Saturday, December 15, 2012

It's a Long, Long Road

One morning last week, I was listening to an American standards station out of Garland, Texas - many of you probably were as well - when the announcer noted that the date was the anniversary of the opening of Boys Town, the home for orphans in Nebraska, back in 1917. (The town it's in is actually now known as Boys Town, Nebraska, just outside of Omaha.)

The announcer went on to describe a scene in the 1938 Spencer Tracy movie, in which a boy carried his little brother for miles to bring him to the home. When he arrived, someone - possibly even Spencer Tracy, although I haven't seen the movie - asked the boy if it was difficult to carry the boy all that way. He replied, "He ain't heavy. He's my brother."

Now, you probably recognize that as the title of a popular song recorded by the Hollies, which went to Number Seven in 1970. Did you know that phrase dated back to Boys Town? I sure didn't, although there are many things in this world that I do not know. I apologize if I'm telling you something familiar. The phrase fits in well with that 1970, Room 222, hippie generation; those people loved to sling around words like "heavy" and "brother."

Most of the Hollies' early hits has been written by Graham Nash, but he had departed by that point, to be replaced as lead singer by Terry Sylvester of the Swinging Blue Jeans. "He Ain't Heavy" was written by the team of Bobby Scott (who had earlier composed "A Taste of Honey") and Bob Russell, who had primarily written lyrics for songs used in films. Russell was no hippie; he was 55 by the time the Hollies recorded his song, and dead before it came off the charts. Elton John played piano on the track, which I find hard to believe, but there you go.

Neil Diamond took his own version to Number 20 later that same year. But it was the Hollies' version that sounded so sweet coming out of the AM radio on a cool Texas morning:


  1. I didn't know that about Boy's Town. Actually, until just now, I'd always thought of that lyric as either lazy or meaningless.

  2. I know, it should be "he's not heavy," right?

  3. An incredible video of He’s Not Heavy has just been released in the UK. It’s called The Justice Collection and was produced in support of the Hillsborough Charity which provides aid for families of hundreds of fans who were killed or injured during a soccer match in 1989 in Sheffield England. More than twenty artists, including Paul McCartney, sing one line each of the song. Check it out. It’s amazing.

  4. Thanks! I wish I knew who half those people were...

  5. This site should answer your questions, Tom.