Today (February 25th) would have been George Harrison's 70th birthday. Harrison, the first of the Beatles to embrace Eastern philosophies and culture, will also be remembered for his humanitarian efforts, such as his 1971 Concert For Bangladesh for famine relief. Harrison died of cancer in 2001 at the age of 58.
Last September, the Martin Scorsese HBO documentary George Harrison: Living In The Material World snagged two awards at the Creative Arts Emmy Awards ceremony held at L.A.'s Nokia Theatre. The doc won the prizes for Outstanding Nonfiction Special and Outstanding Directing for Nonfiction Programming. Living In The Material World, which is out now on DVD, was originally aired on HBO over two nights in October 2011. The three-and-a-half hour life-spanning documentary includes interviews with Harrison's widow and son Olivia and Dhani Harrison, his brothers Harry and the late Pete Harrison, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, George Martin, Eric Clapton, first wife Pattie Boyd, Yoko Ono, Phil Spector, Jeff Lynne, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Tom Petty, and Jackie Stewart, among others.
Also available in the Living In The Material World DVD package -- and sold separately -- is Early Takes, Volume 1 - George Harrison. The majority of songs on 10-track CD are either demos or early alternate takes of tracks from his 1970 album, All Things Must Pass. Highlights also include a demo version of Bob Dylan's "Mama You've Been On My Mind" and the Everly Brothers' "Let It Be Me" -- as well as early versions of such post-Beatles classics as "All Things Must Past," "My Sweet Lord," "Awaiting On You All," along with the Dylan co-write, "I'd Have You Anytime. Early Takes peaked at Number 20 on the Billboard 200 charts.
Over the course of the group's recording years -- 1962 to 1970 -- Harrison wrote such Beatles classics as "Don't Bother Me," "I Need You," "Think For Yourself," "If I Needed Someone," "Taxman," "I Want To Tell You," "Within You, Without You," "Blue Jay Way," "It's Only A Northern Song," "It's All Too Much," "The Inner Light," "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," "Piggies" "I Me Mine," "For You Blue," "Old Brown Shoe," "Something," and "Here Comes The Sun," among others.
Other solo hits included "What Is Life," "Bangla Desh," "Give Me Love (Give Me Peace On Earth)," "Dark Horse," "You," "This Song," "Crackerbox Palace," "Blow Away," "All Those Years Ago," and his 1987 comeback single "Got My Mind Set On You," which is the last solo Number One single by any former Beatle to date.
In 1971, Harrison produced Ringo Starr's initial solo singles "It Don't Come Easy" and "Back Off Boogaloo," as well also co-writing Starr's first Number One hit "Photograph" with him in 1973. In 1974, Harrison became the first solo Beatle to tour North America.
Shortly after his return to the spotlight in 1987, Harrison co-founded the supergroup the Traveling Wilburys with Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, Jeff Lynne and Tom Petty. In 1991 he undertook a brief tour of Japan with Eric Clapton and his band.
His widow Olivia Harrison has lead a successful reissue campaign of the Harrison solo catalog, including a recent box set of the Traveling Wilburys material. A future collection featuring highlights of Harrison's sole North American solo tour from 1974 is said to be in the works for the near future.
HARRISON ON HARRISON
George Harrison admitted that he felt that it was all downhill for the Beatles as a band following their early Hamburg days: "In the Beatles, I think the sad bit came when we got famous. Because before that, we played all them clubs, little clubs all over the place and in -- particularly in Germany, we played months and months in these nightclubs. We played eight hours a night. Then it was good, cause you were just. . . everybody was just dancing and drinking, the band was up there just drinking and playing and, y'know, there was no big emphasis on how groovy you were."
Although Harrison was thought to be a bit of a hermit during his post-Beatles years, he explained that nothing could be further from the truth: "I just didn't go places where the press hang out and there was no point doing interviews because there was nothing really to say. That's how I got that Howard Hughes sort of image, because they just thought, 'Oh, well, he never goes out.' They said, 'He never goes out' -- but I go out all the time. I just don't go out and hang out in the nightclubs or wherever the press go."
Harrison was so turned off by the critical slamming he received for his lone solo North American tour in 1974, that he didn't hit the road again until 1991. Harrison shed some light on the back-story to the legendary trek: "I hadn't finished my album, with the rehearsal, my voice was going -- you pick up a guitar and start singing eight to 10 hours a day. . . It was tough, I was, like, getting behind myself, and that's just the way it happened. But it was still brilliant because that band was unbelievable. And I've got live stuff of that and I play it to people and they say, "Ah, that's great!'"
Harrison chose to sit out a substantial part of the '80s, letting half a decade lapse between 1982's Gone Troppo and 1987's Cloud Nine. He admitted that for the most part, the sounds of the new decade turned him off: "There's certain music and sounds and music which I like and there are certain things I can't stand. I can't just tell you what it is that I hate, but there's a lot of clatter going on. We call 'clattering and banging' that's been going on musically, y'know, for a while."
Upon his return to the charts in 1987 Harrison revealed why he had abandoned recording for a five-year-stretch: "Y'know, the record business goes through all kind of different stages, and last time I made an album, they were so busy getting opinions from people on the side of the street on what's supposed to be a hit song. Y'know, that's what they tell me: 'A hit single is love lost or gained between 13 and 21-year-olds.' Now, what kind of chance does that give me? So I, y'know, I'll just go gardening for a bit."
Harrison explained that the late-'80s supergroup the Traveling Wilburys came to be almost by accident -- with help from Jeff Lynne -- when his record label demanded a new B-side for his latest single: "I was in Los Angeles and he was producing Roy Orbison and we were having dinner one night and I said, 'I'm gonna have to write a song and just do it',' y'know? And we were saying 'Where can we get a studio?' And he said, 'Well, maybe Bob' -- 'cause he's got this little studio in his garage. And it was that instant, y'know, we just went back to his house, phoned up Bob, he said 'Sure, come on over.' Tom Petty had my guitar and said, when I went to pick it up, he said, 'Ah, I was wondering what I was gonna do tomorrow,' and Roy said, 'Well give us a call tomorrow if you're gonna do anything, 'I'd love to come along.'"
After his 1999 stabbing by a delusional assailant from which he suffered a collapsed lung, among other injuries, in this clip featured in the new Living In The Material World documentary, Harrison spoke candidly about facing his own mortality: "I had an experience, where, y'know, if you have something happen to you physically, then people can go in hospital or have something wrong with them, or have a shock or something like that, and then you think, 'Wow, yeah, I could be dying now.' Now if I was dying now, what would I think? What would I miss? If I had to leave my body, y'know, in an hour's time -- what is it that I would miss? I think, 'I've got a son who needs a father, I have to stick around for him as long as I can.' But other than that, I can't think of much reason to be here (laughs)." )
FAMILY & FRIENDS REMEMBER GEORGE
Olivia Harrison told us that George learned to balance his often hectic and surreal life through spirituality: "Y'know, he was a wild guy too. He was spiritual and he was living in the material world too. And whether he was bad or good or crabby or happy -- whatever he was, he always tried to do it with a consciousness that would keep him safe."
Harrison's first wife, model and photographer Pattie Boyd, says that his infatuation with Hinduism, spiritual topics, and Indian music was his attempt to seek out the "bigger picture": "He had a bit of difficulty understanding why he -- this little boy from Liverpool -- had been selected to be so famous. And he didn't understand the fame and he thought that maybe Eastern philosophy could give him some sort of idea or clue as to why he had been chosen."
One of Harrison's closest friends, Eric Clapton, was on hand to witness the birth of one of Harrison's greatest Beatles-era classics: "It was one of those beautiful spring mornings, and I think it was April, and we were just walking through the (laughs) garden with our guitars -- and that, I don't do that! Y'know, I only ever do. . . This is what George brought to the situation. He was just a magical guy and he would show up with his guitar, get out of the car with the guitar, and come in and you'd start playing. And we walked around the garden and sat down at the bottom of the garden, looking out and the sun was shining and it was a beautiful morning and he started to sing 'Here Comes The Sun.' The opening lines, y'know?"
Tom Petty credits George Harrison for teaching him how to play the ukulele during the 1988 sessions for the first Traveling Wilburys album: "Yeah, he taught me to play and gave me a ukulele years ago. And, of course, we were close friends for a lot of years, and we did a lot of ukulele playing. It was kinda fun. They're really fun little things, which I, I never would've known if it weren't for George. I'm still grateful that he taught me how to play it."
George's son Dhani Harrison says that ultimately he learned his way around the studio directly from his father: "Dad was very good at making records. And I spent a lot of time with him in the studio, and he was often just by himself. He didn't really think of himself as a very good guitarist or singer even. He thought of himself as a better producer or record maker. And I spent a lot of time with, like, the (Traveling) Wilburys and stuff, and their philosophy was 'get in a room with a microphone and hit something.' Y'know?"
Joshua Greene, the author of Here Comes The Sun: The Spiritual And Musical Journey Of George Harrison, recorded with Harrison in 1970 while a part of the Krishna sect Radha Krishna Temple, and recalled how practical Harrison was in the recording studio: "We came in, he said hello to his friends, slapped a few old buddies on the back. Then he started laughing and yukking it up about people's reactions to a rock group with shaved heads -- because he was putting out these albums of Sanskrit mantras. Then he looked at his watch and said 'Y'know, we better get started, this studio is costing us 40 pounds an hour.' That was impressive. He might've been a Beatle, he might've been one of the richest, most successful guys around -- but he was very practical."
Graham Nash, who first saw the Beatles perform in 1959, became friends with Harrison and the "Fab Four" while touring with the Hollies in 1963. Nash regrets that he and Harrison never got to connect any further on a musical level: "I think it would have been easier earlier. I think both he and I got wrapped up in our respective band's fame. Obviously the Beatles were way more famous than we were, and even trying to penetrate their scene was difficult. They were completely surrounded by people that handled them. They didn't have time. It just never worked out. But I know that had George and I ever made music together, it would've been quite interesting because we're very similar, and yet very different."
Kiss' Paul Stanley -- a die-hard Beatles fan since he was 12-years-old, told us that Harrison's influence and legacy should never underestimated: "Everybody knows that George Harrison is part of the fabric of rock n' roll and he's been an influence on everybody no matter what kind of music they play. Probably more so than they even know. He's been an influence on every kind of music that exists at this point because the Beatles are woven into everything that rock n' roll is about."
Toto guitarist Steve Lukather developed a close friendship with Harrison in the early '90s and recalled how easily a night out on the town would turn musical with the former Beatle: "He invites me out for dinner one night, and he's a vegetarian, so he goes -- 'You know, a good Italian (restaurant)?' -- or something like that. He goes, 'Yeah, I'm inviting a few friends out.' And it's (drummer) Jim Keltner, who's a good friend of mine -- so I said 'Great!' So, I show up and I say, 'Wow, this is so cool.' Then Bob Dylan walks in -- then Jeff Lynne. And then the next thing you know there's a jam up at Jeff Lynne's house with Dylan playing bass, me and George Harrison on guitars, Jeff Lynne on keyboards, and Jim Keltner on drums. We're just playing Beatles songs."