George Harrison kept growing as a songwriter. On the last album The Beatles recorded, Abbey Road, Harrison had two of the best songs, “Something” and “Here Comes The Sun”. Then when The Beatles broke up, his first album was bursting with good songs.
Of the first albums the individual Beatles released after the breakup, All Things Must Pass is the best. It’s not even close. Making it a 3-record set was excessive, and there are extra tracks that aren’t very good, but the good stuff is plentiful. I have eleven songs from this album on my “Best Of George Harrison” CD-length playlist.
Critics would say John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band is the best of the first solo albums because of its raw emotional lyrics, but it doesn’t have close to the number of Beatles-ready songs as Harrison’s. Highlights include: “My Sweet Lord” (#1), “What Is Life” (#10), “Beware Of Darkness”, “If Not For You”, “Isn’t It A Pity”, “All Things Must Pass”, “Behind That Locked Door” and more. If George had issued the best songs on a single record, All Things Must Pass would probably be even more recognized as the great album it is…the crown jewel of George Harrison’s solo career.
The public certainly liked it. The album topped the Billboard chart for 7 weeks in 1971 (released in November of 1970). Sales figures are hard to nail down, because of U.S. Sales, World Sales, Multi-Disc Sales, or just plain wrong information, but All Things Must Pass and McCartney’s 1973 Band On The Run are the two top-selling solo Beatles albums. Good choices.
George also helped out Ringo Starr. He co-wrote “It Don’t Come Easy”, and produced the recording. It was Ringo’s first big hit (#4) in 1971.
George Harrison was approached by teacher and friend Ravi Shankar to help the war refugees of Bangladesh (East Pakistan). George asked friends in the music community to join him in what was the first major charity concert, film, and album…The Concert For Bangladesh.
Musicians who participated included…Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, Leon Russell, Billy Preston, Ringo Starr, and Badfinger. The concert was August 1st, 1971, with two sold out shows. It was a huge success, musically and financially. Although it took some time to sort through the finances, the total sent to Bangladesh has been 12-million-dollars, and most importantly, the plight of the area was made known to the world.
George Harrison’s next studio album, Living In The Material World, was released in May of 1973. It was a #1 album, with a #1 single “Give Me Love (Give Me Peace On Earth)”. That peace probably included being past all The Beatles’ legal battles he highlighted in the song “Sue Me, Sue You Blues”. Despite it’s rapid rise to the top of the charts, the album didn’t sustain the good sales like his first post-Beatles album.
For the remainder of the 1970’s, George Harrison had no more Top-10 singles, and just four singles that made the Top 20. He released four more albums, and only Dark Horse made the Top-10.
It wasn’t until mid 1981 that George Harrison had another hit single. He had been working on the song “All Those Years Ago” (originally for Ringo). Then after John Lennon’s tragic death, George updated the lyrics as a tribute to John. Ringo Starr played drums, and Paul & Linda McCartney added background vocals. The song was #2 on the Billboard singles chart, and #1 on Billboard’s Adult Contemporary chart. The album, Somewhere In England, also did fairly well, just missing the Top-10 at #11.
The low point for George Harrison’s albums was 1982’s Gone Troppo. It failed to even make the top 100 albums. At this point, George was doing better with financing Monty Python movies than with music.
But George wasn’t done making good music.
Enter unabashed Beatles’ fan Jeff Lynne of The Electric Light Orchestra. George asked Jeff to co-produce his 1987 album Cloud Nine. It was successful. The album had a #1 single, “Got My Mind Set On You”, which was originally a 1962 recording by James Ray. Other tracks did well on the Mainstream Rock chart (Multiple charts and formats had become the norm.) “When We Was Fab” (#2), “Cloud 9” (#9), and “Devil’s Radio” (#4). Cloud Nine hit #8 on Billboard’s album chart and went platinum. It was the last solo album George would release, but he was about to have some musical fun with his friends.
The Traveling Wilburys kind of happened by accident, but it was mostly Jeff Lynne’s fault, because he was producing albums for George, Roy Orbison, and Tom Petty. In a Wilburys documentary, George Harrison says the group wasn’t planned. He was having lunch with Jeff and Roy, and wanted to use them on a B-side single. He says he called Bob Dylan to use his studio, and had to pick up a guitar he left at Tom Petty’s house. They all joined in the writing and recording of “Handle With Care”, and presto, The Traveling Wilburys!
They decided to make an album, and Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1 was a major success…triple platinum. Most of the tracks got airplay on FM stations, “Handle With Care”, “End Of The Line”, “Tweeter And The Monkey Man”, and “Last Night”. Plus, “Not Alone Anymore” and “Heading For The Light” were showcases for Roy Orbison and George Harrison respectively. The album won a Grammy Award for Best Rock Performance.
If you get a chance, watch the 25-minute documentary that was included with the deluxe edition of the Traveling Wilburys Collection. You can see it free on YouTube. They had so much fun together! George said: “It was a bunch of friends that just happened to be really good at making music.”
Sadly, Roy Orbison died of a sudden heart attack at the age of 52, on December 6th, 1988. Tom Petty said he was glad Roy had been able to enjoy The Wilburys and the success of the album. All of the band’s members were in awe of Orbison’s voice.
Two years later, October of 1990, the group released their second and last album, humorously called Traveling Wilburys Vol. 3. Though not as popular, it still went platinum, and included the tracks “She’s My Baby”, “Inside Out”, Wilbury Twist”, and “Cool Dry Place”.
These were the last albums George Harrison would release in his lifetime, except for his participation with The Beatles Anthology project in the 1990’s. He died of cancer on November 29th, 2001 at the age of 58.
George Harrison’s son, Dhani, and Jeff Lynne put together an album of songs George had been working on during the previous ten years. Brainwashed was released in November of 2002. Two of the best songs from the album are “Any Road” and “Run So Far”.
It’s so great George Harrison and Roy Orbison had such fulfilling and happy experiences with The Traveling Wilburys. Despite all the star power involved, Tom Petty said, “It was George’s band”.
Well, his second band.
(This is the 3rd article in the series of The Beatles as solo artists. Ringo is next.)