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Was George Harrison's 'My Sweet Lord' Really A 'He's So Fine' Ripoff?

Music | August 31, 2020

Left: George Harrison in Cannes on January 30, 1976, for the Midem music industry trade fair. Right: The Chiffons' single Harrison was said to have plagiarized. Sources: Michael Putland/Getty Images; Pinterest

If you've noticed George Harrison's "My Sweet Lord" sounds a bit like "He's So Fine" by The Chiffons, you're not alone -- in 1976, a judge ruled that the ex-Beatle's big hit and spiritual declaration had ripped off the girl-group oldie. The accusation of plagiarism was news to Harrison, who swore up and down he didn't steal the melody. Well, not knowingly -- and that was, in fact, the rub in this important case. It turns out an artist can steal a tune without even knowing he or she is doing it, and can be held legally liable for what the judge called "subconscious" theft.

The song that spawned many lawsuits, My Sweet Lord. (youtube)

The Beatles made sublime music together, the likes of which people had never heard. Their iconic melodies turned fandom into Beatlemania, to the point that John, Paul, George, and Ringo couldn’t walk down the street without getting mobbed. Once people reach that point of deity, they sometimes want to branch out and go on their own. “Imagine” by John Lennon ranks as perhaps the most successful song by a solo artist spreading their wings from a hall of fame group. On the other end of the spectrum, there’s “Ringo The 4th”, a blinding bad album by its namesake. Somewhere in between lands the curious case of George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord.” The song made it to #1 but landed the long-haired Beatle in some legal trouble. 

The Seeds For 'My Sweet Lord' Were Planted Early

Harrison looking a lot like the Lord. (cosmicmagazine.com.au)

When George Harrison was a kid, his mother would take him to a Catholic church and like many kids, Harrison wasn’t a huge fan. For Harrison, “If there's a God we must see him. If there's a soul we must perceive it. Otherwise, it's better not to believe. It's better to be an outspoken atheist than a hypocrite.”

In 1968, when he and the Beatles went to India, Harrison became interested in Eastern philosophy and transcendental meditation. That depiction of religion fit Harrison’s eye. “You just believe what we tell you. And don't ask questions. Whereas the Swami's saying, If there's a God we must see him. I thought, Right on, that's the one for me! If there's a God, I want to see him."

Harrison’s #1 Mantra

Harrison getting lessons from Ravi Shankar on the Sitar. (youtube)

In his words, "First, it's simple. The thing about a mantra, you see... mantras are, well, they call it a mystical sound vibration encased in a syllable. It has this power within it. It's just hypnotic." Harrison combined his favored religion with a Christian call of Hallelujah. As Harrison saw it, "Hallelujah and Hare Krishna are quite the same thing."

“My Sweet Lord” became the first #1 hit by a Beatle since their break up. Peter Frampton played the lead guitar using Harrison’s legendary Les Paul. Paul Spector sang backup with the blessing of Harrison and Lennon but against the objections of McCartney. Lennon, Yoko Ono, Billy Preston, and Eric Clapton were all present during the recording.

Bobby Whitlock remembers the strange scene, "All during the sessions, the door would pop open and in would spring three or four or five Hare Krishnas in their white robes and shaved heads with a pony tail coming out the top. They were all painted up, throwing rose petals and distributing peanut butter cookies."

Legal Trouble

The song Harrison was accused of stealing from. (youtube)

Three years after the release of “My Sweet Lord”, Bright Tunes Music sued Harrison, claiming the song was too similar to the Chiffons’ 1963 hit “He’s So Fine.” It took five years for a ruling but more than 20 years to reach a final resolution. According to Harrison, he wrote the song while playing with the group Delaney and Bonnie in Denmark. He also claimed the song came from Edwin Hawkins Singers' "Oh Happy Day," not "He's So Fine."

A fallout between Harrison and his manager Allen Klein, who switched sides during the proceedings likely hurt his case’s chances. The two songs shared a pair of notes “G-E-D” and “G-A-C-A-C.” “My Sweet Lord” repeated the first set 4 times and the second set three times. Since Harrison couldn’t identify any other songs that used this pattern, the court ruled that “the two songs are virtually identical."

The judge felt Harrison never intentionally copied the song but found him guilty of "subconscious plagiarism." He went on to say,” It is perfectly obvious to the listener that in musical terms, the two songs are virtually identical." In the end, the case cost Harrison $587,000 and not the $1.6 million that it could have, had Allen Klein’s company not bought Bright Tunes in 1978 for $587,000. Essentially, another judge ruled that Klein shouldn’t profit from the judgment. The joys of legalese. 

The Lawsuit’s Effect On Harrison

Harrison learning about Eastern philosophy. (heydullblog)

Naturally, the long ordeal took its toll on Harrison. He took three years off writing and told Rolling Stone magazine, "It's difficult to just start writing again after you've been through that. Even now when I put the radio on, every tune I hear sounds like something else." His buddy, Ringo Starr came to his defense, “There's no doubt that the tune is similar, but how many songs have been written with other melodies in mind? George's version is much heavier than the Chiffons’ – he might have done it with the original in the back of his mind, but he's just very unlucky that someone wanted to make it a test case in court."

Incidentally, credited the mantra “Hare Krishna” with saving his life. On a flight from L.A to New York in ‘71, Harrison’s plane was struck by lighting. He told an Indian magazine, Back to Godhead, "I know for me, the difference between making it and not making it was actually chanting the mantra."

Tags: George Harrison | Hes So Fine | My Sweet Lord | Song Meanings, Lyrics, And Facts | The Chiffons | Lawsuits

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Kellar Ellsworth

Writer

Kellar Ellsworth was born and raised in Hawaii. He is an avid traveler, surfer and lover of NBA basketball. He wishes he could have grown up in the free love era!