Fab Four performer fashioned a historic career
George Harrison, the lead guitarist for the Beatles who enhanced the spiritual qualities of the band’s music, and then melded Eastern religions and concerns with pop music as a solo artist, died Thursday at the home of a friend in Los Angeles. He was 58.
The youngest of the four Beatles, known throughout the 1960s as the quiet one, was diagnosed with lung cancer and a brain tumor earlier this year. Once a heavy smoker, he overcame throat cancer in 1998 but developed the lung cancer earlier this year and had a cancerous growth removed from a lung in March at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota.
In his hometown of Liverpool, England, flags flew at half-staff Friday as flowers and cards piled up around a commemorative statue of the Beatles above the famous Cavern Club, where the Beatles first performed.
In October, Harrison sought treatment in Switzerland for his brain tumor, but in early November moved to New York’s Staten Island U. Hospital, where he reportedly received experimental treatments.
Adding to his health woes, Harrison was attacked at his home near London in December 1999 by a knife-wielding intruder who stabbed him in the chest.
He was irritated in recent weeks by reports circulating about his cancer treatments, but his famously wry sense of humor came to the fore even as he faced his own mortality: As reports of his failing health proliferated, he recorded in October a new song, “Horse to the Water,” and credited it to RIP Ltd. 2001. It was released in Britain in November on an album by Jools Holland.
That humor helped shape the Beatles’ irreverent charm, combining with John Lennon’s cutting wit, Paul McCartney’s mischievous smile and Ringo Starr’s cartoonish appeal.
Musician & producer
As a Beatle, Harrison was sometimes overshadowed by the prolific and more gregarious Lennon and McCartney, but he managed to make his presence felt both as a performer and songwriter.
He was a consummate guitarist and introduced innovations into the Beatles’ music, most prominently the use of Indian instruments the sitar and the tabla.
After the group disbanded, Harrison became the first ex-Beatle to top the singles charts and then segued into film, producing through his HandMade Films. The company turned out such successful movies as “Monty Python’s Life of Brian,” “Time Bandits” and “Mona Lisa.”
He recorded often and was working on an album in 2000 when he took time out to promote the 30th anniversary release of his classic three-disc album “All Things Must Pass,” containing a new version of “My Sweet Lord.”
Harrison withstood changing musical tastes and was often allied with other notable performers, such as Eric Clapton. In the late ’80s, he was part of informal group the Traveling Wilburys, with Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, Tom Petty and ELO leader Jeff Lynne. Their first of two albums was hailed by critics and sold well, but the group never recovered from Orbison’s death in December 1988.
“George was a giant, a great great soul with all of the humanity, all of the wit and humor, all of the wisdom, the spirituality, the common sense of a man and compassion for people,” Dylan said in a statement.
In 1971, Harrison added philanthropist to his dossier and staged the first major star-studded benefit rock concert, the Concert for Bangladesh at New York’s Madison Square Garden; an album, which won the Grammy for the 1972 album of the year, and a film of the show was released afterward to benefit the starving people of that country. Although it topped the U.K. chart and reached No. 2 in the U.S. in 1972, the project ran into money management disputes that left funds in escrow for years.
Started in skiffle
Born in the port city of Liverpool on Feb. 25, 1943, to Harold Harrison, a bus driver, and Louise Harrison, George formed a skiffle band with his brother, Peter, after teaching himself how to play guitar.
One of Harrison’s first major influences was British skiffle king Lonnie Donegan, whose “Rock Island Line” first spurred Harrison’s interest in the guitar. Other influences were Carl Perkins, Duane Eddy, Chet Atkins and Buddy Holly.
Largely self-taught as a lead guitarist, Harrison was introduced by his teen friend McCartney to rock group the Quarry Men, headed by Lennon. At 15, Harrison pinch-hit for the group, sitting in if another member failed to show. The group was later renamed Johnny & the Moondogs, and by 1958 consisted solidly of the three future Beatles. During that year, Harrison also played with the Les Stuart Quartet.
With the addition of Stu Sutcliffe, the newly dubbed Silver Beatles toured Scotland in 1960 as backup for rocker Johnny Gentle. Early recordings from the period include Harrison’s first solo effort, a cover of Perkins’ “Matchbox.”
A fifth member, drummer Pete Best, joined the group in 1960, and the “Silver” was permanently dropped from their name.
The quintet got its first bookings in Hamburg, where their all-night sessions became a sensation until they were booted for being underage (Harrison was only 17) and lacking work permits. But in 1961 they would return to Hamburg, where they would make their first formal recordings.
But before that, they returned to Liverpool, where they took over the Cavern, a jazz club. There, manager Brian Epstein took them on (he would handle their careers until his death in 1967). Epstein secured a recording contract with Parlophone Records and, after Best was replaced by Starr (Sutcliffe departed and then died of a brain aneurysm), the group recorded its first single, “Love Me Do,” backed with “P.S. I Love You.” Their second single, “Please Please Me,” hit paydirt in England. In February 1964, they arrived in the U.S., and Beatlemania became a global phenomenon.
Evolution as a writer
The long shadows of McCartney and Lennon initially obscured Harrison’s contributions as a guitarist and songwriter, but he performed his first solo on the early single “Do You Want to Know a Secret,” and his first composition — “Don’t Bother Me” — showed up in the group’s film “A Hard Day’s Night.” On it he used a 12-string guitar, which had never before been used in rock ‘n’ roll.
During the filming of the Beatles’ second pic, “Help,” Harrison picked up the sitar, which he used to great effect for the first time in the background of the song “Norwegian Wood,” on “Rubber Soul.” The album, released in 1965, featured Harrison’s first tune deemed a classic, “If I Needed Someone.”
Most Beatles albums feature one or two Harrison contributions, and 1966’s “Revolver” — voted the best record of all time in several recent polls — bore Harrison’s compositions “Taxman,” “I Want to Tell You” and “Love You To.” The latter again stressed the sitar, as would subsequent tunes “Within You Without You” on “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” and B-side “The Inner Light.”
Heading to India
Harrison’s love of India led him to travel there to study with Ravi Shankar, and he then brought over the other Beatles and other celebrities to study Eastern philosophies with Mahareesh Mahesh Yogi. While many treated their Indian adventures as a fad, those philosophies guided Harrison for the rest of his life. Five years ago, when Harrison visited an ailing George Martin, he presented the Beatles producer with a wooden carving of the Hindu elephant god Ganesh.
“I’d rather be one of the devotees of God than one of the straight, so-called sane or normal people who just don’t understand that man is a spiritual being, that he has a soul,” Harrison said in a 1982 interview.
Harrison’s songwriting powers were blossoming as the band recorded “The Beatles” (aka “The White Album”), contributing “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” which featured guitar solos from Clapton. (Harrison and Clapton would also team on “Badge” for Clapton’s group Cream). The album “Abbey Road” contained two outstanding Harrison ventures, “Here Comes the Sun” and his biggest Beatles-era song, “Something.”
Harrison released in December 1968 the all-instrumental “Wonderwall Music” and, five months later, “Electronic Sound.” In 1970, his epic “All Things Must Pass” was a smash hit, yielding the singles “My Sweet Lord,” “What Is Life” and “Isn’t It a Pity.” Produced by Phil Spector, who had also assembled the final Beatles disc, “Let It Be,” from hours and hours of session tapes, the album boasted a stellar ensemble of Starr, Clapton, Dave Mason and Dylan, with whom Harrison co-wrote “If Not for You.”
In 1973, Harrison topped the U.S. album and singles charts with “Living in the Material World” and the song “Give Me Love (Give Me Peace on Earth).” He also appeared on albums by Starr and Harry Nilsson. At that time, he donated a London mansion to the Hare Krishnas that remains the group’s British headquarters.
A Dark Horse
Harrison formed his own label, Dark Horse, in 1974, signing Shankar and the band Splinter while he continued to record for Apple and its parent, EMI.
His final Apple albums, “Dark Horse” in 1974 and 1975’s “Extra Texture,” hit No. 4 and No. 8, respectively. Harrison toured North America in the fall of 1974 and perturbed a number of listeners by altering lyrics of some Beatles tunes.
In 1976, Harrison was sued by the copyright owner of the Chiffons’ hit “He’s So Fine” for copying the melody on “My Sweet Lord” and was ordered to pay $587,000 in damages. That year, his first album for Dark Horse, “Thirty-three and a third,” yielded “This Song,” which comments on the “My Sweet Lord” case. It reached a disappointing No. 25. The album was released after Dark Horse’s distributor, A&M, sued Harrison for nondelivery of an album. Due to legal constraints Harrison often used pseudonyms, such as Hari Georgeson, to record and produce.
It would be five more years before a Harrison song would have any impact, and that was the triste “All Those Years Ago,” which arrived in the wake of Lennon’s murder in December 1980. But his album “Gone Troppo” did not match its success.
Film producing was added to his repertoire in 1979 when he set up HandMade Films, which produced his friend Eric Idle’s “Life of Brian,” starring the Monty Python comedy troupe, of which Idle was a member. It drew the ire of some religious groups but was financially successful, as was the company’s 1981 film “Time Bandits,” directed by another Python, Terry Gilliam. The 1984 effort “Privates on Parade” (starring yet another Python, John Cleese) did not fare as well, but the drama “Mona Lisa” was a major critical hit. The 1987 comedy “Withnail and I” also did well.
Other productions include the satire “A Private Function” (1984), “The Missionary,” “Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl,” “Scrubbers,” “Bullshot Crummond,” “Water” (in which Harrison appeared), “Shanghai Surprise,” “The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne,” “Five Corners,” “Bellman and True,” “Track 29,” “How to Get Ahead in Advertising,” “The Raggedy Rawney,” “Powwow Highway” and “Nuns on the Run.”
Harrison had one of the greatest comebacks in rock history when his version of Rudy Clark’s “Got My Mind Set on You” hit No. 1 in 1988, 17 years after his only other chart-topping single, “My Sweet Lord.” The album “Cloud Nine” was considered a return to form — Clapton appeared on the title track — and included “This Is Love,” “That’s What It Takes” and “When We Was Fab.”
In 1988, he was a founding member of the Traveling Wilburys, and his two contributions to the informal group’s first disc, “Handle With Care” and “End of the Line,” were among its finest. A 1989 compilation, “Best of Dark Horse,” included hits like “All Those Years Ago” and “Blow Away” as well as new numbers like “Poor Little Girl.”
His last release came in 1992 — “Live in Japan.”
Harrison joined McCartney and Starr to record “Free as a Bird” and “Real Love” in 1995 for the “Anthology” series, and he participated in the making of the “Anthology” documentary seen in the U.S. on ABC. The living Beatles made only one other public appearance together, attending the funeral of Paul’s wife Linda in 1998.
Harrison did several interviews last year to mark the release of the 30th anniversary edition of “All Things Must Pass,” and at that time had finished recordings several songs for a new album, although no label was contracted to release them.
Harrison’s biography was titled “I Me Mine,” but others loved to write about him more, especially his love life.
He married model-actress Patti Boyd in January 1966, and after their marriage began to fizzle, she had an open affair with Clapton (Boyd is the subject of Clapton’s classic “Layla”). Boyd and Harrison were divorced in 1977, and Boyd married Clapton two years later; they divorced in 1988.
Harrison married Olivia Arias in England in September 1978, a month after their son, Dhani, was born. They are his only survivors.
(Wire services contributed to this report.)