George Harrison, the shy lead guitarist of the Beatles who added a spiritual pilgrim’s sensibility to the band’s massive cultural impact, has died. He was 58.
Harrison died at 1:30 p.m. Thursday reportedly at the Los Angeles home of Gavin de Becker, a friend and noted security expert in the celebrity world. Harrison had battled in recent years with various forms of cancer, and earlier this year underwent radiation treatment for a brain tumor. His wife, Olivia Arias Harrison, and son, Dhani, were with him at the time of his death, which was not announced until early Friday morning.
Harrison had come to Los Angeles two weeks ago to be with the family of his wife, a Southern California native, and he had taken deliberate moves recently to pare down his circle of confidants in a quest for privacy--a quest that had been a defining characteristic through much of his career. Keeping with that, Harrison’s family issued a statement Friday that focused on Harrison’s spiritual life, not the details of his death.
“He left this world as he lived in it, conscious of God, fearless of death, and at peace, surrounded by family and friends,” the family said in the release carried by the Associated Press. “He often said, ‘Everything else can wait but the search for God cannot wait, and love one another.’ ”
The two remaining members of the Beatles grieved Harrison’s passing.
“I am devastated and very, very sad,” Paul McCartney told reporters outside his London home Friday. “He was a lovely guy and a very brave man and had a wonderful sense of humor. He is really just my baby brother.”
In a statement, Ringo Starr, in Vancouver, Canada, said: “George was a best friend of mine. I loved him very much and I will miss him greatly. Both [wife] Barbara and I send our love and light to Olivia and Dhani. We will miss George for his sense of love, his sense of music and his sense of laughter.”
John Lennon’s widow, Yoko Ono, said Friday: “George has given so much to us in his lifetime and continues to do so even after his passing, with his music, his wit and his wisdom.”
Harrison’s passing has a cultural resonance that goes beyond one star musician’s death: Coupled with Lennon’s murder in 1980, it leaves one-half of the Beatles dead before many of their original fans have reached their 60th birthday. The group credited with teaching life lessons to the baby boomer generation is now a reminder of mortality.
Lennon-McCartney Overshadowed Songs
The songwriter and singer of such Beatles songs as “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” “Something,” “Here Comes the Sun” and “Taxman,” Harrison struggled for his own spotlight in the celebrated company of Lennon and McCartney.
The youngest member of the quartet, his was the least defined persona during the group’s frenetic rise to world fame, and in the band’s peak creative years he chafed as the prolific songwriters McCartney and Lennon became the rock icons of the group. Still, Harrison’s fascination with Indian philosophy and music laced through the band’s albums as the Beatles matured into more sophisticated artists.
After the Beatles broke up in 1970, Harrison embarked on a solo career that was viewed as spotty even by fans and intriguing even by his critics. The most acclaimed chapter of his post-Beatles career remains the first: the 1970 three-LP epic “All Things Must Pass,” which included the humanistic hits “My Sweet Lord,” “Isn’t It a Pity” and “What Is Life.” A year later, he burnished that success by engineering the landmark charity effort “The Concert for Bangla Desh.” The two-night show in New York featured Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton and others and became a template for the now-familiar concept of the all-star rock fund-raiser.
In the glow of those accomplishments, Harrison was perceived as a star with humility who finally rivaled McCartney and Lennon in public acclaim. The triumph, though, would be somewhat tainted.
Harrison endured an embarrassing courtroom loss in 1976 when he was found to have “subconsciously plagiarized” the Chiffons song “He’s So Fine” for the melody and composition of “My Sweet Lord.” Harrison had also stumbled badly with the logistics of the Bangladesh effort, which was not technically set up as a charity. The proceeds would be tied up for a decade before they reached the impoverished refugees in the troubled South Asian country.
Those setbacks, along with his less than heralded 1974 concert tour, his 1977 divorce from actress-model Patti Boyd and Lennon’s murder in 1980, fed Harrison’s desire for privacy. He repeatedly stepped away from the music world for extended stretches, including a 17-year absence from the tour circuit and a five-year hiatus from recording following the 1982 album “Gone Troppo.” In the interim he turned to his film production company, Formula One auto racing and gardening to fill his days. The most reserved member of the world’s most famous band did not regret any days spent out of the spotlight.
“I’ve never been that good at being a promoter of myself, doing TV interviews or whatever,” he told The Times in 1987. In the same interview, he reflected on his Beatles years as a time of confinement by celebrity: “We had a great laugh, really, when we were good friends, though we were like caged animals most of the time.”
In the post-Beatles years, McCartney thrived with solo hits and his band Wings, Lennon enhanced his role as an edgy cultural force and Starr rode his amiable persona into an erratic music and film career. Harrison, meanwhile, was again the least visible following his Bangladesh work. He did, however, have the first and final word among his bandmates when it came to solo chart hits: In 1971, his “My Sweet Lord” was the first No. 1 hit by a former Beatle and his “Got My Mind Set on You” in 1987 stands as the most recent No. 1 single by any of the Fab Four.
Harrison also joined another band--the informal and temporary recording collective called the Traveling Wilburys, with Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne. The all-star group put Harrison in an interesting context: He was teamed with one of the heroes of his youth in Orbison, one of his 1960s contemporaries in Dylan and one of the Beatles’ most obvious musical acolytes in Lynne, formerly of the Electric Light Orchestra.
Harrison made a mark in the film world too, as co-founder of HandMade Films, the production company that brought a series of projects featuring members of the Monty Python comedy troupe to the silver screen, including “Life of Brian,” “Time Bandits” and “The Missionary.” His producing career would include critically acclaimed fare, such as “Mona Lisa” in 1986, and a famous flop in “Shanghai Surprise,” with then-couple Madonna and Sean Penn, in 1986. Still, the lasting glare of the Beatles’ success overpowered any other Harrison pursuit or public identity, a fact he grudgingly acknowledged.
“The Beatles exist apart from my self,” he told Newsweek in 1995. “I am not really Beatle George. Beatle George is like a suit or a shirt that I once wore on occasion, and until the end of my life people may see that shirt and mistake it for me.”
Born in Liverpool in northwest England on Feb. 25, 1943, Harrison was one of four children growing up in the lower-middle-class home of Harold and Louise Harrison. His father, a seaman turned bus driver, had an extensive record collection that included the “singing brakeman,” country singer Jimmie Rodgers. It was the guitar work on a Rodgers record that Harrison would later recall as his first impression of the instrument that would eventually define his life’s direction.
The young Harrison was remembered by family and friends as a taciturn and independent child. Even as a toddler he resented his mother dropping him off at school, according to “Shout!” a Beatles biography by Philip Norman. Harrison also showed a willful streak by wearing outlandish outfits to school or dozing off in class.
The lad was a middling student with a fondness for sports, but by 1956, it was the sound of American rock ‘n’ roll by the likes of Fats Domino and Elvis Presley that dominated his attention. He would also recount later that the 1956 hit version of “Rock Island Line” by British skiffle singer Lonnie Donegan inspired a special plea to his mother: Could he have money to buy an acoustic guitar from a classmate at Dovedale Road Junior School? She agreed and soon the boy was diligently educating himself in chords.
The same year of “Rock Island Line,” Harrison started his first band, the Rebels, and also met a new friend on a school bus, an older student at Liverpool Institute named Paul McCartney. The two shared an interest in skiffle, a spirited folk-based sound that became a craze in the U.K. Harrison’s home in the Speke district of Liverpool became their daily meeting place to practice and swap thoughts on skiffle and the intriguing rock ‘n’ roll imports. Eddie Cochran, Duane Eddy and Carl Perkins were among the players who would most inform young Harrison’s style.
In 1957, at age 14, Harrison was ushered by McCartney into a new band, the Quarrymen, which had been founded by another Liverpool youngster under the thrall of U.S. music: John Lennon.
From Unknown Five to Fab Four in a Flash
By 1960, the three would be joined by bassist Stuart Sutcliffe (who quit in 1961) and drummer Pete Best and be known as the Beatles, a moniker inspired by Buddy Holly’s band, the Crickets. That year they got their first major booking, a steady gig at the Indra Club in the red-light district of Hamburg, Germany. They played marathon shows--six, seven hours or longer--and honed their sound in the gritty setting in front of boozy, unforgiving crowds.
Their success moved them to larger clubs but their Hamburg career was cut short when Harrison, still a minor, ran afoul of local labor laws. They returned to Liverpool a leaner, sharper band and, by 1962, had a recording contract with Parlophone/EMI Records. They also had a new drummer, Richard Starkey, who went by the stage name Ringo Starr.
Amazingly, the Beatles were soon stepping onto the global stage as a pop music force. Their fresh, energetic music and new fashion made the U.S. pop of the day seem sleepy and sappy.
In 1963 the group also recorded its first Harrison composition, “Don’t Bother Me,” and the guitarist would later say he was more intimidated by bringing his song into the studio then he was walking onto arena stages. And with good reason: McCartney and Lennon were already established as the group’s songwriting machine with such hits as “Love Me Do,” “Please Please Me” and others.
As fans and the press began to size up these new stars in the U.S. in 1964, Lennon and McCartney would be front and center while Starr would become the cartoonish hound dog. Harrison, gaunt and stilted, was, almost by default, labeled “the quiet Beatle.” Harrison was the least comfortable with screaming fans and the first in the group to champion the full-time shift to the recording studio as the touring life became less and less satisfying.
The Beatles films “A Hard Day’s Night” and “Help!” only reinforced the image of Harrison as the shy one in the witty quartet. It was on the set of “Help!” in April 1965, during the filming of a scene in an Indian restaurant, that Harrison first picked up an intriguing new instrument--the sitar. That random moment would send Harrison on a new path as he became fascinated with the exotic stringed instrument, just as he had been mesmerized by a guitar during his childhood. In a matter of months, Harrison crossed paths with Indian sitar virtuoso Ravi Shankar, who in short order became a mentor and new collaborator for the Beatle.
Sitar, Ravi Shankar as Instruments of Growth
Harrison memorably introduced the sitar into the Beatles catalog--and to the ears of many pop fans--on “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown),” a haunting song Lennon wrote in 1965 as a dark essaying of an extramarital affair. The song on “Rubber Soul,” acclaimed by many Beatles scholars as perhaps the band’s finest album, served notice that the group was pushing into new musical territories. On their next album, “Revolver,” Harrison composed “Love You To” entirely on the sitar.
More than a novel sonic direction, the sitar was a doorway for Harrison into a spiritual journey. He traveled to India, immersed himself in Eastern philosophies and became a student of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. His conversion to Hinduism would not only help him deal with the disconcerting effects of celebrity life--he would be viewed by some as an almost ascetic rock star--it would infuse his music and worldview. The other Beatles joined in the mystic exploration in varying but lesser degrees and, coming at a time when the maturing band was experimenting with psychedelic drugs, their music took on new ambitions that tested the definitions of pop.
For Harrison, his new mind-set, musically and spiritually, was first summed up in a recording with the song “Within You Without You” on the seminal album “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” The song featured an array of instruments, including dilruba, tabla, surmandel, tamaboura drone and cello, and its lyrics implored that ego be set aside in the name of unity and love, a manifestation of Harrison’s spiritual education.
Harrison traveled regularly to India and became a champion of the nation’s elite musical talents. Years before “world music” would become a staple genre at U.S. record stores, he was lending his considerable cachet to bringing the Indian sounds to Western pop audiences. While still a Beatle in late 1968, he became the first in the band to release a solo album, the sitar-heavy instrumental disc “Wonderwall Music,” a film soundtrack.
For all his growth, though, Harrison felt his role within the Beatles was unfairly stunted. His songs were confined to one or two tracks per album while Lennon and McCartney piled up hit after hit and Starr would be given an occasional track that highlighted his endearing but comical personality.
Beatles producer George Martin, famed mentor to the group, reflected Friday on Harrison’s sometimes uncomfortable spot in the band’s ranks.
“He was the baby of the Beatles, and unlike Paul and John, he had a hard time developing his songwriting talent and making his music alone,” Martin said. “But he worked hard and with enormous patience, building his music meticulously.”
In a telling footnote, the first time a Harrison song even appeared on a Beatles single was in March 1968--just two years before the group split--when “The Inner Light” was included as the B-side to “Lady Madonna.”
Through the Beatles years, the Harrison songbook grew to include “Think for Yourself,” “I Want To Tell You,” “If I Needed Someone,” “You Like Me Too Much.” “It’s All Too Much,” “Blue Jay Way,” “I Need You,” “I Me Mine,” “Old Brown Shoe,” “Savoy Truffle” and “For You Blue.”
It was in the darkest days of the Beatles that Harrison penned one of the band’s most earnestly optimistic songs. During bitter feuds over its management and direction, Harrison fled the boardroom wranglings to the countryside to visit a friend, famed guitarist Eric Clapton. Walking in a garden with one of Clapton’s acoustic guitars, Harrison felt a wave of relief from the summery weather and composed “Here Comes the Sun.”
“It was such a great release for me simply being out in the sun,” George told interviewers at the time. “The song just came to me.”
A far less rosy attitude resulted in Harrison’s “Only a Northern Song,” written in 1967 as an obvious jab at Lennon, McCartney and the Beatles business operations. Northern Songs was the name of the Beatles music publishing company and, at the time, Lennon and McCartney held 30% of the shares while Harrison and Starr had less than 2% each--meaning a far smaller slice of an extremely lucrative pie. The lyrics: “It doesn’t really matter what chords I play/What words I say or time of day it is/As it’s only a northern song.”
Originally intended for “Sgt. Pepper,” “It’s Only a Northern Song” was ultimately relegated to “Yellow Submarine,” the animated film and soundtrack that depicted the Beatles on a psychedelic fairy tale. Tellingly, in the cartoon (which the Beatles had no meaningful creative involvement in making) Harrison was depicted as a bearded, levitating figure, a mod holy man of sorts. He was no longer the meek Beatle with the shy, toothy grin in “Help!” but he was no less enigmatic.
Another Harrison song, “Piggies,” off the 1968 collection popularly referred to as “The White Album,” became a historical footnote to the notorious 1969 murder spree of the Manson “family.” Harrison’s lyrics were intended as commentary on class by comparing the bourgeoise to pigs, but cult leader Charles Manson would say he heard in the words a warning of looming race wars and a call to slaughter using knives and forks. Police linked the Manson family’s eight Southern California murders by the use of victims’ blood to write “pig,” “pigs” or “piggies” at the three crime scenes.
Harrison was aghast at the song’s tangential infamy and the entire episode contributed to his deepening unease in public places. Years later, Lennon’s murder by a mentally unbalanced fan in New York City heightened those anxieties. “After what happened to John,” he said in 1984, “I’m absolutely terrified.” Harrison’s fears, it turned out, were not unwarranted.
In December 1999, a 33-year-old Liverpool man described as an obsessed Beatles fan broke into Harrison’s 120-room mansion, Friar Park, a former nunnery in Henley-on-Thames, 25 miles west of London. Somehow the intruder got past the razor wire atop the home’s fences and the high-tech security systems monitoring its corridors. Confronted by Harrison, the man attacked with a knife.
Harrison, facing the potential fate he had feared since Lennon’s slaying years earlier, grappled with the man. His wife rushed to his aid and the couple managed to fend off and subdue the intruder. Harrison suffered slashes and an inch-deep stab wound that collapsed his right lung and his wife sustained minor injuries.
Olivia Arias Harrison was the Beatle’s second wife. He had married British actress-model Patricia Anne Boyd in January 1966 and the relationship, along with Harrison’s longtime friendship to guitarist Clapton, led to a love triangle that became part of rock lore. Clapton (who had memorably collaborated with Harrison on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and the Cream song “Badge”) fell in love with Boyd and later conceded she was the subject of the classic rock torch song “Layla.” Harrison and Boyd divorced in 1977 and, two years later, she married Clapton. The two men, however, remained close friends throughout.
Fans Got False Hope From Final Recording
In 1978, Harrison married Arias, an employee at his record label, shortly after the birth of their son, Dhani Harrison. The elder Harrison and his son, now 23, co-wrote a song titled “Horse to the Water” that the former Beatle recorded in October with Jools Holland, former keyboardist in the British pop group Squeeze.
That recording session became a source of optimism for Harrison’s fans who had been distressed in recent months with reports and rumors about the former Beatle’s grave health. Harrison, a longtime smoker, in 1998 had revealed his first bout with cancer--treated at the time by radiation and the removal of a lump on his throat--and that was followed with treatments for lung cancer. Earlier this year he acknowledged he was being treated at a Swiss clinic for a brain tumor.
In July, a furious Harrison lashed out at a British newspaper’s report that he was near death. The article quoted former Beatles producer George Martin saying that Harrison “knows he is going to die soon and he’s accepting it perfectly happily.”
Martin adamantly disputed the quote and a journalist with the London Mail resigned amid the ensuing furor.
The prying into his health offended Harrison’s intensifying desire for privacy. The reported site of his death--the home of De Becker, famous in celebrity circles as head of a noted private security firm--was perhaps a fitting footnote to the most reluctant Beatle’s desire for seclusion.
Harrison had come to Los Angeles after intensive radiation therapy at the Staten Island University Hospital in New York. Dr. Gil Lederman, that hospital’s director of radiation oncology, said his patient and friend headed west to be in the company of the Arias family. Lederman said he expects Harrison’s confidants will keep a tight rein on information about the former Beatle’s final days, a nod to his emphasis on privacy.
“You won’t get an answer from anyone in the entourage. . . . They don’t want to see anything in the papers, quite frankly,” Lederman said.
But as news of Harrison’s death spread in Los Angeles, people convened at a shrine assembled on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and at the Beatles’ star.
Wearing Beatles shirts, they carried flowers and incense, placards and candles. They brought their children.
Passing cars played Beatles music, and a large banner with a peace symbol read: “George, You Gave to the World.”
Shrine visitor Stephen Gries, 49, who had read the news in the wee hours, said, “I thought, my God. . . . When all is said and done, every guitarist owes a debt of gratitude to George Harrison. He was the greatest pop guitarist, period.”
Harrison’s hunger for privacy was also offended through the years by the endless speculation about the potential of a Beatles reunion.
The guitarist’s view of his former bandmates Lennon and McCartney veered through the years from cordial to bitter to sentimental, like stubborn siblings in a family torn apart by emotional betrayals.
In 1989, Harrison shot down a reunion overture by McCartney by telling an interviewer, “As far as I’m concerned, there won’t be a Beatles reunion as long as John Lennon remains dead.” A few years later he added a dash of venom by saying that “every time Paul needs some publicity, he announces to the press that we’re getting back together again. I wouldn’t pay much attention to that.”
Other times Harrison softened. He memorably spoofed the reunion issue with a 1976 appearance on “Saturday Night Live” where he played along with a skit in which the show’s producer, Lorne Michaels, offered Harrison and his old mates a whopping $3,000 to perform together.
After Lennon’s death, Harrison reflected on his Beatles friendships with the gentle song “All Those Years Ago,” recalling the halcyon times with his mates, and in 1987 he elaborated on that with “When We Was Fab,” a buoyant nod to the group’s glory days. In 1995, Harrison joined McCartney, Starr and Yoko Ono, Lennon’s widow, in releasing a project that was both commercially and archival minded: “Anthology.”
“Anthology” was an album of Beatles rarities and a newly recorded single, “Free As a Bird,” which, in a sense, finally gave fans the Beatles reunion they so desired. It was an unfinished Lennon song, recorded in 1977, that was grafted together with new contributions from the surviving trio and production by Lynne, Harrison’s Wilbury compatriot. The “Anthology” project would lead to a total of six discs of unreleased material, a 10-hour video history and a large tome collecting photos and the reminiscences of Harrison, McCartney and Starr.
Last year, any questions about the vitality of the Beatles legacy was answered by the huge success of “1,” a new package of the Beatles’ No. 1 chart hits that became one of the best-selling albums of the year.
The “1" disc features 27 tracks--26 credited to the Lennon and McCartney songwriting tandem, and one to Harrison, the 1969 hit “Something,” an uncertain valentine of a song that is his best-known work. “You’re asking me will my love grow/I don’t know, I don’t know/You stick around now it may show/I don’t know, I don’t know.”
“Something” would become a defining triumph for Harrison even as the Beatles were winding down. In just the first decade after its release, more than 150 different artists would record their own versions of “Something” and, to date, the only Beatles song available in more versions is McCartney’s forlorn classic “Yesterday.” Frank Sinatra, an unkind critic of the Beatles in their earlier years, was among the many artists who recorded “Something” and he praised it as “the greatest love song of the past 50 years.” But, in an unintended but painful reminder of Harrison’s struggle for acknowledgment, Sinatra would also introduce the song in concert as “one of my favorite Lennon and McCartney songs.”
Harrison is survived by his wife, Olivia Arias; his son, Dhani; and his siblings, Louise Caldwell and brothers Peter and Harry. His friend, De Becker, said a private ceremony has already taken place.
More on George Harrison’s life is available in a multimedia presentation on The Times’ Web site. Go to latimes.com/harrison.