Few people may know this, but February 1964 was not the first time a Beatle was on American soil. In September of 1963, George Harrison came to Benton, Illinois to visit his sister Louise. What George did and saw during that visit is chronicled in a new book titled Before He Was Fab, George Harrison's First American Visit (Cache River Press)
We spoke with author Jim Kirkpatrick about the America George Harrison visited in September 1963.
Q - Jim, I would think that George's first visit to America is a rather obscure part of The Beatles story. How did you first hear about it?
A - Well, back in 1995 there was an effort to tear down the house that George Harrison visited. It was next to the Illinois Department of Mines and Minerals service in Benton. They wanted to expand their area and build a huge parking lot. Bob Bartel from Springfield got involved. They wanted to tear down. He said "this house is historically significant." He called Louise (George's sister). Louise, who was living in Sarasota, Florida at the time, came back in an effort to save the house. So that's how I got involved in it.
Q - After your initial curiousity was aroused, where did you begin to research this story? Did you go right to Louise?
A - A friend of mine, Bob Ray, was President of Franklin-County Tourism. We got to talking about Louise and the really unique stories she told about how George bought this guitar in Mount Vemon and how he had played with a local group at a local VFW Hall and the first Beatle record played in the United States was at the radio station WFRX in West Frankfort. We thought these are really interesting stories. As someone who's interested in history, I thought, well, if you look at all the people who are involved in this story who are still alive, most of em' are in their fifties or sixties. We thought if this is not preserved, it's going to be lost in time. It's not a large book. It's primarily a story about his two week vacation to Southern Illinois. After Bob and I had talked, I thought I would make an effort to talk to as many people as I could that met George Harrison during his visit here. Louise was coming back here for a benefit concert for DARE. Before I embarked on anything, I thought Louise is the core of this whole thing. I needed to get her to talk. After I did that, everything else seemed to fall into place.
Q - She co-operated fully with this project then?
A - Oh yeah, very fully. I could not have done the book without her help. I think she felt that George would have thought this is much ado about nothing. But, when you're in the forest, maybe you can't really see the trees, but if you're on the outside you really can see the significance of it. This was the first time that a Beatle ever set foot on American soil and there were so many unique stories about it. I wrote the thing probably in less than a year. But, by the time you were able to sit everybody down and schedule interviews, it took about 3 years to get all that resolved. It took another year to get a publisher.
Q - Were you able to get through to George himself?
A - No effort was even made. I quote him from various sources where he made comments about the visit. Louise recommended I not contact him, because he would not cooperate.
Q - Why did George come to the US in September of '63? Was that at the invitation of his sister?
A - Yes. It was an opportunity I guess from what she told me, that The Beatles were freeing up their schedule. They had really been busy. The "Please Please Me" album was out at the time. "She Loves You" was the number one song in England. Originally Ringo was planning on coming with George. She thought since no one really knew them in America, she would try to promote them. Of course their whole attitude was we want to get away from that and go on a vacation. Subsequently Ringo ended up going to Greece with Paul McCartney. Maureen went with Ringo and Jane Asher went with Paul to Greece. John and Cynthia Lennon and Brian (Epstein) went to Paris. It was kind of just like a little break in their schedule, which was right before they did the final work in the "Meet The Beatles" album. George had just recorded his song "Don't Bother Me", within a week of the time he came here.
Q - When exactly was George here?
A - We've got it pinned down to something like, September 16 through October 2. He went to New York with his brother Peter for a couple of days before they flew back to England.
Q - Is it true that George was standing on a corner in New York when President Kennedy's limousine went by?
A - I had heard that story before. Louise discounted it. But at the time the story was told, he was in Washingtom, D.C. But it makes more sense if George was actually in New York. He was asked once if he went to Washington and he said no. There's obviously some evidence for that story. I've heard it from two or three different souces.
Q - Where did George visit when he was in Illinois?
A - He stayed primarily at her house in Benton. Benton is a rather small community of about seven or eight thousand. At the time it was primarily a coal mining community. The reason Louise ended up there was her husband Gordon was a mine engineer. He was originally from Scotland.
Q - What can you tell me about this group, The Four Vests? That's the group Harrison played with?
A - Right. The person that really spent the most time with him was Gabe McCarty, who was really like the leader of The Four Vests. Gabe had been with George when he bought his guitar in Mount Vernon. He also helped him go to the record stores in Benton where he bought the record "Got My Mind Set On You", which he later recorded. Gabe pretty much asked him "we're gonna be playing at a dance at a nearby town, would you like to come along?" So, that's how that all happened. George didn't go there primarily to play. He was somewhat reluctant when he was asked if he would like to sit in. But I think once he did, he really got the swing of it and really enjoyed it.
Q - Did George have the Beatle haircut when he played with The Four Vests?
A - Yeah. His hairstyle was a Beatle cut. He was wearing a dark suit, a white shirt, but no tie.
Q - What songs did they play with George?
A - "Roll Over Beethoven", which was a song George recorded with The Beatles. They also did "Johnny B. Goode" and some Carl Perkins numbers, including "Matchbox", which Ringo would later do. Then he did some Country numbers like "Your Cheatin' Heart".
Q - How did the audience react to George looking and playing like he did onstage?
A - As Louise tells it, when they got there, nobody was payin' any attention to the band. When George got up it was almost like there was an immediate change. Like Louise says, it was like someone threw a switch in the room. The difference was that dramatic. People were clapping their hands and stomping their feet. Obviously they were really taken by his guitar playing and the way he looked. That was the first time a Beatle ever played in public in the United States, at a little Eldorado VFW Hall. The hall that George played looks basically that same way it did back then. Very few changes.
Q - Just think, if The Four Vests had grown their hair out, they could have beat The Beatles at their own game.
A - George called Gabe early one morning from Cincinnati. He was always curious as to whether or not The Four Vests had recorded anything. But, they were primarily a dance band. As Gabe told me, that wasn't their goal, to cut records or anything like that.