George Harrison: The Beatle Who Blended East With The West

George Harrison: The Beatle Who Blended East With The West

One of the enduring legacies of sitar maestro Ravi Shankar was that he successfully broadened the appeal of Indian classical music abroad. But Shankar himself was ambivalent about this achievement. He credits his global outreach — and that of the sitar — to Beatles’ legend George Harrison.

“When people say that George Harrison made me famous, that is true in a way,” said Shankar, who died at the age of 92 in 2012.

But when Harrison first approached Mr. Shankar for lessons in the mid-1960s, the idea of blending Indian classical music with pop music was puzzling to the sitar maestro.

“It is strange to see pop musicians with sitars. I was confused at first. It had so little to do with our classical music. When George Harrison came to me, I didn’t know what to think,” said Mr. Shankar in Raga.

“But I found he really wanted to learn. I never thought our meeting would cause such an explosion, that Indian music would suddenly appear on the pop scene,” he added.

Harrison, who himself died in November 2001, revered Shankar, saying he was “the first person who ever impressed me in my life.”

Harrison’s collaboration with Shankar influenced the music of the Beatles, who went on to release several Indian-inspired songs.

At the end of 1965, Harrison used a sitar on a Beatles album for the first time. To put his sitar studies to practical use, Harrison began writing songs in an Indian style. The first of these was “Love You To” (on the “Revolver” album, 1966). “Within You Without You,” Harrison’s lushly orchestrated contribution to “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” took this influence further.

In 1967, he was commissioned to provide soundtrack music for “Wonderwall,” and produced a score (released as the first album on the Beatles’ Apple label) in which East and West mingled freely. While in Bombay recording the Indian sections of the soundtrack, he taped an ensemble playing a traditional raga, and set words to it from Lao-Tzu’s Tao Te Ching. None of the other Beatles perform on the song, “The Inner Light,” but it became the first of Harrison’s compositions to be released on a Beatles’ single (albeit on the B-side, with “Lady Madonna”).

Harrison’s work with Indian music led to an interest in Hinduism and Indian philosophy. Listeners who thought the other Beatles were merely indulging his exotic tastes were incorrect: Harrison’s spiritual interests addressed the other Beatles’ concerns as well, and when he was won over by the Transcendental Meditation techniques of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, his band mates followed him to India to study meditation.

“Everybody dreams of being famous, rich and famous,” Harrison later said about the start of his spiritual quest. “Once you get rich and famous, you think, `This wasn’t it.’ And that made me go on to find out what it is. In the end, you’re trying to find God. That’s the result of not being satisfied. And it doesn’t matter how much money, or property, or whatever you’ve got, unless you’re happy in your heart, then that’s it. And unfortunately, you can never gain perfect happiness unless you’ve got that state of consciousness that enables that.”

The others soon gave up on Eastern philosophy, but Harrison remained a devotee of Hinduism, or Krishna Consciousness, as he preferred to describe his beliefs. In his music, though, he returned to a more conventional Western style.

Harrison was also the composer of several of the Beatles’ most beautiful songs including “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and “Something”.

In the years after the Beatles broke up, Harrison made a series of variably successful solo albums, issued a small but varied catalogue of recordings by other performers on his own Dark Horse label, and was the executive producer of Handmade Films, an independent production company that had several hits between the late 1970’s and the early 1990’s.

He made two albums with the Traveling Wilburys, a tongue-in-cheek supergroup that included Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne and Roy Orbison. He published several collections of memoirs and lyrics, and contributed copious commentary for books by friends. He also organized several philanthropic projects, including a 1971 concert to aid refugees in Bangladesh, an event that set the pattern for all-star charity rock concerts.

In recent years, Harrison took part with his former colleagues in the Beatles’ “Anthology,” a retrospective that included a 10-hour video history, six discs of previously unreleased recordings and a book. He also supervised an expanded reissue of his 1970 solo album, “All Things Must Pass,” and was planning to remaster the rest of his recordings.

A new album was also in the works, despite — or perhaps because of — health problems that included treatment for throat cancer in 1998 and lung cancer and a brain tumor this year. Harrison also survived a stabbing attack by an intruder at Friar Park in December 1999.

Harrison will unquestionably be best remembered for his work with the Beatles, in which he was the youngest and most reticent member. He was 19 when the group made its first recordings, in 1962, yet from the start he projected an air of intense seriousness.

On stage he appeared more concerned with getting the details of a guitar solo right than with inciting the shrieks of the group’s fans, and film clips show him looking bemused by the ruckus. He was the first to find the screaming crowds tiresome, and the first to advocate abandoning the concert stage, arguing that it was pointless to perform for audiences that were making too much noise for the group to be heard.

“I always really enjoyed in our early days, before we got too famous,” he once said in an interview. “We used to play clubs and that kind of stuff all the time. And it was fun, it was fun. It was good, because you get to play and you get to get quite good on the instrument. But then we got famous, and it spoiled all that, because we’d just go round and round the world singing the same 10 dopey tunes.”

In the summer of 1966 the others came around to his point of view, and after that the Beatles confined their work to the recording studio. At the Beatles’ recording sessions, Harrison worked diligently on solos that were compact but often innovative.

His solo for Lennon’s “I’m Only Sleeping,” recorded in 1966, when the Beatles were experimenting with tape manipulation, is an example of his fastidiousness. It was decided a guitar solo, recorded and played backwards, would best mirror the dreamworld quality of the lyrics, so Harrison devised his solo, wrote it down in reverse order and overdubbed it onto a recording of the song that was running backwards.

To complicate matters, he insisted on recording two versions of the solo — one clean, one distorted — and combining them. His contribution to the three-minute song took six hours to record.

Although Lennon and Mr. McCartney, as the group’s principal composers, always held the brightest spotlight, Harrison had a decisive influence on the Beatles’ sound.

During the group’s formative years, in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, he shared the others’ passion for American rhythm and blues, Motown soul and the more aggressive rock of Little Richard and Elvis Presley. But his passion for rockabilly artists like Carl Perkins — a taste he shared with Ringo Starr, the Beatles’ drummer — brought the twangy coloration of Country and Western music to the group’s repertory. He also had an interest in jazz chord voicings, which colored the harmonies in some of the band’s early arrangements.

Harrison’s fascination for Indian music — which began in 1965, after he became curious about the exotic instruments on the set of “Help!,” the group’s second film — pushed the Beatles’ sound world in yet another direction. And as with everything the Beatles did, imitators were plentiful: after Harrison played a sitar solo on Lennon’s “Norwegian Wood,” and began writing his own songs based on Indian motifs, dozens of rock bands, from the Rolling Stones to Jefferson Airplane, adopted the sitar, and “raga rock” flourished briefly.

Harrison also brought a variety of electronic gadgets to Beatles’ recording sessions, ranging from a simple volume pedal — used on “Yes It Is” and “I Need You” — to the Moog synthesizer, which he played on “Abbey Road.”

Still, he drew the line at devices that in his view led to the mechanization of rock music, and later spoke disdainfully about drum machines, samplers and computer-driven instruments. When he released his “Cloud Nine” album in 1987, he made a point of describing it as “real music, made by real musicians who play real instruments.”

Of the four Beatles, Harrison was the most aloof from the music business and the most troubled by the trappings of fame and the invasions of his privacy that it brought.

“They gave their money and they gave their screams,” Harrison said of the Beatles’ fans during an interview for the “Beatles Anthology” in 1995. “But the Beatles kind of gave their nervous systems. They used us as an excuse to go mad, the world did, and then blamed it on us.”

Even at the height of Beatlemania, he was characterized by the press as “the quiet Beatle.” Caught in the right mood, though, he could deliver barbed quips. Asked at a 1965 news conference how the Beatles managed to sleep with such long hair, Harrison shot back, “How do you sleep with your arms and legs still attached?”

Later, Harrison did his best to put the world at a distance. He rarely gave interviews. Multilingual signs posted outside his estate brusquely warned away sightseers. And he was often impatient with autograph-seekers, his typical responses ranging from tearing up the item he was asked to sign to signing perfect replicas of all four Beatles’ signatures.

But he had a generous side as well. The concert he organized to raise money for famine relief in Bangladesh has been widely acknowledged as the model for other rock charity events like Live Aid and Farm Aid. Harrison also performed on Heartbeat ’86, a concert to raise money for a hospital charity, and in the Prince’s Trust charity concert in 1987.

In 1990 he established the Romanian Angel Appeal to provide support for orphaned infants in Romania, and he assembled an album of rare recordings by American and British colleagues on the appeal’s behalf.

George Harrison was born in Liverpool on Feb. 25, 1943, and was the youngest of Harold and Louise French Harrison’s four children. His father drove the bus that brought him — and also Mr. McCartney, who was a year older — to the Liverpool Institute. He showed little interest in academic work, devoting himself instead to the guitar.

By the time he was 14, the year he met Mr. McCartney, he had formed a band, the Rebels, and began taking his guitar to dances in the hope of being asked to play. Mr. McCartney had only recently joined Lennon’s group, the Quarry Men, as a guitarist (he later switched to bass), and early in 1958 he invited Harrison to a Quarry Men performance, after which he auditioned for Lennon.

Harrison could do something that neither Lennon nor Mr. McCartney could do: he could play the solos from American rock records. Lennon, who was three years older than Harrison, considered the guitarist talented but sullen, and still a child. But Harrison continued to tag along with Mr. McCartney, and within a few months he was in the band. He continued to work with other Liverpool bands, but by October 1959 he decided to throw in his lot with the Quarry Men, who Lennon renamed the Beatles in 1960.

Harrison’s songwriting interests were limited in the group’s early years. He collaborated with Mr. McCartney on “In Spite of All the Danger” in 1958, and with Lennon on “Cry for a Shadow,” a Duane Eddy-influenced instrumental that the band recorded in Germany in 1961.

But as the Lennon-McCartney songwriting partnership flourished, he was content at first to take a subsidiary role, playing his solos and occasionally stepping up to the microphone to sing either rock classics like Carl Perkins’ “Everybody’s Trying to Be My Baby” and Chuck Berry’s “Roll Over Beethoven,” or Lennon-McCartney songs written for him, like “Do You Want to Know a Secret” or “I’m Happy Just to Dance With You.”

In the summer of 1963 he decided to try his hand at songwriting, and produced “Don’t Bother Me,” a song the group included on “With the Beatles,” its second album.

“I don’t think it’s a particularly good song,” Harrison wrote in “I Me Mine,” his 1980 autobiography. “It mightn’t even be a song at all, but at least it showed me that all I needed to do was keep on writing and then maybe, eventually, I would write something good.”

Another year and a half elapsed before Harrison was able to interest the band in another of his songs, but two of his compositions, “I Need You” and “You Like Me Too Much,” made it on to the “Help!” album in 1965. Neither had the ingenuity or dimension that the Lennon-McCartney team were giving their songs of the time, yet traces of Harrison’s later style — most notably the slightly mournful quality of his melodies — were beginning to emerge. After that Harrison had at least one and as many as four songs on each of the group’s albums.

His contributions to “The Beatles” (known as the “White Album”) and the soundtrack of the animated film “Yellow Submarine” (both released in 1968), showed a new compositional maturity. There were six in all, ranging from the proto-heavy metal of “All Too Much,” to the poetic “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.”

By the time of the “White Album” sessions, Harrison was writing so prolifically that the Beatles could not accommodate all his work, something that became a source of tension in the band’s final year. He was also undertaking private musical experiments, including the synthesizer pieces released on his “Electronic Sound” album. And he was forging musical relationships outside the Beatles, most notably with Eric Clapton, the virtuoso guitarist who was then in the band Cream and had played the solo on Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.”

By early 1969 Harrison was finding the Beatles too confining, and a few weeks into the sessions for the “Let It Be” album, he quit the band, returning only after the others agreed to give up a plan to perform live again, and to give his songs greater consideration.

As it turned out, the “Let It Be” sessions yielded only one finished Harrison song, “For You Blue.” A second, “I Me Mine,” was recorded in January 1970 for inclusion on the “Let It Be” album, and was the last song the group recorded before its breakup three months later.

But during the summer of 1969 — with the “Let It Be” album shelved pending the completion of the accompanying film — the group recorded what it considered its swan song, “Abbey Road.”

Two of Harrison’s finest Beatles compositions, “Something” and “Here Comes the Sun,” were included. “Something” became the first of Harrison’s songs to be released as the A-side of a single, and was widely recorded by other performers. Frank Sinatra once described it as his favorite Beatles song (although he misattributed it to Lennon and Mr. McCartney). Soon after the Beatles split, Harrison assembled Mr. Starr, Mr. Clapton, the guitarist Dave Mason, the keyboardists Gary Brooker and Billy Preston and the pedal steel guitarist Pete Drake and began recording the songs that the Beatles had not had time for. The sessions were so fruitful that the resulting album, “All Things Must Pass,” included two disks of new songs and a third with jam sessions.

The Hindu notions of the transitory nature of the physical world, and the search for a path to God, were Harrison’s principal subjects here, but there were lighter-spirited, secular songs as well. The album’s success was gratifying for Harrison, but it caused him problems as well. One of his new songs, “My Sweet Lord,” bore a striking similarity to that of the 1963 Chiffons’ hit, “He’s So Fine,” and that song’s publisher sued Harrison for copyright infringement.

The suit dragged on for 20 years, and Harrison was found guilty of “unconscious plagiarism.” In the end he bought his antagonist’s company and ended up owning both songs. His “This Song” (1975) was a satirical look at the lawsuit, and for the reissue of “All Things Must Pass” he recorded “My Sweet Lord (2000),” a version that avoids the melodic similarities to “He’s So Fine.”

As a former Beatle with a hot album, Harrison had considerable clout in the rock world in 1971, so when Mr. Shankar brought the famine in Bangladesh to his attention, he was quickly able to put together a band that included Mr. Starr, Mr. Clapton, Bob Dylan, Leon Russell and Billy Preston. An album and a film were made from the two shows at Madison Square Garden, and although disputes over distribution rights and taxes held up their release, the proceeds were eventually donated to the United Nations relief efforts.

Harrison’s “Living in the Material World” (1973) followed the agenda set forth by “All Things Must Pass,” in that its centerpieces explored a spiritual agenda. Everyday venality was not ignored: “Sue Me Sue You Blues,” for example, touched on the squabbles between the former Beatles.

But the public was tiring of Harrison’s religious fascinations. His next album, “Dark Horse” (1974), was criticized as preachy and whiny, and an American tour made matters worse: Harrison, not used to singing a complete concert set, lost his voice during the rehearsals, and was hoarse for the entire tour.

Harrison reconsidered his approach on “Extra Texture” (1975) and “33 1/3” (1976), albums that touched on traditional blues and continued to refined a quirky, humorous personal style, best heard in “Crackerbox Palace” and “This Song.” Satire replaced sermonizing as his signature style, and it was better received.

Nevertheless, Harrison took a three-year break from recording after “33 1/3.” He devoted some of that time to ending one entrepreneurial enterprise and starting another. In the early 1970’s he had started the Dark Horse label, which released about a dozen albums by Mr. Shankar and a handful of bands, among them Splinter, Stairsteps, Attitudes and Jiva. None of the recordings sold well, though, and after 1977 Dark Horse was primarily Harrison’s imprint for his own work, which was first distributed by A & M and later by Warner.

A sideline career as a film producer was more successful. When the Monty Python comedy troupe needed financial backing for “The Life of Brian,” in 1978, Harrison underwrote the film, laying the groundwork for his own production company, Handmade Films. Handmade quickly became a respected company, and produced 27 films — among them, “The Long Good Friday,” “Mona Lisa,” “Time Bandits,” “Withnail and I” and “Shanghai Surprise” — before Harrison sold his interest in 1994.

Mostly, though, Harrison used his three years away from music to sort out his personal life. He met his first wife, Pattie Boyd, on the set of the Beatles’ first film, “A Hard Day’s Night,” and they married in 1966. Their marriage broke up in 1974, when Ms. Boyd began living with Mr. Clapton (whose song “Layla” was written for her). The romance did not ruin the friendship between Harrison and Mr. Clapton: the two men and Ms. Boyd perform a version of the Everly Brothers’ “Bye Bye Love” together on Harrison’s “Dark Horse” album, and Harrison and Mr. Clapton toured Japan together in 1991.

Harrison married Olivia Arias in 1978. She and their son Dhani, 24, are survivors, along with a sister, Louise Caldwell, and his brothers, Peter and Harry.

Harrison’s return to recording in 1979 yielded “George Harrison,” an album notably lighter in spirit and broader in subject matter than his previous few, with songs about several of his new passions, among them automobile racing (“Faster”), hallucinogenic mushrooms (“Soft Hearted Hana”) and Olivia (“Dark Sweet Lady”). But sales were disappointing, and when he delivered his next album, “Somewhere in England,” to Warner, the label demanded that he rework the set to make it more commercially appealing.

Harrison responded, characteristically, by recording a new track, “Blood from a Clone,” that skewered the label’s complaints, and another, “Unconsciousness Rules,” that took a swipe at disco, then popular in clubs. But another of the remakes was a quasi-Beatles’ reunion. While Harrison was reworking the album, Lennon was killed. Harrison quickly wrote a tribute to Lennon, “All Those Years Ago.” Mr. McCartney and Mr. Starr performed on the recording, and it became a hit.

But Harrison was dispirited by his experience in the music business. He made another album in 1982, the good-humored “Gone Troppo,” and then stepped away from music for another five years. His return, “Cloud Nine,” was a resounding success, his biggest hit since “All Things Must Pass.” Not least among its charms was Harrison’s skewering of Beatles’ nostalgia, “When We Was Fab.”

His renewed success notwithstanding, Harrison kept his distance from the music world, and neither his success with the Traveling Wilburys’ two albums (“Traveling Wilburys,” 1988; Traveling Wilburys Vol. 3,” 1990) or his 1991 tour of Japan with Mr. Clapton’s highly polished band, were able to rekindle an interest in leading a public musical life.

“Although I have guitars all around and I pick them up occasionally and write a tune and make a record, I don’t really see myself as a musician,” Harrison once said, explaining his ambivalence to the life of a rock star.

“It may seem a funny thing to say. It’s just like, I write lyrics and I make up songs, but I’m not a great lyricist or songwriter or producer. It’s when you put all these things together — that makes me.”

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