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Music

Why George Harrison disliked Ray Charles' cover of a classic Beatles song

George Harrison was never one to mince his words. Asked what he thought of Paul McCartney’s 1980s output, the guitarist said his bandmate had “ran out of good ones of his own”. Asked how he felt about The Beatles performance on the rooftop, he said he would only go up there if the others did. And when he was asked to comment on Ray Charles version on ‘Something’, Harrison replied with characteristic honesty. 

“Actually, when I was writing that song, in my mind I was thinking of Ray Charles singing it,” Harrison recalled. “As it happened, the song ended up with over 150 cover versions, but when Ray Charles did it, I was really disappointed, except for the middle, the bridge to it, he sings great. But it was a bit of a corny sort of way he did it.”

Unlike the more convivial McCartney, Harrison rarely pandered to the tried-and-tested answers expected of a rock star and responded directly and with great resonance. He didn’t tend to lace his answers cryptically, or pour sugar on his metaphors, but responded to the answer in question. Sometimes the words hurt, but he was honest, and never gave anything that wasn’t completely sincere. 

So, when he knocked McCartney’s output, it’s because he felt that the bassist could do better. And when he said he didn’t want to play on the roof, he didn’t set out to be difficult but gave his forthright opinion on the matter. 

This brings us back to his opinion on Ray Charles, the piano player who had inspired Harrison to write his most memorable opus. Harrison was clearly anticipating something special from his idol, only to hear Charles deliver what he considered an insincere attempt at the vocal. Charles wasn’t singing from a place of truth but as a way of filling out his catalogue. 

This isn’t a criticism of the pianist, but a reflection of the standard he committed to tape. The Beatles were no strangers to recording sub-standard covers themselves, as can be heard on their wanting renditions of ‘Mr Moonlight’ and ‘Everybody’s Trying To Be My Baby’ (the latter sung by Harrison himself.) And then there’s the small matter of ‘Got My Mind Set On You’, Harrison’s anodyne treatment of a jazz-flavoured standard that was written with the purpose of appeasing those aching for the simplicity of the early 1960s. Nostalgia sold these audiences the turd they were hoping for. 

Harrison was a reluctant pop-star, but he was gracious enough to give his attention to the interviewers in question, offering them what he was experiencing at that precise moment in time. The only modern contemporary I can think of is Peter Hook, the mercurial bassist who toured with New Order during the 1980s. If Hook’s feeling elated, he will tell you, much as he will bring up his agitation towards his former New Order bandmates, if that’s how he’s feeling at that particular moment. 

Harrison prided himself on truthfulness, which is why his guitar frills were so particular, while simultaneously explaining why his lyrics were so achingly personal. McCartney remembered a conversation with Harrison where the lead guitarist actively asked him why he was spending so much time devoted to fictional characters like ‘Eleanor Rigby’, when he could focus his work on himself. The bassist might have felt hurt by the insinuation, but Harrison, as always, was just expressing how he felt on that day. 

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Side-note: Harrison was more than happy to praise renditions he thought were worthy of his time. He loved James Brown jauntier rendition of ‘Something’, and Smokey Robinson performed it in a style that appealed to the former Beatle. “I’ve been a big fan, for years, of Smokey Robinson,” Harrison admitted. “He did ‘Something’”.

Harrison recorded a version of Robinson’s startling ‘You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me’ on With The Beatles. McCartney joins him for the chorus, as their voices intertwine as one expressive whole. It sounds powerful, precisely because both men were feeling the passion, earmarking another aspect of truth that funnelled their work. 

Harrison’s greatest albums were his most honest, stemming from the longing of All Things Must Pass, to the redemption of Extra Texture (Read All About It!). Devoid of meaning or character, Cloud Nine is a much emptier experience, although the album spawned two tunes that made it onto the airwaves, bolstering his popularity after nearly ten years of obscurity. 

But it was art as commerce, and if Harrison put any soul into the work, it was lost during the mixing process. And so we get an album that’s every bit as “corny” as the Charles performance heard on ‘Something’. 

More happily, Harrison ended his career on an album that applauded his life’s glories and failings, sealing into a mosaic that captured the Beatle at his most fallible and human: Brainwashed

Stream Charles’ rendition of ‘Something’ below.