A master musician, a film producer and actor, best known as the lead guitarist and occasionally lead vocalist of The Beatles, George Harrison was born February 25, 1943, in Liverpool, Merseyside, England. He was also the youngest of four children, born to Harold Harrison and Louise Harrison.
Like his future band mates, Harrison was not born into wealth. Louise was largely a stay-at-home mom while her husband Harold drove a school bus for the Liverpool Institute, an acclaimed grammar school that George attended and where he first met a young classmate, Paul McCartney. By his own admission, Harrison was not much of a student and what little interest he did have for his studies washed away with his discovery of the electric guitar and American rock-‘n’-roll.
There were a lot of harmonies in the Harrison household. He had a knack of sorts for it by age 12 or 13, while riding a bike around his neighborhood and hearing Elvis Presley’s “Heartbreak Hotel”, playing from a nearby house. By the age of 14 George–who was a fan of such legends as , Harrison, who grew up in the likes of listening to such rock legends Carl Perkins, Little Richard and Buddy Holly–had purchased his first guitar and taught himself a few chords.
McCartney’, who had recently joined up with another Liverpool teenager, John Lennon, in a skiffle group known as The Quarrymen, invited Harrison to see the band perform. Harrison and Lennon had a few things in common, such as the fact that they both attended Dovedale Primary School but didn’t know each other. Their paths finally crossed in early 1958. McCartney had been egging the 17-year-old Lennon to allow the 14-year-old Harrison to join the band, but Lennon was reluctant; as legend has it, after seeing McCartney and Lennon perform, George was granted an audition on the upper deck of a bus, where he wowed Lennon with his rendition of popular American rock riffs.
The 17-year-old Harrison’s music career was in full swing by 1960. Lennon had renamed the band The Beatles and the young group began cutting its rock teeth in the small clubs and bars around Liverpool and Hamburg, Germany. Within two years, the group had a new drummer, Ringo Starr, and a manager, Brian Epstein, a young record store owner who eventually landed the group a record contract with EMI’s Parlophone label.
Before the end of 1962, Harrison and The Beatles recorded a song, “Love Me Do”, that landed in the UK Top 20 charts. Early that following year, another hit, “Please Please Me,” was released, followed by an album by the same name. “Beatlemania” was in full swing across England, and by early 1964, with the release of their album in the US and an American tour, it had swept across the States as well.
Largely referred to as the “Quiet Beatle” Harrison took a back seat to McCartney, Lennon and, to a certain extent, Starr. Still, he could be quick-witted, even edgy. During the middle of one American tour, the group members were asked how they slept at night with long hair.
From the get-go, Lennon-McCartney were primary lead vocalists. While the two spent most of the time writing their own songs, Harrison had shown an early interest in creating his own work. In the summer of 1963 he spearheaded his first song, “Don’t Bother Me,” which made its way on to the group’s second album. From there on out, Harrison’s songs were a staple of all Beatle records. In fact, some of the group’s more memorable songs–e.g., “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and “Something,” which was the only Beatle song ever recorded by Frank Sinatra–were penned by Harrison.
However, his influence on the group and pop music in general extended beyond just singles. In 1965, while on the set of The Beatles’ second film, Help! (1965), Harrison took an interest in some of the Eastern instruments and their musical arrangements that were being used in the film. He soon developed a deep interest in Indian music. He taught himself the sitar, introducing the instrument to many western ears on Lennon’s song, “Norwegian Wood”” He soon cultivated a close relationship with renowned sitar player Ravi Shankar. Other groups, including The Rolling Stones, began incorporating the sitar into some of their work. It could be argued that Harrison’s experimentation with different kinds of instrumentation helped pave the way for such ground-breaking Beatle albums as “Revolver” and “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”.
Harrison’s interest in Indian music soon extended into a yearning to learn more about eastern spiritual practices. In 1968 he led The Beatles on a journey to northern India to study transcendental meditation under Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.
Having grown spiritually and musically since the group first started, Harrison, who wanted to include more of his material on Beatle records, was clearly uneasy with the McCartney-Lennon dominance of the group. During the “Let It Be” recording sessions in 1969, Harrison walked out, staying away for several weeks before he was coaxed to come back with the promise that the band would use more of his songs on its records.
However, tensions in the group were clearly high. Lennon and McCartney had ceased writing together years before, and they, too, were feeling the need to go in a different direction. In January of 1970 the group recorded Harrison’s “I Me Mine.” It was the last song the four would ever record together. Three months later, McCartney announced he was leaving the band and The Beatles were officially over.
After the breakup of The Beatles, Harrison pursued a solo career. He immediately assembled a studio band consisting of ex-Beatle Starr, guitar legend Eric Clapton, keyboardist Billy Preston and others to record all the songs that had never made it on to The Beatles catalog. The result was a three-disc album, “All Things Must Pass”. While one of its signature songs, “My Sweet Lord,” was later deemed too similar in style to The Chiffons’ 1963 hit “He’s So Fine,” forcing the guitarist to cough up nearly $600,000, the album as a whole remains Harrison’s most acclaimed record.
Not long after the album’s release, Harrison combined his charitable work and his continued passion for the east when he put together a series of ground-breaking benefit concerts at New York City’s Madison Square Garden to raise money for refugees in Bangladesh. Known as the “Concert for Bangladesh”, the shows, which featured Bob Dylan, Leon Russell, and Ravi Shankar, would go on to raise some $15 million for UNICEF, produced a Grammy-winning album, a successful documentary film (The Concert for Bangladesh (1972)) and laid the groundwork for future benefit shows like “Live Aid” and “Farm Aid”.
Not everything about post-Beatle life went smoothly for Harrison, though. In 1974, his marriage to Pattie Boyd, whom he’d married eight years before, ended when she left him for Eric Clapton. His studio work struggled, too, from 1973-77, starting with, “Living in the Material World”, “Extra Texture,” and “33 1/3,” all of which failed to meet sales expectations.
Following the release of that last album, Harrison took a short break from music, winding down his own label, Dark Horse Records–which he had started in 1974, and which had released albums by a number of other bands–and started his own film production company, Handmade Films. The company produced the successful Monty Python film Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979) and would go on to make 26 other films before Harrison sold his interest in the company in 1994.
In 1979, he returned to the studio to release his self-titled album. It was followed two years later by, “Somewhere in England,” which was still being worked on at the time of John Lennon’s assassination in December of 1980. The record eventually included the Lennon tribute track, “All Those Years Ago,” a song that reunited ex-Beatles Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, along with ex-Wings members Denny Laine and Linda McCartney. While the song was a hit, the album, its predecessor and its successor, “Gone Troppo,” weren’t. For Harrison the lack of commercial appeal and the constant battles with music executives proved draining and prompted another studio hiatus.
A comeback of sorts came in November 1987, however, with the release of the album “Cloud Nine,” produced by Jeff Lynne (of Electric Light Orchestra). The album turned out several top-charting hits, including “Got My Mind Set On You”– remake of the 1962 song by Rudy Clark–and “When We Was Fab,” a song that reflected on the life of Beatlemania, with Ringo Starr and Paul McCartney, who was dressed up as a walrus, but was a camera shy, in February 1988. Later that year Harrison formed The Traveling Wilburys. The group consisted of Harrison, Lynne, Roy Orbison, Tom Petty and Bob Dylan, and spawned two successful albums. Buoyed by the group’s commercial success, Harrison took to the road with his new bandmates in 1992, embarking on his first international tour in 18 years.
Not long afterwards he was reunited with McCartney and Starr for the creation of an exhaustive three-part release of a Beatles anthology–which featured alternative takes, rare tracks and a John Lennon demo called “Free as a Bird,” that the three surviving Beatles completed in the studio. The song went on to become the group’s 34th Top 10 single. After that, however, Harrison largely became a homebody, keeping himself busy with gardening and his cars at his expansive and restored home in Henley-on-Thames in south Oxfordshire, England.
Still, the ensuing years were not completely stress-free. In 1997, Harrison, a longtime smoker, was successfully treated for throat cancer. Eighteen months later, his life was again put on the line when a deranged 33-year-old Beatles fan somehow managed to circumvent Harrison’s intricate security system and broke into his home, attacking the musician and his wife Olivia with a knife. Harrison was treated for a collapsed lung and minor stab wounds. Olivia suffered several cuts and bruises.
In May 2001, Harrison’s cancer returned. There was lung surgery, but doctors soon discovered the cancer had spread to his brain. That autumn, he traveled to the US for treatment and was eventually hospitalized at the UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles, CA. He died November 29, 2001, at ex-bandmate McCartney’s house in Los Angeles, at aged 58, with his wife and son at his side.
Just one year after his death, Harrison’s final studio album, “Brainwashed,” was released. It was produced by Lynne, Harrison’s son Dhani Harrison and Harrison himself, and featured a collection of songs he’d been working at the time of his death. Dhani finished putting the album together and it was released in November of 2002.
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