The New York Times


December 1, 2001

George Harrison, 'Quiet Beatle' and Lead Guitarist, Dies at 58

Photographs by The Associated Press
George Harrison during a visit to Ireland in January 2000, top; Harrison at a rehearsal in England on Dec. 7, 1963, above.


apaudio   Audio: Here Comes the Sun

apaudio   Audio: Bangla Desh

apaudio   Audio: Got My Mind Set On You

audio   Audio: Clips From George Harrison's 'All Things Must Pass'

apvideo   Video: British Prime Minister Praises Harrison

apvideo   Video: Beatles Fans Gather in New York

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Photographs by The Associated Press
The Beatles performing on "The Ed Sullivan Show" on Feb. 9, 1964, top; The Beatles in their "Sgt. Pepper" outfits in 1967, above.

George Harrison, the Beatles' lead guitarist and the youngster of the group, who composed some of their most venerated songs, ranging from the intentionally prosaic to the hauntingly serene, died on Thursday at a friend's home in Los Angeles. He was 58.

The cause was cancer, which he had been fighting since 1998.

News of his death saddened fans, who turned out by the hundreds in places of special significance, like Abbey Road in London, the site of the EMI recording studio, and Strawberry Fields in Central Park, planted in memory of John Lennon.

With a look and a wardrobe that seemed to zigzag along with the vicissitudes of the 1960's, 70's and 80's, Mr. Harrison often took a back seat to the more flamboyant Lennon and Paul McCartney. He was known as the reclusive one, "the quiet Beatle," during the group's manic touring years.

Yet he served as an anchor for the quartet, leading the others on a spiritual quest toward Eastern philosophy that influenced their music in the latter part of the 1960's, epitomized for millions of fans by the sitar he played on "Norwegian Wood."

Some of his best compositions, like "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," and "Something," stand alone in the Beatles' canon for their introspective beauty. Others, like "Taxman" and "Piggies," were brutally mundane.

Before the group broke up, he helped steer it to exclusively studio recording, a compatible environment for experimentation. And afterward, he continued composing and singing, with hits like "My Sweet Lord" that resonated with faith.

His quiet nature hid a dark sense of humor, even about his own mortality. When "Horse to Water," a new song that he wrote with his son, Dhani, appeared last month on "Small World Big Band," a new album by the British keyboardist Jools Holland, it carried the publishing credit "Rip Ltd., 2001," apparently implying "Rest in Peace."

In the 31 years since the Beatles broke up, Mr. Harrison made a series of variably successful albums, including two with the Traveling Wilburys, a tongue-in-cheek supergroup that included Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne and Roy Orbison.

His 1971 concert to aid refugees in Bangladesh for which he enlisted Mr. Dylan and the musicians Eric Clapton, Leon Russell and Billy Preston and another former Beatle, Ringo Starr created the concept of the all-star charity rock concert. Live Aid, Farm Aid and the recent Concert for New York followed its pattern. He also produced a small but varied catalog of recordings by other performers for his own Dark Horse record label in the 1970's.

Beyond his musical career, he was the executive producer of Handmade Films, an independent production company that had several hits between the late 1970's and the early 1990's. He prepared several collections of memoirs and lyrics for Genesis Editions, a British publisher of expensive limited-edition books, and provided copious commentary for the books the company published by Derek Taylor, the Beatles' former press aide, and Ravi Shankar, the sitar master with whom he studied in the mid-1960's.

In the 1990's Mr. Harrison participated with his former colleagues in the Beatles' "Anthology," a retrospective that included a 10-hour video history, six discs of previously unreleased recordings and a book.

"I am devastated and very, very sad," Sir Paul told reporters yesterday outside his home in London. "He was a lovely guy, and a very brave man and had a wonderful sense of humor. He is really just my baby brother."

Mr. Starr, the other surviving Beatle, issued a statement saying: "George was a best friend of mine. I loved him very much and I will miss him very greatly."

Mr. Harrison's recent projects included the production of an expanded reissue of his 1970 album, "All Things Must Pass." He was also planning to oversee the remastering of his other recordings, and an album of new material was in the works.

Serious From the Start

But Mr. Harrison will unquestionably be best remembered for his work with the Beatles. He was 19 in 1962 when the Beatles made their first recordings for EMI. Yet from the start he projected an air of intense seriousness.

Onstage, he appeared more concerned with getting the details of a guitar solo right than with inciting the shrieks of the group's fans, and film clips show him looking mildly astonished by the ruckus.

Indeed, the Beatles' appearances onstage conveyed a sense of both their relationships and personalities. Lennon often stood to the right, regarding the audience with a challenging defiance, with Sir Paul to the left, charming listeners with winks and nods. Mr. Harrison sometimes joined one or the other, but more often stood a few paces back. That isn't to say he looked dour; he had a winning smile, and when a performance clicked, he sometimes executed deft dance steps on his own.

He was the first Beatle to advocate abandoning the concert stage, arguing that it was pointless to perform for audiences that were making too much noise to hear the music.

"I always really enjoyed, in our early days, before we got too famous, we used to play clubs and that kind of stuff all the time," he once told an interviewer. "And it was fun. It was fun. It was good, because you get to play, and you get to get quite good on the instrument. But then we got famous, and it spoiled all that, because we'd just go round and round the world singing the same 10 dopey tunes."

In the summer of 1966, the others came around to his point of view and confined their work thereafter to the recording studio. At the Beatles' recording sessions, Mr. Harrison worked diligently on the compact but often innovative solos that were his moments in the spotlight.

6 Hours for a Brief Solo

His solo for Lennon's "I'm Only Sleeping," recorded in 1966, shows his fastidiousness. To mirror the dream world quality of the lyrics, Mr. Harrison devised a solo guitar line, wrote out its notes in reverse order and overdubbed it onto a recording of the song that was running backward. To complicate matters even more, he recorded two versions of the solo one clean, one with the guitar distorted and combined them. His contribution to the three- minute song took six hours to record.

Although the Lennon-McCartney composing team always held center stage, Mr. Harrison had a decisive influence on the Beatles' sound. During the group's formative years in the late 1950's and early 60's, he shared the others' passion for American rhythm and blues, Motown soul and the more aggressive rock of Little Richard and Elvis Presley.

But his passion for rockabilly artists like Carl Perkins a taste he shared with Mr. Starr, the Beatles' drummer infused the group's repertory with the twangy coloration of country music. He also had an interest in jazz chords, which colored the harmonies in some of the band's early arrangements.

Mr. Harrison's fascination with Indian music, which began in 1965 after he became curious about exotic instruments on the set of "Help!," the group's second film pushed the Beatles' sound world in yet another direction. And as with everything the Beatles did, imitators were plentiful: after Mr. Harrison played his sitar solo on "Norwegian Wood" and began writing his own songs based on Indian motifs, dozens of rock bands adopted the instrument, and so- called raga-rock flourished briefly.

Mr. Harrison also introduced the Beatles to electronic gadgets, ranging from a simple volume pedal, used on "Yes It Is" and one of his own songs, "I Need You," to the Moog synthesizer, which he played on the group's final album, "Abbey Road." Still, he drew the line at devices like drum machines, which in his view led to the mechanization of rock. On releasing his "Cloud Nine" album in 1987, he described it as "real music, made by real musicians who play real instruments."

'An Excuse to Go Mad'

Of the Beatles, Mr. Harrison was the most aloof from the music business and the most troubled by fame. "They gave their money and they gave their screams," Mr. Harrison said of the Beatles' fans during an interview for the "Beatles Anthology" in 1995. "But the Beatles kind of gave their nervous systems. They used us as an excuse to go mad, the world did, and then blamed it on us."

But if he was the most reticent of the Beatles, he sometimes delivered barbed quips. Asked during a 1965 news conference in Minneapolis how the Beatles were able to sleep with such long hair, Mr. Harrison shot back, "How do you sleep with your arms and legs still attached?"

Mr. Harrison rarely gave interviews. Multilingual signs posted outside Friar Park, his Victorian mansion in England, brusquely warned sightseers away. And he was often impatient with autograph-seekers, his responses ranging from tearing up the item he was asked to sign to creating perfect replicas of all four Beatles' signatures.

But he had a generous side as well. In addition to organizing the Concert for Bangladesh and the recording and film it yielded, he established the Romanian Angel Appeal in 1990 to provide support for Romanian orphans. To raise money, he assembled "Nobody's Child," an album of rare recordings by American and British colleagues. He also performed in Heartbeat '86, a concert to raise money for a British hospital charity, and in the Prince's Trust charity concert in 1987.

The Boys on the Bus

George Harrison was born in Liverpool on Feb. 25, 1943, the youngest of Harold and Louise French Harrison's four children. His father drove the bus that took him and Paul, who was a year older, to the Liverpool Institute, a secondary school. He showed little interest in academic work, devoting himself to the guitar. By the time he was 14 and met Paul, he had formed a band, the Rebels, and began bringing his guitar to dances, hoping to be asked to play.

Paul had only recently joined John's group, the Quarry Men, as a guitarist (he later switched to bass), and early in 1958 he invited George to a Quarry Men performance. After the show, George auditioned for John, reportedly on the upper deck of a bus. He could do something that John could not: imitate the solos on American rock records.

John, three years older, at first considered George talented but sullen, and still a child. But George tagged along, and within a few months he was in the band. He continued to work with other Liverpool bands, but by October 1959, he threw in his lot with the Quarry Men, which John renamed the Beatles in 1960.

Mr. Harrison's songwriting interests were limited in the group's early years. He had collaborated with Sir Paul on "In Spite of All the Danger" in 1958, and with Lennon on "Cry for a Shadow," a Duane Eddy-influenced instrumental recorded in Germany in 1961 during the band's backup sessions for the British singer Tony Sheridan. But as the Lennon-McCartney songwriting partnership flourished, Mr. Harrison was content at first to play his solos and occasionally step up to the microphone to sing rock classics like Carl Perkins's "Everybody's Trying to Be My Baby" and Chuck Berry's "Roll Over Beethoven."

In time, there were Lennon-McCartney songs written with Mr. Harrison's voice in mind, like "Do You Want to Know a Secret" and "I'm Happy Just to Dance With You."

A Songwriting Success

In the summer of 1963, he decided to try his hand at songwriting and produced "Don't Bother Me," a song the group included on "With the Beatles," its second album.

"I don't think it's a particularly good song," Mr. Harrison wrote in "I Me Mine," his 1980 autobiography. "It mightn't even be a song at all, but at least it showed me that all I needed to do was keep on writing and then maybe, eventually, I would write something good."

Another year and a half elapsed before Mr. Harrison was able to interest the band in another of his songs, but two of his compositions, "I Need You" and "You Like Me Too Much," made it onto the "Help!" album in 1965. Neither had the ingenuity or dimension that the Lennon- McCartney team were giving their songs of the time, yet traces of Harrison's later style most notably, the slightly mournful quality of his melodies were beginning to emerge. Thereafter, Mr. Harrison had at least one and as many as four songs on each of the group's albums.

Sitars and Spirituality

At the end of 1965, Mr. Harrison used a sitar on a Beatles album for the first time, and soon he was studying the instrument formally with Mr. Shankar. To put his studies to practical use, Mr. Harrison began writing songs in an Indian style and inviting Indian musicians to Beatles' sessions to help record them. The first of these was "Love You to," on the 1966 "Revolver" album. "Within You Without You," Mr. Harrison's lushly orchestrated contribution to "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band," took this influence farther.

In 1967 he wrote the score for the film "Wonderwall," in which Eastern and Western musical influences mingled freely. In 1968 the soundtrack was the first release on the Beatles' own record label, Apple. While in Bombay recording the Indian sections of the soundtrack, he taped an ensemble playing a traditional raga and set words to it adapted from Lao-tzu's Tao Te Ching. None of the other Beatles performed on the song, "The Inner Light," but it became the first of Mr. Harrison's compositions to be released on a Beatles' single (albeit on the B side, with "Lady Madonna").

Mr. Harrison's interest in Indian philosophy and spiritualism addressed the other Beatles' concerns as well, and when he became interested in the transcendental meditation techniques of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, his bandmates followed him to India to study.

"Everybody dreams of being famous, rich and famous," Mr. Harrison later said about the start of his spiritual quest. "Once you get rich and famous, you think, `this wasn't it.' And that made me go on to find out what it is. In the end, you're trying to find God. That's the result of not being satisfied. And it doesn't matter how much money or property or whatever you've got, unless you're happy in your heart, then that's it. And unfortunately, you can never gain perfect happiness unless you've got that state of consciousness that enables that."

Leaving the Beatles

The others soon gave up on Eastern spirituality, but Mr. Harrison remained a devotee of Hinduism, or Krishna Consciousness, as he preferred to describe his beliefs. In his music, he returned to a more conventional Western style. His contributions to "The Beatles" (known as the "White Album") and the soundtrack of the animated film "Yellow Submarine" (both released in 1968), ranged from the proto-heavy metal of "All Too Much" to the sublimely poetic beauty of "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," and showed a new compositional maturity.

By the time of the "White Album" sessions, Mr. Harrison was writing so prolifically that the Beatles could not accommodate all his work. He also undertook private musical experiments, including the synthesizer pieces released on his "Electronic Sound" album. And he forged musical relationships outside the Beatles, notably with Mr. Clapton, who had played the solo on Mr. Harrison's "While My Guitar Gently Weeps."

By early 1969, a few weeks into the sessions for the "Let It Be" album, he quit the band, returning only after the others agreed to give up a plan to perform live again and to give his songs greater consideration. As it turned out, the sessions yielded only one finished Harrison song, "For You Blue." A second, "I Me Mine," was recorded in January 1970 for the "Let It Be" album. It was the last song the group recorded before its breakup three months later.

During the summer of 1969 with the "Let It Be" album shelved, pending the completion of the accompanying film the Beatles recorded "Abbey Road." Two of Mr. Harrison's finest Beatles compositions, "Something" and "Here Comes the Sun," were included. "Something" became the first of his songs to be released as the A side of a single, and was widely recorded by others. Frank Sinatra once called it his favorite Beatles song.

Soon after the Beatles split, Mr. Harrison assembled Mr. Starr, Mr. Clapton, the guitarist Dave Mason, the keyboardists Gary Brooker and Mr. Preston and the pedal steel guitarist Pete Drake and began recording the songs that the Beatles hadn't had time for. The sessions were so fruitful that the resulting album, "All Things Must Pass," included two discs of new songs and a third with jam sessions. The search for a path to God and the Hindu notions of the transitory nature of the physical world were Mr. Harrison's principal subjects here, explored in songs like "What Is Life," "My Sweet Lord," "The Art of Dying" and the title song. But the album included lighter, secular songs as well, and reached the top of the Billboard charts.

A Not So Sweet Hit

The album's success was gratifying for Mr. Harrison, but it caused him problems. One of his songs, "My Sweet Lord," bore a striking similarity to that of the 1963 Chiffons hit, "He's So Fine," and Mr. Harrison was sued for copyright infringement. The suit dragged on for 20 years, and Mr. Harrison was found guilty of "unconscious plagiarism."

He ultimately bought his antagonist's company and ended up owning both songs. He wrote "This Song" (1975) as a satirical look at the lawsuit, and when he reissued "All Things Must Pass" last year, he added "My Sweet Lord (2000)," a new version that avoids the melodic similarities to "He's So Fine."

Mr. Harrison's "Living in the Material World" (1973) followed the spiritual agenda set by "All Things Must Pass," although mundane venality was not ignored. "Sue Me Sue You Blues," for example, touched on the squabbles between the former Beatles. But the public was tiring of Mr. Harrison's religious fascinations. His next album, "Dark Horse" (1974), was criticized as preachy and whiny, and an American tour made matters worse: Mr. Harrison, not used to singing a complete concert set, lost his voice during rehearsals and was hoarse for the entire tour.

He reconsidered his approach on "Extra Texture" (1975) and "331/3" (1976), albums that touched on traditional blues and continued to refine a quirky, humorous personal style, best heard in "Crackerbox Palace" and "This Song." Satire replaced sermonizing as his signature style, and it was better received.

Nevertheless, Mr. Harrison took a three-year break from recording after "331/3" and devoted himself to ending one entrepreneurial enterprise and starting another. The business he wound down was Dark Horse, the record label he started in the early 1970's and that released albums by Mr. Shankar and a handful of rock and soul bands, among them Splinter, Stairsteps, Attitudes and Jiva. None of the recordings sold well, and after 1977 Dark Horse became Mr. Harrison's imprint for his own work.

A sideline career as a film producer was more successful. When the Monty Python comedy troupe needed financial backing for "The Life of Brian" in 1978, Mr. Harrison underwrote the film, laying the groundwork for his own production company, Handmade Films. Handmade quickly became a respected independent. Among its 27 films were "The Long Good Friday," "Mona Lisa," "Time Bandits," "Withnail and I" and "Shanghai Surprise." Mr. Harrison sold his interest in Handmade in 1994.

Vacationing From Music

Mr. Harrison also used his three years away from music to sort out his personal life. He had met his first wife, Pattie Boyd, on the set of the Beatles' first film, "A Hard Day's Night," and married her in 1966. Their marriage broke up in 1974, when Ms. Boyd began living with Mr. Clapton, whose hit "Layla" was written for her.

The romance did not ruin the friendship between Mr. Harrison and Mr. Clapton: they and Ms. Boyd performed a version of the Everly Brothers' "Bye Bye, Love" together on Mr. Harrison's "Dark Horse" album, and Mr. Harrison and Mr. Clapton toured Japan together in 1991.

Mr. Harrison married Olivia Arias in 1978. She and their son survive him, as do two brothers, Peter and Harry, and a sister, Louise Harrison Caldwell.

Mr. Harrison's return to recording in 1979 yielded "George Harrison," an album notably lighter in spirit and broader in subject than his previous few, with songs about several of his new passions, among them automobile racing ("Faster"), hallucinogenic mushrooms ("Soft-Hearted Hana") and his wife ("Dark Sweet Lady"). But sales were disappointing, and when he delivered his next album, "Somewhere in England," in 1980, his label, Warner, demanded that he rework the set to make it more commercially appealing.

Mr. Harrison responded by recording a new track, "Blood From a Clone," that skewered the label's complaints, and another, "Unconsciousness Rules," that took a swipe at disco. But another of the remakes was a reunion with Mr. Starr and Sir Paul on "All Those Years Ago," a tribute to John Lennon, who was shot to death while Mr. Harrison was reworking the album. "All Those Years Ago" became a hit, but Mr. Harrison was dispirited by his experiences in the music business, and after another album, "Gone Troppo" (1982), he stepped away from music for another five years.

A Man of Many Identities

His 1987 return, "Cloud Nine," was a resounding success, his biggest since "All Things Must Pass." Not least among its charms was a gentle parody of the Beatles in "When We Was Fab." Still, neither the success of his two albums with the Traveling Wilburys, in 1988 and 1990, nor his 1991 tour of Japan with Mr. Clapton's highly polished band were able to rekindle an interest in leading a public musical life.

In addition to battling cancer, Mr. Harrison survived a stabbing attack by a deranged intruder at Friar Park in December 1999, which resulted in a punctured lung. More recently, he was treated for lung cancer and a brain tumor and had therapy last month at the Staten Island University Hospital and the University of California at Los Angeles Medical Center.

"Although I have guitars all around and I pick them up occasionally and write a tune and make a record, I don't really see myself as a musician," Mr. Harrison once said, explaining his ambivalence about the life of a rock star. "It may seem a funny thing to say. It's just like, I write lyrics and I make up songs, but I'm not a great lyricist or songwriter or producer. It's when you put all these things together that makes me."

Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company