‘My Sweet Lord’, George Harrison’s signature song, was his debut single and biggest chart hit, which reached number one in a number of countries.
Harrison began writing the song while touring in Europe with Delaney & Bonnie in December 1969. His primary inspiration was Edwin Hawkins’ funk and gospel arrangement of the 18th century hymn ‘Oh Happy Day’, which was an international chart hit in 1969.
I remember Eric [Clapton] and Delaney & Bonnie were doing interviews with somebody in either Copenhagen or Gothenburg, somewhere in Sweden and I was so thrilled with ‘Oh Happy Day’ by The Edwin Hawkins Singers. It really just knocked me out, the idea of that song and I just felt a great feeling of the Lord. So I thought, ‘I’ll write another ‘Oh Happy Day’,’ which became ‘My Sweet Lord’.
Religious songs had been increasingly prevalent in the pop charts in the early 1970s. Norman Greenbaum’s ‘Spirit In The Sky’ and Pacific Gas & Electric’s ‘Are You Ready’ had been hit singles, and the musical Jesus Christ Superstar was a box office smash.
Harrison took such sentiments a step further, creating a naked plea to God in which he presented himself as a vulnerable, willing and passionate disciple. In four minutes the song led from a simple two-chord acoustic introduction through to a key change coinciding with the entrance of drums and bass guitar, and ended in a rapturous climax in which listeners were left in no doubt as to Harrison’s devotion.
The success of ‘My Sweet Lord’ was in part due to its lyrical simplicity. Harrison’s lead vocals consisted of just 22 different words which any English speaker could understand and sing along to.
The song wedded Harrison’s interest in Hindusim and Krishna mantras to gospel joyousness. The backing vocals in ‘My Sweet Lord’ evolved from the Hebrew word ‘Hallelujah’, common in Christian and Jewish religions, through to Sanskrit prayer and incantations for Krishna.
I did the voices singing ‘Hallelujah’ first and then the change to ‘Hare Krishna’ so that people would be chanting the Maha Mantra – before they knew what was going on!
Hidden among the backing vocals towards the end of the song was the entire text of Vedic Sanskrit prayer.
Gururbrahmaa Guru visnuh, Gururdevo Mahesvarah
Gurussaakshaat Param Brahma
Tasmai Shri Gurave Namhah
The prayer translates as: “The teacher is Brahma, the teacher is Visnu, the teacher is the Lord Mahesvarah. Verily the teacher is the supreme Brahman, to that respected teacher I bow down.” Harrison would have delighted in masquerading such an elaborate message of devotion amid the otherwise simple incantations.
The backing vocals were irreverently credited to the “George O’Hara-Smith Singers”, who were Harrison and Phil Spector, joined by Eric Clapton, keyboard player Bobby Whitlock and two others identified by Harrison as “Cyril” and “Betty”. The singers repeatedly overdubbed the backing vocals, creating a choral effect in keeping with the song’s subject.
Billy Preston’s recording
At the time ‘My Sweet Lord’ was written, Harrison was still a member of The Beatles with no serious plans for a solo career. He therefore donated the song to Billy Preston for his fifth album Encouraging Words, released by Apple in 1970.
Preston’s version was recorded at London’s Olympic Studios in January 1970. Harrison co-produced the session, and the recording featured The Edwin Hawkins Singers on backing vocals.
A single was issued in Europe to coincide with the September release of Encouraging Words, and became a minor hit. It was released in the US once Harrison’s recording became a hit later that year, but peaked at number 90 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Five months after the Olympic session, Harrison enlisted Preston to perform on his own version of the song.