Your Daily Beatle Break
My Sweet Lord
Written by: Harrison
Recorded: May-October 1970
Producers: George Harrison, Phil Spector
Engineers: Ken Scott, Phil McDonald
Released: 30 November 1970 (UK), 23 November 1970 (US)
George Harrison: vocals, backing vocals, slide guitar
Eric Clapton, Pete Ham, Tom Evans, Joey Molland: acoustic rhythm guitar
Billy Preston: piano
Klaus Voormann: bass guitar
Gary Wright: electric piano
Ringo Starr: drums
Jim Gordon: drums
Mike Gibbins: tambourine
Bobby Whitlock: vocals
All Things Must Pass
The Concert For Bangla Desh
Live In Japan
Early Takes Volume 1
My Sweet Lord, George Harrison’s signature song, was his debut single and biggest chart hit, which reached number one in a number of countries.
Harrison began writing the song while touring in Europe with Delaney & Bonnie in December 1969. His primary inspiration was Edwin Hawkins’ funk and gospel arrangement of the 18th century hymn Oh Happy Day, which was an international chart hit in 1969.
I remember Eric [Clapton] and Delaney & Bonnie were doing interviews with somebody in either Copenhagen or Gothenburg, somewhere in Sweden and I was so thrilled with Oh Happy Day by The Edwin Hawkins Singers. It really just knocked me out, the idea of that song and I just felt a great feeling of the Lord. So I thought, ‘I’ll write another Oh Happy Day,’ which became My Sweet Lord.
Religious songs had been increasingly prevalent in the pop charts in the early 1970s. Norman Greenbaum’s Spirit In The Sky and Pacific Gas & Electric’s Are You Ready had been hit singles, and the musical Jesus Christ Superstar was a box office smash.
Harrison took such sentiments a step further, creating a naked plea to God in which he presented himself as a vulnerable, willing and passionate disciple. In four minutes the song led from a simple two-chord acoustic introduction through to a key change coinciding with the entrance of drums and bass guitar, and ended in a rapturous climax in which listeners were left in no doubt as to Harrison’s devotion.
The success of My Sweet Lord was in part due to its lyrical simplicity. Harrison’s lead vocals consisted of just 22 different words which any English speaker could understand and sing along to.
The song wedded Harrison’s interest in Hindusim and Krishna mantras to gospel joyousness. My Sweet Lord’s backing vocals evolved from the Hebrew word ‘Hallelujah’, common in Christian and Jewish religions, through to Sanskrit prayer and incantations for Krishna.
I did the voices singing ‘Hallelujah’ first and then the change to ‘Hare Krishna’ so that people would be chanting the Maha Mantra – before they knew what was going on!
Hidden among the backing vocals towards the end of the song was the entire text of Vedic Sanskrit prayer.
Gururbrahmaa Guru visnuh, Gururdevo Mahesvarah
Gurussaakshaat Param Brahma
Tasmai Shri Gurave Namhah
The prayer translates as: “The teacher is Brahma, the teacher is Visnu, the teacher is the Lord Mahesvarah. Verily the teacher is the supreme Brahman, to that respected teacher I bow down.” Harrison would have delighted in masquerading such an elaborate message of devotion amid the otherwise simple incantations.
The backing vocals were irreverently credited to the “George O’Hara-Smith Singers”, who were Harrison and Spector, joined by Eric Clapton, keyboard player Bobby Whitlock and two others identified by Harrison as “Cyril” and “Betty”. The singers repeatedly overdubbed the backing vocals, creating a choral effect in keeping with the song’s subject.
Billy Preston’s recording
At the time of My Sweet Lord’s composition, Harrison was still a member of The Beatles with no serious plans for a solo career. He therefore donated the song to Billy Preston for his fifth album Encouraging Words, released by Apple in 1970.
Preston’s version was recorded at London’s Olympic Studios in January 1970. Harrison co-produced the session, and the recording featured The Edwin Hawkins Singers on backing vocals.
A single was issued in Europe to coincide with the September release of Encouraging Words, and became a minor hit. It was released in the US once Harrison’s recording became a hit later that year, but peaked at number 90 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Five months after the Olympic session, Harrison enlisted Preston to perform on his own version of the song.
In the studio
My Sweet Lord was recorded at London’s Trident Studios during the sessions for All Things Must Pass. The backing vocals and the lead slide guitar were overdubbed after the rest of the track had been completed.
The recording was perhaps the most successful deployment of Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound on All Things Must Pass. The maverick producer deftly wrought clarity from a panoply of musical instruments, over which George Harrison’s vocals and slide guitar combined to irresistible effect.
As far as I’m concerned, My Sweet Lord was a hit because of the sound and its simplicity. The sound of that record, it sounds like one huge guitar. The way Phil Spector and I put that down was we had two drummers, a bass player, two pianos and about five acoustic guitars, a tambourine player and we sequenced it in order. Everybody plays live in the studio. I spent a lot of time with the other rhythm guitar players to get them all to play exactly the same rhythm so it just sounded perfectly in synch. The way we spread the stereo in the recording, the spread of five guitars across the stereo, made it sound like one big record. The other things, I overdubbed, like I overdubbed the voices, which I sang all the back-up parts as well and overdubbed the slide guitars, but everything else on it was live. There’s Ringo and a drummer called Jim Gordon.
Harrison’s use of electric slide guitar on the song gave him an original sound previously unheard on his recordings. The style became his signature sound; clearly identifiable as Harrison’s work, and with no obvious precedents.
Part of the appeal of slide guitar for Harrison was the microtonal range and use of vibrato, which allowed him to replicate some of the sound of Indian instruments on western instruments. His brief slide work in My Sweet Lord was supremely effective and memorable, becoming one of the best-known examples of the style in popular music.
Harrison performed My Sweet Lord during each of his infrequent solo live performances. Recordings, from August 1971 and December 1991 respectively, are available on The Concert For Bangla Desh and Live In Japan.
George Harrison initially decided not to issue any singles from All Things Must Pass, in case it lessened the impact of the triple album. However, he had a change of heart and My Sweet Lord was released as a single in the United States on 23 November 1970, four days ahead of the album.
It was a double a-side with Isn’t It A Pity, with a full Apple logo on both sides. The single was certified gold by the RIAA and spent four weeks at number one.
My Sweet Lord received considerable radio play in the United Kingdom, and public demand meant it was issued on 15 January 1971. It spent five weeks at the top of the chart. Its b-side was another album track, What Is Life.
The single sold particularly well in France and Germany, where it spent nine and 10 weeks at the top of their respective charts. Other countries in which it was a number one included Australia, Austria, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway and Switzerland.
My Sweet Lord was the first single by a former Beatle to become an international number one. Its popularity was such that John Lennon told Rolling Stone’s Jann S Wenner:
Every time I put the radio on it’s ‘Oh my Lord’ – I’m beginning to think there must be a God! I knew there wasn’t when ‘Hare Krishna’ [Hare Krishna Mantra by Radha Krishna Temple] never made it on the polls with their own record, that really got me suspicious. We used to say to them, ‘You might get number one’ and they’d say, ‘Higher than that.’
EMI reissued My Sweet Lord as a single in the UK on Christmas Eve 1976, again with What Is Life on the b-side. This was partly to capitalise on the controversy surrounding the Chiffons lawsuit, and also because HArrison had recently begun issuing recordings on his own Dark Horse Records, distributed by rival label Warner Bros.
My Sweet Lord was reissued again in January 2002, following Harrison’s death from cancer the previous November. Also featuring two bonus tracks from the 2001 reissue of All Things Must Pass – a Let It Down demo and My Sweet Lord (2000) – it topped the charts in the UK and Canada.
A demo recording of My Sweet Lord, featuring Harrison, Voormann and Starr and dating from an early All Things Must Pass session, was included on a compact disc included with the deluxe edition of Martin Scorsese’s documentary Living In The Material World. It was subsequently released on the Early Takes Volume 1 album.
My Sweet Lord (2000)
A remastered version of All Things Must Pass was released in 2001. The two-CD set included a bonus track, a re-recording of My Sweet Lord with Harrison sharing vocals with Sam Brown.
To create something extra for the Anniversary issue, I decided to have a new look at My Sweet Lord and change it from the original version. Sam Brown sings lead and backing vocals with me, and most of the other instruments have been replaced.
The re-recording retained some of the original instrumentation, but also featured Harrison’s son Dhani on acoustic guitar, and Ray Cooper on tambourine.
A section of My Sweet Lord (2000) was played on a loop on Harrison’s official website following his death.
He’s So Fine: George Harrison v The Chiffons
They then sued me over a song written by a guy who died a while back that I had never even heard of anyway, although I’d heard the song.
Written by Ronald Mack and recorded by The Chiffons, He’s So Fine was released as a single in December 1962 and became a US number one hit the following year.
Mack had brought the song to the Bright Tunes Music Corporation. Bright Tunes was a production house run by New York group The Tokens, whose members agreed to produce and perform the music for He’s So Fine at the Capitol Recording Studios.
The Tokens – Phil Margo, Mitch Margo, Jay Siegal and Hank Medress – were house producers for Capitol Records, but the label’s president Voyle Gilmore rejected the song as “too trite… too simple”. They took it to 10 different labels before Laurie Records took an interest.
He’s So Fine was issued in December 1962. In addition to topping the US charts, it also reached number 16 in the United Kingdom.
My Sweet Lord was originally recorded by Billy Preston in January 1970, and released by Apple Records in 1971. Preston’s recording had gospel backing vocals and a more R&B feel than Harrison’s subsequent recording. Indeed, had Harrison retained Preston’s arrangement he may have escaped the expensive and lengthy litigation that followed.
Harrison’s recording was released as a US single on 23 November 1970, four days before the All Things Must Pass album. On 10 February 1971, while it was still on the singles chart, Bright Tunes filed a lawsuit against Harrison, Harrisongs Music Ltd and Harrisongs Music Inc (his UK and US publishing companies), Apple Records, BMI and Hansen Publications.
Allen Klein, the notoriously hard-nosed manager who at the time was running Apple Records, met Bright Tunes’ president Seymour Barash to attempt to resolve the litigation without a lenghty and expensive court case. Klein suggested to Barash that Harrison would be willing to purchase the entire Bright Tunes’ catalogue by way of settlement.
Barash countered with a proposal that the copyright for My Sweet Lord be surrendered to Bright Tunes, with Harrison receiving half of the revenue. The negotiations between the two parties came to nothing and preparations for the court case gathered pace.
Musicologist Harold Barlow was enlisted to provide his expert opinion on the similarities between He’s So Fine and My Sweet Lord. Klein also appointed attorneys to represent Harrison.
The case was delayed when Bright Tunes went into receivership. In the interim Klein’s management contract with Harrison was terminated, a development which would crucially change the outcome of the dispute.
Once Bright Tunes’ business affairs were put in order, negotiations continued between the company and Harrison. In January 1976, just a few weeks before court proceedings were to resume, Harison offered $148,000, representing 40% of the composer and publisher royalties accrued thus far in the US, with Harrison to retain copyright for the song.
Bright Tunes’ attorney considered Harrison’s offer “a good one”, but subsequently raised its demand from 50% of the US royalties to 75% of worldwide revenue and full copyright ownership.
Harrison was unaware that Allen Klein had been in discussion with Bright Tunes to be bought out by his own company ABKCO. Klein offered $100,000 for the right to buy Bright Tunes, with an additional $160,000 to be paid following the judge’s ruling. This would have allowed Klein to walk away from the deal had Harrison won.
During his negotiations, Klein gave Bright Tunes information on the US royalties accrued by My Sweet Lord, in addition to his estimate on overseas earnings and future valuation of the copyright. Klein’s unprofessional actions would aid Harrison in the post-trial damages assessment.
Seymour Barash, who had since left Bright Tunes but was still a major shareholder, wrote to Howard Sheldon, who was overseeing the receivership of the company. Barash suggested that Klein’s eagerness to purchase the company indicated that he thought there was a good chance that the court would find in Bright Tunes’ favour.
Barash told Sheldon that Klein’s offer should be used as a starting point in negotiations with Harrison, and demanded that the songwriter provide updated sales figures before settlement negotiations would continue.
The court case
I didn’t really think people were small-minded enough… but whereas in popular music they love to sue each other about things. Now, when I did that song, they [Bright Tunes] were in liquidation, and the liquidators decided they could make some money by suing me. We went to court and the judge said, “I don’t believe you stole it, so make a settlement.” So we were making a settlement… and the rights were bought to “He’s So Fine”… to keep on in a lawsuit! And it went on and on, and eventually the judge went, “This is silly,” in the end. That’s what happened.
The only shame about it was if the writer of He’s So Fine had been alive in the first place there probably would have never been a lawsuit. Gods knows I never sued anybody about all the songs of mine that got stolen.
Harrison and Bright Tunes returned to court before negotiations could go any further. The case was in two parts: liability of copyright infringement, and the awarding of damages.
Both sides called expert witnesses, and Harrison testified in court about the writing process. However, the judge eventually decreed that My Sweet Lord did indeed contain plagiarism of He’s So Fine.
The court noted that He’s So Fine contained two key musical phrases, known as motif A and motif B. Motif A was four repetitions of the notes G-E-D, while motif B was G-A-C-A-C. Harrison’s expert witness caimed that the combinations of notes were common enough to be considered in the public domain, but admitted that grace notes inserted into motif B in both songs did not appear elsewhere.
The judge ruled that while there were some differences between the two songs, the essential musical nature of the songs were substantially similar. He said it was “perfectly obvious” that the songs were “virtually identical”. Although he ruled that neither Harrison nor Preston deliberately intended to plagiarise He’s So Fine, this was not a valid defence.
Harrison admitted that he was familiar with He’s So Fine, which had become a fixture on golden oldie radio stations. It would have been far more likely that producer Phil Spector knew the song well, as he was chasing his own share of number one pop hits in 1962.
In September 1976 Judge Richard Owen ruled that Harrison was guilty of subconscious plagiarism, and ordered a further trial to set damages. The plagiarism verdict was upheld on appeal; Harrison argued that subconscious copying was an unsound policy, but the appellate court ruled that the Copyright Act did not require evidence of an intent to infringe, leaving Harrison liable for damages.
The damages verdict
After 20 years, eventually the judge awarded the song to me… and the money that had been taken for My Sweet Lord. So I suddenly end up with He’s So Fine!
Having lost the court case alleging plagiarism, George Harrison was liable for damages. The judge was responsible for deciding the amount; he began by determining the income generated by My Sweet Lord, and how much of that song was derived from He’s So Fine.
The case was originally scheduled to be heard in November 1976. However, it was delayed until February 1981 due to the sale of Bright Tunes to Allen Klein’s ABKCO company, and with it all litigation claims. Klein and Harrison had parted company professionally by this point, and Klein had offered to sell some of the rights to He’s So Fine to Harrison for $700,000.
Harrison argued that Klein had acted improperly by purchasing Bright Tunes, and amended his plea to request that Klein be disqualified from receiving any damages.
The district judge ruled that Klein was not entitled to profit from his purchase of Bright Tunes (and, by extension, He’s So Fine), a decision that was upheld by the appeals court. The court also found that Klein had acted improperly by sharing financial information about My Sweet Lord to Bright Tunes before the question of liability was settled, and that he should not be rewarded by the court for breaching the fiduciary duty owed to Harrison.
Four main sources of revenue were considered in the damages hearing: mechanical royalties (the amount paid to a song’s publisher by a record company to release it); performance royalties (revenue derived from broadcasting); sheet music and folio sales; and profits from Apple Records.
Performance royalties and sheet music sales were determined at $359,794 and $67,675 respectively, according to accounting records. The other amounts were harder to ascertain.
Mechanical royalties were established at $260,103, including single and related album sales. However, the judge noted that the song’s popularity would have effectively increased revenue for the other compositions on the All Things Must Pass album, and for the single’s b-side, Isn’t It A Pity.
The court looked closely at the amount of North American radio play that each song on the album had received. Of the 22 songs, only nine had been played, and My Sweet Lord had represented 70% of the album’s total airplay. The judge therefore ruled that 70% of mechanical royalties from the single, and 50% from those for All Things Must Pass, were attributable to My Sweet Lord.
The compilation The Best Of George Harrison was also a factor. The judge eventually determined that the gross earnings attributable to My Sweet Lord for the single amounted to $54,526; $588,188 for the album All Things Must Pass; and $6,887 from The Best Of George Harrison. This amounted to a total of $646,601 in the USA and Canada.
A further consideration was profits for Apple generated from My Sweet Lord. Using a similar formula as before for the single and two albums, the judge found the resultant earnings were $130,629 from the single; $925,731 from All Things Must Pass; and $21,598 from The Best Of George Harrison.
The total gross earnings for My Sweet Lord were determined by the court as $2,152,028. This was reduced to $2,133,316 after agent’s fees were considered.
Since the plagiarism had been subconscious (unintentional), and Harrison had added original elements to the song, he was not liable to pay the full amount to Bright Tunes. The judge decreed that 3/4 of the song’s success was due to to the plagiarised elements, with a further quarter due to Harrison’s contributions. A sum of $1,599,987 was settled upon as the amount earned by My Sweet Lord which could be attributed to He’s So Fine.
On 19 February 1981 the court decided that Harrison should pay ABKCO $587,000 instead of the $1.6 million, and would also receive the rights to He’s So Fine. The figure of $587,000 was the same sum paid by Klein in 1978 to Bright Tunes for the rights to the song.
Klein was ordered to hold the rights to He’s So Fine in trust for Harrison, which would then be transferred to the former Beatle upon full payment plus interest. This decision was upheld on appeal.
Litigation continued well into the 1990s, as the finer points of the settlement were argued over. The case was finally concluded in March 1998.
Harrison was evidently deeply troubled by the litigation. He wrote and recorded This Song, which appeared on his Thirty Three & 1/3 album, about his courtroom experiences. It contains the lines “This song has nothing ‘Bright’ about it”; “My expert tells me it’s okay”; and “This song ain’t black or white, and as far as I know don’t infringe on anyone’s copyright”.
In an October 1976 edition of Melody Maker, Ringo Starr spoke to journalist Ray Coleman about the legal episode. “George was very unlucky,” Starr said. “There’s no doubt that the tune is similar but how many songs have been written with other melodies in mind? George’s version is much heavier than The Chiffons – he might have done it with the original in the back of his mind, but he’s just very unlucky that someone wanted to make it a test case in court. If I’d written He’s So Fine, I guess I’d have sued if I’d wanted some money.”
In his 1980 Playboy magazine interview, John Lennon doubted that Harrison really had subconsciously plagiarised He’s So Fine. “He walked right into it,” Lennon told David Sheff. “He knew what he was doing. He must have known, you know. He’s smarter than that… George could have changed a few bars in that song and nobody could have ever touched him, but he just let it go and paid the price. Maybe he thought God would just sort of let him off.”
In his book I Me Mine, Harrison
Earlier that year, Harrison’s book I Me Mine was published by Genesis Publications. Speaking of his legal troubles surrounding My Sweet Lord, Harrison said: “I don’t feel guilty or bad about it, in fact it saved many a heroin addict’s life. I know the motive behind writing the song in the first place and its effect far exceeded the legal hassle.”