When this song first came out, in Fall 1969, it was playing on almost every radio station in Germany. I was like most teenagers back then highly idealistic and rebellious. And that song painted a picture of the world as we would have loved it -- a world that even the most mutinous of us would have accepted as theirs. I guess we all were Hippies without a San Francisco to live in at heart, fighting the cold and heartless world of achievers and success we were about to enter very soon ...
The song has a quite touching story which I had not known up to now. The very first recording of the song was by Neil Diamond. Only his version was released after the Hollies' came out in September 1969 (UK). (I didn't know either that Elton John was playing piano on that record.)
The song's composers, Bobby Scott and Bob Russell had met in California when Russell was already dying of cancer. It is said that they met only three times in person and still were able to work on the song.
The name of the song "He ain't heavy, He's my brother," can be traced back to a 1924 article in the Kiwanis magazine with that title. Father Edward Flanagan, the Boys Town founder, who
"came across a line drawing of a young boy carrying his brother in the Christmas 1941 edition of the Louis Allis Messenger. The caption read "He ain't heavy Mister — he's m' brother!" It was created by Mr. Van B. Hooper who later became the editor of Ideals magazine. The drawing was reprinted in the first issue of Ideals in December 1944. Flanagan felt that the drawing illustrated the work done at Boys Town and received permission from the company in August 1943 to recreate the drawing in color with the caption "He ain't heavy, Father . . . he's m' brother." The phrase became the motto of Boys Town (now Girls and Boys Town)." (http://en.wikipedia.org/)I still -- and always will --l love The Hollies version, although The Persuasions acappella version fascinated me the first time I ever heard it.
Neil Diamond's take on the song definitely lacks in depth of emotion; sounds a little bland, imo. It completely lacks the enthusiasm that made the song appeal to us young ones back in the day. No fervor, no urgency. Where's the Neil Diamond I know?
The Hollies -- He Ain't Heavy ... This is my all time favorite rendition of the song with the harmonica part that gives me goose bumps.
The Persuasions version of the "anthem of altruism" as the song is sometimes called, is a masterpiece.
Bonus: He Ain't Heavy -- Donny Hathaway's version misses the point: where is the positive outlook on life the song is supposed to create? The message that things can change, that improving a sad state of affairs is possible if you only care enough. Donny sings beautifully, but he sounds hopeless and defeated instead of confident of victory.