“My Sweet Lord” is a roller coaster of a song – and not just because of an arrangement that soars from George Harrison‘s simple acoustic figure to an utterly thunderous chorus.
It arrived on Nov. 23, 1970, as Harrison’s highly anticipated debut solo single. Then it became the first No. 1 song by a former member of the Beatles. Then the subject of a headline-grabbing plagiarism suit. Then the sunny last statement from a dying star.
A throwback wall-of-sound recording that challenged listeners to open their hearts while brushing aside religious differences hardly seemed destined for such success, controversy or longevity. Harrison said he was originally inspired by a funky gospel reworking of an 18th-century hymn called “Oh Happy Day,” which the Edwin Hawkins Singers took up the charts in 1969 as he toured Europe with Delaney & Bonnie.
“It really just knocked me out, the idea of that song and I just felt a great feeling of the Lord,” Harrison said in Off the Record 2: The Dream Is Over, recalling how inspiration struck in a dressing room on the road. “So, I thought, ‘I’ll write another ‘Oh Happy Day,” which became ‘My Sweet Lord.'”
At this point, Harrison was still officially a member of the Beatles – and that meant parceling his songs out at a pace of two or so per album. So once Harrison got to a stopping point, he gave “My Sweet Lord” away: The first released version, by recent Beatles collaborator Billy Preston, appeared on September 1970’s Encouraging Words.