Harrison, quiet force of Beatles, dies at 58


George Harrison, the youthful guitarist who sparked the Beatles' early career with deft rockabilly licks and later added a deep spirituality and Eastern influence to the era's best-known rock band, died Thursday in Los Angeles after a long battle with cancer.

The youngest member of the group that changed popular music and popular culture, Mr. Harrison was 58.

He was at the home of longtime friend Gavin De Becker. Mr. Harrison's wife, Olivia, and son, Dhani, 23, were with him at the time of his death, which was not announced until early yesterday morning.

"He left this world as he lived in it, conscious of God, fearless of death, and at peace, surrounded by family and friends," the family said in a statement. "He often said, 'Everything else can wait, but the search for God cannot wait, and love one another.'"

The two remaining members of the seminal musical group grieved Mr. Harrison's passing.

"I am devastated and very, very sad," Paul McCartney told reporters outside his London home yesterday. "He was a lovely guy and a very brave man and had a wonderful sense of humor. He is really just my baby brother."

In a statement, Ringo Starr said: "George was a best friend of mine. I loved him very much, and I will miss him greatly. ... We will miss George for his sense of love, his sense of music and his sense of laughter."

John Lennon's widow, Yoko Ono, said, "George has given so much to us in his lifetime and continues to do so even after his passing, with his music, his wit and his wisdom."

It wasn't immediately known if a public funeral would be held. A private ceremony has taken place, Mr. De Becker said.

Beatles fans began mourning the death before dawn Friday in New York's Central Park, not far from where Mr. Lennon was gunned down in 1980.

Mr. Harrison's passing has a cultural resonance that goes beyond a star musician's death. Coupled with the Lennon murder, it leaves half of the Beatles membership dead before many of their original fans have turned 60. The group credited with teaching life lessons to the baby boomer generation is now a reminder of mortality.

Health threats

Mr. Harrison had been battling cancer for four years. Once a heavy smoker, he acknowledged in July that he had received radiation treatment in Switzerland a month earlier.

In May, Mr. Harrison's lawyers said he had successfully undergone surgery to remove a cancerous growth from one of his lungs at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. He was also treated for throat cancer after a lump was found on his neck in 1997 and was given the all-clear in 1998. More recently, reports emerged a month ago that Mr. Harrison had been receiving treatment at Staten Island University Hospital in New York.

A different but equally threatening health threat came in December 1999, when an intruder broke into his mansion and stabbed him repeatedly. Mr. Harrison suffered a collapsed lung. The assailant was acquitted of attempted murder by reason of insanity and ordered confined to a mental hospital.

Though he was known as "the quiet Beatle," Mr. Harrison brought a lot to the quartet, with intricate guitar picking adapted from Chet Atkins, Carl Perkins, Chuck Berry and others. His ability to play the Bill Justice instrumental "Raunchy" got him inducted into the pre-Beatles group, the Quarrymen, in late 1957.

His vocals were heard on many Beatles tracks. He sang lead on a number of songs, including "Roll Over Beethoven" and "I'm Happy Just to Dance with You."

Under a shadow

Though his songwriting in the Beatles fell under the shadow of the dominating team of Lennon-McCartney, the first original Beatles composition was co-written by Mr. Harrison with Mr. McCartney. "In Spite of All the Danger," taped on an amateur recording in 1958, first appeared on the Beatles' Anthology 1 in 1995.

Mr. Harrison had the least defined persona during the group's frenetic rise to world fame, and in the band's peak creative years he chafed as his prolific bandmates became the rock icons of the group.

Still, when America latched on to Beatlemania in 1964, it was Mr. Harrison's "Don't Bother Me" that began side two of the 5 million-selling album, Meet the Beatles.

With the Help! album in 1965, his contributions became more regular, leading to such Beatles tracks as "I Need You," "Think For Yourself," "Taxman," "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" and "Here Comes the Sun."

Mr. Harrison's biggest hit for the Beatles was 1969's "Something," the only song of his released as a single. It showed a sophistication that opened the Beatles' work to an even wider audience, evidenced by the scores who recorded it after them, including Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra (who continued to describe it in concert as a Lennon-McCartney composition).

Using a sitar to back the Beatles song "Norwegian Wood" in 1965, Mr. Harrison stuck with the sounds of India, studying in earnest with masters such as Ravi Shankar. By helping introduce India first to fellow pop stars and then to their fans, Mr. Harrison played a large part in the rise in interest in meditation and yoga among Westerners.

All Things Must Pass, his first full solo album after a couple of more experimental, instrumental solo dabblings, hit No. 1 in November 1970 and stayed there seven weeks. It produced the No. 1 hit, "My Sweet Lord" (whose melody was determined in a 1976 court case to have been inadvertently suggested by the Chiffons' "He's So Fine").

A year later, Mr. Harrison burnished that success by engineering the landmark charity effort, "The Concert for Bangladesh." The two-night show in New York featured Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton and others, and became a template for the now-familiar concept of the all-star rock fund-raiser.

In the glow of those accomplishments, Mr. Harrison was perceived as a star with humility who finally rivaled Mr. McCartney and Mr. Lennon in public acclaim.

Mr. Harrison, though, experienced setbacks after going solo. A less-than-heralded 1974 concert tour, his 1977 divorce from actress-model Patti Boyd and Mr. Lennon's death fed his long-held desire for privacy. He stepped away from the music world for extended stretches, including a 17-year absence from the tour circuit and a five-year hiatus from recording after the 1982 album "Gone Troppo." In the interim, he turned his attention to his film production company, Formula One auto racing and gardening.

No self-promoter

The most reserved member of the world's most famous band did not regret any days spent away from the spotlight. "I've never been that good at being a promoter of myself, doing TV interviews or whatever," he told the Los Angeles Times in 1987.

Mr. Harrison's solo career might have been spotty, but he did manage a surge by topping the charts in 1987 with the No. 1 single "Got My Mind Set on You," from the platinum Cloud Nine album that reached No. 8.

In 1988, he became the driving force in the Traveling Wilburys supergroup with Mr. Dylan, Roy Orbison, Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne.

The group recorded two albums in 1988 and 1990.

"My Sweet Lord 2000," a revised version of his early solo hit, turned out to be the last thing Mr. Harrison released in his lifetime. It appeared as part of a deluxe CD reissue of "All Things Must Pass" that was issued in January, featuring his son on guitar.

He and his son recorded another song that they had co-written, "A Horse to Water," on Oct. 1 in Switzerland, where Mr. Harrison was living. He also played on a song for a new album by Jools Holland, Small World, Big Friends, released overseas.

He told Billboard magazine last year that he was looking to remaster his entire catalog, following the All Things Must Pass package with a reissued Concert for Bangladesh and Living in the Material World.

At the time, he was hopeful of making new recordings.

The guitarist's view of Mr. Lennon and Mr. McCartney veered through the years from cordial to bitter to sentimental, as if the three were stubborn siblings in a family torn apart by emotional betrayals.

In 1989, Mr. Harrison refused a reunion overture by Mr. McCartney by telling an interviewer, "As far as I'm concerned, there won't be a Beatles reunion as long as John Lennon remains dead."

'When We Was Fab'

Still, after Mr. Lennon's death, Mr. Harrison reflected on his Beatles friendships with the gentle song "All Those Years Ago," recalling the halcyon days of their youthful friendship, and in 1987 he elaborated with "When We Was Fab," a buoyant nod to the glory days.

After a tour in Japan with Mr. Clapton in 1991, he joined the other surviving Beatles in the phenomenally successful Anthology project involving hit albums of outtakes, a video history and a book issued a year ago.

The project also involved two new recordings - "Free as a Bird" and "Real Love." Both involved musical tracks added to leftover demo tapes recorded by Mr. Lennon; both returned rock's best-known group to the charts in 1995 and 1996.

Mr. Harrison last joined the other surviving Beatles at the 1998 funeral of Linda McCartney. It was the first public appearance by the three surviving members of the group in almost 30 years. It would also be the last.

Roger Catlin is music critic for the Hartford Courant, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. Geoff Boucher of the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper, and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

A George Harrison discography

Key songs by George Harrison that were included on Beatles albums:

"Don't Bother Me" (1963)

"I Need You," "If I Needed Someone," "Think for Yourself" (1965)

"I Want to Tell You," "Love You To," "Taxman" (1966)

"Within You Without You" (1967)

"Savoy Truffle," "Piggies," "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," "It's All Too Much" (1968)

"Here Comes the Sun," "Something" (1969)

"I Me Mine" (1970)

Key songs from Harrison's solo career and partnerships outside the Beatles:

"My Sweet Lord" (1970)

"Give Me Love" (1973)

"Crackerbox Palace" (1976)

"All Those Years Ago" (1981)

"Got My Mind Set on You" (1987)

"End of the Line" (1988)

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