By George, I think he got it. Indeed George Harrison developed into an outstanding songwriter.
The fact that Harrison was a member of a group that featured the most successful songwriting duo in the history of popular music was at once a blessing and a curse.
It was a blessing because some of the brilliance of the John Lennon-Paul McCartney team must have rubbed off on Harrison. Simply put, he could learn directly from the masters.
However, it must have also been a curse. At times Harrison could barely get a song in edgewise. This was a great source of frustration for him, especially when his songwriting skills had improved to the point where he was writing and recording tunes of at least the same high quality as Lennon and McCartney.
Although Let It Be was the last album the Beatles released while together as a band, Abbey Road was the last album they recorded together. Two Harrison compositions, Something and Here Comes The Sun, were arguably the best tracks on the entire Abbey Road album.
Something was perhaps inspired by a1968 album track that future Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member James Taylor was recording at the same time the Beatles were working on The White Album. Taylor was in Britain and working at a studio in close proximity with Harrison. The song Taylor recorded was Something In The Way She Moves, which was the opening line of Harrison’s Something.
“I’ve always assumed George must have heard it but I never actually spoke to him about it,” Taylor said in a quote that appeared in the book A Hard Day’s Write by Steve Turner.
“I often notice traces of other people’s work in my own songs” Taylor continued. “If George either consciously or unconsciously took a line from one of my songs then I find it very flattering.”
Released in 1969, Something was the first Harrison song to be featured as an A side of a Beatles single. It became the second most covered Beatles song after McCartney’s Yesterday, according to A Hard Day’s Write. No less a legend than Frank Sinatra covered the song and proclaimed it his favorite Beatles song.
Another Harrison composition to come out in 1969 was Old Brown Shoe. It was a B side to The Ballad of John and Yoko, but was in many respects the stronger of the two songs.
Harrison delved deeply into Eastern thought and Eastern music. This showed up lyrically in a cut from the Let It Be album called I Me Mine, a song about selfishness and the need to relinquish the ego, a difficult task for a rock star. Within You Without You, The Inner Light and Love You To were Harrison songs with heavy Indian musical influences, including the use of such instruments as the sitar and the tabla. This was one of the keys to the success of the Beatles-they constantly explored new ideas and stayed fresh.
During his musical apprenticeship in the early Beatles years, Harrison saw very few of his songs make it onto Beatles albums, and none became singles. The first Harrison song to make it onto an album was Don’t Bother Me in 1963, but it was mostly a throwaway track that Harrison said he wrote “as an exercise to see if I could write a song,” as quoted in the book A Hard Day’s Write. Harrison was completely shut out of the A Hard Day’s Night film soundtrack, although he did get to sing lead on the Lennon-McCartney song I’m Happy Just To Dance With You.
By 1965 Harrison began to get one or two songs on each new album. His first excellent song was If I Needed Someone, on the Rubber Soul album. In 1966 Harrison wrote a tax protest song that led off the Revolver album. “There’s one for you, nineteen for me”:Harrison sings in Taxman, indicating the tax man is getting 95 percent of his income. “Should five percent appear too small, be thankful I don’t take it all.” And wealthy Americans today complain about being in a 38 percent tax bracket!
While My Guitar Gently Weeps, from The White Album, featured Eric Clapton on lead guitar, while George sung and played rhythm guitar. The song became a rock classic.
The Beatles always sought to give credit to Motown artists and other African American rock, R&B and blues artists who strongly influenced them. They did this without being didactic or beating people over the head about it. One of the ways to achieve this was to reference these legends in songs, as Harrison did by mentioning Elmore James in For You Blue, off the Let It Be album and the B side to The Long and Winding Road single.
As a solo artist, Harrison quickly gravitated even more toward the spiritual side of himself with two number one Billboard Hot 100 singles, My Sweet Lord (1970) and Give Me Love (Give Me Peace On Earth) (1973). If Harrison borrowed from James Taylor for Something, he was found to have borrowed even more heavily with My Sweet Lord. The publishers of the song He’s So Fine, a number one hit for the Chiffons in 1963, brought a lawsuit, claiming Harrison had plagiarized the song. Although expressing a belief that Harrison had subconsciously copied the song and had not deliberately plagiarized it, a judge nevertheless found Harrison guilty of copyright infringement.
For his part, Harrison said in his book I Me Mine that My Sweet Lord was inspired by the Edwin Hawkins Singers’ version of Oh Happy Day.
“I wasn’t consciously aware of the similarity between He’s So Fine and My Sweet Lord,” Harrison explained in I Me Mine. “I still don’t understand how the courts aren’t filled with similar cases-as 99 percent of popular music that can be heard is reminiscent of something or other.”
With My Sweet Lord, Harrison became the first of the former Beatles to have a number one hit. Much of Harrison’s solo output featured horns and a horn section, including You, Bangladesh, What Is Life and Got My Mind Set On You. This enhanced his music and distinguished his solo phase from his Beatles work. The concert Harrison held for the nation of Bangladesh was the first huge rock concert to raise money explicitly for a social cause.
Harrison pioneered the benefit concert and wrote many innovative songs. His place as a great rock guitarist and songwriter is assured.
The Complete Beatles Lyrics, Hal Leonard Corporation, Omnibus Press, 1982
A Hard Day’s Write, the stories behind every Beatles’ song, Steve Turner, HarperCollins Publishers Inc., 1994
The Billboard Book of Number One Hits, 5th Edition, Fred Bronson, Billboard Books, 2003
I Me Mine, George Harrison, Chronicle Books, 2007 edition
The Best of George Harrison, CD, Apple Records, 1976