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 songs.
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 radio.
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.
Nat Williams, Field Editor