“Heart of Gold” is a song by Canadian singer-songwriter Neil Young. Released from the 1972 album Harvest, it is so far Young’s only U.S. No. 1 single. In Canada, it reached No. 1 on the RPM national singles chart for the first time on April 8, 1972, on which date Young held the top spot on both the singles and albums charts. Billboard ranked it as the No. 17 song for 1972. In 2004, Rolling Stone ranked it No. 297 on their list of the 500 greatest songs of all time.
The song, which features backup vocals of James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt, is one of a series of soft acoustic pieces which were written partly as a result of a back injury. Unable to stand for long periods of time, Young could not play his electric guitar and so returned to his acoustic guitar, which he could play sitting down. He also played his harmonica during the three instrumental portions, including the Introduction to the song.
“Heart of Gold” was recorded during the initial sessions for Harvest on February 6–-8 1971 at Quadrafonic Sound Studios in Nashville, Tennessee. Ronstadt (who herself would later cover Young’s song “Love is a Rose”) and Taylor were in Nashville at the time for an appearance on Johnny Cash’s television program, and the album’s producer Elliot Mazer arranged for them to sing backup for Young in the studio.
Young played this song in 1971 solo shows before recording it. At a January 19 concert (preserved on Live at Massey Hall 1971, released in 2007) he played it on piano, starting with “A Man Needs a Maid” and then segueing into this song. By the time of Harvest he had separated the two songs and played “Heart of Gold” on guitar and harmonica.
Young wrote in the liner notes of his 1977 compilation album Decade: “This song put me in the middle of the road. Traveling there soon became a bore so I headed for the ditch. A rougher ride but I saw more interesting people there.” This statement was in response to the mainstream popularity that he gained as a result of the number-one status of “Heart of Gold”.
In 1985, Bob Dylan admitted that he disliked hearing this song, despite always liking Neil Young:
The only time it bothered me that someone sounded like me was when I was living in Phoenix, Arizona, in about ’72 and the big song at the time was “Heart of Gold”. I used to hate it when it came on the radio. I always liked Neil Young, but it bothered me every time I listened to “Heart of Gold.” I think it was up at number one for a long time, and I’d say, “Shit, that’s me. If it sounds like me, it should as well be me.”
A cover by Willie Nelson peaked at No. 44 on the Billboard Hot Country Singles chart in 1987.
Neil Young — lead vocals, acoustic guitar, harmonica
Teddy Irwin — guitar
Ben Keith — pedal steel guitar
Tim Drummond — bass
Kenny Buttrey — drums
James Taylor — backing vocals
Linda Ronstadt — backing vocals