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George Harrison at 75: How the quietest Beatle became the most popular one of all

The timeless legacy of Harrison is as strong as ever in the streaming age.

by Jeff Slate /
John Lennon, Ringo Starr, Paul McCartney and George Harrison on Salisbury Plain during the filming of "Help" on March 5, 1965. Harrison would have turned 75 years old in 2018.PA Wire via AP Images file
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“George was the greatest guy,” Tom Petty recalled in 2010, when I asked him about his friend and Traveling Wilburys bandmate, the late Beatle George Harrison. “He was funny, but he was tough, too. He didn’t suffer fools. I loved him like a brother and I still really miss him.”

A few years later, Ringo Starr echoed Petty’s sentiments. “George was a beautiful guy,” Starr told me in 2014. “He loved making music, and I loved making music with him.”

Harrison, who died in 2001, would have turned 75 on Feb. 25. But it’s not just his friends and contemporaries who recall him with fondness. In the years since his passing, the Beatle known as “the Quiet One” during the band’s 1960s heyday has been anything but. A steady but carefully curated stream of estate-sanctioned releases have helped burnish his memory recently, including several gorgeous box sets, a deluxe, expanded edition of his memoir, a Martin Scorcese directed documentary and, most recently, a spiffed up edition on vinyl and video of the tribute concert his all-star friends threw to celebrate his life, one year to the day after his death.

But if you want to measure the true power and timeless nature of George Harrison’s music, you need only to look at the music charts. Ever since his solo music and The Beatles’ catalog became available on streaming services in late 2015, Harrison’s music has consistently stayed at the top.

If you want to measure the true power and timeless nature of George Harrison’s music, you need only to look at the music charts.

This is likely a surprise to everyone but Harrison’s most diehard fans. And yet, “Here Comes the Sun” and “Something” have regularly outpaced “Hey Jude,” “Let It Be” and “Yesterday,” songs long-considered to be staples of the band’s storied catalog. Meanwhile Harrison’s solo tracks, from the mega-hit “My Sweet Lord” to lesser known gems like “What Is Life” and “Handle With Care” — the signature song of Harrison’s band with Petty, Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison and Jeff Lynne — regularly outpace songs like John Lennon’s “Imagine,” “Instant Karma” and “Jealous Guy.” He also tops Paul McCartney’s “Maybe I’m Amazed” and “Band On the Run” as well as Ringo Starr’s “It Don’t Come Easy” on Spotify and Apple Music’s charts.

And while listenership of The Beatles’-themed channel on SiriusXM has (not surprisingly) been driven by older, baby boomer fans, if callers to the channel’s talk shows and request lines are any indication, the chart rankings of Harrison have most assuredly been driven by the generations who have flocked to online music, namely millennials and their Generation X and Y counterparts.

With Lennon a long gone, if adored and iconic historical figure, and living legends McCartney and Starr catering to a decidedly older audience, Harrison — always the "dark horse," as he once sang — has become the enigmatic favorite of listeners new to The Beatles’ and respective solo canons.

 George Harrison celebrates his 21st birthday on Feb. 25, 1964. Larry Ellis / Express Newspapers via AP Images

For those who knew and loved him, though, the timelessness of Harrison’s music, including the work he did in the last 15 years of his life, makes him a natural fit for the next generation of fans.

“He wrote brilliantly original songs and played the greatest slide guitar,” ELO’s Jeff Lynne, another Traveling Wilbury bandmate who also worked with Harrison as a producer, told me. “Working with George was the greatest opportunity of my life, really. The greatest opportunity I could have wished for.”

Indeed the work the pair did together helped put Harrison back on the map as a solo artist after a rocky 1970s and 80s, and set the stage for his enduring popularity.

For 10 years Lynne and Harrison became almost inseparable. They recorded Harrison’s comeback album, the global chart-topper "Cloud 9," featuring the streaming perennials “Got My Mind Set On You” and “When We Was Fab,” founded the Traveling Wilburys with Dylan, Petty and Orbison, and also found time to work on multi-platinum records by both Petty and Orbison, among others. Then, in 1994, Lynne got the call of a lifetime when he was tapped to produce “Free As A Bird” and “Real Love,” the first new music recorded by The Beatles since 1970, for the band’s "Anthology" project.

The timelessness of Harrison’s music, including the work he did in the last 15 years of his life, makes him a natural fit for the next generation of fans.

The pair’s final project together, Brainwashed, released a year after Harrison’s death, features tracks like “Stuck Inside A Cloud,” “Any Road,” “Rising Sun” and the magnificent, Grammy-winning instrumental “Marwa Blues,” each of which regularly place in Spotify and Apple Music’s top Harrison tracks.

“My dad was ahead of his time,” musician Dhani Harrison told me recently of the man who introduced mainstream America to the sitar, meditation and Hari Krishna, Formula One racing and slide guitar — and arguably invented the all-star rock charity concert in 1971 with his Concert for Bangladesh.

“The world we inhabit now — the really noxious world of constant, terrifying news that’s built around fame and gossip — he lived in that world long before anyone else,” Dhani Harrison said. “He wrote 'Devli’s Radio' in 1987, about the world we inhabit today, 30 years ago. So it’s no surprise to me that his perspective resonates so strongly today.”

Still, Dhani says he’s been encouraged by the response younger fans have had to his father’s music.

 The Beatles sitting outside studios in North London in January 1967. Express Newspapers via AP Images

“Why do we love Bob Dylan? Because he paints a story in two seconds,” he said. “I think my dad’s music does that, too. Good art reflects its time, but it also tells the story of what's happening to you. So because my dad’s music was ahead of its time and so honest, I think, it really resonates today in a meaningful way.”

“I mean, I used to be really into technology and gadgets,” he continues. “We all have gadgets everywhere in our lives — everyone's feed: your newsfeed, your RSS feed, your Instagram, Facebook — it's all just this river of sewage running into your hand. Whereas when you’re creating, the way my dad did, it’s very contemplative and solitary… It helps to be self-reflective and to have self-compassion and self-love when the world is so hectic and there’s so much information hitting your eyeballs.”

It’s clear, too, that Dhani and his mother Olivia Harrison have put a lot of love and care into making sure that George Harrison’s legacy is accessible to fans of all ages.

“The world we inhabit now — the really noxious world of constant, terrifying news that’s built around fame and gossip — he lived in that world long before anyone else.”

As an only child, Dhani said he thinks the family business is just more personal than it may be with others. “My dad was great with me and he taught me everything I could possibly need to know to take care of the business and creative side of things, and even though he was very adamant that I stay away from the music business, you can't tell someone how to follow the path of their own life and I think he would totally approve.”

In the years after Lennon’s death, Harrison retreated. But he returned with a vengeance in the late 1980s. By the 1990s he had found his voice again, both as a solo artist and as the foil to McCartney and Starr in The Beatles’ "Anthology" documentary. He played the George Harrison role — sardonic, reserved and direct — with aplomb, of course. But he also seemed to relish taking on Lennon’s dark, biting wit when he felt the bubble needed a little bursting.

Along with the timelessness of his peerless music — both as a Beatle and a solo artist — it’s this version of George Harrison that many new fans today carry with them. Harrison was many things to many people, but his music lives on in large part because it remains a beautiful, prescient antidote for a world he envisioned all those years ago, but never got to see.

Jeff Slate is a New York City-based songwriter and journalist. His writing can be found at sites like Esquire, Rolling Stone and Quartz, among others. He tweets at @jeffslate.

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