Though described as the “Quiet Beatle” in the early days of the group’s fame, the late George Harrison turned out to be anything but. In addition to achieving global rock stardom as a member of The Beatles and as a solo artist, he was a restless spiritual seeker, compassionate humanitarian and successful film producer.
Harrison penned many of the band’s most soulful and moving tunes, including “Here Comes the Sun,” “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and “Something.” His fretwork was just as stirring. Never flashy nor showy, he specialized in an exquisite brand of restraint and economy shaped by his love for Memphis rockabilly, country and R&B. In addition to pioneering the use of the 12-string in rock music, he created a style of slide guitar, sweet and lyrical, that is instantly recognizable.
Central to his identity was his reverence for Indian music and culture. If the ’60s were the gates through which Eastern religion and mysticism flowed into the West, then Harrison was one of the decade’s most high-profile gatekeepers. On top of helping popularize classical Indian music, as well as laying the foundation for the world music genre, he can be credited with turning countless hippies onto Hindu-based prayer, meditation, yoga and even vegetarianism.
Harrison’s obsession with Indian instrumentation made him a central component to The Beatles swiftly evolving sound
Harrison’s turn towards the East played a pivotal role in transforming his creative standing within The Beatles’ group dynamic. He had turned only 20 when their debut full-length, Please Please Me, came out in 1963. At that point, he was a baby-faced guitarist and occasional singer who ultimately took a backseat to John Lennon and Paul McCartney’s formidable personalities.
By 1965’s folk-tinged Rubber Soul, however, Harrison’s budding obsession with Indian instrumentation (namely the sitar and tamboura) made him a central component to their swiftly evolving sound. In addition to being featured on a trio of Lennon pieces (“Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown),” “Tomorrow Never Knows” and “Strawberry Fields Forever,” he penned the raga-rock cornerstones “Love You To” and “Within You Without You.”
Toward the end of the ’60s, Harrison’s singing, songwriting and musicianship were progressing at such a rapid clip that he began to chafe at his largely supporting role within The Beatles. Apart from 1968’s “White Album,” he generally was restricted to just two compositions per album.
After the experimental efforts Wonderwall Music and Electronic Sound, each recorded while The Beatles still were together, he fully established his solo career with 1970’s All Things Must Pass. As far as declarations of independence go, it is one of the most commanding in the history of rock. The spiritually infused set features no less than four cuts (“My Sweet Lord,” “Isn’t It a Pity,” “Wah-Wah” and “What Is Life?”) that are as transcendent as anything Lennon or McCartney ever put out as solo artists. Numerous critics cite the triple LP as the single greatest artistic achievement by an ex-Beatle.
The multi-faceted Harrison also can be credited with having pioneered the concept of the rock ’n’ roll benefit concert. In response to the Bangladesh Liberation War and its resulting genocide, the guitarist co-organized 1971’s Concert for Bangladesh. Featuring a Who’s Who of rock royalty, including Bob Dylan, Leon Russell, Eric Clapton and old pal Ringo Starr, it was the first benefit concert of its size and scope. It would serve as a template for No Nukes, Neil Young’s annual Bridge School Benefit Concert and Bob Geldof’s Live Aid.
Harrison had grown increasingly bored with rock stardom by the ’80s. Releasing just three records between 1979 and ’86, he pushed his career to the back burner in order to devote the bulk of his attention to raising his son, Dhani.
When he returned to the recording studio full-time in 1987 he churned out the Jeff Lynne-produced Cloud Nine, a platinum blockbuster that returned him to the top of the charts. He achieved further commercial success the following year, as a member of the supergroup The Traveling Wilburys, whose debut album, Vol. 1, went triple platinum.
During his final years, Harrison lived a fairly private life, pouring most of his creative energies into 1995’s The Beatles Anthology documentary and string of retrospective albums. He was diagnosed with throat cancer just two years later, eventually succumbing to the disease on November 29, 2001. Harrison’s towering legacy lives on with the George Harrison Fund for UNICEF, which delivers aid and assistance to the people of Bangladesh and other countries throughout Asia and Africa — a fitting tribute to the “Quiet Beatle.”