“I play a little guitar, write a few tunes, make a few movies, but none of that’s really me,” George Harrison once said. “The real me is something else.” Harrison was many things – including a master of understatement. But he was right to point out that his true character remains elusive. He was one of the most famous men in the world, but he loathed superstardom. He preached piety and simple pleasures, yet he lived in a 120-room mansion and collected ultra high-end cars. His studious facade belayed a brilliant sense of humor, which led him to produce some of the greatest comedies of all time. The songs he wrote focused on both the glory of God and the petty annoyances of day-to-day life.
While undoubtedly proud of the band that vaulted him into immortality, he was loath to measure himself by their success. “The Beatles exist apart from myself,” he once said. “I am not really Beatle George. Beatle George is like a suit or shirt that I once wore on occasion, and until the end of my life people may see that shirt and mistake it for me.” It’s been 15 years since Harrison’s death, so today we honor the man with 10 tales that shine a light on his life outside the mop-topped artifice of the Fab Four.
1. He visited the United States before any of his fellow Beatles, and played a show with another band.
Americans regard the Beatles’ arrival at the newly renamed John F. Kennedy International Airport on February 7th, 1964, as a seismic event in popular culture, but only a handful of citizens realized that one of the Fabs had already walked among them. “I’d been to America before, being the experienced Beatle that I was,” Harrison recalled in 1995’s Beatles Anthology documentary. “I went to New York and St. Louis in 1963, to look around, and to the countryside in Illinois, where my sister was living at the time.”
The Beatles had exploded on the British scene by September 1963 thanks to a string of Number One hits and a chart-topping debut album, Please Please Me. Flush with their newfound success after years of toiling in obscurity, they decided it was time for some much needed R&R. John Lennon took his then-wife Cynthia to Paris, while Paul McCartney opted for the sunny shores of Greece. Ringo Starr had originally planned on joining Harrison on his trip across the pond, but ultimately decided to travel with McCartney instead. So on September 16th, Harrison became the first Beatle to touch down on American soil, accompanied by his older brother, Peter.
The pair stayed at their elder sister Louise “Lou” Caldwell’s home at 113 McCann Street in Benton, Illinois, where she had recently immigrated with her husband Gordon, an engineer at a nearby coal mine. The quiet town was a welcome respite for Harrison, who dreaded dealing with the hassles of “Beatlemania” raging back home in Britain. In the States, he could come and go as he pleased, moving freely with total anonymity. The siblings spent several happy nights camping at the Shawnee National Forest. They even ate at a burger joint, where a fascinated Harrison gaped at the sight of waitresses on roller skates.
Louise introduced Harrison to her friend Gabe McCarty, an employee at the local dry cleaner who worked nights in a band called the Four Vests. The two musicians hit it off, and McCarty became Harrison’s guide for much of his stay in Benton. They visited the town’s only record store, where Harrison gleefully snapped up a stack of albums and singles. “I bought Booker T and the M.G.’s’ first album, Green Onions, and I bought some Bobby Bland, [and] all kind of things,” he says in the Anthology. He also purchased a record called “Got My Mind Set on You” by James Ray, which he would cover almost 25 years later.
When Harrison asked the sales clerk if they had any Beatles records in stock, he was met with a confused blank stare. So he was forced to bring his own copy to the WFRX-AM radio station in West Frankfort, where he hitchhiked with Caldwell to plug the Beatles’ recent overseas smash, “She Loves You.” DJ Marcia Schafer, then just 17, dutifully played the song. “Louise came to the station several times over the summer asking us to play the Beatles’ music, which up to that time had only been available in England,” she told the Illinois Times in 2013.
More than the music, it was his outfit – jeans, white shirt and sandals – that made an impression on her. “He was unusual-looking. He dressed differently than the guys here. He was very soft-spoken and polite.” Later she conducted Harrison’s first Stateside interview, which would be printed in her high school newspaper. When asked about his favorite things, the 20-year-old Beatle replied: “Small blondes … , driving, sleeping … , Eartha Kitt, eggs and chips, and Alfred Hitchcock movies.”
Music was a major theme of Harrison’s trip. On the hunt for a new American-made guitar, Harrison, along with McCarty and his Four Vests bandmate Vernon Mandrell, traveled 40 miles to Fenton’s Music Store, where the Englishman laid down 400 dollars for a Rickenbacker 425 solid body. Harrison wasn’t crazy about the red Fireglo finish, so he had it painted black to match Lennon’s guitar. It would remain in his onstage arsenal until being replaced by the more famous Rickenbacker 360 12-string prototype the following year.
Now that he had a new guitar, he needed a place to play it. So McCarty and Mandrell invited Harrison to sit in at their upcoming gig at a VFW Hall in Eldorado, Illinois. That Saturday, September 28th, the Four Vests welcomed “the Elvis of England” to the stage. Though he had also jammed at Benton’s Boccie Ball Club and on the sales floor of Fenton’s Music Store, this would be the first real performance by any of the Beatles in the United States. Harrison had given the band a few Beatle records, but they decided to stick to the classics: “Roll Over Beethoven” and “Johnny B. Goode” by Chuck Berry, Carl Perkins’ “Matchbox,” and Hank Williams’ “Your Cheatin’ Heart.”
The crowd was electrified – stamping their feet, clapping their hands and showing all the early symptoms of Beatlemania. One friendly man approached Harrison after the 40-minute set. “With the right breaks, you could really go places,” he encouraged. The experience was so enjoyable that Harrison vowed to return to the VFW with his own band sometime the next year. It wouldn’t quite happen like that.
The next day, Harrison and his new friends left Benton to visit St. Louis and New York City. Like good tourists they snapped lots of photos, which have since taken on a surreal quality. In the images, Harrison sports the familiar mop-top, tailored suit and knitted tie that he would soon make famous, yet he looks oddly alien amid his fellow sightseers. As he scopes out the Empire State Building observation deck, Liberty Island, and the terrace of a midtown high-rise, he is completely ignored. When he returned to the city just a few months later, it would mark the beginning of the unprecedented chaos that continued for the rest of his life.
2. He was the first Beatle to release a solo album, with a little help from Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton and one of the Monkees.
New York–born Joe Massot had been shooting documentaries for Fidel Castro before the Cuban Missile Crisis forced him to flee to London, where he fell in with a social circle that included Roman Polanski and screenwriter Gerard Branch. It was Branch who conceived of Wonderwall, the story of an elderly man who becomes obsessed with spying on a young model next door through a hole in his wall. Once Massot signed on to direct the film in 1967, it became the cinematic equivalent of a swirling psychedelic trip.
For set dressers, he enlisted the help of Dutch design collective the Fool, who had spent earlier part of the year painting the walls of Harrison’s home, the exterior of Lennon’s Rolls-Royce, and the Beatles’ first (and only) foray into commercial retail, the Apple Boutique. The store’s grand opening gala gave Massot the chance to approach Harrison about providing a soundtrack to the film. His original choice, the Bee Gees, had turned him down, but Harrison proved more receptive.
“I told him, ‘I don’t do music to films,’” Harrison remembered in The Beatles Anthology. “And he said, ‘Well, whatever you give me, I’ll have it.’ I thought, ‘I’ll give them an Indian music anthology, and, who knows, maybe a few hippies will get turned on to Indian music.’” The film’s investors, eager to have a Beatle’s name attached to the project, gave him carte blanche. Free from the rigid confines of the Lennon-and-McCartney-helmed Beatles, Harrison let his imagination run wild.
He viewed a rough cut of the film to time the sequences that needed scoring. “I had a regular wind-up stopwatch and I watched the film to ‘spot-in’ the music with the watch,” he said in the soundtrack’s liner notes in 1992. “I wrote the timings down in my book, then I’d go to [the recording studio], make up a piece, and record it.” For more ambitious ideas, he would sing tunes to John Barham – an arranger and, like Harrison, a former student of sitar virtuoso Ravi Shankar. The shared love of both Western and Indian music would forge a powerful bond between the two, and they would later collaborate on Harrison’s All Things Must Pass and Living in the Material World.
Preliminary work on the soundtrack began in November 1967 at London’s EMI Studios at Abbey Road. For help, Harrison called upon a number of old friends: Ringo Starr manned the drums, Eric Clapton took lead guitar, and Peter Tork of the Monkees played banjo. The Remo Four, old schoolmates of Harrison’s and fellow denizens of the Merseyside club scene, also pitched in.
Sessions continued in several London studios until January 9th, when Harrison decamped to HMV Studios in Bombay (now Mumbai) to record the majority of the Indian compositions. For five days he struggled with antiquated 2-track machines and poor soundproofing. The sound of street traffic bled onto several songs, notably “In the Park.”
Despite the technical challenges, these recordings form the most enriching pieces on the album. Immersed in exotic sounds, Harrison utilized comparatively uncommon instruments like the shenai (a reed instrument similar to the oboe, typically used in religious ceremonies), the lute-like sarod and a 100-stringed hammered dulcimer called a santoor. To translate his musical vision, he had help from Shambu Das, another Shankar protégé. Prior to his return to London, he found time to also record the basic track for “The Inner Light,” later released as a B side to the Beatles’ “Lady Madonna.”
Work continued in England until mid-February, when Harrison was due to fly back to India to study Transcendental Meditation with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi alongside the other Beatles. By this point he had spent 15,000 pounds on a project that had an allotted budget of 600 pounds. Harrison paid the difference himself.
It was a small price to pay for the ultimate token of autonomy. Wonderwall Music was a first solo album from any of the Beatles, as well as the first LP issued by their new label, Apple Records. Released on November 1st, 1968, it beat the White Album into shops by several weeks. The disc broke the Billboard Top 50 in the United States, but the parent film did not fare as well. The Times panned Wonderwall as “a right load of old codswallop,” and many other critics agreed.
Harrison grew to have a dim view of the album in later years, eventually dismissing the work as “loads of horrible Mellotron stuff and a police siren.” This opinion led to Wonderwall Music earning the dubious distinction of being the first Beatles-related release to be deleted from Apple’s catalogue (albeit briefly). Still, some praised the daring collection as an innovative blend of Western and international music. Quincy Jones described the album as the greatest soundtrack he had heard, according to author Spencer Leigh.
“It’s such a deep, psychedelic record,” Harrison’s son Dhani told Rolling Stone in 2014. “I remember getting a CD of it in the early Nineties and thinking, ‘What is this?’ You’re sitting there, almost meditating to the music, literally drooling in your lap. Then a shenai will come in and practically take the top of your head off. … it’s a full-on freakout record.”
3. He invited the Hells Angels to stay at the Beatles’ London offices.
On December 4th, 1968, the staff at the Beatles’ Apple Records headquarters in London’s exclusive Savile Row received a puzzling memo:
“Hells Angels will be in London within the next week, on the way to straighten out Czechoslovakia [a reference to the current political upheaval]. There will be 12 in number complete with black leather jackets and motorcycles. They will undoubtedly arrive at Apple and I have heard they may try to make full use of Apple’s facilities. They may look as though they are going to do you in but are very straight and do good things, so don’t fear them or up-tight them. Try to assist them without neglecting your Apple business and without letting them take control of Savile Row. – George Harrison”
For Richard DiLello, the Apple Records “house hippie,” the unexpected was just business as usual. “Not a day went by that there was not some totally tripped-out crisis and/or triumph to deal with,” he told Mojo in 2004.
Harrison had encountered representatives of the infamous motorcycle gang during a visit to San Francisco earlier that fall. “George had said, ‘Oh, if you ever come to England, look us up,’ or something,” Beatles confidant and future Apple Records president Neil Aspinall said in the Anthology. “A couple of months later the motorbikes were outside Savile Row with these guys saying, ‘Well, George said it was OK.’ They ended up living at Apple and terrifying everybody.” (“That’s how much love was around,” Starr notes wryly.)
According to Harrison, Apple staff didn’t realize the guests were arriving until they were practically on their doorstep. “[Press officer] Derek [Taylor] got a phone call one morning from Customs and Excise saying, ‘Is this right: we’ve got 17 Harley Davidsons that you’re going to pay the freight duty on?’” Not wanting anyone on his staff to “uptight them,” Harrison put out his memo. “It was a joke, but they were mean,” he said later.
Fortunately for the Brits, most of the Angels were unable to secure visas due to pending criminal charges or prison probation. Only two made it through Heathrow Airport: Frisco Pete and his swastika-tattooed companion, Billy Tumbleweed. In his memoir The Love You Make, Apple Records executive Peter Brown writes that their arrival “stopped all activity dead at Apple. The employees gathered in doorways and corners and tried not to stare as the contingent marched up the green-carpeted stairs, past the vulnerable gold records on the walls, and into the press office, where I waited with Derek Taylor. After a slightly horrified pause, I extended my hand to Frisco Pete and said as pleasantly as possible, ‘It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance, I’m sure,’ and promptly left the room.”
But it wasn’t just the Hells Angels. “Many others came as well,” says Taylor in the Anthology. “A homeless family from California moved into Apple and did actually live in one of the offices – a mother, and father and several children, with the San Francisco Hells Angels weaving in and out. … I would arrive and find the Hells Angels sitting around on the floor doing those physical things they did – a lot of scratching and farting and generally being awful.” The staff caustically referred to them as “the California Pleasure Crew” whenever they were out of earshot.
The Pleasure Crew arrived just in time for Apple’s decadent Christmas banquet on December 23rd, which promised to dazzle guests with a magician, Christmas tree, and an impossible bounty of food, drink and drugs – including a 43-pound turkey rumored to be the largest in Great Britain. Preparations began at nine that morning, and by 2:30 a children’s party was in full swing. Lucky kids devoured ice cream and cake, marveled at Ernest Castro and April’s magic act, and were received to presents from Father and Mother Christmas – played by John Lennon and Yoko Ono decked out in Santa costumes. According to DiLello’s memoir, The Longest Cocktail Party, Lennon’s deadpanned “Ho, ho, ho” was a highlight of the evening.
Festive gaiety was the prevailing mood until Frisco Pete chose a rather unsubtle way to announce that he was hungry and the trays of hor d’oeuvres were not satisfactory. “What the fuck is goin’ on in this place?! We wanna eat! What’s all this shit about havin’ to wait until seven?! There’s a 43-pound turkey in that kitchen and I want some of it now!”
The scene turned ugly as the famished Pete threw a punch in a huff, DiLello writes. “John Lennon, at this moment in his life a squeamish vegetarian, looked up at the frightening figure of Frisco Pete in total bewilderment. He knew nothing of the release schedule on the Largest Turkey in Great Britain.” Eventually, Brown was given the unsavory duty of explaining the Frisco Pete that he would have to wait just a little while longer.
All hell broke loose when the bird finally arrived. “A huge turkey came in on a big tray with four people carrying it,” Aspinall describes. “It was about 10 yards from the door to the table where they were going to put the turkey down, but it never made it. The Hells Angels just went ‘Woof!’ and everything disappeared: arms, legs, breast, everything. By the time it got to the table there was nothing there. They ripped the turkey to pieces, trampling young children underfoot to get to it. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
After all that, Harrison didn’t even attend the gathering. “I didn’t go because I knew there was going to be trouble.”
Shortly after the Christmas incident, the staff decided they’d had enough. But getting rid of the Hells Angels would prove to be complicated. “They did get asked to leave Apple,” insists Aspinall. “I asked them, but they got into that hippy language: ‘Well, you didn’t invite us, so you can’t ask us to leave. …’ In other words, George had invited them, so George as going to have to ask them to go.”
So Harrison confronted them. Befitting the freewheeling era, he did it in the most roundabout way possible. “Well, are you moving all of your stuff out of here tonight?” he asked the group. The rhetorical question was met with a long, confused, awkward silence. Finally, one of them spoke up. “Hey, man, I just wanna ask you one question: Do you dig us or don’t you?”
Harrison’s answer? “Yin and yang, heads and tails, yes and no.”
In DeLillo’s estimation, this response “completely fucked everyone’s mind.” Aspinall clarified the riddle. “You know – ‘Bugger off!‘ And they said, ‘Well, if you put it that way, George, of course,’ and left.”
4. He wrote “Wah Wah” the day he quit the Beatles.
November 1968 had been a pleasant and productive period for Harrison. He spent Thanksgiving staying with Bob Dylan in Bearsville, New York, penning the delicate ballad “I’d Have You Anytime” with Dylan and jamming with the Band, stationed nearby in the infamous Big Pink house. When he returned to England in December, Harrison felt rejuvenated and ready to resume his day job in the Beatles. “I can remember feeling quite optimistic. I thought, ‘OK, it’s the New Year and we have a new approach to recording.’”
The new approach was to film and record rehearsals for a live concert of new material – to be released as a television special and album tentatively titled Get Back. Despite its high-concept multimedia framework, the music was intentionally stripped-down, straightforward rock, not dissimilar to the collaborative spirit of the Band.
That was the theory, at least. The collaborative spirit was notably absent when sessions began on January 2nd, 1969, at the Twickenham film studios, and Harrison laid the blame on McCartney. “At that point in time, Paul couldn’t see beyond himself,” Harrison told Guitar World in 2001. “He was on a roll, but … in his mind, everything that was going on around him was just there to accompany him. He wasn’t sensitive to stepping on other people’s egos or feelings.” (Harrison was quick to clarify that McCartney had “long since” apologized for any past misdeeds and misunderstandings.)
Future standouts like “Let It Down,” “Isn’t It a Pity” and even “Something” were all passed over with barely a second glance in favor of Lennon and McCartney’s new tracks. The same thing happened the following week, when Harrison brought in “Hear Me Lord,” which he’d written over the weekend. Footage shows the band’s world famous songwriting duo messing around at the other end of the soundstage while Harrison attempts to demo his latest composition. He would never play it again at a Beatles session.
It’s little surprise that he snaps later in the day after McCartney browbeat him over a guitar solo. “I’ll play whatever you want me to play, or I won’t play at all,” Harrison says through clenched teeth. “Whatever will please you, I’ll do it.” Starr, who had briefly quit the band a few months earlier due in part to being “dominated” by McCartney, was sympathetic. “Paul wanted to point out the solo to George, who would say, ‘Look, I’m a guitarist. I’ll play the solo,’” he said in The Beatles Anthology. “And he always did, he always played fine solos.”
Two days later, on January 8th, Harrison debuted the song “I Me Mine,” only to be met with more indifference, and even a snide comment from Lennon. In retaliation, Harrison voiced his frustration with the constant presence of his romantic partner, Yoko Ono. “Dylan and a few people said she’s got a lousy name in New York,” Lennon remembers him saying. With nerves dulled with an increasingly serious heroin addition, Lennon grew more sullen, withdrawn and infuriating to Harrison.
Tensions finally erupted during a lunch break on January 10th. Though the specifics of the argument aren’t known for certain, they aren’t difficult to guess. Having allegedly come to blows with Lennon, Harrison informed the remaining bandmates that he was done. “I just got so fed up with the bad vibes,” he told Musician magazine in 1987. “I didn’t care if it was the Beatles, I was getting out.” After sarcastically suggesting they advertise for his replacement in the music trade paper NME, he left with a withering “See you ’round the clubs.”
He drove home to his bungalow in Surrey, reached for his guitar, and let his anger flow along with the music. Before the afternoon was over, he had composed the furious “Wah Wah.” Named in part for a guitar effects pedal, Harrison admitted in his 1980 biography I, Me, Mine that the true message of the song was: “You’re giving me a bloody headache.” More than just a kiss-off to Lennon and McCartney, it served as a musical declaration of independence to anyone who’d underestimated him.
Back at the studio, Lennon did his best to pretend that the problem wasn’t serious. “I think if George doesn’t come back by Monday or Tuesday, we ask Eric Clapton to play,” he told Get Back director Michael Lindsay-Hogg. “We should just go on as if nothing’s happened.” Saner heads prevailed, and the band held a series of mediations. Harrison was talked into returning to the fold, but only if they drastically scaled back production on Get Back.
He was back in the studio, but never truly back in the band. After the Beatles split for good in April 1970, “Wah Wah” became the first song recorded for his new album, All Things Must Pass.
5. He pranked Phil Collins for his uncredited contribution to All Things Must Pass.
Collins’ connection with the Beatles dates back to 1964, when he was hired as an extra in their first feature film, A Hard Day’s Night. Then just 13, he spent the day alongside hundreds of fellow teenagers instructed to shout at the top of their lungs during the climactic television concert scene. Unfortunately, his musical purism ended up costing him screen time. “They wanted kids that were screaming, and I just sat still, which is probably why I was cut out of the film,” Collins told Rolling Stone in 2016. “I remember thinking, ‘For crying out loud, will you stop screaming? Let’s listen to the music!’”
His second experience with one of the Fabs was equally disappointing. In 1970 he was booked to play congas on a session for “The Art of Dying,” to be included on All Things Must Pass. “One night, our managers called me and said, ‘You want to go down to Abbey Road?’” he remembers. “I said, ‘I’m a bit busy, I’ve just had a bath.’ And they said, ‘Well, it’s for George Harrison.’ I went, ‘I’ll get a cab.’ I walked in and there was Ringo Starr, Billy Preston, Phil Spector, Klaus Voorman, Badfinger, [guitarist] Pete Drake, [Beatles road manager] Mal Evans and George. Spector was introduced in this brusque way. He was like, ‘Who is this young guy, thinks he can play with the Beatles?’”
Eager to prove his worth, the 19-year-old attacked the song with brute force during the run-throughs – and soon he had the scars to prove it. By the time the recording began, his hands were raw and he could barely play. “After 90 minutes, I had blood blisters. They took a break, and then Ringo’s chauffeur came and said, ‘You’re finished.’” The sound of congas, if they appear at all, can’t be heard on the final mix. “When All Things Must Pass came out, I looked through the credits and there was no mention of me,” he says.
Harrison himself remained unaware of Collins’ participation until 2001, when he was assembling a remastered package of the album in celebration of its 30th anniversary. He and Collins had become friendly in the intervening decades, so Harrison decided to have a little fun with the Genesis superstar. As an apology for not crediting him on the original release, he sent Collins a version of the song that he claimed featured his lost percussion contributions.
“I got a tape from George of the song that I played with the congas quite loud,” Collins told EW. “I thought, Oh, my god, this sounds terrible. In fact, it was a Harrison joke. He’d recorded [percussionist] Ray Cooper. [He said,] ‘Play bad, I’m going to record it and send it to Phil.’ I couldn’t believe that a Beatle had actually spent that much time on a practical joke for me.”
6. He once wrote a song about a pirate – which he performed on TV in full pirate regalia.
Harrison once praised the groundbreaking British comedy series Monty Python’s Flying Circus as “the only sane thing on television.” Something about the anarchic humor – an extension of Spike Milligan’s Goon Show series of his youth, stretched to its illogical conclusion – resonated deeply with him. “George was always convinced that the spirit of the Beatles went into Python,” director and Python member Terry Gilliam told The Telegraph in 2009. “The year they broke up was the year we came together – 1969. George was our patron.”
Harrison famously mortgaged his 120-room Friar Park mansion in order to finance their 1979 film Life of Brian after EMI balked at the potentially blasphemous subject matter and pulled out just two days before shooting was scheduled to begin. In the end, the total cost was 3 million pounds. “He paid for it because he wanted to see it,” Python member Eric Idle recalled. “The most anybody’s ever paid for a cinema ticket in history.”
The experience led to the creation of Handmade Films, a production company through which Harrison funded a number of post-Python projects (most notably Time Bandits, A Private Function and Nuns on the Run). But in addition to his work behind the scenes, he occasionally helped out in front of the camera.
On the 1975 Christmas special of Idle’s Rutland Weekend Television series, Harrison makes an extended cameo as himself – or rather, himself as “Pirate Bob,” a surprisingly convincing marauder, complete with a peg leg. “I’m not here to sing, I’m here to act!” he snarls. Harrison/Pirate Bob turns up intermittently throughout the show, interrupting sketches in search of his big chance to showcase his acting chops, only to be turned down by Idle, who just wants him to play himself.
At the end of the show he takes to the stage, backed by a full band. After strumming the introduction to his hit “My Sweet Lord,” then the subject of a highly publicized plagiarism battle, he abruptly shifts into to a rowdy sea shanty called “The Pirate Song,” written by himself and Idle. Nautically themed dancers flood the stage, hilarity ensues, and credits roll.
7. He was the first Beatle to meet a U.S. president.
The Dark Horse tour in 1974 was supposed to give Harrison the chance to play tracks from his latest album and spread the gospel of his beloved Indian music. But given its status as the first North American trek undertaken by any of the Beatles since 1966, the tour was overshadowed by a fresh wave of Fab Four nostalgia. Harrison’s defiant refusal to bow to his past – he claimed the Beatles “[weren’t] that good” in a pre-tour press conference and flatly refused to be in a band with McCartney ever again – was seen as heresy by many. Any remaining goodwill evaporated after the first few dates, when critics slammed Harrison’s laryngitis-ravaged vocals and insistence that Ravi Shankar’s orchestra receive a considerable amount of stage time. The abuse received during the so-called “Dark Hoarse” tour put him off of touring until 1991.
But 22-year-old Jack Ford enjoyed the show. The son of newly inaugurated President Gerald Ford caught the November 16th concert in Salt Lake City, and used his influence to get backstage and meet the headliners. Ford invited Harrison and the band to drop by the White House if they had the chance.
On December 13th, the young Ford greeted Harrison, his father Harry Harrison, and tourmates Ravi Shankar, Billy Preston and saxophonist Tom Scott outside the White House before welcoming them into the solarium for a lunch of beef and vegetables – while Dark Horse played in the background. After a quick tour of the Executive Mansion led by Jack’s sister Susan Ford, they waited in the Cabinet Room to meet with the president himself. “We walked into the presidents’ conference room with the oval table and the chair and signs saying, ‘Secretary of Defense,’ ‘Secretary of this and that’ and we sat down in the chairs, clowning around,” recalls Scott. The group even managed to find the house piano and staged a short jam session while they waited.
Soon they were ushered into the Oval Office for their not-so-formal meeting with President Ford. “George was great at breaking the ice,” Scott told Rolling Stone at the time. Mindful of a priceless opportunity to promote one of his major platforms, Ford pinned a WIN (“Whip Inflation Now”) button on Harrison, who gave him an “Om” button in return. “[Ford] took us into this little side room where he had all this WIN paraphernalia – posters, watches, sweaters, T-shirts,” said Scott. “It looked just like the back room at [Harrison’s label] Dark Horse Records, which is loaded with T-shirts and bags and towels.”
Harrison and Ford spoke for close to 20 minutes, reportedly touching on John Lennon’s deportation drama, which had been largely orchestrated by Ford’s predecessor, Richard Nixon. White House photographer David Kennerly was on hand to document the historic moment.
While Harrison admitted that Ford was “not all that familiar with my music,” he found the president a congenial host. “He seemed very relaxed. He was much easier to meet than I would expect. You can imagine the number of things he’s got on his plate.”
8. He had a deep fascination with Formula One racing, and owned a million-dollar car.
Harrison’s love of fast vehicles predates his passion for music. “I was 12 when I saw Liverpool’s first British Grand Prix, in Aintree,” he remembered. “I followed Formula One until the time we started being professional musicians, and even then in the Sixties, though we were so busy, I caught a few races, mainly Monte Carlo.”
He possessed a number of powerful cars once the hefty Beatles’ profits began to roll in, including a Jaguar XKE, Ferrari 365 GTC, and an Aston Martin DB4. On February 28th, 1972, he had his license taken away for the second time that year after he crashed his Mercedes into a lamppost at 90 miles an hour, sending wife Patti Boyd flying into the windshield. She would spend the next few weeks recovering from a concussion.
The scary incident wasn’t enough to keep Harrison out of the fast lane. By the end of the Seventies he made friends with Jackie Stewart, the retired triple world champion Formula One driver. “It was really through him that I got backstage, and it’s much more interesting back there,” says Harrison. “Jackie was the outspoken world champion, and he lived to tell the story.”
Though the sport may seem initially seem like an odd choice for a man who often dismissed the secular world in favor of more pious pursuits, Stewart insists that F1 tapped into a meditative, almost spiritual side. “When you’re driving a racing car to the absolute limit of its ability, and that of your own ability, it’s a very unique emotion and experience,” he said in Martin Scorsese’s 2011 documentary Living in the Material World. “When that happens, your senses are so strong. That’s what I think George saw in racing. We talked about things like that a lot: heightened sense, of your feel and your touch and your feet. … If you listen to a really top guitarist, or any top musician, and how they can make that guitar talk, or that keyboard talk, or the skins talk, that’s another heightening of senses that is beyond the ken, the knowledge of any normal man or woman.”
Harrison later paid tribute to Stewart, and the entire F1 crew, with his 1979 song “Faster.” The proceeds went to support the cancer charity of late Swedish driver Gunnar Nilsson, who succumbed to the disease a year earlier. The video features Harrison being chauffeured around by Stewart himself. “It’s easy to write about V-8 engines and vroom vroom – that would have been bullshit,” Harrison told Mick Brown in 1979. “But I’m happy with the lyrics because it can be seen to be about one driver specifically or any of them, and if it didn’t have the motor-racing noises, it could be about the Fab Four really – the jealousies and things like that.”
In 1994, Harrison became one of 100 people to order a McLaren F1 road car. Once clocked at reaching 231 miles an hour, the vehicle retailed for upwards of 640,000 pounds – or $984,000.
“After George had commissioned the F1, he counted down the weeks,” McLaren designer Gordon Murray said in Living in the Material World. “Each car took three months to build. They were truly handmade. He almost drove us mad while we were building the car: ‘Could you fit just another elephant in?’ But it was good fun. As it got nearer the time for the collection, he could hardly wait. He loved the car, not just because it was something he’d seen from its conception right through to having his own personalized car, he loved it as a sports car as well. It’s a pretty frightening experience to drive one: 630 horsepower with no ABS, no power brakes, no power steering, no traction control. He loved that. And he loved the noise it made, as well.”
9. He named the Traveling Wilburys after a mistake in the studio.
The supergroup to end all supergroups had a serendipitous beginning, so it’s fitting that they’re named after Harrison’s slang term for an accident. The word “Wilbury” was invented while he was working on 1987’s Cloud Nine with Jeff Lynne as co-producer. When confronted with recording errors caused by faulty equipment, Harrison would assure Lynne, “We’ll bury ’em in the mix.” The line was eventually shortened to “Wilbury,” a catch-all descriptor for minor performance mistakes and imperfections.
Harrison would use the term again in the spring of 1988 during a laid-back session with some friends in Los Angeles. He had been tasked with writing a B side to a European 12-inch single, so he called Lynne, who was busy producing a new album for Roy Orbison. Over dinner, the trio agreed to work on the yet-to-be-written song together, and Harrison suggested they go to “Bob’s house” to flesh it out. The house in question was Bob Dylan’s Malibu residence, which boasted a home studio in the garage. Dylan answered Harrison’s phone call (on the first ring, according to legend) and the plan was in motion.
But first Harrison needed to make a pit stop at Tom Petty’s house to retrieve a favored guitar. During the detour, he invited Petty to the sessions, and the band of friends swelled to five. A short while later, the musicians were having a casual barbecue mixed with an impromptu jam session. Harrison noticed an old box in the garage labeled “Handle With Care.” This provided inspiration for an opening line: “Been beat up and battered ’round.” The rest of the song, named for the message on the box, came together quickly.
Warner Brothers label executives felt the song was too strong to be wasted on a lowly B side and urged Harrison to continue with the project. The quintet reconvened at Eurythmics member Dave Stewart’s home studio in Los Angeles for nine days that May, where they laid down the basic tracks for an entire album. When pushed to name their new group, Harrison suggested “the Trembling Wilburys.” Another member, alternately reported as Lynne or Dylan, suggested “Traveling” might be a better fit.
10. He almost had a song included on NASA’s first interstellar space probe.
When Harrison’s friend, Formula One world champion Damon Hill, expressed a desire to ride a rocket into space, the musician shook his head in mock scorn: “No man. Inner space, not outer space.” Ironically, scientists wanted to send one of Harrison’s most beloved songs into the outermost reaches of the galaxy.
In the mid-Seventies, NASA was in the midst of constructing twin space probes, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2, designed as the first human-made objects to travel outside the heliosphere and into interstellar space. As a message for any extraterrestrial beings that might happen upon it, both spacecraft were equipped with a 12-inch gold-plated copper photograph record. Essentially audio time capsules, they contained sounds chosen to convey a cross-section of Earth’s life and culture.
“The spacecraft will be encountered and the record played only if there are advanced space-faring civilizations in interstellar space,” noted famed astronomer and author Carl Sagan, who oversaw the project. “But the launching of this ‘bottle’ into the cosmic ‘ocean’ says something very hopeful about life on this planet.” After a grueling year-long selection process, the sounds chosen included thunder, bird songs, Morse code and even brainwaves. Musical selections were just as diverse, including compositions by J.S. Bach, Blind Willie Johnson and Bulgarian folk singer Valya Balkanska. If Sagan had his way, “Here Comes the Sun” would have been among them.
“In some ways, the Beatles were the most obvious choice to include on the music,” Jon Lomberg, Sagan’s chief artistic collaborator, told author Jim Bell in 2015. “They were still at the peak of heir fame, even though they’d broken up five years before. It would have been like putting on Shakespeare – who is going to seriously say that Shakespeare doesn’t belong among the greatest hits of Earth’s literature? The Beatles were sort of the absolute peak of Western musical achievement at the time.”
All four members of the band were thrilled about the idea, but EMI Records, who held the song’s copyright, vetoed the plan. In the song’s place, Sagan included Chuck Berry’s seminal rock staple, “Johnny B. Goode” – which likely also met with Harrison’s approval.
Editor’s note: This story was originally published in November 2016.
From Rolling Stone US