Harrison and Dylan formed a strong friendship towards the end of the 1960s, and in 1968 collaborated on the song ‘I’d Have You Anytime’, which became the opening song on All Things Must Pass. In 1970 Harrison also attended some of the sessions for Dylan’s album New Morning.
‘If Not For You’ was the opening song on that album. A languid early version featuring Harrison on guitar was recorded on 1 May 1970 at Columbia’s Studio B in New York, and is thought to be Harrison’s first recorded instance of slide guitar.
Dylan re-recorded the song on 12 August without Harrison, and this version was released on New Morning in October 1970, the month before All Things Must Pass. The earlier recording was eventually released in 1991 in the Dylan box set The Bootleg Series Volumes 1–3 (Rare & Unreleased) 1961–1991.
Harrison evidently liked the song enough to record his own interpretation based on the early Dylan version. Whereas Dylan’s was upbeat, rough and ready, with a spontaneity which characterised his preferred working methods during this time, Harrison’s was slower, more carefully performed and with gleaming production.
Placed on the album after a cluster of songs which showcased Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound to the full – ‘My Sweet Lord’, ‘Wah-Wah’, ‘Isn’t It A Pity’, and ‘What Is Life’ – ‘If Not For You’ served as a perfect breakpoint, a contrast from the densely-packed productions and emotional outpourings of frustration and veneration, hinting at a simpler side to Harrison.
Spector left the All Things Must Pass sessions in June 1970 for health reasons, leaving Harrison to record several backing tracks and overdubs without him. Harrison sent early mixes of most of the songs to Spector, who was convalescing in Los Angeles, and on 19 August 1970 the producer wrote a letter outlining his thoughts on the album’s progress.
IF NOT FOR YOU:
The mix I heard also had the voice too buried. Performance was fine. It also should be remixed when the entire album is remixed.
Bob Dylan and George Harrison performed ‘If Not For You’ during the soundcheck and rehearsal for The Concert For Bangla Desh, which took place in New York City on 1 August 1971. Although it was included in Harrison’s notes for a possible setlist, it was not performed in either of the two Unicef-fundraising concerts. The soundcheck version was later issued on the 2005 DVD of the event.
Harrison eventually performed ‘If Not For You’ live at Madison Square Garden on 16 October 1992, along with a version of ‘Absolutely Sweet Marie’, during a celebration concert for Bob Dylan.