Throwback Thursday: When "My Sweet Lord" Was a "Blurred Lines" for George Harrison
As Robin Thicke loses his own copyright infringement lawsuit, THR takes a look back at when the ex-Beatle was found guilty of "subconsciously" copying The Chiffons' "He's So Fine" in a lawsuit that tied up 18 years of his life.
This story first appeared in the March 27 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Both sides in the copyright infringement case involving Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke's 2013 hit "Blurred Lines" and Marvin Gaye's 1977 chart-topper "Got to Give It Up" soon will learn the litigation is only beginning. Ask George Harrison: The late Beatle once said the 1976 lawsuit over his first solo hit, 1970's "My Sweet Lord" — which he was charged with plagiarizing from the 1963 Billboard No. 1 "He's So Fine" by The Chiffons — tied up 18 years of his life, and the story "would fill a book."
At issue was the musical phrase "sol-la-do-la-re-do" and the placement of a grace note. The judge ruled Harrison had not "deliberately" copied the "He's So Fine" melody, but that it was "subconsciously accomplished." The lawsuit was about to be settled in pretrial negotiations for $148,000 when Harrison's business manager, the late Allen Klein, "went round the back door," in Harrison's words, and bought the rights to "He's So Fine." That meant the person who had been helping defend Harrison — Klein — now was the one suing him. (Not long after, Harrison fired Klein.) The case eventually was settled, with Harrison paying Klein $587,000 — the amount the ex-business manager had paid for the rights. But "settled" was a relative term: At least eight years of litigation ensued over what rights Klein actually owned.
"Allen regarded everything as his property. That's the reality," says Andrew Loog Oldham, The Rolling Stones' manager before Klein (whom Mick Jagger recommended to The Beatles). In 1976, Harrison wrote "This Song" about the experience ("This song ain't black or white, and as far as I know/Don't infringe on anyone's copyright"); the accompanying video featured the Stones' Ron Wood in drag as a juror. As for Harrison's guilt, no less an authority than John Lennon said in 1980: "He must have known, you know. He's smarter than that." Then the ex-Beatle added, "Maybe he thought God would just sort of let him off."