“He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother” is a ballad written by Bobby Scott and Bob Russell. Originally recorded by Kelly Gordon in 1969, the song became a worldwide hit for The Hollies later that year and again for Neil Diamond in 1970. It has been covered by many artists in subsequent years. The Hollies’ and Rufus Wainwright’s versions of the song were featured in the film Zoolander.
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.
In 1884, James Wells, Moderator of the United Free Church of Scotland, in his book The Parables of Jesus tells 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.”
In a 1918 publication by Ralph Waldo Trine titled The Higher Powers of Mind and Spirit, he relates the following anecdote: “Do you know that incident in connection with the little Scottish girl? She was trudging along, carrying as best she could a boy younger, but it seemed almost as big as she herself when one remarked to her how heavy he must be for her to carry when instantly came the reply: ‘He’s na heavy. He’s mi brither.'”
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 the 1940s, the words adapted as “He ain’t heavy, Father, he’s my brother”, were taken as a slogan for Boys Town children’s home by founder Father Edward Flanagan.
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. It reached No. 3 in the UK and No. 7 in the US. The song, paired with rarity “Carrie”, was re-released in late 1988 in the UK following its use in a television advertisement for Miller Lite beer. It reached the No. 1 spot in the UK chart for two weeks in September 1988.
Neil Diamond’s version of the song, recorded for his Tap Root Manuscript album, went to No. 20 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in late 1970.
The Osmonds covered the song on their 1970 album, Osmonds, as well as on the B-side of their chart-topper “One Bad Apple”. The song is a staple at their concerts.
Olivia Newton-John covered the song on her 1975 album Clearly Love, and it was released as the B-side of the single “Let It Shine” in January 1976. The single went to number one on the US Easy Listening (adult contemporary) chart and number thirty on the Billboard Hot 100.