Song: “My Sweet Lord / Isn’t It A Pity?” by George Harrison
Reached #1: December 26, 1970 (his first, 4 weeks)
It’s still a weird, weird story, 40 years on…
George Harrison wrote “My Sweet Lord” in 1969, possibly with help from Eric Clapton, Billy Preston, and/or Delaney & Bonnie (depending on whose version you believe).
He was using an old (and public-domain) 18th-century hymn as the inspiration for the song, which crosses his interest with Indian spirituality with traditional Christianity. Harrison didn’t plan to record it himself – it was originally recorded by Billy Preston, but Harrison added it to the studio track list for his first post-Beatles solo album.
Apparently, though, it also crossed that hymn with the Chiffons’ “He’s So Fine”… which led Bright Music, the publisher of “He’s So Fine”, to sue Harrison in 1971.
At the time, Allan Klein was advising Harrison in the defense of the suit – until Harrison and the other former Beatles fired Klein as their financial caretaker in 1973. Klein, showing the honesty and credibility that marked his career, promptly jumped sides. He bought into Bright Music and gave them all of the non-public information he could about the success of “My Sweet Lord”.
It took a few years, but the courts caught Klein out at his dishonesty… but at first, the phrase “unconscious plagiarism” entered the vocabulary as a judge twisted logic and reality to find that Harrison somehow stole “He’s So Fine” despite no proof of that whatsoever.
By 1981, when Klein’s ABKCO bought the rights to “He’s So Fine”, the truth finally came out. Most of the restitution amount was overturned. Klein was admonished by the court for his double-dealing. And the suit was promptly settled.
And by “promptly”, I mean 17 years later. The last pieces of the suit were closed in 1998, 27 years after it was originally filed.
If any good came out of it, it was that plagiarism suits without a “smoking gun” weren’t worth litigating, and settlements became easier to get…
Tomorrow, another ex-Beatle goes to #1…
Other songs that reached #1 on December 26:
1964 – “I Feel Fine” by the Beatles (their sixth, 3 weeks)