He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother original

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The Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother original: a poignant ballad

In the late 1960s, songwriters Bobby Scott and Bob Russell wrote their only collaboration, the ballad “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother”. The song became a worldwide hit for English rock group the Hollies in late 1969. It was also a hit for Neil Diamond the following year. Earlier in 1969, American singer, songwriter and record producer Kelly Gordon released the “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother” original. This song about helping others is one of the most famous ballads in the world and has beautiful lyrics. It’s all the more poignant when you learn that Russell was dying of lymphoma at the time he and Scott wrote the song.

Bobby Scott and Bob Russell’s songwriting collaboration

Russell music wrote for films and came up with lyrics for songs by the likes of Duke Ellington and Carl Sigman. Scott worked for Mercury Records on sessions for artists including Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye and Bobby Darin. Capitol Records co-founder Johnny Mercer introduced Russell and Scott to each other in a California nightclub. Russell was ill with lymphoma and only met with Scott three times. Still, the pair wrote “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother”. Russell passed away six months after the song’s release. In 1990, Scott also died of cancer.

Boys Town origins

The words “he ain’t heavy, he’s my brother” came from the Boys Town slogan. The legend goes that the orphanage’s founder, Father Edward Flanagan, saw a boy, Reuban Granger, carrying another boy, Howard Loomis, who had polio and wore leg braces, up some stairs. Flanagan asked Granger if carrying Loomis was hard. The boy replied, “He ain’t heavy, Father, he’s m’ brother.”

Kelly Gordon

Gordon recorded the “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother” original in 1969, months before the Hollies version. Born in 1932, Gordon was a singer, songwriter and record producer. He worked with a range of artists including the Temptations, Glen Campbell, Nichelle Nichols, Aretha Franklin, James Brown and David Lee Roth. Gordon recorded a couple of unsuccessful singles for Mercury Records before moving to Capitol Records as a record producer.

At Capitol, Gordon worked with Bobbie Gentry on “Ode to Billie Joe”. By overdubbing Gentry’s demo with a string arrangement by Jimmie Haskell, Gordon contributed to the song becoming a hit that won three 1968 Grammy Awards. Gordon and Gentry continued their successful collaboration and this resulted in Capitol inviting Gordon to record his own album. One of the singles on that album, Defunked, was the “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother” original.

Gordon’s “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother” original

Gordon’s “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother” original is a lovely version. He has a more gravelly voice than Hollies’ singer Allan Clarke’s sweeter-sounding voice. Gordon sings without backing singers and the instrumental accompaniment sounds slightly more orchestral. Although I love the Hollies version, the “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother” original has a more authentic, less produced and commercial ballad sound to it. I’m not sure why this version wasn’t more successful.

The Hollies version, with Elton John

Joe Cocker could have recorded “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother”. He decided not to and this left the Hollies to pick up the song. They released their version in 1969 – in September in the UK and December in the US. A young Elton John played piano on the recording. The Hollies released “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother” as their second single following Graham Nash’s departure from the group to form Crosby, Stills, and Nash.

Hollies guitarist Tony Hicks spoke about the recording of “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother” in a 2006 interview with the Guardian newspaper:

In the 1960s when we were short of songs I used to root around publishers in Denmark Street. One afternoon, I’d been there ages and wanted to get going but this bloke said: ‘Well there’s one more song. It’s probably not for you.’ He played me the demo by the writers [Bobby Scott and Bob Russell]. It sounded like a 45rpm record played at 33rpm, the singer was slurring, like he was drunk. But it had something about it. There were frowns when I took it to the band but we speeded it up and added an orchestra. The only things left recognisable were the lyrics. There’d been this old film called Boys Town about a children’s home in America, and the statue outside showed a child being carried aloft and the motto ‘He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother’. Bob Russell had been dying of cancer while writing. We never got, or asked for, royalties. Elton John – who was still called Reg – played piano on it and got paid 12 pounds. It was a worldwide hit twice.”

Tony Hicks

Success with Miller’s beer

The Hollies’ “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother” charted in ten countries. It reached number three in the UK and seven in the US. In 1988 the song went to number one in the UK when it appeared on a Miller Lite beer advertisement.

Other versions

Other versions of “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother” include:

  • Neil Diamond (1970). This version made it to number 68 on the Hot 100. KGB radio dedicated the song to participants in the Walk for Mankind fundraiser.
  • The Osmonds (1970).
  • Olivia Newton-John (1976). This one reached number one on the Adult Contemporary chart.
  • Bill Medley (1988). This song featured in the movie Rambo 3.
  • Gotthard (1996).
  • The Justice Collective (2012). This version raised funds for various charities associated with the Hillsborough disaster and claimed the coveted Christmas number one position on the UK Singles Chart. Elton John also played on this version.

Read about another unknown original that the Hollies made a hit, “The Air That I Breathe“.

References
The Hollies’ “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother” Lyrics Meaning
Songfacts - He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother
The Story Behind “He Ain’t Heavy…”
Wikipedia - He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother
Wikipedia - Kelly Gordon
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