Harrison brought Eastern sounds to Western ears

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George Harrison, the quiet Beatle, made contributions that reverberated throughout popular music.

In addition to his understated yet vital role in the seminal ’60s pop quartet, Harrison enjoyed a solo career, performed in a second successful group, organized rock’s first all-star international benefit concert, produced several essential British independent films, and introduced non-Western music into the pop mainstream.

The skinny, snaggle-toothed youngest Beatle became the favorite mop-top of contrarian, bookish girls. He accepted being in the long shadow of the group’s chief architects, John Lennon and Paul McCartney, and let his lyrical guitar playing do most of his talking. But his contributions to the seismic band were significant.

Despite Lennon and McCartney’s prodigious songwriting, Harrison penned and sang lead vocals on several Beatles classics, including "Taxman," "Love You To," "If I Needed Someone," "Something," "Here Comes the Sun" and "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," on which his guitar virtually does.

Harrison, who was also a searing slide-guitar player, is credited with introducing the Beatles to Eastern music, and he injected the sitar into many songs, beginning with Lennon's "Norwegian Wood."

After the Beatles disbanded in 1970, Harrison, then only 27, launched a successful solo musical career with the Phil Spector-produced "All Things Must Pass." Its haunting hymn, "My Sweet Lord," with the Hare Krishna refrain, made him the first member of the quartet to have a No. 1 single after the breakup.

The song’s similarity to an American girl-group hit did not go unnoticed, however, and Harrison was sued for plagiarizing the 1963 Chiffons tune "He’s So Fine." After two decades of legal wrangling and paying a half-million dollars in damages, he kept the rights to his song in the United States and United Kingdom.

His musical and philanthropic interests in Southeast Asia culminated in the 1971 Concerts for Bangladesh, two all-star benefit performances at Madison Square Garden that were the first international rock relief events. The triple-disc live album from the shows garnered Harrison and Spector the 1973 Grammy for album of the year. The former Beatle and his close friend, Indian sitar master Ravi Shankar, were also recognized by UNICEF for their humanitarian contributions.

As surely as the night follows day, the Beatles’ early success was followed by copyright lawsuits, fights and reconciliations. "For every pound, shilling and penny that the Beatles earned, there was an equal amount of grief," Harrison once said.

In a 1990 interview, he recalled, "Lennon-McCartney were a couple of pushy people. It’s a difficult situation when you have two people who are outstanding and major egos. It was difficult to get my ego through. I got tired of my role — well, not my role, but Paul’s concept of my role: the quieter and more subordinate Beatle. I was quite happy when the Beatles split up."

During much of the 1970s and ’80s, Harrison produced records, most of them artistic and commercial underachievers. He returned to the charts in 1987 with his album "Cloud Nine," on which he performed a peppy version of Rudy Clark’s gospel tune "Got My Mind Set on You." The following year, he formed the pop-country supergroup the Traveling Wilburys with Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne and Roy Orbison, who died weeks after the release of the band’s debut record.

Harrison was also a successful movie producer whose projects sparked a revival in independent British film. His company, Handmade Films, banked a string of off-center classics, including Monty Python’s "Life of Brian" (1979), "The Long Good Friday" (1980), Terry Gilliam’s "Time Bandits" (1981), "Mona Lisa" (1986) and "Withnail and I" (1987). Harrison removed himself from the business after the company became mired in debt and lawsuits.

Harrison was born Feb. 24, 1943, the son of Harold Hargreaves Harrison, a steward on the famed White Star ship line and later a bus driver, and Louise French, a shopgirl. He was one of four children in the Liverpool, England, family.

Because of his father’s constant travels, his earliest musical references were eclectic: Jimmy Rodgers ("the Singing Brakeman"), Hoagy Carmichael, Django Reinhardt and Slim Whitman.

"The main thing that really buzzed me, even before I heard Elvis, was Fats Domino’s ‘I’m in Love Again,’" he said in a 1992 interview. The young guitarist — whose first instrument was a cheap acoustic model he took up at age 13 — cited Carl Perkins, Duane Eddy, Chet Atkins, Buddy Holly and Eddie Cochran among his first influences.

In 1958, he joined the Quarry Men, which included Lennon and a former Liverpool Institute schoolmate, McCartney. The band went through several changes before becoming the Beatles in 1960. Two years later, after Stuart Sutcliffe left the band and Ringo Starr replaced Pete Best as drummer, the final Fab Four were in place.

In the beginning, Harrison’s resonant guitar was often overwhelmed in the studio by Lennon’s dominant rhythm strumming. But his lush slide guitar shone in the Beatles’ later years, after the band stopped touring, especially on "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," "Here Comes the Sun," and "Something."

Harrison penned his first Beatles song, "Don’t Bother Me," in 1963. Daunted by Lennon and McCartney’s prodigious talent, "I just had to try and write something that was acceptable that I wouldn’t get laughed out of the room with." The song took, at most, an hour to compose, Harrison recalled, and came to him while he was suffering from the flu and taking morphine-based medicine.

Ironically, his interest in Eastern music came during the hokey "Rajahama" Indian restaurant scenes in the Beatles’ second movie —1965’s "Help!"— when Harrison picked up a sitar between takes. Ravi Shankar gave Harrison his first sitar lessons. "It unlocked this enormous big door in the back of my consciousness," Harrison said.

He made several sojourns to the Indian Himalayas, and recorded tracks in Bombay for the score to the little-seen movie "Wonderwall." Harrison also studied and traveled with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who introduced the West to transcendental meditation.

Though he lived more quietly than his fellow Beatles, on estates in Hawaii and England, Harrison continued to perform, produce and participate in concerts.

Harrison’s health had been precarious for several years. He overcame throat cancer, which he attributed to smoking, in 1998. He had surgery to remove a cancerous growth from one lung and was treated for a brain tumor.

In December 1999, 19 years after Lennon’s murder — and a week after a woman broke into his Hawaii home — Harrison was nearly killed by a knife-wielding intruder at Friar Park, his 120-room Victorian home on 35 acres west of London. The musician suffered serious chest wounds, and was rescued by his wife, Olivia, who hit his attacker on the head with a brass poker and table lamp.

Harrison was previously wed to the former Patti Boyd, whom he met on the set of the Beatles’ debut film, 1964’s "A Hard Day’s Night." The couple later formed one of rock’s first high-profile romantic triangles when Harrison’s good friend Eric Clapton fell in love with Patti. (She was the inspiration for Clapton’s pleading 1970 guitar classic, "Layla.") After 11 years of marriage, the Harrisons divorced in 1977, clearing the way for Clapton and Patti to marry in a 1979 ceremony that her ex-husband attended.

The former Beatle married Olivia Arias, an American assistant at his Dark Horse Records label, in 1978, a month after the birth of their son, Dhani.

Harrison bought Friar Park in 1970 and put considerable effort and capital into the eccentric home and grounds. Especially after Lennon’s murder, the walled property was a comfort to Harrison, who worried for his safety. He was an avid gardener who could often be found on the property in mud-splattered boots. He also was an enthusiast of Formula One auto racing.

He loved performing, and, unlike Lennon and McCartney, thought nothing of sharing the limelight with artists whose playing and singing might dwarf his own. "All Things Must Pass," which received a 30th anniversary in 2001, showcased Harrison with Clapton, Ginger Baker, Billy Preston and Dave Mason, as well as newcomers Phil Collins and Peter Frampton, and Badfinger’s Pete Ham and Tom Evans.

The only thing Harrison, the retiring Beatle to the last, didn’t enjoy was celebrity.

"I’m the kind of person who would love to play whenever I felt like, with a band, and it might as well be the Holiday Inn in Nebraska — somewhere where no one knows you and you’re in a band situation playing music," he said in 1992. "The adulation or the superstardomis something I could leave out quite happily."

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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