y Sweet Lord" was the first solo Beatles single to go to number one. George Harrison was also the first Beatle to release a solo recording -- the soundtrack to Joe Mussot's film Wonderwall. The album, Wonderwall Music, was released in Britain on November 1, 1968, 28 days earlier than John Lennon's first musical project away from the Beatles, Unfinished Music No. I - Two Virgins.
George wrote "My Sweet Lord" while touring with Delaney and Bonnie ("Soul Shake," "Never Ending Song of Love") in December, 1969. Before recording it himself, George gave the song to Billy Preston and produced it for his Encouraging Words album on Apple. Billy's version was scheduled to be released as a single in September, 1970, and was assigned the British catalogue number Apple 29, but was withdrawn. Two months later, Harrison's "My Sweet Lord," produced by George with Phil Spector, was released in America to precede his triple album, All Things Must Pass. In Britain, "My Sweet Lord" wasn't released until January 15, 1971, a month-and-a-half following All Things Must Pass.
In his book I Me Mine, George revealed, "I was inspired to write 'My Sweet Lord' by the Edwin Hawkins Singers' version of 'Oh Happy Day.' I thought a lot about whether to do 'My Sweet Lord' or not, because I would be committing myself publicly and I anticipated that a lot of people might get weird about it. Many people fear the words 'Lord' and 'God' -- makes them angry for some strange reason."
A story in the March 6, 1971, issue of Billboard stated that royalty payments to Harrison had been halted all over the world until settlement of the dispute. That didn't come until more than five years later, when United States District Court Judge Richard Owen ruled in New York that Harrison was guilty of copyright infringement. The judge conceded that Harrison did not deliberately plagiarize "He's So Fine."
"Nevertheless," Owen said, "it is clear that 'My Sweet Lord' is the very same song as 'He's So Fine.' Under the law, this is infringement of copyright, and is no less so even though it may have been subconsciously accomplished."
George discussed the lawsuit in I Me Mine: "I wasn't consciously aware of the similarity between 'He's So Fine' and 'My Sweet Lord' when I wrote the song as it was more improvised and not so fixed, although when my version of the song came out and started to get a lot of airplay people started talking about it and it was then I thought, 'Why didn't I realize?'. It would have been very easy to change a note here or there, and not affect the feeling of the record."
After Judge Owen's ruling, George wrote "This Song," in order "to exorcise the paranoia about songwriting that had started to build up in me," Harrison explains in I Me Mine. "I still don't understand how the courts aren't filled with similar cases -- as 99 percent of the popular music that can be heard is reminiscent of something or other."
Even after the case was settled, it wasn't over for George. Former Beatles manager Allen Klein purchased the publishing rights to "He's So Fine" and along with it, the right to continue to sue for damages. George summed up his feelings: "I even tried to give 'My Sweet Lord' away to get the thing settled -- just let 'em have it, it doesn't matter to me. I've never had any money from it -- it's always been in escrow -- and as far as I'm concerned the effect the song has had far exceeds any bitching that's been going on between copyright people; it's just greed and jealousy and all that."
Two novelty songs resulted from the lawsuit. The Chiffons recorded a version of "My Sweet Lord," and British entrepreneur Jonathan King ("Everyone's Gone to the Moon") released a version of "He's So Fine" that had the exact arrangement of George's "My Sweet Lord."
"My Sweet Lord" has the distinction of being the only solo Beatle number one single to be a double-sided hit. There were two versions of "Isn't It a Pity" on All Things Must Pass. The longer take, running seven minutes and 10 seconds, was placed on the flip side of "My Sweet Lord." In I Me Mine George explains the song "is about whenever a relationship hits a down point -- instead of whatever other people do (like breaking each other's jaws) I wrote a song. It was a chance to realize that if I felt somebody had let me down, then there's a good chance I was letting someone else down. We all tend to break each other's hearts, taking and not giving back -- isn't it a pity."
In an interview with the Associated Press, George later commented on the reissue of his All Things Must Pass album in early 2001 shortly after it was remastered and rereleased on compact disc: "It was the biggest thrill in a way that it was my first record. To be able to do all my own songs on one record was a novelty at that point, you know. Only the fact that people have written about the reissue have I realized that it spent seven weeks at No. 1. At the time I did it, I can't remember even taking any notice of it." Sadly, some 10 months after his triumphant All Things Must Pass album was reissued on CD, George Harrison succumbed to a long battle with cancer, dying at the Los Angeles home of a friend on Nov. 29, 2001.
- Fred Bronson, The Billboard Book of Number One Hits, Billboard, 1988.
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