The Number Ones

January 16, 1988

The Number Ones: George Harrison’s “Got My Mind Set On You”

Stayed at #1:

1 Week

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.

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Before the Beatles’ plane touched down in New York in February of 1964, only one member of the band had ever been to America. In the summer of 1963, the band had a bit of a break, and George Harrison went to visit his older sister Louise. Louise Harrison lived in Benton, Illinois, a small town a little ways from St. Louis. While he was in Benton, Harrison sat in with a local band at a VFW Hall, took in a drive-in double feature, and bought the Rickenbacker that he’d play on Ed Sullivan five months later. He also bought a lot of records. Decades later, Harrison covered one of the songs from one of those records. With that song, Harrison became the last Beatle ever to make a #1 hit.

Beatles manager Brian Epstein owned record stores, which meant that the Beatles got to hear every record that came out in the UK. They covered a lot of them. In their live shows, the Beatles had been covering “If You Gotta Make A Fool Of Somebody,” a 1962 single from the American R&B singer James Ray. That song had been James Ray’s only real hit in the US, where it peaked at #22. The song also caught on in England; past Number Ones artist Freddie And The Dreamers later covered it and turned it into a top-five hit in the UK.

Record shopping in Benton, George Harrison found a James Ray album that hadn’t come out the UK. He bought it, and he didn’t much like it, but one song stuck with him. One of Ray’s singles was a big, juicy R&B song that sounded more like big-band jazz than like rock ‘n’ roll. The song was called “Got My Mind Set On You.” Ray’s version of the song had come out as a single, but it hadn’t charted. For many years, it was a total obscurity.

By the time George Harrison bought that James Ray record, James Ray was dead. Ray, a DC native, was a struggling teenage nightclub singer when Rudy Clark found him. Clark was an aspiring songwriter who worked as a mailman in New York, and he heard Ray singing in a small club. Clark started writing songs for Ray. One of those songs was “If You Gotta Make A Fool Of Somebody,” Ray’s first single, and it was a hit. Clark also wrote “Got My Mind Set On You.” Soon afterwards, Ray’s label went bankrupt, and his next few singles, released on another label, flopped. In 1963, Ray died of a drug overdose at the age of 22.

Rudy Clark kept writing songs, and some of those songs became hits. In 1965, for instance, Clark wrote “Good Lovin’” for an R&B vocal group called the Olympics. That song peaked at #81. A year later, the Young Rascals covered “Good Lovin'” and turned it into a #1 hit. Then, 21 years after that, something similar happened with “Got My Mind Set On You.” (It says sad things about the music industry that Rudy Clark’s two #1 hits both came from floppy-haired white guys covering songs that he’d written for Black artists.) James Ray didn’t live to see “Got My Mind Set On You” turn into a hit, but Rudy Clark did. Clark lived until last year, when he died at the age of 84.

When he recorded “Got My Mind Set On You,” George Harrison hadn’t made an album in five years, and he hadn’t had a #1 hit since “Give Me Love (Give Me Peace On Earth)” topped the charts 15 years earlier. With 1970’s “My Sweet Lord,” Harrison had been the first Beatle to land a #1 single. After the band had broken up, Harrison had made the landmark triple album All Things Must Pass and spearheaded the Concert For Bangladesh. But then Harrison started to lose the public. He toured with the Indian sitarist Ravi Shankar and talked a lot about spirituality, and moves like that made him an easy butt for jokes. He also had a bit of a coke problem in the mid-’70s, and like of all the Beatles, his solo records were pretty spotty. After his first few years as a solo artist, Harrison’s albums didn’t get past gold, and they didn’t make the top 10 in the US.

Harrison came close to #1 once after “Give Me Love (Give Me Peace On Earth).” In 1981, after John Lennon’s murder, Harrison wrote “All Those Years Ago,” a tribute to his time in the Beatles. The song doubled as a sort of reunion of the surviving Beatles. Ringo Starr played drums on the song, and Paul McCartney overdubbed some backing vocals. “All Those Years Ago” peaked at #2. (It’s a 5.) After that, Harrison’s 1982 album Gone Troppo flopped badly. None of its singles charted, and the album itself peaked at #108. So George Harrison took a break.

In 1979, in an effort to get Monty Python’s Life Of Brian made, Harrison had co-founded a production company called HandMade Films. When Gone Troppo flopped, Harrison focused on movies, and he got executive-producer credits on a couple dozen of them. There are some good movies that only exist because George Harrison made them happen: The Long Good Friday, Time Bandits, Mona Lisa, Withnail & I. In 1986, HandMade produced the Madonna/Sean Penn flop Shanghai Surprise. Harrison recorded some songs for the soundtrack and played a nightclub singer in a cameo, and maybe that experience got him into the idea of making music again. He got to work on Cloud Nine, his first album in five years.

Harrison found himself an ideal collaborator for Cloud Nine. He co-produced the album with Jeff Lynne, whose band Electric Light Orchestra had a whole lot of success by building psychedelic orchestral fantasias on the bones of late-period Beatles harmonies. (ELO’s highest-charting single, 1979’s “Don’t Bring Me Down,” peaked at #4. It’s a 9.) A lot of famous friends also came through to play on Cloud Nine — Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton, Elton John — but none of them are on “Got My Mind Set On You.” Still, Harrison had himself a hell of a backing band for that song: Lynne on bass and keyboards, Jim Keltner on drums, Jim Horn on saxophone, Ray Cooper on percussion. All of them were veterans, and all of them had played on hits.

Talking to Musician, Harrison said that he decided to record “Got My Mind Set On You” because Keltner came up with a beat that sounded like swing. The keyboardist Gary Wright had commented that it sounded a bit like “Got My Mind Set On You.” (Wright had been playing on Harrison’s records since All Things Must Pass. As a solo artist, Wright’s two biggest hits, 1976’s “Dream Weaver” and “Love Is Alive,” both peaked at #2. “Dream Weaver” is a 9, and “Love Is Alive” is an 8.) Harrison couldn’t believe that anyone else remembered the song.

Harrison’s version of “Got My Mind Set On You” is a big, slick, sticky rocker. It’s got the loudness and the precision of the other pop music that was coming out in the late ’80s, but there’s something casual and playful about it. Harrison doesn’t sound like he’s trying to play catchup with pop music even though those Keltner drums sound almost mechanical. Instead, there’s a relaxed assurance in Harrison’s growl. He’s singing a song that he’s known for many, many years, and he sounds comfortable.

“Got My Mind Set On You” is a deeply simple song, and there’s not a ton of meaning to it. Harrison’s narrator wants to get with someone, and he’s willing to spend both money and time to “do it right.” Harrison doesn’t sound like he’s in the throes of infatuation, though. He sounds like exactly what he is: a fantastically successful 44-year-old man singing a song that he liked when he was a kid. There’s charm in that, and a lot of that charm is just George Harrison. He’s an easy guy to like.

The song is more than a little cheesy. The chorus is just the same phrase repeated a bunch of times. The second verse is same as the first. There’s a bit of faux cheeriness in the horn stabs, and there’s a bit of forced nostalgia in the squawking sax solo. Still, the song works, at least in part, by weaponizing whatever fond feelings you might have toward George Harrison. The man is having fun, and it’s good to hear him having fun.

“Got My Mind Set On You” actually has two music videos. Both of them are good, and both of them came from director Gary Weis, who made a bunch of early SNL shorts and who also directed the great gang documentary 80 Blocks From Tiffany’s. (That movie fucking rules. It’s like The Warriors, but real.) The one at the top of this post is the second of the two videos, and it’s the one I like best. It’s explicitly modeled on Evil Dead II, but it’s slapstick as a musical number, not slapstick as splatter-horror. All the haunted objects in the room dance along with Harrison, and there’s a great obvious stunt-double backflip in there, too. There’s also the first video, in which a teenage girl in an arcade watches hand-cranked Beatles-style black-and-white footage of Harrison playing the song. The striking young man trying to get the girl’s attention is Alexis Denisof, years before he would play Wesley on Buffy The Vampire Slayer and marry Alyson Hannigan.

When “Got My Mind Set On You” reached #1, Ringo Starr was only barely a recording artist, and it had been more than a decade since any of his singles had charted. Paul McCartney was still making records, and his singles sometimes made the Hot 100, but he wasn’t really going for hits. John Lennon had been dead for seven years. George Harrison’s sudden commercial relevance must’ve been a nice surprise. The Beatles were actually inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame the week that “Got My Mind Set On You” sat at #1. McCartney skipped the induction ceremony, but Harrison, Starr, and Yoko Ono showed up to make self-effacing speeches.

Cloud Nine turned out to be the last solo album that George Harrison would release during his lifetime. Harrison followed “Got My Mind Set On You” with the Beatles tribute “When We Was Fab,” which peaked at #23 and which was the last George Harrison solo single to make the Hot 100. Cloud Nine went platinum, and it was the first Harrison solo album to pull that off since All Things Must Pass. Shortly afterward, Harrison and Lynne got together with Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, and Tom Petty to record a B-side called “Handle With Care.” The song was so good that Harrison’s label insisted on a full album, and so those five greats became the Traveling Wilburys. They all came up with a goofy-ass fake backstory and chose new stage names, and they released their album Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1 later in 1988.

For whatever reason, the Traveling Wilburys never did much damage on the Hot 100. “Handle With Care” was the band’s highest-charting single, and it peaked at #45, even though it’s an absolute banger. The album, however, went triple platinum. After Roy Orbison died at the end of 1988, the surviving Wilburys got back together to make another album in 1990, and that one went platinum. Harrison hadn’t toured since 1974, but he went out and played some shows in Japan in 1991, with his old friend Eric Clapton backing him up. He also reunited with the surviving Beatles in 1995. Working with a demo that John Lennon had recorded in 1977, Harrison, McCartney, and Starr recorded “Free As A Bird.” Released under the Beatles name, it peaked at #6. It’s incredibly strange to think that a new Beatles song was competing with Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men on the charts, but that happened. (“Free As A Bird” is a 5.)

A few months later, using another Lennon demo, the three Beatles came out with another single called “Real Love,” and that one peaked at #11. Harrison didn’t want to do any more Beatles-reunion stuff after that. In 1997, Harrison was diagnosed with throat cancer. In 1999, in a strange incident that was disturbingly similar to Lennon’s murder, someone broke into Harrison’s house and stabbed him repeatedly with a kitchen knife. Harrison’s wife eventually chased off the attacker with a fireplace poker, and Harrison survived, but his cancer came back shortly thereafter. George Harrison died in November of 2001. He was 58.

“Got My Mind Set On You” is a footnote in a long and great career, but its success means that George Harrison was both the first and the last Beatle to hit #1. That’s something.

GRADE: 6/10

BONUS BEATS: On his 1988 album Even Worse, “Weird Al” Yankovic parodied “Got My Mind Set On You,” turning it into “(This Song’s Just) Six Words Long.” It’s one of the rare Yankovic parodies that doubles as music criticism. Here it is:

(“Weird Al” Yankovic’s highest-charting single, 2006’s “White & Nerdy,” peaked at #9. It’s a 7.)

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s “Got My Mind Set On You” soundtracking a montage of babies doing baby things in the 1990 film Look Who’s Talking Too:

(Baby voice Bruce Willis’ highest-charting single is his 1987 version of the Staple Singers’ “Respect Yourself.” It’s a 2, but I’m delighted that it exists.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the Killers frontman Brandon Flowers covering “Got My Mind Set On You” at the 2014 Harrison tribute concert George Fest:

(The Killers’ highest-charting single, 2003’s “Mr. Brightside,” peaked at #10. It’s a 10.)

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