25 Years Ago: George Harrison Tours for the Last Time
George Harrison wasn’t fond of touring, and he had little reason to be enamored with it. In the ’60s, as a member of the Beatles, the guitarist and singer had become weary of the hordes of shrieking fans. When he hit the road as a solo artist in 1974, Harrison’s U.S. tour was plagued by vocal issues, drug problems and a rock press that seemed more interested in his past as a Beatle than his present solo work.
So, whenever Harrison’s thoughts turned to doing another tour after 1974, he would quickly beg off any plans, foreseeing more frustration than joy in the practice. That is, until 1991, when longtime buddy Eric Clapton made it a little tougher for his fellow guitar player to say no. Slowhand offered to tour with Harrison, while backed by Clapton’s live band, for a handful of dates in Japan.
“Eric suggested to me it … would be a good time if I wanted to do a concert tour because he was not working and him and his band were available to become my band,” Harrison said in a press conference. “And that was one reason why I thought about working was because Eric asked me.”
Of course, it wasn’t the only reason. After some bad business dealings, Harrison could use the money from a tour. As a relatively compact nation, Japan offered significant profits with not a lot of travel between cities – certainly in comparison to a full-scale U.S. or European tour. It’s also been rumored that Harrison agreed to play with Clapton as a way of keeping his old friend occupied, given that the musician was still reeling from the death of his young son, Conor, who had died after a tragic accident earlier in the year.
Although the two rock legends would share the stage, for these 12 Japan shows, the spotlight would be on Harrison, with Clapton taking a backseat as the tour’s musical director. Clapton had a heavy hand in the set list, choosing songs from Harrison’s Beatles years along with plenty of solo tunes – some of them quite recent. Harrison said that “I Want to Tell You” was selected (and opened each concert) because he had performed it with the Fab Four in Tokyo in 1965, and it provided a link to the past.
Wanting to avoid another vocal blowout (like in 1974) and to make sure he we was ready for his first tour in 17 years, Harrison quit smoking in advance of the trek. As a result of the decision, the former Beatle told the Chicago Tribune, “I feel better than I have in 20 years. I’m very straight. I don’t even drink.”
Watch George Harrison Perform 'Give Me Love' Live in Japan
Harrison, Clapton and Clapton's band (featuring future Heartbreaker Steve Ferrone on drums and long-running Rolling Stones sideman Chuck Leavell on keyboards) rehearsed before the tour and played a warm-up gig for VIP guests in Tokyo before starting the tour on Dec. 1, 1991, in Yokohama.
“The first real show I had some nerves, but it was just the right balance of nerves and adrenaline,” Harrison said in 1992, “and it proved to be one of the best performances.”
On opening night, they played a 25-song set, ranging from “Taxman,” “Something” and “Piggies” to “My Sweet Lord,” “Give Me Love” and “Got My Mind Set on You.” Clapton stepped to the mic for a short, mid-set run of his songs, including Cream’s “Badge” (which had featured Harrison on the recording). The pair relived one of their other famous collaborations with an encore of the Beatles’ “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.”
After the first couple of shows, the set got trimmed a bit (“Fish on the Sand” and “Love Comes to Everyone” were dispatched) but remained otherwise intact as Harrison, Clapton and the band played in Osaka, Nagoya, Hiroshima and Fukuoka, before finishing off the tour with three shows at the Tokyo Dome. Fan reaction was ecstatic for the December concerts, as were most of the write-ups in the rock press.
“After three or four nights of doing the concerts, my ego was satisfied,” Harrison reflected. “I’m the kind of person who would love to play whenever I felt like, with a band, and it might as well be the Holiday Inn in Nebraska – somewhere where no one knows you and you’re in a band situation just playing music. The adulation or the superstardom is something I could leave out quite happily.”
Following the Japanese excursion, Harrison talked about embarking on a bigger U.S. tour (following in the footsteps of Paul McCartney’s recent Beatles-centric mega-tours). However, he also talked about his reluctance to stay on the road for months at a time, and the plans never came to pass.
Fans around the world had to make do with a double-disc set of concert recordings from the Japan dates, 1992’s Live in Japan, which preserved the full set (omitting the four Clapton-led songs). The album would be the last new release in Harrison’s lifetime.
Although Harrison would perform live on occasion in the ’90s, he would never again tour. The former Beatle’s return to the big stage would also be his swan song.
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