The title came from the motto for Boys Town, a community formed in 1917 by a Catholic priest named Father Edward Flanagan. Located in Omaha, Nebraska, it was a place where troubled or homeless boys could come for help. In 1941, Father Flanagan 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 Mr., 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. In 1979, girls were allowed and the name was eventually changed to Girls And Boys Town. The logo was updated with a drawing of a girl carrying a younger girl added.
The Two Brothers concept precedes the magazine illustration that Father Flanagan saw. In 1921, there was a resident at Boys Town who had difficulty walking. He wore leg braces and the other boys would often take turns giving him a ride on their backs. There is a famous photograph of this boy and one of the other youth giving him a ride. Now there are several statues of the Two Brothers on the Home Campus in Omaha; one is the sandstone of the two brothers from the illustration, another is a bronze version by an Italian artist that was commissioned in 1977. There is also a version done directly from the 1921 photograph in the Hall of History.
In 1938, Spencer Tracey portrayed Father Flanagan in the movie Boys Town, which also starred Mickey Rooney. In 1941, they made a sequel called Men Of Boys Town, where they used the phrase "He ain't heavy, Father, he's my brother" for the first time in a movie.
This was originally released by Kelly Gordon, a producer who has worked with Glen Campbell, Aretha Franklin, and David Lee Roth.
This was the only songwriting collaboration between veteran songwriters Bobby Scott ("A Taste of Honey") and Bob Russell ("Ballerina"). Russell, who wrote the lyrics, made his mark writing for films and contributing words to songs by Duke Ellington and Carl Sigman. Scott was a piano player, singer, and producer. He did a lot of work with Mercury Records on sessions for artists like Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye and Bobby Darin. In 1990, he died of cancer.
In the Guardian newspaper of February 24, 2006, Hollies guitarist Tony Hicks said: "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 recognizable 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."
Joe Cocker was offered this song before The Hollies after it had been played first to his producer Denny Cordell. The General Professional Manager for Cyril Shane Music Ltd & Pedro Music Ltd in England at the time explains: "Tony Hicks was in our office looking for songs for the Hollies (our office was not on Denmark Street, it was in Baker Street). Denny called from New York to say 'Joe didn't see the song.' As Tony said in The Guardian, he liked the song and asked for an exclusive the following day. The version he heard was Kelly Gordon, who apart from being a successful producer, also wrote a little song entitled 'That's Life.' His version was slow and soulful which is why I had thought of Joe Cocker to record it. Bobby Russell wrote this song while dying of cancer in Los Angeles.
We picked up the British rights to 'He Ain't Heavy' from an American publisher Larry Shayne. The song was on a Kelly Gordon album called Defunked. The version was slow and soulful and had Joe Cocker written all over it. Joe turned it down, to his producer's surprise. We had a hit with The Hollies previously called 'I'm Alive,' so we had a relationship with them. Also, we had a great working relationship with the Air London production team, of which their producer Ron Richards was a partner. We never considered playing the song for The Hollies when Tony Hicks was in the office. We were playing songs like 'Sorry Suzanne.' It was only at the end of the meeting I suggested playing Tony this wonderful song, not because it was for them, but just to share the song. We were surprised when he said 'That's the one.'"