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My Sweet Lord: cribbed notes not so fine for ex-Beatle George Harrison

My Sweet Lord: cribbed notes not so fine for ex-Beatle George Harrison

My Sweet Lord: cribbed notes not so fine for ex-Beatle George Harrison
January 03
08:23 2018

My Sweet Lord. George Harrison (Billboard No 1, December 26, 1970). Ronnie Mack was 22 when a song he had written, which was being recorded by some girls from the Bronx he knew calling themselves the Chiffons, was changed at the suggestion of the studio engineer. Mack’s song had a background chorus that chanted “doo-lang, doo-lang, doo-lang”. The engineer, Johnny Cue, thought it sounded cute and should kick off the song.It was a stroke of luck for Mack, most of whose luck would be bad. It was December 1962. By March 1963, the Chiffons’ He’s So Fine had started a four-week run on top of the Billboard charts. By December 1963, Mack was dead at the age of 23.The story of She’s So Fine is irrevocably entwined with George Harrison’s My Sweet Lord,which dominated international charts from late 1970 — it was No 1 in Australia for nine weeks.By March 1971, Mack’s estate and the publisher of He’s So Fine, Bright Tunes, had begun proceedings again Harrison claiming he had plagiarised their hit. In 1976 a judge agreed that the former Beatle had subconsciously lifted a series of notes from the song — and that might have been the end of it, but it has never really ended.Few Harrison compositions made their way on to Beatles albums, even though many consider his Something and Here Comes the Sun to be Abbey Road’s finest. But Here Comes the Sun was a relieved Harrison counting down the days until there was no Beatles and he would be free to play what he wanted away from the arguing, dominating and incomparably gifted John Lennon and Paul McCartney. And all those lawyers.Harrison started work on My Sweet Lord while on tour with Delaney & Bonnie & Friends in 1969. Harrison became close to Delaney Bramlett, eventually giving him his Fender Telecaster guitar that he played at the Beatles’ last live performance. Bramlett later sold it for $500,000 and it is now back with Harrison’s son, Dhani.Harrison was keen to write a gospel song along the lines of the recently popular Oh Happy Day by the Edwin Hawkins Singers. Bramlett strummed a few chords — later he would say it was He’s So Fine — and may have sung a few incidental words and perhaps “lord” was one. Why wouldn’t it have been? After hearing My Sweet Lord on radio, Bramlett bought a copy to see if he’d been given a credit. He hadn’t and called Harrison to complain. They never spoke again.Back in London, Harrison worked with Billy Preston on the song as it took shape. Indeed, he offered it to Preston and it was scheduled to be issued as a Beatles-owned Apple single. It was held up and Harrison’s version was released along with a hit triple album, All Things Must Pass.It is curious that none of the people involved in the recording of My Sweet Lord mentioned its likeness to He’s So Fine. It’s not as if they hadn’t heard the Chiffons hit; it was high in the British charts when the Beatles had their first British No 1 with From Me to You. Joey Molland was the guitarist with Badfinger and, as a Beatles insider, played on All Things Must Pass and Lennon’s Imagine. “I was struck by the similarity,” said Molland, who played one of the acoustic guitars on My Sweet Lord and sang in the chorus. “But I didn’t feel it was my place to say anything. We relied on the Beatles for work.” Neither did eccentric producer Phil Spector speak up. His wife was in the Ronettes, a New York all-girl group that competed back then with the Chiffons.When My Sweet Lord was released, Lennon wondered why his former Beatle bandmate had “copied” He’s So Fine. “He’s smarter than that. Maybe he thought God would just sort of let him off,” he said later.The case dragged through the courts for years. In a complicated judgment about the value of My Sweet Lord, it was decided that Harrison owed Bright Tunes $US1,599,987. But in the meantime, one-time Beatles manager Allen Klein had been assisting the Bright Tunes case with inside information about Harrison’s earnings from it and then, in what appeared a brilliant tactical manoeuvre, he bought Bright Tunes for $587,000. When damages were reassessed, it was ruled that Klein could not profit from his inside knowledge and he was awarded $587,000 in damages.Unknown to the Chiffons and most others, Mack was seriously ill with Hodgkin’s disease as his hit crested the charts. Months later he collapsed on the street and was taken to New York’s Roosevelt Hospital. The Chiffons took their ailing friend’s new gold record to the hospital.Mack died there soon after. Within weeks, what would become known as Beatlemania broke out across the US via the New York-based Ed Sullivan Show — the Beatles’ appearance, with an audience of 73 million, being at that stage the most watched event in US television history. And 17 years later, almost to the day after Mack died, one of the Beatles — Lennon, the man who’d first warned Harrison of his song’s likeness to He’s So Fine — was also taken to the Roosevelt. He had just been shot by Mark David Chapman.

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Martin Nethercutt

Martin Nethercutt

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