George Harrison: The Quiet Beatle

Harrison composed alone some of the band’s best songs

George Harrison: The Quiet Beatle

George Harrison’s life was cut short, but his influence in music can still be heard today, together with John Lennon, Harrison was the most daring of the four Beatles on what concerned experimenting with music. We look back at his life and career 17 years after his passing in 2001

Early Life and The Beatles

George Harrison was born on February 25th, 1943 in Liverpool, England. Harrison was the youngest of all The Beatles members. He became part of the Beatles at age 15 with McCartney and John Lennon when the band was still a skiffle group called the Quarrymen. In 1960, promoter Allan Williams arranged for the band, now calling themselves the Beatles, to play at the Kaiserkeller club in Hamburg owned by Bruno Koschmider. The impromptu musical education Harrison received while playing long hours with the Beatles, as well as the guitar lessons he took from Tony Sheridan while they briefly served as his backing group, laid the foundations of his sound and of his role within the group; he was later known as “the quiet Beatle”. The band’s first residency in Hamburg ended prematurely when Harrison was deported for being too young to work in nightclubs. Soon after returning to England, The Beatles became the biggest band in the world breaking records in sales everywhere helped by one of the first examples of a marketing strategy used on a Rock band. Though most of the songs were credited to Lennon and McCartney, Harrison was another great composer in the band. He developed an unique guitar style and technique which is very distinctive and recognizable, specially towards the mid 1960’s. Harrison also sung frequently lead vocals on Beatles songs such as “Do You Want To Know A Secret”, “Roll Over Beethoven”, ” I’m Happy Just To Dance With You”, “Think For Yourself”, ” Everybody’s Trying To Be My Baby”, “If I Needed Someone”, “Taxman”, “Love You To”, “I Want To Tell You”, “Old Brown Shoe”, “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”, “Only A Northern Song”, “It’s All Too Much”, “For You Blue”, “Something” and “Here Comes The Sun” among others. In 1965, on “Rubber Soul”, Harrison had begun to lead the other Beatles into folk rock through his interest in the Byrds and Bob Dylan, and towards Indian classical music through his use of the sitar on “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)”. He later called “Rubber Soul” his “favorite Beatles album”. His songwriting talent developed even more on the 1966 album “Revolver” which included three of his compositions: “Taxman”, “Love You To” and “I Want to Tell You”. His introduction of the drone-like tambura part on Lennon’s “Tomorrow Never Knows” exemplified the band’s ongoing exploration of non-Western instruments. The tabla-driven “Love You To” was the Beatles’ first genuine foray into Indian music. By late 1966, Harrison’s interests had moved away from the Beatles. This was reflected in his choice of Eastern gurus and religious leaders for inclusion on the album cover for “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” in 1967. His sole composition on the album was the Indian-inspired “Within You Without You”, to which no other Beatle contributed. In 1968 his song “The Inner Light” was recorded at EMI’s studio in Bombay, featuring a group of local musicians playing traditional Indian instruments. Released as the B-side to McCartney’s “Lady Madonna”, it was the first Harrison composition to appear on a Beatles single.Harrison’s songwriting contributions to the 1968 double album “The Beatles” included “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”, which featured Eric Clapton on lead guitar, “Piggies”, “Long, Long, Long” and “Savoy Truffle”. The Beatles final recorded album, “Abbey Road”. included two of Harrison’s most respected Beatles compositions: “Here Comes the Sun” and “Something”,  Harrison’s first A-Side single with The Beatles. Lennon considered “Something” it the best song on “Abbey Road”, and it became the Beatles’ second most covered song after “Yesterday”. In April 1970 when Harrison’s “For You Blue” was released in America as a double A-side with McCartney’s “The Long and Winding Road”, it became the band’s second chart-topping double A-side and “For You Blue” became Harrison’s second number one hit with the band.

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All Things Must Pass: Solo Career

Before the Beatles’break-up in 1970, Harrison had already recorded and released two solo albums: “Wonderwall Music” and “Electronic Sound”, both of which contain mainly instrumental and experimental compositions. “Wonderwall Music”, a soundtrack to the 1968 film “Wonderwall”, blends Indian and Western instrumentation, while “Electronic Sound” is an experimental album that prominently features a Moog synthesizer. For many years, Harrison was restricted in his songwriting contributions to the Beatles’ albums, but in 1970 he released “All Things Must Pass”, a triple album with two discs of his songs and the third of recordings of Harrison jamming with friends. The album was regarded by many as his best work, and it topped the charts on both sides of the Atlantic. The LP produced the number-one hit single “My Sweet Lord” and the top-ten single “What Is Life”. The album was co-produced by Phil Spector using his “Wall of Sound” approach, and the musicians included Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton, Gary Wright, Bill Preston, Klaus Voormann, the whole of Delaney and Bonnie’s Friends band and the Apple group Badfinger. By then all four Beatles were following solo careers. In 1971 Harrison responded to a request from Ravi Shankar by organizing a charity event, the Concert for Bangladesh, which took place on the 1st of August, 1971. The event drew over 40,000 people to two shows in New York’s Madison Square Garden. The goal of the event was to raise money to aid starving refugees during the Bangladesh Liberation War. Harrison would never again release an album that matched the critical and commercial achievements of “All Things Must Pass”, however, his next solo album, 1973’s “Living in the Material World”, held the number one spot on the Billboard album chart for five weeks, and the album’s single, “Give Me Love (Give Me Peace on Earth)”, also reached number one in the US.In November 1974, Harrison became the first ex-Beatle to tour North America when he began his 45-date “Dark Horse Tour”. During the remaining of the 1970’s, Harrison remained an active and influential presence in music, he often collaborated with other artists as well as with his former band mates, including John Lennon. In 1987 Harrison released “Cloud Nine”, the LP included Harrison’s rendition of James Ray’s “Got My Mind Set on You”, which became a worldwide hit and went to number one in the US and number two in the UK. The accompanying music video received substantial airplay, and another single, “When We Was Fab”, a retrospective of the Beatles’ career, earned two MTV Music Video Awards nominations in 1988.  The same year Harrison formed the supergroup Traveling Wilburys with Jeff Lynne, Roy Orbison, Bob Dylan and Tom Petty. The LP, “Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1”, was released in October 1988 and recorded under pseudonyms as half-brothers, supposed sons of Charles Truscott Wilbury Sr. .Harrison’s pseudonym on the first album was “Nelson Wilbury”; he used the name “Spike Wilbury” for their second album. After Orbison’s death in December 1988 the group recorded as a four-piece. Their second release, issued in October 1990, was mischievously titled “Traveling Wilburys Vol. 3!. According to Lynne, “That was George’s idea. In 1994 Harrison began a collaboration with McCartney, Starr and producer Jeff Lynne for the Beatles Anthology project. This included the recording of two new Beatles songs built around solo vocal and piano tapes recorded by Lennon as well as lengthy interviews about the Beatles’ career. Released in December 1995, “Free as a Bird” was the first new Beatles single since 1970. In March 1996, they released a second single, “Real Love”. Harrison refused to participate in the completion of a third song. He later commented on the project: “I hope somebody does this to all my crap demos when I’m dead, make them into hit songs.”Following the Anthology project, Harrison collaborated with Ravi Shankar on the latter’s “Chants of India”, his final television appearance was a VH-1 special to promote the album, taped in May 1997. In 1997, Harrison was diagnosed with throat cancer; he was treated with radiotherapy, which was thought at the time to be successful. In May 2001, it was revealed that Harrison had undergone an operation to remove a cancerous growth from one of his lungs, and in July, it was reported that he was being treated for a brain tumor at a clinic in Switzerland. On 12 November 2001 in New York, Harrison, Starr and McCartney came together for the last time. Less than three weeks later, on 29 November 2001, Harrison died at a friend’s home in Los Angeles, aged 58. He was cremated at Hollywood Forever Cemetery and his funeral was held at the Self-Realization Fellowship Lake Shrine in Pacific Palisades, California. His close family scattered his ashes according to Hindu tradition in a private ceremony in the Ganges and Yamuna rivers near Varanasi, India.supergroup Traveling Wilburys with Jeff Lynne, Roy Orbison, Bob Dylan and Tom Petty. The LP, “Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1”, was released in October 1988 and recorded under pseudonyms as half-brothers, supposed sons of Charles Truscott Wilbury Sr. .Harrison’s pseudonym on the first album was “Nelson Wilbury”; he used the name “Spike Wilbury” for their second album. After Orbison’s death in December 1988 the group recorded as a four-piece. Their second release, issued in October 1990, was mischievously titled “Traveling Wilburys Vol. 3!. According to Lynne, “That was George’s idea. In 1994 Harrison began a collaboration with McCartney, Starr and producer Jeff Lynne for the Beatles Anthology project. This included the recording of two new Beatles songs built around solo vocal and piano tapes recorded by Lennon as well as lengthy interviews about the Beatles’ career. Released in December 1995, “Free as a Bird” was the first new Beatles single since 1970. In March 1996, they released a second single, “Real Love”. Harrison refused to participate in the completion of a third song. He later commented on the project: “I hope somebody does this to all my crap demos when I’m dead, make them into hit songs.”Following the Anthology project, Harrison collaborated with Ravi Shankar on the latter’s “Chants of India”, his final television appearance was a VH-1 special to promote the album, taped in May 1997. In 1997, Harrison was diagnosed with throat cancer; he was treated with radiotherapy, which was thought at the time to be successful. In May 2001, it was revealed that Harrison had undergone an operation to remove a cancerous growth from one of his lungs, and in July, it was reported that he was being treated for a brain tumor at a clinic in Switzerland. On 12 November 2001 in New York, Harrison, Starr and McCartney came together for the last time. Less than three weeks later, on 29 November 2001, Harrison died at a friend’s home in Los Angeles, aged 58. He was cremated at Hollywood Forever Cemetery and his funeral was held at the Self-Realization Fellowship Lake Shrine in Pacific Palisades, California. His close family scattered his ashes according to Hindu tradition in a private ceremony in the Ganges and Yamuna rivers near Varanasi, India.

Legacy and Influence

In 2002, on the first anniversary of his death, the Concert for George was held at the Royal Albert Hall. Clapton organised the event, which included performances by many of Harrison’s friends and musical collaborators, including McCartney and Starr.Eric Idle, who described Harrison as “one of the few morally good people that rock and roll has produced”, performed Monty Python’s “Lumberjack Song”. The profits from the concert went to Harrison’s charity, the Material World Charitable Foundation. In 2004, Harrison was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a solo artist by his former bandmates Lynne and Petty, and into the Madison Square Garden Walk of Fame in 2006 for the Concert for Bangladesh. On 14 April 2009, the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce awarded Harrison a star on the Walk of Fame in front of the Capitol Records Building. McCartney, Lynne and Petty were present when the star was unveiled. Harrison’s widow Olivia, the actor Tom Hanks and Idle made speeches at the ceremony, and Harrison’s son Dhani spoke the Hare Krishna mantra. A documentary film entitled “George Harrison: Living in the Material World”, directed by Martin Scorsese, was released in October 2011. The film features interviews with Olivia and Dhani Harrison, Klaus Voormann, Terry Gilliam, Starr, Clapton,McCartney, Keltner and Astrid Kirchherr. Harrison was posthumously honored with The Recording Academy’s Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award at the Grammy Awards in February 2015.

George Harrison’s influence in music can still be heard today, together with John Lennon, he was the most daring of the four Beatles on what concerned experimenting with music, he introduced and brought many new music forms and styles from the East to the Western mainstream, leaving us one of the richest legacies in music, diverse and carefully composed.

Watch George Harrison performing “My Sweet Lord” live at The Concert For Bangladesh, New York 1971

Listen to some of the best George Harrison songs with The Beatles and solo compiled by Pop Expresso on Spotify

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