It was mid-September of 1963, fifty years ago. The Beatles were already the biggest stars in the history of Great Britain and had a number one song with "She Loves You," as well as having had a #1 album, their debut album Please Please Me.
But after over a full year of steady recording, playing gigs, and touring, the band finally had a few weeks off for a holiday. John went to Paris with his then-wife Cynthia. Paul and Ringo took off with their respective girlfriends for a vacation in Greece. That left George, who went with his older brother Peter to visit their sister Louise in America. Thus, George Harrison became the first Beatle to visit the U.S. (Ringo had originally planned to go with George, but changed his mind and went on the Greek trip with Paul instead.)
George was to spend 18 days in the States, mostly staying at the home of sister Louise and her husband Gordon Caldwell at 113 McCann Street in the small mining town of Benton, Illinois (population 8,000). After experiencing the hectic crowds of the early stages of Beatlemania in England, George welcomed the comparative peace and solitude of Benton, where he could move about freely in complete anonymity.
During his visit, George dressed inconspicuously, usually wearing a white shirt, jeans or dark pants, no tie, and often sandals. The only unusual feature of George's appearance was his then-super-long Beatle haircut, which slightly shocked many of Benton's citizens. According to one friend, after seeing George's hair, "I thought of Moe Howard of the Three Stooges."
George, Peter, and Louise happily spent a few nights camping out in Shawnee National Forest. He and Peter also visited a local eatery where they were served by waitresses on roller skates. Louise's friend, bass player Gabe McCarty, took George shopping at the town's only record store, where George bought "about 30" albums and a few singles, including Booker T. and the MG's first album Green Onions plus some Bobby Bland and the record "Got My Mind Set On You" by James Ray. George recorded that song almost 25 years later.
George asked the salesperson if they carried any records by the Beatles and was met with a blank stare of complete unawareness and non-recognition. This introverted George slightly, along with the jarring moment when he saw England's biggest rock star, Cliff Richard, in his recent move Summer Holiday being played as a second string feature at the local drive-in. These two incidents stayed with George, and when he reported back to the other Beatles upon his return to England, we wondered if they could make it in the States, and actually thought they would flop.
With Louise, he visited the small local radio station WFRX in West Frankfort, where he gave an interview to DJ Marcia Schafer (now Raubach). George gave Marcia a copy of the Beatles' recent record "She Love You" and signed a Beatles photo for her. Marcia was to play the band's record "From me To You" several Saturdays in a row and thus became the first radio DJ to play a Beatles record on the air in America.
One day, George was taken to a Mt. Vernon music store, where he purchased a red Fireglo 420 Rickenbacker guitar. He paid $400 for the guitar and asked the salesman if he could dye it black "like John Lennon's Rickenbacker." (George had American money, but he didn't know what it was worth and always needed to ask his family and friends to help him calculate his spending.) At the store, George and Gabe jammed for 30 or 40 minutes, with George happily playing his new purchase.
George made two public appearances during his visit. He visited a small local club called The Boneyard Boccie Ball Club of Benton and sang "Happy Birthday" to a young woman. But the final Saturday of his visit, the day before he left, was to be the highlight of George's historic visit.
A local four-man band called The Four Vests were scheduled to play a four-hour gig at the VFW club in Eldorado. Gabe McCarty was a member of the band and asked George if he wanted to come along and see them play. George agreed to attend and contentedly watched the band's first set.
Then after being introduced to the large crowd as "the Elvis Presley of England," George took over the lead guitar for the band's second set. the Four Vests' lead guitarist handed his guitar over to George and graciously sat down at a table to watch. George sang and played lead guitar on Chuck Berry's "Roll Over Beethoven" and Hank Williams' "Your Cheatin' Heart." According to his sister Louise, the crowd, who had previously been quiet, stomped their feet, applauded, and whistled wildly as George played.
After the 40-minute set was over, someone in the crowd came over and told George that "with the right breaks, you could really go places." The Four Vests were approached by excited audience members who advised them to "sign up that guy who auditioned for you."
George had such a good time on his visit to Benton, he and Louise promised each other that they'd "do it again next year." He enjoyed the VFW gig so much, he even scheduled a Beatles concert there for the following year.
George left Benton the next day and briefly visited New York City and St. Louis before returning to his Beatle bandmates. While visiting New York, George again walked around in anonymity. There is a picture of him walking alone among the visitors on top of the Empire State Building.
During his visit to Benton, no one, including George himself, could have possibly imagined the soon-to-be worldwide popularity of the Beatles. The Beatles came to America together less than five months later, in February of 1964, taking the country by storm. By this time, there was no looking back for Beatle George Harrison, and his little-known trip to Benton, Illinois was to remain a unique and isolated experience and memory.