From Tom Petty to Nina Simone: The 10 best covers of George Harrison
George Harrison had a bit of a bum deal while in The Beatles. While being the affluent guitarist of the biggest band on the planet may have had its perks, the fact that Harrison played second, or even third, fiddle to the songwriting duo of John Lennon and Paul McCartney meant that his true talent took a little longer than usual to come to the fore. But, once he did find confidence in his work and started regularly contributing to the Fab Four’s output, he delivered a set of songs that easily equalled those of bandmates.
Once the band had split in 1970, Harrison pursued his songwriting dream with even more gusto. Soon enough he released All Things Must Pass, arguably the greatest post-Beatles album any of the band members created and cemented himself as one of the foremost music makers of his generation. It means that Harrison has never been without his admirers and has, therefore, seen one or two covers of his songs hit the airwaves.
When you peruse the below list and bear witness to some of the huge names in music that have seen fit to cover Harrison’s songs, you get perhaps the largest commendation of his songwriting. Major acts like Frank Sinatra and Nina Simone have doffed their metaphorical caps to the former Beatle on occasion and that is just scratching the surface.
The real trick to creating a perfect cover song is to not only pay homage to the original material but to put one’s own spin on the track. There’s no point recording a cover that sounds like the original note for note. What makes these tracks so special, perhaps as an indication of Harrison’s skill, is that they are so easily accessible and universal that putting a new filter on the track is a relatively easy task to complete.
One proviso to our selection is that no song has been selected twice meaning we will only have one version of ‘Something’, otherwise, we could fill a whole list with artists who have covered that track. It means Paul McCartney and Eric Clapton are missing entirely. However, finding new styles is what Harrison was all about. So, without further ado, let’s look back at 10 of the best George Harrison cover of all time both with and without The Beatles.
Best covers of George Harrison:
‘Don’t Bother Me’ – The Smithereens
Originally written as the first Harrison song ever contributed to a Beatles record (Meet the Beatles), it has a habit of defining the singer and guitarist’s image of the time—a bit of a grump. While often labelled the ‘Quiet Beatle’, this track proved behind the steely gaze there was a songwriter carefully curating his style and selecting only the right moments to let himself be seen.
The Smithereens may not be the biggest name in the world but they must certainly have the strongest stomach. To have the guts to make a track-by-track replica of Meet The Beatles is one thing, but to pull it off is very much another. As fan letters go, this is certainly one of the best.
‘Within You Without You’ – Patti Smith
When George Harrison returned from India, he brought with him a fascination for Indian music and the instruments that created them. It meant, almost instantly, The Beatles had become infused with the sitar as well as other traditional Indian instruments. On ‘Within You Without You’, Harrison employs both the physical instruments he picked up on his travels and the spiritual teachings.
Patti Smith is the consummate artist when it comes to covering other people’s songs. One of our favourites to ever do it, Smith adds a touch of measured fandom on this cover taken from her album Twelve. Passionate as always, Smith takes the track out of its original space and gives it new life.
‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ – Tom Petty, Dhanis Harrison, Prince and more
Arguably one of the finest songs in The Beatles rich back catalogue, ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ is one of the best songs Harrison ever wrote. But given the fact we were never afforded a Beatles performance of the song (they had given up the live circuit long before it came out), this has to be the best performance of the track we’ve ever seen, despite not including him.
The 2004 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame ceremony was posthumously inducting Harrison to the esteemed club of double-entries when the performance took place. Not only did it feature his friend Tom Petty and his son Dhani but also perhaps the finest solo performance of all time from Prince. It’s quite literally one of the best things we’ve ever seen.
‘Something’ – Frank Sinatra
Harrison’s love song from Abbey Road is regarded by many as some of his finest work and, as the years have passed, countless major figures have attempted to put their own spin on it. The likes of Shirley Bassey, Joe Cocker, Peggy Lee, Bruce Springsteen and Elton John have all added their versions of ‘Something’ but it is the work of the great Frank Sinatra we’re focusing on.
Sinatra, who allegedly called ‘Something’ “the greatest love song of the past 50 years,” began performing the song Beatles track live and his rendition would later appear on the compilation album Frank Sinatra’s Greatest Hits, Vol. 2. Despite having initially performed the song in the late ’60s and into the 1970s, we’re focusing on a momentous performance in 1982 as his best.
‘Here Comes The Sun’ – Nina Simone
The track was written by Harrison during a break from a tough session with The Beatles, as he once explained: “‘Here Comes the Sun’ was written at the time when Apple was getting like school, where we had to go and be businessmen: ‘Sign this’ and ‘sign that.’ Anyway, it seems as if winter in England goes on forever, by the time spring comes you really deserve it.”
Adding: “So one day I decided I was going to sag off Apple and I went over to Eric Clapton’s house. The relief of not having to go see all those dopey accountants was wonderful, and I walked around the garden with one of Eric’s acoustic guitars and wrote ‘Here Comes the Sun.’”
It is this sentiment that has always confirmed the song as one of Harrison’s finest, as able to capture the golden-hued sounds of a perfect sunset as any song. Simone does her best to channel the moment into her performance. But, like with everything Nina Simone does, she can’t help but put her spin on it.
‘Beware of Darkness’ – Marianne Faithful
Marianne Faithfull was naturally aware of George Harrison’s songwriting talent long before the release of the 1985 album Rich Kid Blues. A keen player in the swinging sixties scene, Faithfull’s version of this little known Harrison song shows a singer with a keen eye.
Originally recorded in 1971 but not released for another fourteen years, Faithfull is a little hesitant to revisit the song after so many years. Recorded during the peak of her heroin addiction, Faithfull has admitted that “all these years later, I think it’s rather lovely.” It’s a beautiful piece that definitely deserves revisiting.
‘Isn’t It A Pity’ – Nina Simone
As well as picking up Harrison’s contribution to The Beatles in ‘Here Comes The Sun’ as one of her covers, Simone also selected one of his solo numbers too as part of her covers album. She picks a good one too, expertly moving the song from a laconic spiritual number to something more akin to a soothing pop prayer.
The original release was yet more confirmation that Harrison was one of the most underrated songwriters of his day. Underrated by everyone but Simone it would seem as she picks up the soulful inflexions of the track and accentuates them to an ethereal almost biblical standing. While Harrison’s song was all about lament, Simone’s version is a plea for more compassion.
‘My Sweet Lord’ – Billy Preston
It is a little difficult to accurately call this one a ‘cover’, considering Harrison gave the esteemed keyboardist first crack at the song after it was rejected by The Beatles. But what Preston does on this song deserves more recognition as he delivers a soulful yet bouncing version of arguably one of Harrison’s defining tunes.
Taken from his Encouraging Words album, Preston released the track just two months before Harrison’s seminal All Things Must Pass would land. However, rather than be dismayed, Harrison was thrilled with the version fo the track, holding Preston in the highest of regards.
‘I Need You’ – Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers
Though Harrison contribution to The Beatles was minimal pre-1965, he did find time to squeeze the odd song on the LPs. One such track which arrived on Help!, the brilliant ‘I Need You’ hinted that the guitarist was shaping up to become the songwriter he had always threatened to be. A difficult track to implore with the same emotion, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers do a fine job here.
They were performing at the Concert for George, a benefit which included a host of Harrison’s nearest and dearest, including his Travelling Wilburys bandmate, Tom Petty. Never one to avoid heaping praise on his friend, Petty does a fine job of tackling this track.
‘If I Needed Someone’ – The Hollies
There are many esteemed name son this list but we’d bet that George Harrison was most thrilled about The Hollies covering his song. The Salford band were one of the big pop groups of the day and one which Harrison mentioned frequently throughout his early career. They clearly saw the talent in him too as they picked up the Rubber Soul track ‘If I Needed Someone’.
A classic Merseybeat production of the track takes nothing away from the refined sound they produce. Harrison, however, has been dismissive about the record on many occasions, “‘If I Needed Someone’ is like a million other songs written around a D chord. If you move your finger about you get various little melodies. That guitar line, or variations on it, is found in many a song, and it amazes me that people still find new permutations of the same notes.”