The brothers had been working hard for months and needed a break. It was already September. Summer was about over and Fall was fast approaching. They knew the hectic pace would continue, or possibly even increase. They decided to take a two week vacation while they still could.
Peter and George chose to go visit their sister, Louise, who had moved to Benton several months earlier. She and her husband, a mining engineer, had come to southern Illinois because the coal industry there was hiring and paying well. It was a quiet little town of about 7,000 people and the perfect place to just relax for a little while.
By all accounts, the boys enjoyed themselves while they were there; they watched a small town parade, camped at Garden of the Gods in nearby Shawnee National Forest, played Bocce Ball, went to a drive-in movie and to an A&W Root Beer drive-in hamburger stand (complete with roller-skating car hops). Everywhere they went they met a bunch of friendly and polite people.
George, from a big city on the coast, was 20-years-old and the youngest. He stood out in a crowd – at least he did in conservative, rural, southern Illinois. It’s not that he wanted to attract attention. He was a bit of an introvert and didn’t like to say much. He just looked different to the locals, who were clean-cut, hard-working types. It was 1963; long shaggy hair and blue jeans with a hole in the knee would not be a common sight in the heartland for a few more years. Two teenagers who had met George that September later remarked that they figured he was poor and couldn’t even afford a haircut.
Louise introduced George to Gabe McCarty, who had something in common with George – they both played in a band. Gabe played bass guitar and sang lead in a popular local band called The Four Vests. They hit it off and got together for a few jam sessions. With Louise’s encouragement, George was invited to join The Four Vests onstage at one of their regular VFW hall performances, where they played country music standards (which was George’s preference).
Gabe took George to a music store in Mt. Vernon, the closest one to Benton, where George found a Rickenbacher 420 that he had to have. It was flame red, and George asked the music store owner to paint it black to match one used by his fellow band member. He paid $400 for that guitar, a lot of money in 1963. It later sold at auction for something like $650,000!
George bought several records at local shops while in Illinois, including a copy of James Ray’s single Got My Mind Set On You, which George covered with his own version in 1987.
Now that you know who George was, a word or two of explanation is in order. While it was George’s older brother Peter Harrison that went with him to visit their sister in Illinois, the ‘brothers’ deceptively referred to in the first paragraph were fellow band members John, Paul, and Ringo. John took his two week vacation in Paris, while Paul and Ringo went to Greece. The coastal city George was from was Liverpool, UK, and the name of his band back home was, of course, The Beatles. The old Franklin County Jail, which is now a museum, has several artifacts directly related to George’s visit on display.
That September 1963 trip was the first time a member of the Beatles performed on stage in America, at a VFW hall, no less. It was also the first time a Beatle was interviewed in America. Marcia Schafer, a teenager who hosted a weekly radio show for teens on WFRX had George on as a guest and played two Beatles records that were already hit singles in the UK, She Loves You and From Me to You. Like everyone else in Illinois at that time, she had no idea who he was or how big a celebrity he was about to be.
In February 1964, The Beatles were introduced to America on The Ed Sullivan Show. George’s experience visiting the United States the second time around was, to phrase it in mild understatement, wildly different than his first visit when no one knew who he was. If the biographical accounts are accurate, George, the quiet Beatle, preferred it that way.
Question of the night: Which is your favorite Beatle?