Songs with Earlier Histories Than the Hit Version

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He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother

First recorded by Kelly Gordon (1969).
Hit versions by The Hollies (US #7/UK #3 1969), Neil Diamond (US #20/MOR #4 1970), The Justice Collective (UK #1 2012).

From the wiki: “‘He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother’ is a popular music ballad written by Bobby Scott and Bob Russell. Originally recorded by Kelly Gordon (producer for Glen Campbell, Aretha Franklin, David Lee Roth) in 1969, the song became a worldwide hit for The Hollies later that year and again for Neil Diamond in 1970. Scott and Russell had been introduced to each other by Johnny Mercer, at a California nightclub. Although Russell was dying of lymphoma and the pair met in person only three times, they managed to collaborate on the song.

“The song title comes from a passage in the book ‘The Parables of Jesus,’ by James Wells, published in 1884. One parable uses a paraprosdokian to tell the story of a little girl carrying a big baby boy. Seeing her struggling, someone asked if she wasn’t tired. With surprise she replied, ‘No, he’s not heavy; he’s my brother.’ The first editor of Kiwanis magazine, Roe Fulkerson, published a column in September 1924 carrying the title “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother”, the first use of the phrase exactly as it is rendered in the song title. In 1941, Father Flanagan, founder of Boys Town, was looking at a magazine called The Messenger when he came across a drawing of a boy carrying a younger boy on his back, with the caption, ‘He ain’t heavy Mister, he’s my brother.’ Father Flanagan thought the image and phrase captured the spirit of Boys Town, so he got permission and commissioned a statue of the drawing with the inscription, ‘He ain’t heavy Father, he’s my brother.’ The statue and phrase became the logo for Boys Town.

“Joe Cocker was offered this song before The Hollies after it had been played first to his producer Denny Cordell. Cocker turned it down, to his producer’s surprise. Hollies guitarist Tony Hicks remembers: ‘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 sped it up and added an orchestra.’

“The Hollies’ recording, which featured Elton John on piano, was released in the UK on 1 September 1969 and on 1 December 1969 in the US.’He Ain’t Heavy’ reached #3 in the UK and #7 in the US. The Neil Diamond version, recorded for his Tap Root Manuscript album, debuted at #68 on the Billboard Hot 100 on 7 November 1970, peaking at #20.

“In 2012, a version of the song was recorded, and was released on December 17, 2012, by musicians and celebrities going under the name The Justice Collective, including Melanie C, Robbie Williams, Paul Heaton, Paloma Faith, Paul McCartney, Gerry Marsden, Kenny Dalglish, Alan Hansen, Rebecca Ferguson, Beverley Knight, and two original members of The Hollies, Bobby Elliott and Tony Hicks, for various charities associated with the Hillsborough disaster. The song went on to take the coveted Christmas #1 position for 2012 on the UK Singles Chart.”

The Hollies, “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother” (1969):

Neil Diamond, “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother” live TV performance (1970):

The Justice Collective, “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother” (2012):

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