George Harrison’s Dark Horse Label Rides Again
As Olivia Harrison remembers, her future husband, George, drove himself to work on the first day on his new job. It was October 1974, and George Harrison had flown to Los Angeles to visit the offices of the record label he’d just launched. The only problem was that no one had organized a welcoming party for him, but Olivia — then Olivia Arias, newly hired to work on the project — dashed out to the parking lot to greet him. “I thought somebody should,” she says. “He drove onto the lot by himself in this little car, and I thought, ‘Jeez, this is a big day in his life,’ and I went outside and said, ‘Welcome!’ He said, ‘What’s going on?’ He was very excited, but it was just me.”
In many ways, the story befits Harrison: Among his fellow Beatles, he was always the most low-key and publicity averse — the so-called quiet Beatle who also had a sly sense of humor. But his life after the band’s breakup was far from quiet; the early-to-mid-Seventies were some of the most creative and bustling years of his career. He went solo as soon as the group disbanded in 1970, organized the all-star Concert for Bangladesh at Madison Square Garden, and had hit singles of his own. Then, in 1974, he decided to start his own label, Dark Horse Records.
The list of contemporary musicians with their own imprints is vast and includes Drake, the Weeknd, Dan Auerbach, Meek Mill, Jack White, and Kanye West. Dark Horse wasn’t simply one of the earliest artist-headed labels — along with labels started by the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and Jefferson Airplane — but one of the most eclectic. During the company’s first few years, Harrison released records in genres few would have ever associated with the Beatles: suave disco, strummy folk rock, funky R&B, Seventies boogie rock, even proto-yacht rock. “There was some time and distance between whatever they went through with the breakup of the Beatles,” says Olivia, who met Harrison during this time. “You got to the end of that [period] and Apple had split up, and he said, ‘I want to do something different.’ It was a new day and a fresh start.”
Many current rock and hip-hop artist-entrepreneurs have determined how to own, run, and distribute their own labels, but in the early years of such undertakings, everyone — especially the musicians who fronted the companies — was learning as they went along. Dark Horse began with the best intentions and was a testament to Harrison’s wide-ranging tastes. But his experience running a company, and touring to promote himself during that time, would reverberate for the rest of his career, in ways both positive and less so. With the label now revived by his son Dhani — who has reactivated Dark Horse’s famous logo and is digging into its long-unavailable back catalog, with plenty of unreleased material due to be issued in the coming years — it’s worth looking back on an often-forgotten chapter in the life of a Beatle, the free-wheeling music business era that led to Dark Horse, and the lessons learned when an artist takes the business plunge.
In 1973, drummer Jim Keltner, who remained a close friend of Harrison right up until his death in 2001 from lung cancer, paid a visit to Friar Park, Harrison’s private estate outside London. The two were hanging out in the downstairs breakfast room that was the social hub of the house. “We were sitting there one evening and George asked me, ‘What does dark horse mean to you?’” Keltner says. “My dad worked at a racetrack all his life. So to me, dark horse is the one not expected to win but who wins.”
For Olivia, the connection was clear. “George always considered himself to be a dark horse — under the radar,” she says. “It’s interesting considering he was so out there [in the public]. But he was very internalized. If you looked at him onstage, he didn’t physically jump around and express himself like that. In that dark-horse way, people wouldn’t expect you to be a songwriter or be spiritual or funny, because you’re a dark horse. Nobody really knows what’s going on with you.”
Harrison told Keltner he was starting his own record company and even showed him an illustration of the Uchchaihshravas, a seven-headed horse common in Hindu mythology, which would serve as the company’s logo. “He was just the king of all horses, the prototype for all horses, the best horse ever,” says Dhani of the symbol. “He turned the tide in the battle and just generally was seen as this powerful vehicle for protection and overcoming.”
By 1974, the idea of offering a refuge to some of his fellow artists appealed to Harrison, who’d been battered by the Beatles’ messy business breakup, and he had the additional clout to make it happen. His 1970 triple album, All Things Must Pass, was both a best-seller and a declaration to the world that he could make records equal to those of John Lennon and Paul McCartney. The Concert for Bangladesh the following year found Harrison sharing the stage with Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, and others to benefit the ravaged country, and he continued his commercial streak with his 1973 album, Living in the Material World, and its corresponding hit, “Give Me Love (Give Me Peace on Earth).”
Harrison was still under contract to EMI, the Beatles’ label, until early 1976, but the idea of running his own company and promoting his friends’ work appealed to him. “If George liked you, he wanted to help you,” says Keltner. “He would put it as, ‘These people are the people who really deserve to be signed to a label.'” According to reports, Harrison consulted with David Geffen, then running Asylum Records, and he and Ringo Starr were said to be considering buying Apple. Instead Harrison opted to start Dark Horse, and in the spring of 1974, he entered into a five-year partnership agreement with A&M Records, then the home of the Carpenters, Peter Frampton, the Flying Burrito Brothers, and many more. A&M invested more than $2 million into the project; for its investment, A&M also would eventually land the rights to Harrison’s solo albums.
At a press conference a few months later, Harrison explained his approach: “I don’t want Dark Horse to be a big label. I want to keep it reasonably small.… If I signed all the artists who have given me audition tapes, Dark Horse would be bigger than RCA now.” (Asked about the Beatles reunion at the same event, he said, “If we do it again, it will probably be because we’ll be broke and need the money,” adding that McCartney “is a fine bass player, although he may be a little overpowering at times,” and saying he preferred session man Willie Weeks.)
As an artist himself, Harrison was happy to delegate: In the U.K., the label was run by Jonathan Clyde, with Dennis Morgan (who was previously involved with Elton John’s Rocket label) managing the company’s L.A. office. Olivia Harrison had been working as an assistant in A&M’s merchandising department for two years when she was offered the job at Dark Horse, which had its own offices on the A&M lot — sharing space with Ode Records, whose major act was Carole King. “George was very excited, and he loved having that office to go to,” she says. “He loved being surrounded by musicians. He designed everything, even the merch. He had beautiful bronze Dark Horse belt buckles and pins. There were dark horses everywhere.”
“Jerry Moss [A&M co-founder] put my mom on the Dark Horse project because she was the only person cool enough there,” adds Dhani. “She was a meditator, and they figured she would get on with my dad real well, which evidently she did.” (The two were married in 1978, the year Dhani was born: “I was one of their early releases,” he says drolly.)
As if declaring its range right out of the box, Dark Horse’s first two releases — albums by Splinter and Ravi Shankar, both in October 1974 — were at opposite ends of the musical spectrum. Shankar Family & Friends was an East-meets-West collaboration between Shankar’s band, Harrison, and musician friends like Keltner, Starr, guitarist David Bromberg, jazz sax and flute player Tom Scott, and others.
George was tipped to the British folk-rock duo Splinter (Bill Elliott and Bobby Purvis) by Mal Evans, the Beatles’ late confidante and personal assistant. To Olivia, the appeal of their music — the gentle hooks of their debut album, The Place I Love, and rollicking singalongs like “Drink All Day” — was obvious. “Badfinger had been on Apple, and Splinter was not too dissimilar,” she says. “You could see them following Badfinger.” Harrison produced the album and played various instruments on it; reflecting the self-deprecating humor that would also be showcased in the Rutles movie, he referred to himself in the credits as Hari Georgeson, Jai Raj Harisein, and P. Roducer.
Still, Dark Horse was hardly a haven for purist music. Harrison also issued Mind Your Own Business!, a taste of period FM rock by former Wings and Joe Cocker guitarist Henry McCullough. One of Harrison’s label heads signed the Stairsteps, the updated lineup of the Five Stairsteps, the Chicago R&B group whose biggest hit was the glorious soul hymnal “O-o-h Child.” Their album 2nd Resurrection was the unlikeliest of Dark Horse releases — silk-sheeted Seventies soul with ebullient harmonies, squiggly Billy Preston synths, and as many flute solos as a Lizzo show. “George listened to everything,” says Olivia, “but as an artist, he let the artists have final approval.”
Another Dark Horse signing resulted from the weekly jam sessions at the Record Plant studio in L.A. Called the Jim Keltner Fan Club Hour, after a mischievous liner note in Living in the Material World, the jams attracted everyone from Mick Jagger and John Lennon to support players like James Taylor–Carole King guitarist Danny Kortchmar, soul-rooted bassist Paul Stallworth, and a young, R&B-steeped Canadian keyboardist and singer named David Foster, who went on to produce pop acts from Chicago to Josh Groban and was featured in a public TV special last year with his current wife Katherine McPhee. “Foster was a hungry piano player,” Keltner recalls. “He was so funky, man, nothing like the guy you see now on PBS.”
As a result of those jams, Kortchmar, Foster, Stallworth, and Keltner wound up forming a band, Attitudes, that played radio-ready grooves blending Foster’s pop tendencies and Kortchmar’s roots in R&B. Even though the music didn’t seem up Harrison’s musical alley, he nonetheless signed the group to Dark Horse — a favor to his close pal Keltner, as Kortchmar recalls — and released two albums by them. The first includes the scrappy original version of Kortchmar’s “Honey Don’t Leave L.A.,” later covered by James Taylor. (Kortchmar says it was “loosely based on a relationship with a woman who I really dug but who split with somebody vastly more famous than me.”)
In retrospect, the Attitudes records (in particular tracks like “Ain’t Love Enough” and “Drink My Water”) seem to presage the soft-rock invasion of the late Seventies, though Kortchmar begs off such comparisons. “I don’t think you can compare what we were doing to Christopher Cross or Kenny Loggins,” says Kortchmar. “And that’s not to disparage those people at all. But what we were doing was way rawer and funkier than what you’d play on your yacht.”
On top of launching his own label, Harrison piled even more work onto his plate by undertaking his first (and only) American tour. By 1974, none of the Beatles had toured America on their own, so Harrison’s concerts — more than 30 shows, spanning all of November and December — were among the most anticipated events of the year. Even at a time that found Dylan back on the road and Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young reuniting, an endeavor like this by a solo Beatle was an event.
Everything appeared to be in order: Promoter Bill Graham was handling the tour, which was booked into arenas, and Harrison’s band featured a formidable lineup that included Preston, Scott, and, at times, Keltner. Predating the way Dylan would rearrange his material and, with the Rolling Thunder Revue, put the spotlight on other musicians onstage, Harrison reconfigured his material for some of the jazz-rock players behind him and generously allowed Preston and Scott to showcase their own songs. Each concert also included a lengthy midsection set by Shankar and his musicians.
But in rushing to complete an album (Dark Horse) in time for the shows, Harrison strained his voice, which proved to be only one of several potholes. Across the country, Beatles fans were thrilled by the sight of Harrison onstage, but some were confounded by his hoarse singing and versions of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and the Lennon-McCartney “In My Life” with tweaked lyrics (“I love God more,” in the latter case). “George wanted people to listen to the Indian music,” says Olivia. “He thought he was doing a service. He used to say, ‘If people want to come to hear Beatle George, then they shouldn’t come.’”
Keltner has fond memories of traveling on private planes with Shankar’s band and crew, and in hotel rooms, Harrison would play Dylan albums and sing along with every word. But everyone involved was indulging in typical Seventies rock excess. “We were having too much bad fun,” Keltner admits. “It was a big, fun party. So George was not in the best shape to do a big tour. I think that’s why he never toured after that.”
Olivia also confirms it was a difficult time for her future husband. “He had such a raw throat when he left on tour,” Olivia says. “He wasn’t used to being a frontman. He was a bit unhinged at the time, and he had the responsibility for 25 or 26 musicians. He had a new manager, and had he known George, he wouldn’t have allowed George to push himself like that. George didn’t have the nerve to cancel, but he should have.”
The rigors of the road would prove to be only one hurdle. Perhaps reflecting his jammed workload, the Dark Horse album (released by Capitol/EMI, not Dark Horse, for contractual reasons) felt tired and wasn’t greeted as warmly as his previous records. In spite of their quality, the same went for the initial slate of Dark Horse releases. Kortchmar says he had “high hopes” for Attitudes — “I thought maybe it would catch on and people would start digging it” — but few of the Dark Horse releases made the charts. Olivia says sales were not an issue for George: “You did the music and put it out and tried to promote it. They say, ‘Do it and drop it in the well.’ That’s the reason George did anything, for the pleasure and the need to create.”
But the relationship between the label and its financial backer soured. “George started hitting the road, and then it was this guy making the record and this guy making decisions, and this guy running up a huge tab that we were paying for, and the records weren’t very good,” A&M’s Moss recalled in 2007. “And it got to the point where I couldn’t root for this project any more, even though George had charmed a great many people on our lot to do extra work for that label, and we created the whole image for him.”
When Harrison delivered his next album — what would be Thirty-Three & 1/3 — to Warner Bros. instead of A&M, A&M sued him for $10 million. Harrison had developed what Clyde calls “a close personal friendship” with Warners head Mo Ostin and felt that company would be more amenable. Harrison ultimately had to fork over $4 million to A&M before he fully moved Dark Horse to Warner Bros., where it remained for many years. “Management and A&M were not happy with the deal,” Olivia says. “It didn’t have much to do with George, but it had everything to do with him because he had to sign everything. I don’t know the ins and outs, but it was pretty acrimonious and it was very disappointing to George. Being an artist label, he never thought that would happen. It went wrong, and that was really sad.”
With Warner Bros. now backing Dark Horse, Harrison attempted to revive the original spirit of the label, releasing a solo album by Stairsteps co-founder Keni Burke and albums by Splinter and Attitudes. But during the switch from A&M to Warner Bros., a potential hit — Attitudes’ “Sweet Summer Music,” which recalled the breezy Latin-pop hits of War and had begun climbing the soul charts — didn’t get a proper promotional push and faded quickly. Soon, the burden of being a label boss began to gnaw at Harrison, as he told Rolling Stone in 1979.
“I was so wiped out, and it resulted in me saying, ‘Sod it, I don’t want a record company,’” he said. “I don’t mind me being on the label because, all right, I can release an album and it makes some profit, and I don’t phone myself in the middle of the night to complain about different things. But artists are never satisfied. They spend maybe $50,000 more than I’d spend making an album, then they won’t do any interviews or go on the road — whatever you’d organize for them, they’d foul it up. It was just too much bullshit. They think a record company is like a bank that they can go and draw money out of whenever they want.”
Harrison went on to say that there were “some good things that came out of it,” citing Attitudes’ Good News and the two Shankar albums he bankrolled. But his disenchantment with the experience deepened, and Dark Horse eventually became a home for Harrison’s solo albums, right up to his final release, Brainwashed, released shortly after his death.
Speaking of the label’s early days, Olivia says, “It was a lot of work. He’d done it, and he wanted to do other things. But in hindsight, it’s like you’ve created a monster here.”
As an outlet for Harrison’s intermittent solo albums, Dark Horse continued right up through his death, but Dhani admits that the label has largely been “dormant outside its current vaults” since then. Earlier this year, he and his manager David Zonshine announced that the label was being revived, thanks to a new distribution deal with BMG. Dark Horse’s re-entry began with a fresh recording — a cover of Tom Petty’s “For Real — For Tom,” featuring Dhani, Jakob Dylan, and Willie Nelson, along with Nelson’s sons Micah and Lukas — but Dhani and his four-person staff will largely focus on material in Dark Horse’s vaults. So far, they’ve rolled out an Attitudes compilation and reissues of Shankar’s In Concert 1972 and Shankar’s 1997, George-produced Chants of India, with more back catalog to come.
Dark Horse will also reissue the work of simpatico artists who weren’t on the label, starting with the post-Clash albums by the late Joe Strummer and his band the Mescaleros. “It was just one of those things where it was such a natural fit,” says Dhani. “Joe was half Indian from his father, and he spent some time in Mexico. My mother’s Mexican and obviously my father was family with Ravi and all the Indian classical musicians. So it was a similar parallel.” For now, though, the label doesn’t plan on signing new artists.
The company’s archival research has also turned up a trove of unissued George Harrison material. “We have people digging through mountains of tapes, and they keep coming,” says Dhani. “Boxes and boxes of them.” This year marks the 50th anniversary of All Things Must Pass, and Dhani and his archivists have unearthed hours of unreleased material and unheard songs from those sessions. “A lot of it has been bootlegged, but we have better versions,” says Olivia. “We have all the 24-tracks of All Things Must Pass, and we found lots of different takes and talking in the studio.”
Next year will mark the 50th anniversary of the Concert for Bangladesh, followed in 2023 by the five-decade mark of Living in the Material World. Each of those projects could be accorded expanded editions, although the specifics aren’t worked out.
Dhani says he is asked on a regular basis about his father’s controversial 1974 tour more than any of Harrison’s other undertakings. Dhani says he’s listened back to tapes of all the shows and agrees that his father wasn’t in the best of voice, but still feels the shows revealed another aspect of George’s music. “His voice is pretty tired, but in my opinion, it sounds great,” he says. “It’s raspy, and it has grit to it. You can hear the fragility in all the songs. It’s a different take on a lot of his music.” Olivia says several of the shows were also filmed, onstage and offstage, and the material has the makings of a documentary. “I think it would make a great tour movie,” she says. “The backstage footage is amazing and hysterical. Things went on backstage that don’t happen now. Now everything is so cut and dried, the opposite of spontaneous.”
Although it’s largely forgotten now, Dark Horse paved the way for other artist companies, a legacy Dhani is seeking to protect and continue. “It’s the family business, as they say,” he says. “It’s funny — if you’re a plumber and want to be in the family plumbing business, no one would think anything about that. That would be normal. But in our family, the family business is music, so I’m just doing what mum and dad did. No one is making us do it. We have to do it.”