Subscribe

(Credit: David Hume Kennerly)

When George Harrison met the president

George Harrison’s 1974 tour behind his fifth solo LP Dark Horse was notoriously wayward. The album itself came at a time when Harrison was going through a divorce with his wife Patti Boyd, and his attempts at splitting with former manager Allen Klein were becoming contentious. He focused on creating the album, but the result had bad vibes all over it, from the unfocused music to the occasionally vitriolic and bitter tone.

Despite the difficulties that surrounded the album, many fans were excited about the prospect of the tour. It would be the first North American run of shows by any Beatle since the band’s final American tour in 1966, and it would also be Harrison’s live performances since the critically acclaimed Concert for Bangladesh three years prior. To say expectations were high would be an understatement, but all Harrison had to do was stay healthy, trot out a few of his classics, and the tour would be a resounding success.

Instead, Harrison ceded a large portion of the show to Indian musician Ravi Shankar, a close friend of Harrison’s who had advised the guitarist on the sitar and performed at The Concert for Bangladesh (the audience at that show, hilariously uncultured about classical Indian music, applauded Shankar’s tuning at the beginning of the set). When Harrison was on the stage, he decided to play only four Beatles songs: the wonky Let It Be deep cut ‘For You Blue’, ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’, a reworked version of ‘Something’ that referred to Harrison’s divorce, and the Lennon-McCartney song ‘In My Life’. Additionally, some of his more famous solo cuts like ‘What Is Life’ and ‘My Sweet Lord’ were rearranged in unfamiliar formats.

All told, reactions ranged from confusion to downright anger. To complicate matters, Harrison began to lose his voice as the tour went on, leading many of the concerts to feature his horse screaming in place of actual singing. Reviews were largely unkind, and Harrison’s dismissive comments about The Beatles in press conferences only made the combative situation worse. In the end, the experience was so sour for Harrison that he didn’t tour again until 1991, and even then restricted it to a few shows in Japan.

But the strangest experience came when Harrison, Shankar, and Billy Preston visited The White House on December 13th before one of two shows at the Capital Centre in Landover, Maryland. Then-President Gerald Ford’s son, Jack, had seen Harrison perform in Salt Lake City, Utah, and befriended Harrison backstage. The young Ford extended an invitation for Harrison to visit the Oval Office should he get the chance.

“We walked into the presidents’ conference room with the oval table and the chair and signs saying, ‘Secretary of Defense,’ ‘Secretary of this and that’ and we sat down in the chairs, clowning around,” saxophonist Tom Scott recalled. The group managed to find a piano and stage a short bit of entertainment for the staff before the President greeted them. “[Ford] took us into this little side room where he had all this WIN [“Whip Inflation Now”, one of Ford’s policies] paraphernalia – posters, watches, sweaters, T-shirts,” said Scott. “It looked just like the back room at Dark Horse Records, which is loaded with T-shirts and bags and towels.”

Harrison and Ford reportedly talked for around 20 minutes, and at one point even discussed the attempts by Ford’s predecessor, Richard Nixon, to deport John Lennon. Despite the sensitive topic, Harrison and the President seemed to get on well.

“He’s not all that familiar with my music,” Harrison admitted, but also added, “He seemed very relaxed. He was much easier to meet than I would expect. You can imagine the number of things he’s got on his plate.” During a press conference given before leaving, Harrison got in one more swipe at his former band, telling journalists that he preferred his current band over The Beatles.

Comments