Some Early Musical Influences on George Harrison

A quick overview of the music that helped shape his writing and sound

George Harrison 1963
George Harrison, December, 1963. Fox Photos/Getty Images

Eric Clapton says of George Harrison: “He was clearly an innovator. George was taking certain elements of R&B, rock and rockabilly to create something unique.” 

So what were some of the main influences on George, especially early on in his career, which helped shape him as a musician and as a composer?

Back in Liverpool, when Paul McCartney first took his young friend George along to meet John Lennon, one of the songs George played for John was an instrumental guitar track called “Raunchy”, made popular by Sun Records guitar slinger, Bill Justis.

Like his bandmates John and Paul, Buddy Holly was also a big early influence for George. Holly’s “That’ll Be The Day” was one of the two songs that John Lennon’s group the Quarry Men (which by this time included George and Paul) recorded at an amateur home recording studio in Liverpool in 1958. The other song they did was an original Harrison/McCartney composition called “In Spite of all the Danger”.

George also loved American rockabilly and the music of Carl Perkins in particular became a life-long inspiration. Perkins’ songs are dotted throughout The Beatles’ early stage and radio shows, and two of them (“Honey Don’t” and “Everybody’s Trying to be My Baby” – which is sung by George) turn up on The Beatles For Sale in the UK, and on Beatles ’65 in the US. If you want to hear that rockabilly influence in the guitar work also have a listen to “All My Loving” (from Meet the Beatles), and “She’s A Woman” (from Beatles ’65 or Past Masters Volume 1).

By way of further tribute, George contributed to at least two albums by Carl Perkins well after his career with the Beatles ended. One was Go Cat Go (1996), where he played and sang with Perkins on the song “Distance Makes No Difference With Love”. The other, which has recently been re-issued, was Blue Suede Shoes – A Rockabilly Session (2006). George, along with the likes of Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton and Dave Edmonds joined Perkins on a version of “Everybody’s Trying to be My Baby” and also the legendary classic “Blue Suede Shoes”.

Mention of  “Blue Suede Shoes” leads inevitably to Elvis Presley, whom Harrison (along with all his peers at one time!) idolized: “Seeing Elvis was like seeing the messiah arrive.” From a guitar-playing perspective George looked to Elvis's pioneering rock lead guitarist Scotty Moore, a stalwart of the Presley band who played with a unique style.

If we were examine this from a completely different angle, and go back even further into George’s past to find players and performers whom he himself nominated as influences, then the name George Formby must rate a mention. Formby was one of Britain’s foremost variety entertainers in the 1930s and 1940s.

A star of stage, screen, radio and records George Formby, who hailed from Lancashire in England, was a comic, a singer, and a banjo and ukulele player. The BBC featured George Harrison speaking about his love of Formby in a 2005 radio documentary celebrating Formby’s life and music. “Growing up, all those songs were always in the back of my life….they were either being played in the background, or my mother was singing [them] when I was three or four. I always wrote songs with those kind of chords anyway. The Beatles songs were a lot like that, just made into the sixties.” In his later life Harrison made sure he always had a ukulele (or even a banjolele) close at hand.

But perhaps the biggest and longest-lasting influence on George Harrison was his love and total involvement in Indian classical music. It was through this type of music that George found a way to fulfill not only a musical need, but also a deeply spiritual need in his life. His association with the great Ravi Shankar, who was a master of the sitar, played a central part in the journey. George Harrison was his student, but also a sponge who soaked up Indian culture and beliefs. In this way Shankar was much, much bigger in Harrison’s life than Elvis, Perkins and Formby combined. Ravi Shankar was to play a key role not only in shaping George’s music but also in his journey to spiritual understanding.

Inevitably, Indian music made it’s way into the popular mainstream through George’s work with The Beatles. With it he broke new ground, starting with the simple but highly original use of a single sitar accompaniment on Lennon's “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)”, through to his own composition “Within You Without You” - a full-on statement for the time featuring a host of Indian percussion, wind and stringed instruments. In 1967, as the opening song on Side 2 of the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band LP, Indian music had never had such a broad Western listenership – all down to one George Harrison.

Like John Lennon, there’s an interesting George Harrison’s Juke Box CD that gathers together some other key Harrison influences from his early years. It includes many of the artists we’ve mentioned here, but also a wide range of others you may find interesting. Worth a look – and a listen.