George would have turned 75 on February 25. A look back at the life of the boy from Liverpool who became the Fab Four’s lead guitarist.
A brooder and introvert, George Harrison always seemed to be in the shadows of the alpha males John and Paul during his time with The Beatles. Yet he made it onto the Rolling Stone list of the 100 best guitarists of all time with his very special slide guitar technique at number 11.
The musical pioneer’s legacy is “the combination of ritual Indian music with secular western pop music in the sense of a global music without ethnic or religious boundaries,” said the curator of the rock’n’popmuseum in Gronau, Germany, Thomas Mania.
From the Quarrymen to Hinduism
George Harrison was born on February 25, 1943, in war-time Liverpool. Growing up in the post-war era, he had a passion for playing guitar. When his school friend Paul McCartney brought him in 1956 to the Beatles, then called The Quarrymen, he was the youngest band member at just 13. Only four years later, the band conquered Hamburg and then New York.
In 1965, an encounter with the Indian musician Ravi Shankar changed Harrison’s life. The sitar virtuoso showed him how the then largely unknown instrument in Europe was handled. Harrison used it on several Beatles songs, including “Norwegian Wood” or “Within You Without You,” kicking off an avalanche of psychedelic rock.
At Harrison’s prompting, the Beatles were instructed in meditation by the Indian guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. The Fab Four did not come alone: a pack of 800 journalists from all over the world followed them and bore witness as the musicians hopped through monastic gardens in colorful garments and smeared each other with paint. Most of the eponymously-named double album, sometimes known as “The White Album,” was inspired by these experiences.
For his bandmates, the trip to India was an episode, but afterwards, George converted to Hinduism. He soon turned away from his guru, because the supposedly abstinent monk was apparently polyamorous and commanded money from his followers.
He then discovered the Hare Krishna movement, later donating a large estate near London to the sect in 1973; Bhaktivedanta Manor became one of the largest Krishna temples in the Western world.
After the Beatles separated, George found solo success. His album “All Things Must Pass” stormed the charts in the UK and US in 1970, followed by “Living in the Material World” in 1972, an album which reflected his religious and philosophical views.
Money was never important to George Harrison. Despite the Beatles’ early access to material comfort, Harrison apparently always felt there was still something missing. Religion filled that void, he once said.
Hills and valleys
George’s career was a constant series of ups and downs. He often complained that audiences only wanted to hear him perform songs from the Beatles repertoire, while he wanted to follow his own path.
He organized a charity concert for Bangladesh and together with Bob Dylan, Jeff Lynne, Tom Petty and Roy Orbison, formed the supergroup Traveling Wilburys, which played from 1988 to 1990. He also served as a film producer: Without his financial support, the Monty Python classic “The Life of Brian” would never have been made.
And yet he later said, “I play a bit of guitar, write songs, make some movies, but none of that is really me.” In the last years of his life, spirituality was the only thing to give him meaning.
George Harrison died of lung cancer on November 12, 2001 at the age of 58 at New York University Hospital.