Taken from George Harrison’s towering All Things Must Pass album, this beautiful song has the distinction of being the first No.1 single in the UK and America by a former Beatle, as well as being the UK’s biggest-selling single of 1971. George wrote the song, but did you know that he was not the first to record “My Sweet Lord”? George gave the song to Billy Preston to include on his September 1970 album, Encouraging Words.
George’s musical world
Billy’s album included many of the musicians that were bound up in George’s musical world during this period, appearing on All Things Must Pass, including Eric Clapton, Bobby Whitlock, Carl Radle, and Jim Gordon who soon after formed Derek and the Dominos. Bobby Keys and Jim Price play horns, and on Billy’s version of “My Sweet Lord” it’s the distinctive sounds of the Edwin Hawkins singers that provide the backing vocals.
Harrison began writing “My Sweet Lord” in December 1969, when he, along with Billy Preston and Eric Clapton were in Copenhagen, Denmark playing with Delaney & Bonnie’s band. It was in the middle of a productive and spiritual period that saw George producing Preston’s “That’s the Way God Planned It” and the “Hare Krishna” mantra of London’s Radha Krishna Temple, as well as writing songs with a spiritual theme for his own planned solo record.
A spiritual theme
Copenhagen was the end of Delaney & Bonnie’s European tour, concluding with three nights at the Falkoner Theatre in December. According to Harrison “My Sweet Lord’ was begun while the band members were conducting a press conference and George spent the time in an upstairs room playing chords and alternating the words, “Hallelujah” and “Hare Krishna.” Harrison later took his idea to the others, and the chorus was developed.
George used the Edwin Hawkins Singers’ rendition of the hymn, “Oh Happy Day” as further inspiration and the song was finished with Billy Preston’s help, which is how it ended up on his album as well.
George’s version of “My Sweet Lord” was recorded with Phil Spector, who was co-producing the sessions at Abbey Road Studios. Billy Preston again played on the track, along with Clapton, Ringo Starr, Jim Gordon, and all four members of Badfinger, who were signed to Apple. For the final version, Harrison and Spector chose from a number of rhythm tracks before selecting the master take, which featured, among others, Klaus Voormann on bass and Gary Wright on a second keyboard. It’s possible Peter Frampton may have added acoustic guitar after the main session. George’s slide guitar parts, and John Barham’s orchestral arrangement were overdubbed at Trident Studios in central London.
George had originally wanted no single to be released from All Things Must Pass but in the end he relented, and “My Sweet Lord” was issued as the lead single around the world, but not in Britain; the release date was November 23, 1970, in the United States. The mix of the song differed from that found on All Things Must Pass by featuring less echo and slightly altered backing vocals.
Single of the year
It was released as a double A-side with “Isn’t It a Pity”. “My Sweet Lord” topped the US Hot 100 for the first of four weeks on December 26, 1970. With constant radio plays in Britain, it was eventually released as a single on January 23, 1971, and made No.1 a week later. At the end of 1971, “My Sweet Lord” topped the Melody Maker reader’s polls for both “Single of the Year” and “World’s Single of the Year” and in July 1972, the song won two Ivor Novello songwriter’s awards for George.
In January 2001, George included a new version of the song as a bonus track on the remastered All Things Must Pass album. “My Sweet Lord (2000)” featured Harrison sharing vocals with Sam Brown, daughter of his friend Joe Brown, backed by mostly new instrumentation, including acoustic guitar by Dhani Harrison and tambourine by Ray Cooper.
This version also appeared on the posthumous release of the original “My Sweet Lord” single released in January 2002. This record went to No.1 in the UK on January 26, 2002, meaning that “My Sweet Lord” is one of a literal handful of songs that have achieved the feat of having been No.1 twice, by the same artist; Elvis has done it three times, and the only other is Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
George Harrison’s joyous song
In 1971, George was sued over copyright infringement by the publisher of The Chiffons’ “He’s So Fine.” In 1976, the Judge found that George had infringed copyright, but wrote: “Did Harrison 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, and Harrison had access to ‘He’s So Fine.’ This is, under the law, infringement of copyright, and is no less so even though subconsciously accomplished.” The court case over damages rumbled on for decades and the finer points of law are too complex and too drawn out to go into.
Let’s just say that George Harrison’s joyous song is one of those truly memorable records that has brought deep joy to so many, and uplifted the spirits of others in times of hardship, stress, and trouble. What greater gift has any musician to give than that?