BENTON, Ill. — Months before the phenomenon called The
Beatles took America by storm, one of the group’s members spent a quiet
fortnight in southern Illinois.
George Harrison was the first Beatle to set foot in the
U.S., coming here in the fall of 1963 with his brother, Peter, to visit their
sister, Louise Harrison Caldwell. Louise lived in Benton with her mining
engineer husband, who worked in the region’s coalfields.
The George Harrison visit recently was marked with a daylong
ceremony on the city’s public square, where an official state historical
monument commemorating the event was unveiled.
Area native Jim Kirkpatrick, who wrote the book Before He Was Fab about Harrison’s time
in southern Illinois, was in charge of organizing the tribute.
British historian Mark Lewisohn, considered one of the
foremost experts on The Beatles, also referenced the visit in The Complete Beatles Chronicle, an
exhaustive account of the band’s activities.
Harrison’s trip to America came while the members took a
break from their busy schedule in England. John Lennon went to Paris while Paul
McCartney and Ringo Starr traveled to Greece.
During Harrison’s two-week stay in Illinois he purchased
records at a Benton appliance store and a guitar at a Mt. Vernon music store. He
also enjoyed the region’s natural beauty, hiking and camping at sites within the
Shawnee National Forest.
He even sat in with local bands, most notably at the
Eldorado VFW club with the group Four Vests. Two of the original members of that
band were present at the ceremony, along with Louise Harrison, who now lives
near Branson, Mo. A number of musicians also attended, performing Beatles
Though The Beatles were big in England at the time, with
singles racing up the charts, they were virtually unknown here. That allowed
George to travel around the region freely. Such anonymity was soon to end for
The Beatles after the band became the world’s most famous pop group.
He and his sister, armed with the Beatles single “From Me to
You,” even paid a visit to radio station WFRX-AM in nearby West Frankfort, where
she convinced teenage disc jockey Marcia Schafer to play the record on the air.
It was one of the first instances of a Beatles record being played on American
Also among the VIPS attending the event, Schafer — now
Raubach — is credited with being the first radio personality in America to
interview a Beatle.
One story of Harrison’s visit is that he lost his wallet,
containing $400, but a local resident found it and sought him out to return it.
That incident reportedly made an impression on the 20-year-old Liverpool native,
who marveled that someone would return such a prize.
Kirkpatrick said Harrison’s widow, Olivia, was informed of
plans for the event, though she did not attend. Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn declared
the day of the tribute “George Harrison Day.”
The historical marker isn’t the first recognition of
Harrison’s visit to rural southern Illinois. The house in Benton where he and
his brother stayed with their sister was marketed as the Hard Days Nite Bed and
Breakfast before it was sold. During its time as a hotel, it was decked out in
numerous photos, posters and other Beatles memorabilia.
The band’s highly anticipated appearance on The Ed Sullivan
Show in February 1964 ushered in what was to become known as Beatlemania. Though
the band broke up in 1969, The Beatles still reign as the biggest-selling
musical act in history, with estimated record sales of 600 million.
Harrison died of cancer in 2001.