Credit: Alamy

From Elvis Presley to Ravi Shankar: George Harrison’s 5 biggest influences

Known as the quiet Beatle – quite unfairly so – as George Harrison often had the most to say in his music and otherwise. In the beginning, The Beatles were primarily led by John Lennon and Paul McCartney who, at the time, were fledgeling songwriters themselves, experimenting on new ideas together. While in time, Harrison would definitely grow into his own and eventually blossom into the brilliant songwriter he became, Lennon and McCartney in the early stages were ahead of Harrison, so all George could do was stay quiet and listen and learn. 

What some may not know about Harrison – who would have been celebrating his 78th birthday today – was that he was a leader, a quiet one, but a leader nonetheless. He had an eye for mod fashion, turning the rest of the Fab Four onto the latest hippest styles. It was he that was more plugged into the scene as well; Harrison turned the rest of the Liverpool lads onto Harry Nielson and, in particular, Bob Dylan. For example, before John Lennon even knew Yoko Ono, Harrison had already heard about her in New York City. It was also Harrison who brought Eric Clapton into the inner-circles of The Beatles, as well as Billy Preston, one of the most popular session piano players who recorded a lot with the Fab Four. The most significant and arguably most pivotal of these personalities that Harrison turned the rest of the lads onto was Ravi Shankar, and as a result, Indian classical music – which was also one of Harrison’s biggest influences. 

In addition to being a highly successful musician and songwriter, Harrison also ran a record label, helping others get their music out; he was a film producer; through Harrison’s Hand Made Studios, he made Monty Python’s Life of Brian a reality. Before Apple was dissolved, Harrison wrote a bunch of songs outside of The Beatles, for a plethora of artists signed to Apple, including Ronnie Spector who recorded Harrison’s ‘You’ and ‘Try Some, Buy Some’ among a few others. 

After The Beatles split up, George Harrison became the first former-Beatle to reach number one in the UK charts with ‘My Sweet Lord’, outdoing both Paul McCartney and John Lennon’s solo debuts in 1970. Harrison’s All Things Must Pass, arguably the best album out of all the former Beatles’ solo work, has since gone platinum six times, becoming the 33rd biggest selling album in the ’70s. Along these lines, George Harrison realised that he would be just fine without The Beatles, nevermind the fact that Harrison shot down any notion of reforming The Beatles, too reluctant to play music again with Paul McCartney, until much later. 

Later in The Beatles’ career and into his solo career, George Harrison fully matured as a spiritual master and worldly songwriter. As Harrison’s close friend, Eric Clapton, said of him: “He was clearly an innovator. George was taking certain elements of R&B, rock and rockabilly to create something unique.” 

Here, we explore the artists that helped shape George Harrison.

George Harrison’s five biggest influences:

Carl Perkins

George Harrison remained a lifelong fan of the music of American rockabilly musician Carl Perkins, who, especially, had a significant influence on Harrison’s playing in the early days of The Beatles, in particular on ‘All My Loving’ and ‘Eight Days a Week’. The Liverpool lads also covered two of Perkins’ songs: ‘Honey Don’t’ and ‘Everybody’s Trying To Be My Baby’ – the latter, which Harrison sang on.

Later on in the ’90s, after The Beatles broke up, Harrison had the opportunity to contribute to two Perkins albums. Harrison contributed vocals on ‘Distance Makes No Difference With Love’ on Go Cat Go and also contributed some guitar work on Blue Suede Shoes – A Rockabilly Session, reissued in 2006.

George Formby

Formby was at the forefront of British entertainment throughout the 1930s and ’40s as an overall variety performer. This kind of influence proves Harrison’s kind of sophistication that implies more than just one kind of performance. Formby was a comic, a singer, and a banjo and ukulele player. 

Harrison said of the performer: “Growing up, all those songs were always in the back of my life….they were either being played in the background, or my mother was singing them when I was three or four. I always wrote songs with those kind of chords anyway. The Beatles songs were a lot like that, just made into the sixties.”

Ravi Shankar

One of Harrison’s most significant influences was his introduction to Indian classical music through Ravi Shankar. It wasn’t just music that Shankar’s influence found itself permeating through, but rather into Harrison’s spiritual beliefs and later practices as a fully-fledged yogi. Harrison was largely responsible for getting the other members of The Beatles hooked on Eastern philosophy and spirituality and also for introducing the sitar to an early Beatles song.

Harrison first used the sitar on Lennon’s ‘Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)’, found on Rubber Soul. Other songs in which Harrison used a sitar and other eastern instruments include ‘Within You Without You’ from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band; various other Indian percussions, wind and stringed instruments were present on their seminal 1968 album, which changed the face of psychedelic pop music. 

Django Reinhardt

This name speaks yet again to George Harrison’s diverse influences and tastes. Reinhardt was an early jazz giant, so to associate a figure such as that to a rocker seems slightly bizarre. While considered the first prominent jazz musician to emerge to prominence from Europe, his style of guitar playing may not be what one would expect when they hear the word ‘jazz’.

A more apt name for the style of Reinhardt’s playing would be ‘gipsy jazz’, which was a style of guitar playing that featured very rhythmic and percussive upstrokes on the guitar—accompanied by another guitar player who would typically play scales that were mostly dissident. It is no wonder that Harrison was greatly influenced, not only in the style of improvisation that occurs in gipsy jazz but also in the creative chord structures of its songwriting. 

Elvis Presley 

One of the more obvious influences would have to be the king himself, who so happened to have influenced every subsequent musician after him. “Seeing Elvis was like seeing the messiah arrive.” What The Beatles did for music in the ’60s is what Elvis did prior in the ’50s. When Elvis hit the stage, the world was never the same again. He essentially invented the idea of the ‘rock star’, the hip-shaking performer who crooned either heartbreaking songs or rock ‘n’ roll numbers that made you want to drive really fast and break shit. Inevitably, Harrison was one of many of his peers to be greatly influenced.

Harrison recalls the time he met Elvis again in 1971, backstage at Madison Square Garden: “Hello, Elvis, how are you?”—just cowering like this little rag-man. I wanted to say to him, “Why don’t you just come out in your jeans and your black shirt—get rid of all them horrible women singers in your band, all them horrible trumpet players and just have James Burton and the drummer and the bass player and the piano player? Just come out and do ‘That’s All Right, Mama.'” But instead, he came out and did (sings) “I did it myyy wayyyy.” Oh, Jesus. But we all loved Elvis and it was sad to see what happened to him. We still love him and he’s still there in his spirit and in his music and best of luck to him, that’s what I say.”