50 years after British Invasion, Illinois town remembers George

Friday, February 7, 2014 | 5:13 p.m. CST
Illinois state Rep. John Bradley hugs Louise Harrison Caldwell, the sister of late Beatles guitarist George Harrison, on Sept. 21, after reading a proclamation unveiling the historical marker honoring the musician's visit to Benton 50 years earlier. George Harrison's two-week vacation in Illinois made him the first Beatle to come to the United States, a mere five months before the group's landmark live appearance on "The Ed Sullivan Show" launched the British Invasion.

ST. LOUIS — Not long after settling in southern Illinois in 1963, an ocean from her native England, Louise Harrison Caldwell trudged from one radio station to the next lobbying for airtime for her brother's quartet. Revered in Britain, the group was virtually unknown in America — and her promotion fizzled.

So much, in fact, that her kid brother George Harrison was able to anonymously walk Benton's streets and jam with a local band when he visited his older sister for two weeks that fall. Just five months later, folks in Benton, population 7,000, likely were kicking themselves for not snagging the vacationing Brit's autograph or photo as proof they saw him standing there.

A half-century ago Sunday, George Harrison and the Beatles conquered America, playing live to 73 million television viewers of "The Ed Sullivan Show" in a seminal gig that launched the British invasion. Decades later, it's Louise Harrison's former rural Illinois town that's so eager to trumpet its history-making link to the late Liverpool musician whom locals once viewed with curiosity, if only for his accent.

"I find it even more amusing 50 years later," Louise Harrison, 82, told The Associated Press recently by telephone, waxing nostalgic about brother George's Illinois visit that made him the first Beatle on American turf.

Few around Benton — long known as the site of Illinois' last public hanging — could have known they were rubbing elbows with greatness when George Harrison came to the heart of Illinois coal country. That's where his older sister settled with her Scottish husband, who was an engineer with a local coal mine.

The Beatles, lighting up the pop charts in England, were on holiday — John Lennon in Paris, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr in Greece. Starr was to have accompanied Harrison to Benton but backed out, as Louise Harrison put it, after concluding that her arrangement for them to be interviewed on an area television show constituted work.

By that time, Louise already had pressed regional radio stations to give the Beatles' records sent to her by her mother a whirl. As a teen staffing the WFRX station her dad managed in nearby West Frankfort, Marcia Raubach gave Louise Harrison a break and spun "From Me to You" — believed to be the Beatles' first U.S. airtime.

Then along came George.

Traveling with other brother Peter, he blended in with Benton, aside from the British accent Louise said made them appear exotic in the blue-collar town. Decked out in a dark suit, white shirt and no tie, he jammed with a local group at a veterans hall and later at a bocce ball club, getting introduced as the "Elvis of England" at a time when Hank Williams, Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole ruled the region.

Harrison stopped by a record shop. He bought a year-old Rickenbacker electric guitar — something hard to come by back home — and had the store owner change the instrument's color from red to black so it matched Lennon's. Much of the rest of the time, Harrison stayed at his sister's digs at 113 McCann, a four-bedroom bungalow.

With her kid brother in tow, Louise Harrison went back to WFRX with a copy of the Beatles' newly released "She Loves You." Raubach again generously aired the single and interviewed George, chronicling it later in the high school newspaper.

"He was unusual looking," Raubach, now a 67-year-old grandmother, recalled of the skinny foreigner who wore jeans, a white shirt and sandals. "He dressed differently than the guys here. He was very soft-spoken and polite" and particularly impressed with her dad's black Oldsmobile Delta 88 with the tail fins and drive-in restaurants with waitresses on roller skates.

She never imagined she was in the presence of eventual rock royalty.

"None of us grasped the significance" of Harrison's visit, she said. "If we had only known."

Before leaving the station, Harrison handed her a promotional photo of the Beatles, scrawling "Love from George Harrison" on its back. She still has that copy of "She Loves You" and, in hindsight, a thought about the question she should have asked him: Will the Beatles still be together in a decade?

"But who was looking ahead at that time," she said. "I don't think anyone knew how big they were going to be or what influence they'd have."

George Harrison never returned to Benton after their ballyhooed "Ed Sullivan" appearance, but the town never forgot him. Last September, on what Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn declared a statewide "George Harrison Day," the town unveiled a historical marker honoring the late Beatle's visit 50 years earlier.

On hand was Louise Harrison, who, after her famous brother's death from cancer in 2001, launched the Beatles-minded Liverpool Legends. The traveling tribute band has worked the theater circuit in southwestern Missouri's touristy entertainment mecca of Branson, where Harrison lived lately until moving to Florida.

Not that she thinks her brother's legacy has faded, even if his role in the Beatles was overshadowed by McCartney and Lennon, the band's charismatic frontmen and chief songwriters.

"I think that when you consider some of the influences around in society, they're not all very, very positive," she said. "But the Beatles wrote good, quality and truthful music — music about love, peace, compassion and caring for each other and the health of the planet.

"It's nice to know that 50 years later, people still appreciate that."

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