We’re celebrating the late George Harrison’s birthday by revisiting some signature moments with collaborators from his earliest days of post-Beatles music making.
Gary Wright’s association with Harrison spanned the ages, beginning with his torrential triple-album debut then continuing through to his late-1980s comeback — and beyond. Harrison projects helped launch Derek and the Dominoes, even as they offered us a tucked-away chance to enjoy the star-crossed talents of Badfinger once more.
Harrison also provided early spotlights for Alan White, years before he would become the long-tenured drummer for Yes; and Robben Ford, who would ultimately work with Joni Mitchell, Kiss and Miles Davis while crafting a superlative career of his own in roots music.
Each of them joined us to reminesce about what Harrison meant to them, sharing new insights into both the man and his music …
“BE HERE NOW,” (LIVING IN THE MATERIAL WORLD, 1971): After taking part in a series of over-stuffed sessions for Harrison’s solo debut, keyboardist Gary Wright has often said that he preferred the small-band intimacy of the former Beatle’s 1971 follow up. Those small-scale motions are perhaps nowhere more exemplified than on this foresighted call for presence, decades before the proliferation of cell-phone distractions.
As he had on cuts like “My Sweet Lord,” “If Not for You” and the titanic jam “Out of the Blue” from 1970′s All Things Must Pass, Wright makes similarly important, if often overlooked, contributions throughout Material World — solidifying a lengthy relationship that transcended music: “George was, and is, one of my dearest friends,” Wright tells me, years after Harrison’s passing. “I always admired his creativity and sincerity. He was a true genius, and probably one of the most creative people I’d ever met.”
Wright later co-wrote “If You Believe” for Harrison’s self-titled 1979 release, and played piano on his 1987 smash hit Cloud Nine. Wright’s own 2010 effort Connected featured not one but two Harrison related cuts — including “To Discover Yourself,” this almost-forgotten Harrison co-write dating to 1971 that Wright recorded on an occasion he thought would never come: “I put it in the back of my mind,” Wright said. “The actual day that George passed, I was in the studio and I decided to memorialize that day by recording the song.”
[ON SECOND THOUGHT: Forget the album's synthy misfire of an opening cut, which also served as its first single. Elsewhere, George Harrison's often-overlooked 'Gone Troppo' is actually a small-scale gem.]
“WHAT IS LIFE,” (ALL THINGS MUST PASS, 1970): Joey Molland appeared with all three of his Badfinger bandmates on this tune — adding extra layers to a sweeping exclamation of passion that also included almost all of the future members of Derek and the Dominoes. Molland, who joined Badfinger after the group became one of the Beatles’ first signings on its new boutique Apple Records imprint, also added acoustic guitars to “Isn’t It a Pity” and this album’s title song. That opened the door for further collaborations with Harrison as producer on Badfinger’s 1971 release Straight Up and during Harrison’s subsequent Concert for Bangladesh.
For a time, before Badfinger blew apart in a torrent of bad business deals and personal problems, being associated with the Beatles seemed like the key that would unlock fortune and fame. And yet, despite all of the awful things that would follow, Molland doesn’t look back at that era with regret.
“It was such a great time for me. Of course, it was heartbreaking a couple of years later, when we found out what had been going on with the business managers,” Molland tells me. “It was terrible; not at all what we were expecting. At the same time, though, we got all of the benefits. The Beatles really wanted someone to be successful on their label. So they did work hard for us. George got involved; he pretty much joined the band. I believe he used to call the band his band. It was a matter of time and place — but what a great time and what a great place. We got to make our records, and the Beatles gave us the best record deal in the world. I had such a great time. I can’t think of it going any other way.”
“WAH WAH” (ALL THINGS MUST PASS, 1970): Written during tense Beatles recording sessions in 1969 that saw George Harrison briefly quit the band, “Wah Wah” was reborn as an explosive Wagnerian juggernaut during the sessions of Harrison’s outsized solo debut — a stunning success that would go six-times platinum by the time of his passing in 2001.
Phil Spector, living up to his reputation for so-called Wall of Sound production, brought in an army for this tune that also included Eric Clapton, Klaus Voormann, both Billy Preston and Gary Wright, both Ringo Starr and Jim Gordon, all four members of Badfinger, a horn section featuring Bobby Keys and a pre-Dominoes Bobby Whitlock.
The issue, really, at that point was finding a spot — both musically, and instrumentally. Whitlock says he played it by ear: “I just fit myself in,” he tells me. “The only instrument left was sitting between Ringo and Jim — an electric Wurlitzer. Everybody was playing on the downbeat. So, I took the only place available, and that was on the upbeat. My part is so simple. I didn’t have to do anything but stay out of the way.”
In the original album notes, Whitlock and Clapton are winkingly credited as the O’Hara-Smith Singers for this song. Both would later sit in on Whitlock’s underrated self-titled 1972 solo release.
[DEEP BEATLES: As part of her regular series for Something Else!, Kit O'Toole takes on George Harrison's 'Savoy Truffle,' praising the R&B-influenced Beatles-era track for its glee in playing with language.]
“DARK HORSE,” (DARK HORSE, 1974): For Harrison, both this album and its subsequent tour arrived amid a period of conflict and uncertainty. His first marriage and Apple Records were crumbling. Meanwhile, Harrison had been led away from his spiritual center by the pressures of starting his own label, also called Dark Horse, and mounting the first tour by any member of the Beatles since their celebrated 1966 jaunt.
A bout of laryngitis and Harrison’s determination to expose American audiences to Ravi Shankar as a co-headliner only made matters worse for some critics. Harrison and a touring band featuring talents like Jim Keltner, Billy Preston, Tom Scott and Robben Ford, bore the brunt of their disappointment. “George liked people who could play different styles of music,” Ford tells me. “He said I did a good job of working with them. I was surprised by that, because I felt out of my depth, honestly, in some ways. It was very intense.”
Lost in the shuffle was an album that found Harrison experimenting in funk and soul, and a tour that helped pave the way for the looming influx of world music. Still, Ford says he looks back on that period with fondness. The tour wrapped up with a congenial get together, despite what had occasionally been scathing reviews — and Harrison made a memorably touching gesture: “We finished right around Christmas in New York City, and he had a little party for everyone. He gave me a picture of a guitar, and said: ‘This is my Christmas present to you; it’s being made by Gibson.’ He had custom ordered it. It came to me later in the mail. He was such a warm person.”
“BEWARE OF DARKNESS,” (ALL THINGS MUST PASS, 1970): As these sessions evolved into loose amalgams, a tidal wave of familiar rock names would move in and out for the mercurial Spector. That’s how both Bobby Whitlock and Alan White, who would become the stalwart drummer for Yes, ended up appearing at several key moments — including this superlative deep cut.
“That really is one of my favorite tracks, though I forgot about it for a while,” says White, whose earlier participation in the Spector-helmed John Lennon solo hit “Instant Karma” led directly to his appearance on All Things Must Pass. “I remember that Ringo played tambourine, and that was kind of weird. He only came by occasionally. I said to George: ‘Why don’t you get Ringo to play?’ It felt a bit weird. He said, ‘No, I want you to play the drums on this one.’ It was in the same studio as ‘Instant Karma.’ Everybody turned up every day, and we’d listen to what George wanted to record. Then everybody picked who would play what. That’s why there are three drummers on that record — and none of us can remember which tracks we play on! I do remember playing on ‘Wah Wah,’ ‘My Sweet Lord,’ ‘Isn’t It A Pity’ and ‘Beware of Darkness.’”
Meanwhile, Whitlock had his own unusual role to play — this time, on the piano: “George walked up to me, and he said: ‘You come from a gospel background. Can you play piano on this one?’ I went, ‘Why, yes,’” Whitlock tells us. “I had never played piano. I had seen my mom do it, and listened to my mom. Growing up, I heard Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Memphis Slim, guys like that, my whole life. But I had never sat down and played. I had played organ, but that’s a different instrument. Here you had George asking me to play, though, so I sat down and started playing. I just drew from that well, and out it fell. It’s a very spiritual song.”