Saturday (February 25th) would have been George Harrison’s 69th birthday. Harrison, the first of the Beatles to embrace Eastern philosophies and culture, will also be remembered for his humanitarian efforts, such as his 1971 Concert For Bangladesh for famine relief. Harrison died of cancer in 2001 at the age of 58.
Harrison wrote such Beatles classics as “Don’t Bother Me,” “I Need You,” “Think For Yourself,” “If I Needed Someone,” “Taxman,” “I Want To Tell You,” “Within You, Without You,” “Blue Jay Way,” “It’s Only A Northern Song,” “It’s All Too Much,” “The Inner Light,” “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” “Piggies” “I Me Mine,” “For You Blue,” “Old Brown Shoe,” “Something,” and “Here Comes The Sun,” among others.
Other solo hits included “What Is Life,” “Bangla Desh,” “Give Me Love (Give Me Peace On Earth),” “Dark Horse,” “You,” “This Song,” “Crackerbox Palace,” “Blow Away,” “All Those Years Ago,” and his 1987 comeback single “Got My Mind Set On You,” which is the last solo Number One single by any former Beatle to date.
In 1971, Harrison produced Ringo Starr’s initial solo singles “It Don’t Come Easy” and “Back Off Boogaloo,” as well also co-writing Starr’s first Number One hit “Photograph” with him in 1973. In 1974, Harrison became the first solo Beatle to tour North America.
Shortly after his return to the spotlight in 1987, Harrison co-founded the supergroup the Traveling Wilburys with Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, Jeff Lynne and Tom Petty. In 1991 he undertook a brief tour of Japan with Eric Clapton and his band.
His widow Olivia Harrison has lead a successful reissue campaign of the Harrison solo catalog, including a recent box set of the Traveling Wilburys material. A future collection featuring highlights of Harrison’s sole North American solo tour from 1974 is said to be in the works for the near future.
Olivia co-produced last year’s Martin Scorsese-directed documentary, Living In The Material World. The three-and-a-half hour life-spanning film included interviews with Olivia and son Dhani Harrison, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, George Martin, Eric Clapton, first wife Pattie Boyd, Yoko Ono, Phil Spector, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Tom Petty, and Jackie Stewart, among others.
Although the deluxe DVD/Blu-ray version of the film — with the bonus CD of unreleased music — was released in Britain on October 10th; North American fans will unfortunately have to wait until the spring for a domestic release.
Olivia told us that George learned to balance his often hectic and surreal life through spirituality: “Y’know, he was a wild guy too. He was spiritual and he was living in the material world too. And whether he was bad or good or crabby or happy — whatever he was, he always tried to do it with a consciousness that would keep him safe.”
Harrison’s first wife, model and photographer Pattie Boyd, says that his infatuation with Hinduism, spiritual topics, and Indian music was his attempt to seek out the “bigger picture”: “He had a bit of difficulty understanding why he — this little boy from Liverpool — had been selected to be so famous. And he didn’t understand the fame and he thought that maybe Eastern philosophy could give him some sort of idea or clue as to why he had been chosen.”
Tom Petty credits George Harrison for teaching him how to play the ukulele during the 1988 sessions for the first Traveling Wilburys album: “Yeah, he taught me to play and gave me a ukulele years ago. And, of course, we were close friends for a lot of years, and we did a lot of ukulele playing. It was kinda fun. They’re really fun little things, which I, I never would’ve known if it weren’t for George. I’m still grateful that he taught me how to play it.”
George’s son Dhani Harrison says that ultimately he learned his way around the studio directly from his father: “Dad was very good at making records. And I spent a lot of time with him in the studio, and he was often just by himself. He didn’t really think of himself as a very good guitarist or singer even. He thought of himself as a better producer or record maker. And I spent a lot of time with, like, the (Traveling) Wilburys and stuff, and their philosophy was ‘get in a room with a microphone and hit something.’ Y’know?”
Joshua Greene, the author of Here Comes The Sun: The Spiritual And Musical Journey Of George Harrison, recorded with Harrison in 1970 while a part of the Krishna sect Radha Krishna Temple, and recalled how practical Harrison was in the recording studio: “We came in, he said hello to his friends, slapped a few old buddies on the back. Then he started laughing and yukking it up about people’s reactions to a rock group with shaved heads — because he was putting out these albums of Sanskrit mantras. Then he looked at his watch and said ‘Y’know, we better get started, this studio is costing us 40 pounds an hour.’ That was impressive. He might’ve been a Beatle, he might’ve been one of the richest, most successful guys around — but he was very practical.”
Graham Nash, who first saw the Beatles perform in 1959, became friends with Harrison and the “Fab Four” while touring with the Hollies in 1963. Nash regrets that he and Harrison never got to connect any further on a musical level: “I think it would have been easier earlier. I think both he and I got wrapped up in our respective band’s fame. Obviously the Beatles were way more famous than we were, and even trying to penetrate their scene was difficult. They were completely surrounded by people that handled them. They didn’t have time. It just never worked out. But I know that had George and I ever made music together, it would’ve been quite interesting because we’re very similar, and yet very different.”
Kiss’ Paul Stanley — a die-hard Beatles fan since he was 12-years-old, told us that Harrison’s influence and legacy should never underestimated: “Everybody knows that George Harrison is part of the fabric of rock n’ roll and he’s been an influence on everybody no matter what kind of music they play. Probably more so than they even know. He’s been an influence on every kind of music that exists at this point because the Beatles are woven into everything that rock n’ roll is about.”
Toto guitarist Steve Lukather developed a close friendship with Harrison in the early ’90s and recalled how easily a night out on the town would turn musical with the former Beatle: “He invites me out for dinner one night, and he’s a vegetarian, so he goes — ‘You know, a good Italian (restaurant)?’ — or something like that. He goes, ‘Yeah, I’m inviting a few friends out.’ And it’s (drummer) Jim Keltner, who’s a good friend of mine — so I said ‘Great!’ So, I show up and I say, ‘Wow, this is so cool.’ Then Bob Dylan walks in — then Jeff Lynne. And then the next thing you know there’s a jam up at Jeff Lynne’s house with Dylan playing bass, me and George Harrison on guitars, Jeff Lynne on keyboards, and Jim Keltner on drums. We’re just playing Beatles songs.”
After his 1999 stabbing by a delusional assailant from which he suffered a collapsed lung, among other injuries, in this clip featured in the new Living In The Material World documentary, Harrison spoke candidly about facing his own mortality: “I had an experience, where, y’know, if you have something happen to you physically, then people can go in hospital or have something wrong with them, or have a shock or something like that, and then you think, ‘Wow, yeah, I could be dying now.’ Now if I was dying now, what would I think? What would I miss? If I had to leave my body, y’know, in an hour’s time — what is it that I would miss? I think, ‘I’ve got a son who needs a father, I have to stick around for him as long as I can.’ But other than that, I can’t think of much reason to be here (laughs).” )
Dhani Harrison, is on the current cover of Guitar Aficionado as part of a piece in the magazine about the new George Harrison Guitar App, which gives a multi-dimensional and historic view of “The Quiet Beatle’s” famed instruments. Dhani recently got engaged to longtime girlfriend Solveig Karadottir, a former model — now psychologist. The couple is planning for a June wedding.