The Beatles‘ No. 2 hit “Do You Want to Know a Secret” marked George Harrison‘s debut lead-vocal entry on the Billboard charts. And they partly owe that achievement to Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
John Lennon was inspired by his mother, Julia, to write the song, which was released on March 23, 1963, in the U.K. “She used to do this little tune when I was just a one- or two-year-old,” Lennon said in a 1980 Playboy interview. “The tune was from a Disney movie – [sings] ‘Want to know a secret? Promise not to tell. You are standing by a wishing well.'”
In addition to the fairy tale, there is also an autobiographical element in his lyrics. He penned the majority of “Do You Want to Know a Secret” while living with his new bride Cynthia Powell in Brian Epstein’s private Liverpool flat. For marketing reasons, Epstein wanted each Beatle to appear “available” to the fans. So, Lennon was instructed to keep his marriage secret for a while.
When the Beatles visited Hamburg in 1962, Lennon tracked the demo in a nightclub’s bathroom stall – the only quiet place he could find. (Ever the showman, Lennon punctuated his recording by flushing the toilet.) In interviews, Lennon seemed to take complete ownership of the song, while Paul McCartney remembered it being a 50/50 collaboration in Barry Miles’ biography Many Years From Now.
It is certainly possible that McCartney may have added the intro and the bridge, adding texture and scaling down the repetitiveness of Lennon’s verses. The partnership between the two songwriters often produced their best songs — each of their musical sensibilities complemented the other so well, making Lennon and McCartney the quintessential songwriting duo.
The Beatles used one long, legendary recording session on Feb. 11, 1963, at EMI Studios to record their first LP, Please Please Me. Intending to capture the high-energy feeling of their performances at the Cavern Club in Liverpool, they completed 10 songs in about 13 hours, pairing them with four songs from existing singles. “Do You Want to Know a Secret” was the fourth song recorded, marking Harrison’s first and only time singing lead that day.
Since Harrison hadn’t yet developed as a great singer in the group’s early years, Lennon and McCartney thought the relatively simplistic melody would best suit his vocal capacity. On the club circuit, Harrison sang the Gerry Goffin and Carole King standard “Take Good Care of My Baby.” It starts out in a similar ad libitum fashion: a single guitar strum for each chord change, with an otherwise unaccompanied vocal. This minor introduction to the major verse demonstrates the influence of Goffin and King on popular music at the time, while also acknowledging the Great Depression-era tune from Snow White.
“Do You Want to Know a Secret” helped Harrison carve out an identity within the Beatles, otherwise dominated by Lennon and McCartney. The doo wop-styled love letter felt like a personal message sent directly to each fan. Landing at No. 2 on the chart, it became Harrison’s most successful lead vocal single in the U.S. until the double-sided “Something”/“Come Together” reached No. 1 in 1969. (“Something” was also penned by Harrison.)
With one little secret, Harrison set his path for success in pop music history.
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