Beatle George Harrison spent a short time in small town America. Benton, Illinois to be exact, and he wasn’t mobbed by screaming fans! How come? The Fab Four were certainly famous when he went there in 1963. But that was in England. John, Paul, George and Ringo had yet to make it big Stateside.
March ‘63 saw the UK release of first Beatles LP ‘Please Please Me’. And the month before Harrison got on the plane, ‘She Loves You’ started playing on British radios. Beatlemania was in its infancy. So the Liverpool lads made the wise decision to take a break. McCartney and Starr went to Greece, whereas Lennon and wife Cynthia headed to Paris.
Harrison and brother Peter looked forward to spending some quality time with older sister Louise, who’d emigrated to Benton, Franklin County. Not that this meant George switching off completely from the rock ‘n roll lifestyle. Louise had moved far away with Scottish engineer husband Gordon Caldwell. But she retained a keen eye for showcasing her talented sibling.
“Louise was the promoter” writes Smithsonian Magazine. “George, soft-spoken and bashful, did what she asked.” This included some publicity, such as an interview with the Benton Community High School newspaper. The piece notes, “He likes smallish blondes, driving, television, sleeping, Chet Atkins, eggs and chips, Eartha Kitt and Alfred Hitchcock movies.”
Louise talked up her brother at local radio stations, getting the man himself on the airwaves. Her determination didn’t stop there. According to the Riverfront Times, she “wrote Beatles manager Brian Epstein lengthy letters advising how to break the band into America. (Epstein refused to make Louise an official band rep).”
There was originally going to be an extra passenger on that trip to Illinois – Ringo Starr. On hearing of Louise’s intentions, the legendary drummer ”begged off, saying, ‘If she’s going to make us work, I’m not going.’”
Harrison became a slight talking point in the Benton area. He bought a guitar – a Rickenbacker 425 – and played onstage with group The Four Vests. That performance made him the first Beatle to hit the US stage. The lifestyle of America was an eye opener for George Harrison by all accounts. Then again, he came from humble beginnings.
Smithsonian Magazine quotes long time friend of the Beatles Terry O’Neill. “Liverpool was a working-class town,” he says, “and there were only five things a young man could do. You worked in the coal mines, you worked in the shipyards, you joined the army, you became a sailor, or you went to jail.”
While things were getting crazy on home turf, Illinois was one of the last places Harrison could be anonymous. “In America, no one knew who George was or cared” the Magazine writes. “He was just Louise Caldwell’s skinny little brother, a 20-year-old with a weird haircut, who said he played the guitar and sang a little, and was gaga for American cars, especially ones with tail fins.”
His distinctive haircut was seen as a sign of poverty in Benton. Monty Field, a teenager at the time who met George, says “you kind of wanted to give him some money to see a barber.” Louise introduced her brother to musician neighbor Warren Batts. “He didn’t seem especially ambitious about the band he was in back home,” Batts recalled, “but he was serious about being a better musician.”
There was a surprise in store for Four Vests bassist Gabe McCarty. When Harrison found out he didn’t write songs, he promptly gave him a raft of his own compositions to use as he saw fit. Unfortunately for McCarty, these were later destroyed in a fire!
The focus of the trip was of course family. Harrison and the clan reportedly went camping together. The Riverfront Times spoke to Louise, who mentions his appreciation of Sheba their German Shepherd: “We could never afford a pet when we were growing up.”
Simple things were what Harrison seemed to take pleasure in. “In Benton we had a five-bedroom house,” she says, “and one bedroom was made into a playroom and they had train sets. When George grew up we never had any toys like that, so he and Pete spent hours playing with the kids.”
Harrison and his brother flew back home, George to Bloomsbury where the Beatles were residing in a hotel. In a matter of months, he’d return to America. 1964 was the year the Fab Four performed on a little production called The Ed Sullivan Show. It was an iconic performance and Louise was in the wings making sure George was alright. In fact he was poorly at the time.
“I spent most of my time sitting there trying to will my energy into my brother to make sure he could keep standing up through the show” she tells the Riverfront Times. “That was my entire consciousness, trying to connect his energy with mine. His temperature was still 102.”
Louise received around 200 letters every day once the Beatles took off worldwide. She and George had their ups and downs, but the band impacted on her life for decades after. The successful “Liverpool Legends” tribute act is Louise’s project and in 2014 she published an autobiography.
He may not have made a big splash when he stayed there, but today George Harrison is celebrated in Benton. The Franklin County Historic Jail Museum has an exhibit devoted to the so-called quiet Beatle.
As recently as 2017 a mural was put up on the highway, so those driving past can see the city’s connection to a musical institution. George was an unusual 20 year old kid in those days. Now he’s 16 ft tall and everyone knows his name.