Benton honors Beatle’s first visit

Benton honors Beatle's first visit

By Sarah Schneider

George Harrison’s first look at U.S. was southern Illinois

When George Harrison visited the small coal-mining town of Benton, most people did not know who he was, let alone the lasting impact his band would have on music.

The Liverpool, England rock band, The Beatles, had three hits in the United Kingdom but were still unknown in the United States when they took a few weeks off in the summer of 1963 before their American debut the following year.

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While Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr went to Greece and John Lennon went to Paris, Harrison and his brother Peter went to southern Illinois to visit their sister Louise Harrison.

George was the first Beatle to visit America, Louise said, making the trip almost as a scout to determine if their music would be popular in the country.

But Louise said she knew it would be.

Saturday, the town unveiled a historical marker that tells the story of Harrison’s first visit to the U.S. on the day Gov. Pat Quinn has dubbed George Harrison day.

Louise Harrison and her brothers were all in culture shock at the town of 7,000, but Louise said they loved how nice everyone in the town was.

“Back in those days everybody, the whole world, was pretty different,” she said. “There wasn’t as much hatred and fear and suspicion. People were open with each other and you could walk into somewhere and be accepted for who you were without everybody wanting to do a background check. It was more free and open of a society than it is now.”

Louise moved to Benton in March of 1963 with her husband. He worked as a mining engineer. After the band gained recognition in the UK after their 1962 hit, Love Me Do, she took it on herself to get the word out about The Beatles.

“I spent most of the summer of ’63 going around about a 200 mile radius of Benton, going to the major radio stations I could find trying to get them to play my kid brother’s band on the radio,” she said. “I was pushing very, very hard trying to get that to happen.”

When the Harrison brothers came to southern Illinois, Louise pushed again for a local West Frankfort station to play George’s music. Marcia Schafer Raubach hosted a radio show on WFRX and was the first DJ in the U.S. to play the Beatles.

Jim Kirkpatrick, author of “Before He Was Fab” which chronicles Harrison’s trip to America, said the Beatles music Raubach played was completely different from the Frank Sinatra and Buddy Holiday music playing on the radio at that time.

Harrison also played at the VFW in Eldorado with the Four Vests Sept. 28. Kirkpatrick said he was reluctant to play, but once he did, he wanted to play country. He sang Hank Williams’ “Your Cheatin’ Heart”.

The lead guitar player later referred to as, “the quiet Beatle,” was only 20 at the time and spent much of the trip walking the streets of Benton. He bought a few records at Barton and Collins, one of a fairly unknown artist with the song “Got My Mind Set on You” which he covered in 1987.

Harrison played Boccie Ball at the Boneyard Club and bought a guitar in Mt. Vernon that is now on display at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

In 1963 Harrison was not yet a vegetarian, so Louise took her brothers to try a steak, which they had never tried before. There, George realized he had lost his wallet with more than $400 in cash.

“He had dropped it out of his pocket and got it back in 20 minutes from a local boy,” she said. “That doesn’t happen anywhere. He was pretty pleased about it.”

During the trip, the siblings spent a lot of time camping in the Shawnee National Forest and stopped in several southern Illinois towns.

Harrison spent the last few days of his trip in New York and then returned to England. His next visit to America was with the rest of the “Fab Four” in February 1964 when 73 million viewers watched the group preform on the Ed Sullivan Show.

“The next time he came back was fully fledged Beatle-mania everywhere he went,” Louise Harrison said. “He was one of the only ones who got the opportunity to meet American people being normal and not screaming and wanting to pull his hair out.”

Bob Rea, the president of the Franklin County Historic Preservation Society, was 12 years old when Harrison visited that fall.

“I was there when every single came out and I lived through those years,” he said. “When you were my age, you grew up with The Beatles whether you liked them or not.”

Rea, who has spent most of his life in Benton, said the town recognizes the importance Harrison’s visit had on his music, which influenced a generation.

“The 60’s was a decade of revolution,” he said. “And from that came the most adored group, the Beatles, which was the most important band in the 60’s because they led a generation through a revolution of change.”

The Franklin County Historic Preservation Society and the Illinois State Historical Society held the historical marker dedication at Benton’s Capitol Park. The marker titled, “The First Beatle in America,” also has an inscription saying this sign is sponsored by Beatles fans everywhere.

More than 300 people were in attendance Saturday, most from out of state, Kirkpatrick said.

He said many visitors walked around town to look at what Harrison saw during his first trip to the states. Some even had pictures taken at the Antique Mall that used to be the record store where Harrison shopped.

George Harrison died in 2001, and Louise Harrison’s home was preserved in 1995. Several visited the house as well.

Harrison said apart from a few of the speakers, she knew most of the people were Beatles fans who drove a great distance to see the marker. When they asked the crowd if any youngsters from Benton could help reveal the marker, there was only one in attendance.

“I remember commenting to myself at the time that George would have liked this because he is going to be in a place where he is going to be totally ignored, because his entire life after he became a Beatle he was looking for peace and quiet,” she said.

After nine years with The Beatles when he wrote hits such as, “Something,” “For You Blue,” “Here Comes the Sun,” and “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” the band broke up and members started their solo careers.

Louise said the dedication proved The Beatles would always be an influential band for generations to come.

“There are still so many people who understand what The Beatles are all about,” she said. “It wasn’t just the music, but it was also the attitude to life that we need to be compassionate to each other and try to live together in peace. All those things were part of The Beatles message.”

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