness. Soon after, Harrison embraced the Hare Krishna tradition and remained associated with them until his death. While, during his lifetime, Harrison had bequeathed to the society his Lethmore Heath ranch, located north of London, he redoubted speculations that he would leave ISKCON a large sum in his will: in fact, he left nothing to the organization.
Role in The Beatles
Harrison was a fluent, inventive and highly accomplished rhythm and lead guitarist, whose influences included Chuck Berry, Carl Perkins and Chet Atkins. Although he was a highly creative soloist, several of his famous Beatles guitar solos were recorded under specific directions from Paul McCartney, who on occasion demanded that Harrison play what he envisioned virtually note-for-note.
A turning point in Harrison’s career came during an American tour in 1965, when his friend David Crosby of The Byrds introduced him to Indian classical music and the work of sitar maestro Ravi Shankar. Harrison quickly became fascinated with the sitar, immersed himself in Indian music and was instrumental in popularising the sitar in particular and Indian music in general in the West. He travelled to India to take lessons from Shankar, bought a sitar himself, and became the first western popular musician to use one on a recording (Norwegian Wood). He championed Shankar with western audiences and was largely responsible for having him included on the bill at the Monterey International Pop Festival in June 1967.
Harrison and Lennon were the first two of the Beatles to try LSD in 1965, when they were unwittingly ‘dosed’ by their dentist at a party in London. For a short time Harrison used the drug regularly and became an enthusiastic advocate, although he later renounced the use of drugs.
Harrison formed a close friendship with Eric Clapton in the late 1960s and they co-wrote the song Badge, which was released on Cream’s farewell album in 1969. This song was the basis for Harrison’s composition for The Beatles’ Abbey Road album, Here Comes The Sun, which was written in Clapton’s back garden. Harrison married model Pattie Boyd in 1966, but in the late 1960s Clapton fell in love with her. Clapton famously poured out his unrequited passion on the landmark Derek & the Dominoes album Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs (1971), but soon after its release Boyd left her husband and she and Clapton subsequently married. Despite this, the two men remained close friends.
Friction between Harrison and McCartney increased markedly during the recording of The White Album, with Harrison threatening to leave the group on several occasions. Harrison’s use of his friend Eric Clapton as the soloist on While My Guitar Gently Weeps is said to have been partly intended as a riposte to Lennon’s offhand suggestion that they could hire Clapton to complete the album in Harrison’s place if he quit. The tension between Harrison and McCartney can be clearly seen in several scenes in the Let It Be documentary film and relations became so strained during the making of the film that Harrison briefly quit the band.
While not the primary composer in the group (Lennon and McCartney wrote the vast bulk of the Beatles’ material), as time went on Harrison’s songwriting improved greatly and his material gradually earned respect from both his fellow Beatles and the public. By the mid-Sixties Lennon and McCartney had become somewhat more accepting of his contributions, although he later said that he always had difficulty getting his songs recorded and only managed to get one or two included on each LP.
Notable Harrison compositions from the Beatles’ oeuvre include: the intricate ‘If I Needed Someone’; ‘I Want To Tell You’; the Indian-influenced ‘Love You To’; the acerbic ‘Taxman’ (later referenced in The Jam’s ‘Start’); the much-maligned ‘Within You, Without You’, which is arguably a foundation stone of the world music genre; ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’, which was strongly influenced by the music of his friend Roy Orbison and featured a guitar solo by his close friend Eric Clapton; ‘Piggies’, which later featured inadvertently in the notorious Charles Manson murder case.
‘Here Comes the Sun’ and ‘Something’ are probably his two best-known Beatles songs. ‘Something’ is considered one of his very best works, and was even covered by Frank Sinatra. His increasing productivity, coupled with his difficulties in getting The Beatles to record his music, meant that by the end of the group’s career he had amassed a considerable stockpile of unreleased material.
After the Beatles split in 1970, Harrison released a number of albums that were critically and commercially successful, both as solo projects and as a member of other groups. After years of being limited in his contributions to the Beatles, he released a large number of the songs he had stockpiled in the first major solo work released after the breakup, All Things Must Pass, the first triple album in rock history. It included the number one hit single ‘My Sweet Lord’, although Harrison was later sued for copyright infringement over the supposed similarities to the 1963 Chiffons single ‘He’s So Fine’. Harrison denied deliberately stealing the song, but he did lose the case in 1976; in the ruling, the court accepted the possibility that Harrison had ‘unconsciously plagiarised’ the Chiffons song as the basis for his own song.
Harrison was probably the first modern musician to organize a major charity concert. His Concert for Bangladesh on August 1, 1971, drew over 40,000 people to two shows in New York’s Madison Square Garden with the intention of aiding the starving refugees from the war in Bangladesh. Classical sitar maestro Ravi Shankar opened the proceedings, which included other popular musicians such as Bob Dylan (in a surprise rare live appearance), Leon Russell, Eric Clapton, Badfinger and Billy Preston. Sadly, however, the concert actually lost money due to expenses.
In addition to his own works, during this time Harrison wrote or produced several hits for Ringo Starr and also appeared on tracks by John Lennon.
Harrison’s next album was Living in the Material World in 1973. ‘Give Me Love’ was a big hit, and ‘Sue Me Sue You Blues’ was a window into the former Beatles’ miserable legal travails, but overall the record was seen as too overtly religious. In 1974 Harrison released Dark Horse and at the same time launched a major tour of the United States. The album was not received well, despite the occasional gem such as ‘So Sad’, and the tour got poor notices due to excessive preachiness and Harrison’s voice being hoarse.
Harrison continued to issue records throughout the rest of the 1970s. The most successful was Thirty Three & 1/3, which was lighter in tone and featured the hits ‘This Song’ (a satire of the ‘My Sweet Lord’ ruling) and the humourous, surrealistic ‘Crackerbox Palace’ (perhaps reflecting his association with members of Monty Python).
Harrsion had formed his own record label, Dark Horse Records, in 1974 and issued a limited number of records by performers such as Splinter, Attitudes and Ravi Shankar. He moved his own output to the label in 1976, once his contract with EMI finished.
Immediately following the murder of his friend and former bandmate John Lennon, Harrison modified the lyrics of a song he had written for Ringo Starr to make it a tribute song to Lennon, ‘All Those Years Ago’, which found substantial radio airplay and continues to be a staple of ‘classic rock’ radio. All the three ex-Beatles performed on it, marking the first time since the break-up in 1970 that the three appeared on one record, although it was expressly a Harrison single. But he released no records for five years after Gone Troppo in 1982 was met with apparent indifference. He returned in 1987 with the album Cloud Nine, co-produced with Jeff Lynne, and enjoyed a hit (#1 in the U.S.; #2 in the U.K) when his cover version of ‘Got My Mind Set On You’ was released as a single. The album got to #8.
During the 1980s, he helped form the Traveling Wilburys with Roy Orbison, Jeff Lynne, Bob Dylan, and Tom Petty when they gathered in Dylan’s garage to quickly record an additional track for a projected Harrison European single release. The record company realised the track (‘Handle With Care’) was too good for its original purpose and asked for a separate album. This had to be completed inside 2 weeks, as Dylan was scheduled to start a tour. Released in October of 1988, under various pseudonyms as half-brothers, supposed sons of Charles Truscott Wilbury, Sr., their album was immediately dubbed as one of the top 100 albums of all time by Rolling Stone magazine.
One of Harrison’s most successful ventures during this period was his involvement in film production through his company Handmade Films. Since childhood The Beatles had been fans of the anarchic humour of The Goons, and Harrison became a dedicated fan of their successors, the Monty Python team. He provided financial backing for the Python film The Life of Brian after the original backers (EMI Films) withdrew, fearing the subject matter of the film was too controversial. Other films produced by Handmade included Mona Lisa, Time Bandits, Shanghai Surprise and Withnail and I. He made several cameo appearances in these movies, including appearing as a nightclub singer in Shanghai Surprise, and as Mr. Papadopolous in Life of Brian. One of his most memorable cameos was in the cult Beatles parody The Rutles, created by ex-Python Eric Idle.
In 1991 Harrison staged a tour of Japan along with his friend Eric Clapton. It was his first tour since the ill-fated 1974 U.S. tour, and although he seemed to enjoy it more there were to be no others. The Live in Japan recording came from these shows.
Throughout the 1990s, Harrison, a former smoker, endured an ongoing battle with cancer, having growths removed first from his throat, then his lung. There was also a December 30, 1999 attempt on his life by a crazed fan, 35 year-old Michael Abram, who broke into his home, Friar Park in Henley-on-Thames, and stabbed him multiple times, puncturing his lung. Harrison and his wife fought the intruder and detained him for the police. Abram, who believed he was possessed by Harrison and was on a ‘mission from God’ to kill him, was later acquitted on grounds of insanity.
George died at the home of a friend in Los Angeles, California on Thursday, November 29, 2001, at the age of 58. His death was ascribed to lung cancer that had metastasized to the brain. He was cremated, and although it was widely reported that his ashes were scattered in the River Ganges, the ceremony was not conducted at the expected time The actual disposition of the ashes has not been publicly disclosed.
After his death, the Harrison family released the following statement: ‘He left this world as he lived in it: conscious of God, fearless of death and at peace, surrounded by family and friends. He often said: ‘Everything else can wait but the search of God can’t wait, and love one another”.
His final album, Brainwashed, was completed by Dhani Harrison and Jeff Lynne and released in November 2002.
On November 29, 2002, the first anniversary of his death, the Concert For George saw the two remaining Beatles Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr join many of Harrison’s friends for a special memorial concert at the Royal Albert Hall in London that benefitted the Material World Charitable Foundation. Ravi Shankar’s daughter Anoushka Shankar joined Jeff Lynne in a performance of ‘The Inner Light,’ Clapton and Lynne performed ‘I Want To Tell You’ and ‘If I Needed Someone,’ Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers (with Jools Holland and Sam Brown) performed ‘Taxman’ and ‘I Need You,’ Starr performed ‘Photograph’, members of Monty Python (Michael Palin, Terry Jones, Eric Idle and Terry Gilliam) performed ‘The Lumberjack Song,’ and McCartney and Starr performed ‘For You Blue’. For the finale, all of the artists went back on stage to end with ‘Something,’ ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps,’ ‘My Sweet Lord’ (with Billy Preston on keyboards) and ‘Wah-Wah’. Joe Brown concluded with the Gus Kahn/Isham Jones classic ‘I’ll See You In My Dreams’.
George Harrison and Aaliyah Haughton made UK Chart History when they scored the first, and to this date only, back to back posthumous number one hits when Aaliyah’s ‘More than a Woman’ (Released on 07 January 2002 and topped the chart on 13 January 2002) was followed by George’s ‘My Sweet Lord’ (Re-released on 14 January 2002 and topped the chart on 20 January 2002).
Harrison was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on March 15, 2004.
Wonderwall Music (Film Soundtrack, 1968)
Electronic Sound (1969)
All Things Must Pass (1970, remastered 2001)
Living in the Material World (1973)
Dark Horse (1974)
Extra Texture (1975)
Thirty Three & 1/3 (1976, remastered 2004)
George Harrison (1979, remastered 2004)
Somewhere in England (1981, remastered 2004)
Gone Troppo (1982, remastered 2004)
Cloud Nine (1987, remastered 2004)
Traveling Wilburys, Volume 1 (1988)
Traveling Wilburys, Volume 3 (1990)
Live In Japan (1992, remastered 2004)