”My Lord”… talk about mixed blessings. George Harrison took a giant leap forward and made a massive mistake all at the same time 52 years ago. “My Sweet Lord” was released as a single this day in 1970. It was his first single, from the great triple-album All Things Must Pass, which although his third was his first solo release since the breakup of the Beatles.
Of course, calling it a “solo” is a bit misleading, and probably wouldn’t have been his own description of the record. He had a bevy of friends along working on the record with him. On this song alone, besides George and his singing plus slide guitar, all four members of Badfinger played (three on guitar, one on drums), as did Eric Clapton and Peter Frampton on guitars, Gary Wright and Billy Preston both played keyboards. And that’s only a partial list. It was co-produced by Phil Spector, and even though he was famous for his “Wall of Sound” production, he found it a bit overwhelming. “It took about 12 hours to overdub the guitar solos,” he said, “perfectionism isn’t the word. He was beyond that.” But as demanding as he was, keyboardist Bobby Whitlock, who worked on some other songs on the album, remembers “all the time that I ever knew him, (George) was a wonderful man” and added that various Hare Krishnas would pop into the studio in their white robes at times and hand out cookies.
Of course, the result was well-worth it, a record that seemed worthy of Harrison’s message. He said it was a call to unite religions and have people be thankful no matter how they might worship. “All of us – Christian, Hindu, Muslim, Jews, Buddhists – can address our gods in the same way, using the same phrase,” he explained. He’d gotten the idea that he wanted to write a spiritual song, and came up with “My Sweet Lord” while in Denmark with Clapton and Preston the year before. He hadn’t even intended to record it, initially, so he let Billy Preston release a version before All Things Must Pass came out. In the end he got a spiritual tune with a pop feel… too much of a pop feel, as it turned out.
Now when his album was ready for release, he wanted no singles. He figured people should experience it all as one work, and perhaps didn’t even want to show favoritism to one of his songs over another. Of course Apple Records saw it differently and needed something to get on radio for Christmas time to spur on sales. Harrison relented somewhat, and “My Sweet Lord” was released in North America, with “Isn’t It a Pity?” on the other side. Although the former was the real hit, he considered it a two-sided single, just as so many of the Beatles 7” records had been. He got his way initially in Britain, with the company waiting until 1971 to release the single there.
Reaction was great. Billboard declared it “a powerhouse two-sided winner.” The UK’s NME said it “establishes George as a talent equivalent to either Lennon or McCartney” , a bit of a radical idea at that time. Later Elton John would declare it the last great song of its era and say the first time he heard it, “you know when a record starts on the radio and it’s great and you think ‘Oh, What is This?’”… that’s what “My Sweet Lord” was to him. “The only other record I ever felt that way about was ‘Brown Sugar’”.
Many people felt that way too. The song quickly hit #1 in North America, and then the next year became the biggest-selling single of the year in Britain. It topped German charts for 10-straight weeks. It won the Ivor Novello Award for most played record of the year. In time, it sold beyond 10 million copies, making it in all likelihood the biggest-selling single ever by a Beatle after that band’s days were done.
So all was great, right? Well, not quite so fast. Just as the reviews loved the song, several of them, notably Rolling Stone and the NME also pointed out that it bore more than a passing similarity in tune to the 1963 Chiffons hit, “He’s So Fine.” One wonders how Spector didn’t notice it and tell George something, or for that mater as Harrison himself would later ask “why didn’t I realize?”
Not surprisingly, he, and Apple Records, were sued. Now the writer of the Chiffons hit, Ronnie Mack, had died young of cancer around the time that song became a hit. So a record publisher, Bright Tunes filed suit against Harrison only weeks after “My Sweet Lord” hit the charts. What followed was…messy to say the least. And complicated and lengthy. It involved different courts and ex-Beatles manager Allen Klein at first representing Harrison, then being replaced… an entire book could be written about the proceedings, which dragged on into 1976. George actually thought if he used any tune for a base, it was the old hymn “Oh Happy Day.”
In the end, Harrison lost. The judge, Richard Owen, himself a composer, said “did he deliberately use the music of ‘He’s So Fine’? I do not believe he did so deliberately. Nevertheless, it is clear that ‘My Sweet Lord’ is the very same song as ‘He’s So Fine’ with different words…this is under the law an infringement of copyright.” Harrison had to pay approximately $1.6 million, which was 3/4 of the North American royalties from the single and some of the album’s sales too. However, the case dragged on more and after appeals, that amount was reduced to approximately $587 000, with other courts finding Judge Owen’s finding overly harsh and also finding that Klein was negligent in his defense of Harrison.
The whole thing left the ex-Beatle understandably upset and “paranoid”. He said “99% of the popular music that is heard is reminiscent of something or other”. He had trouble writing any material for several years as a result. And one would think he worked as a cautionary tale for other artists in the future. Or at least those not called Radiohead or Vanilla Ice.