Given his membership in the most famous rock ‘n’ roll band of all time, there’s no point in attaching the word “obscurity” to any of the doings of former Beatle George Harrison (b. Feb. 24, 1943, Liverpool, England). While it’s true that the Fab Four may be most famous for the songs written and sung by John Lennon and Paul McCartney, Harrison’s contributions both as a guitarist and songwriter were integral parts of the band from its celebrated beginning–and a Beatles without George Harrison would have been unthinkable in every way. Proof? In the late ’80s, when performing rights group BMI handed out “Million-Airs” awards to songwriters whose specific works had received radio airplay exceeding 50,000 hours, only three Beatles songs could be found at or above the 4 million mark–signifying more than 22 years of continuous airplay. What were they? All-time winner “Yesterday” and “Michelle,” both by Lennon & McCartney, and “Something” by George Harrison–which, significantly, was a newer song by four years.
Onetime “Quiet Beatle” Harrison made his songwriting debut in 1963 with “Don’t Bother Me,” first available in the U.S. on 1964’s Meet The Beatles. “It took me a while to pluck up the courage,” Harrison told Billboard’s Timothy White in 1992, “because we’d already had a bunch of hits–‘Love Me Do,’ ‘Please Please Me,’ ‘From Me to You’–with Lennon & McCartney songs. They were getting what seemed like quite expert at it. I just had to try and write something that was acceptable that I wouldn’t get laughed out of the room with.” In fact, most of Harrison’s songs were anything but laughable; solidly constructed, often in minor keys not favored by Lennon & McCartney, they provided a valuable musical contrast that served to round out albums already brimming with brilliance. All told, the Beatles recorded 21 Harrison songs between 1963-70. Many are among the band’s best known, including “If I Needed Someone,” “Taxman,” “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” “Here Comes the Sun,” and, of course, “Something.”
Harrison’s pioneering incorporation of Indian music into the Beatles’ Western pop is well-documented; the most exotic songs in the Beatles’ canon were typically Harrison’s, including his “Within You Without You” from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and the B-side “The Inner Light.” Still another musical area where Harrison excelled–one that has gone relatively uncredited–was his knack for crafting superlative nuggets of ’60s psychedelia; both “It’s All Too Much” from Yellow Submarine and “Blue Jay Way” from Magical Mystery Tour are among the finest examples of the genre, their usage of droning sounds–perhaps inspired by his love of Indian music–still sounding very much ahead of its time.
The ever-esoteric Harrison was also the first Beatle to release a solo album. 1969’s Wonderwall Music was a well-crafted soundtrack of largely Indian-inspired instrumental music; its swift follow-up Electronic Sound was, as its name suggested, an uncommercial bit of early sonic exploration on the Moog synthesizer. What may be forgotten in the haze of time, however, is that of all the Beatles post-Fab Four solo albums, it was Harrison’s three-LP All Things Must Pass that was by far the most successful. Holding the No. 1 slot for a full seven weeks, the double-platinum seller was co-produced by Phil Spector and included three top 10 hits, including the dual-sided No. 1 “My Sweet Lord” b/w “Isn’t It A Pity” and “What Is Life.” (A major controversy eventually ensued over “My Sweet Lord” when parties representing the author of the Chiffons’ 1963 hit “He’s So Fine” sued Harrison for allegedly appropriating the tune; settled in 1976, the lawsuit reportedly cost Harrison close to a million dollars.)
Harrison’s involvement in the 1971 Concert For Bangla Desh–captured on vinyl and film–was another conspicuous success; the record won 1972’s Album of the Year Grammy, was No. 2 for six weeks, and was highlighted by guest appearances by Bob Dylan, Ringo Starr, and Eric Clapton, among others. By 1973, when Harrison returned with Living In The Material World, it looked like he could do no wrong. No. 1 for five weeks, the album had a substantial hit–the No. 1 “Give Me Love (Give Me Peace On Earth)”–and with such enjoyably wry songs as “Sue Me, Sue You Blues,” Harrison proved a witty chronicler well-deserving of extended solo success. But 1974’s Dark Horse did not bode well for him: While the album slid into the top 5 and went gold, its title track peaked at No. 15, and, for Harrison, seemed mildly undistinguished; worse, the follow-up single “Ding Dong, Ding Dong” only peaked at No. 36 and became the worst-performing single of his career. Worse yet, all this took place despite Harrison’s being the subject of enormous publicity for his first American solo tour–on which he had been continually plagued by vocal hoarseness.
Because it was only the mid-’70s, when the Beatles were still a fresh memory for many, Harrison’s next few albums generally performed well–but not exceptionally so. Between 1975-1979 he released four singles that entered the top 40, but even the highest-charting one–1979’s No. 16 hit “Blow Away”–was minor, and stylistically seemed more a look backward than forward. With 1981’s Somewhere In England, Harrison released his first album not to be gold-certified since the Beatles split–this despite the presence of the aggressively nostalgic No. 2 hit “All Those Years Ago.” Even worse, 1982’s Gone Troppo weakly peaked at No. 108 and was off the charts in less than two months. Perhaps wisely, Harrison then stopped recording for a period, focusing his attention on film productions such as The Life Of Brian and those of his own HandMade company, which included Time Bandits, The Missionary, Shanghai Surprise, Mona Lisa, and Withnail And I, among others.
The ex-Beatle made a powerful return to form with 1987’s Cloud Nine, which with the assistance of producer Jeff Lynne (of ELO and the Move) was his first album that sounded almost deliberately Beatle-ish, yet not negatively so. Featuring “Got My Mind Set On You,” a non-original tune that became his first No. 1 hit in 14 years, and the humorous “When We Was Fab,” the album reached No. 8, went platinum, and quickly re-established his major artist stature. Two platinum sets recorded with supergroup the Traveling Wilburys–featuring Harrison, Dylan, Roy Orbison, Tom Petty, and Lynne–further consolidated his “comeback” in 1988 and 1990. Still, the mild reception given his 1992 2-CD Live In Japan–a concert retrospective that included material as ancient as “Taxman” and featured guest guitarist Eric Clapton–might have given him pause: It peaked at No. 126 and charted for all of two weeks.
A clear sentimental favorite among fans, Harrison’s accomplishments are among the most major in all of rock ‘n’ roll, and his distinguished track record–both with the Beatles and in his solo career–proved him capable of carrying his own weight and more. George Harrison died of cancer on November 29, 2001, at the age of 58.