This Friday, many Beatles fans will be celebrating what would have been George Harrison’s 68th birthday. But he was far more than just “the quiet Beatle” who penned memorable hits; he was also a talented actor with a deep love of cinema, a loyal friend to many influential people, and a deeply spiritual man.
He started out life as a regular working-class kid in Liverpool, but things soon changed after meeting an older classmate on the bus who shared his love of American R&B and rockabilly music, Paul McCartney. He was so impressed by George’s guitar playing that he got him into his friends’ skiffle group, the Quarrymen.
That group would later make several member changes and a big name change, becoming the Beatles. They moved to Germany to be a part of Hamburg’s thriving nightclub scene, but 15-year-old Harrison was deported for being underage. However, the Beatles eventually became a huge part of the UK’s budding rock ‘n’ roll scene.
It has been estimated that they performed over 300 concerts at Liverpool’s Cavern Club. During those days, George would often close sets with his rousing rendition of Chuck Berry’s “Roll Over Beethoven”.
The Beatles became Europe’s biggest band, performing sold-out shows and causing hysteria among fans worldwide. “Beatlemania” finally crossed over into America in 1964, and not too long belong before George wrote his first song for the Beatles, “Don’t Bother Me”, while sick in bed. He would later describe the With the Beatles album track as “crappy”, perhaps being his own harshest critic.
Later on that year, the group filmed their debut movie A Hard Day’s Night. Behind the scenes, George met future wife Pattie Boyd, seen in this clip as the fan next to Paul’s “grandfather”. The two divorced in 1974.
He jokingly says, “’I Need You’ by George Harrison” several times during the end credits of the Beatles next film, Help. During the filming, he was introduced to another love, Indian music. George would later play the sitar in several key Beatles tracks, a then-novel idea.
Though Harrison’s early work mostly consisted of covers or simple love songs, he started experimenting with instruments and spiritual themes in the mid-‘60s. “Within You, Without You” is an excellent example of this.
George’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” is often considered one of the best tracks off the group’s controversial self-titled double album (“The White Album”).
As the Beatles were starting to drift apart, buckling under the pressure of the group’s complicated business matters, George wrote the peaceful “Here Comes the Sun”. It’s currently the best-selling Beatles track on iTunes.
Considered by many as one of the best love songs of all time, “Something” has been covered over 150 times, with four separate versions of the song ranking in Billboard’s Hot 100 chart.
After the break-up, George initially seemed to be the most successful solo Beatle when “My Sweet Lord” became a No. 1 single in 1970. The song also became the subject of a high-profile plagiarism suit filed by publisher of the Chiffons’ “He’s So Fine” for its melody similarities. Later on, he would record a new version of the song with a different time signature.
George wrote songs for and collaborated with a variety of other popular musicians who were also his friends. More impressive, however, was his organization of the Concert for Bangladesh charity event, involving himself, Bob Dylan, Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton, Leon Russell, Billy Preston, Ravi Shankar, and some of the members of Badfinger. It raised over $15 million in aid and became the standard that inspired so many other charity concert and music events.
George was also friends with the Monty Python crew. Without his financial help, their TV and film projects wouldn’t have been possible. He often appeared in many of their skits.
He married Olivia Arias in 1978, and wrote this song about her not too long afterwards.
Harrison’s love of cinema expanded into his own company, Handmade Films. He was involved in twenty-three different films ranging from the cult classics like Time Bandits and Withnail and I to the Madonna-starring flop Shanghai Surprise.
Harrison’s “All Those Years Ago” was a tribute to former bandmate John Lennon.
Harrison’s commercially unsuccessful 1982 Gone Troppo album led to his five year absence from the music business. When he updated his sound for the catchy 1987 album, Cloud Nine, an inspired cover of James Ray’s “Got My Mind Set On You” gave him his third solo No. 1 hit.
While recording music for the same album with Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne, and Jim Keltner, the celebrity friends decided to join together as the Traveling Wilburys. The supergroup toured and released two albums, which included the hits “Handle With Care”, “End of the Line”, and “She’s My Baby”.
Harrison had previously fought throat cancer in 1997, but he developed lung cancer that spread to his brain in 2001. “Stuck Inside a Cloud” reflects his thoughts on the diagnosis.
Brainwashed, released in 2001, became George’s last album. His son, Dhani Harrison, and Jim Keltner, finished parts of it.
On November 29th, 2001, the world lost George Harrison. Many tributes have been made for the man, with the most endearing coming from those who knew him best. Paul McCartney’s concerts usually include his version of “Something”, played on of George’s favorite instruments, the ukulele.
Ringo Starr penned his “Never Without You” about his former bandmate.
And finally, here’s a clip from George’s 2004 Rock N Roll Hall Of Fame induction ceremony, featuring Prince, Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne, and Dhani Harrison.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong online. Please consider a donation to support our work as an independent publisher devoted to the arts and humanities. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times where advertising no longer covers our costs. We need your help to keep PopMatters publishing. Thank you.