A Beautiful "Mind": George Harrison's Last No. 1 of the '80s

George Harrison in 1987
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Solomon N’Jie/Getty Images

Back in 1987, The Beatles were once again one of the most talked-about bands in the world. After years of legal haggling, their catalog was released on CD for the first time, culminating with the twentieth-anniversary celebration of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in June of that year. Not everything was so great, though – the band’s recording of “Revolution” was used in a Nike advertisement, which sparked another round of lawsuits and disapproving press in general, with stories focused on how such an iconic song could be used so cynically, to sell footwear.

That autumn, however, saw the release of a new George Harrison album, Cloud Nine – his first in five years and a return to form after some critically disappointing work in the beginning of the decade. Produced by Jeff Lynne (of Electric Light Orchestra fame), the album sounded sharp and fresh, and contained songs that displayed many aspects of Harrison’s personality – his warmth, his spirituality, even his sense of humor.

It also showed his good taste in cover songs. The first single from the album was an old, obscure R&B tune by James Ray called “Got My Mind Set on You.” The choice of the song had roots back to The Beatles’ earliest days, when they played (and often recorded) American rock and soul tunes.

“We did a James Ray song, ‘If You Gotta Make a Fool of Somebody,’ in our show for years,” Harrison told Musician magazine in 1987. “When we started making records, we did a lot of covers, but we never [recorded] that one – although we might have done it live in some BBC recordings.”

Then, a vacation Harrison took in the U.S. yielded some vinyl treasure.

“I came here to America in 1963 – before The Beatles came here – and I bought that James Ray album that had ‘If You Gotta Make a Fool of Somebody,’” he told Musician. “The best three songs were written by this guy who discovered James Ray, a former mailman named Rudy Clark. Clark wrote ‘It’s Been a Drag’ and ‘Got My Mind Set on You Part One / Part Two’ – although it didn’t have any break in between.”

Fast-forward more than 20 years, during the recording sessions for Cloud Nine, when drummer Jim Keltner showed up with a drum machine sampler he had just used on some other session work. Jeff Lynne regarded the machine dubiously. “Jeff saw me with the machine and said, ‘You know the problem with drum machines is they don’t swing,’” Keltner recalled to Uncut in 2020.

Then something extraordinary happened. “I started playing a sample I had brought from a record I had just done in Los Angeles,” Keltner remembered. “I was playing this groove. In the back of the room, [keyboardist] Gary Wright starts playing the chord progression to ‘Got My Mind Set on You,’ then George starts singing, Jeff chimed in, and pretty soon we were playing the song. We all flipped out!”

That bit of happenstance was fortunate, indeed. Released a month before Cloud Nine, in October 1987, Harrison’s take on “Got My Mind Set on You” steadily climbed the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart, hitting No. 1 on Jan. 16, 1988. It was the third and final time Harrison reached the pinnacle as a solo artist.

BONUS VIDEO: Two videos were filmed for “Got My Mind Set on You” – the one above was the one seen most often in the United States, and was even nominated for three MTV Video Music Awards. The second video had a story line of sorts, while still featuring Harrison performing the song. Both were directed by filmmaker Gary Weis, who was also responsible for Paul Simon’s popular video for “You Can Call Me Al.”

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