Stories from intrepid reporters attending the Illinois Press Foundation Journalism Workshop at Eastern Illinois University
By Paulina Martinez
Eisenhower High School
BENTON, IL-Before “Beatlemania” even reached the States, George Harrison walked through the streets of Benton, becoming the first Beatle in America. The city of Benton plans to celebrate the 50th anniversary of his visit by unveiling a historical marker this September.
“In the late summer of 1963 four musicians from Liverpool, England — John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr — collectively known as the Beatles, were poised to conquer pop culture and music history. With three hit singles in England, the band anticipated their first number one record in America by taking separate holidays. Lennon to France, McCartney and Starr to Greece and Harrison to America,” states the historical marker for George Harrison in Benton.
“Twenty-five years ago, it wasn’t a story,” said William Furry, head of the project and executive director of the Illinois State Historical Society. “People didn’t know George Harrison had spent time in Illinois.”
The historical marker will commemorate the memories and legacy George Harrison left behind in Illinois.
Harrison led the Beatles’ British invasion into America when he came to visit his sister, Louise Harrison Caldwell in Benton. Long before the Beatles hit big in America, Harrison strolled throughout the streets of Benton, jamming out with local musicians, purchasing records and having his first American interview on the radio.
“In retrospect looking at his life from the time he became a Beatle, those couple of weeks in Benton were probably the last chance he had at being normal,” said Caldwell.
Caldwell, who currently lives in Branson, Mo., lived in Benton when brothers George and Peter came to stay with her. Caldwell says she remembers her brother as someone with a good work ethic, someone who was very keen on being as good of a guitar player as possible.
“[George] was very, very vibrant, full of life, full of fun, intelligent and was very interested in doing and learning.” said Caldwell. “He worked very hard to become good at what he was doing.”
Caldwell says the misconception of her brother’s timidity began when the Beatles arrived to New York in February of ’64. Harrison arrived from Paris with a 104 degree fever and a bad case of strep throat, when a doctor at the Plaza Hotel suggested he should be taken to the hospital.
The Beatles’ manager, Brian Epstein, didn’t want anyone to know there was something wrong, Caldwell said. “I was roped into looking after him, and the doctor gave him all kinds of meds and ordered him to stay quiet and peaceful.”
Interviews followed after the arrival of the band, and Harrison was ordered to speak as little as possible.
“He had a lot of fun with that because when he was being questioned by people asking him stupid questions, he would just say ‘I don’t know, I’m the quiet one!’” said Caldwell.
Caldwell says her brother’s goal was to play guitar to the best of his ability, and that is partly attributed to the way their parents raised them. “Our parents raised us in a way that they encouraged us to do whatever our hearts led us to…” said Caldwell. “To be honest and compassionate. Wherever our talent or ability led us, be the best that you can be.”
In his two-week stay, Harrison performed his first American performance with a group called “The Four Vests.” According to Furry, he purchased a red, 425 Rickenbacker guitar in Mt. Vernon and went on to play with it in the early years of the Beatles.
The planned marker will state that Harrison returned to England and came back to America with the Beatles the following February after “I Want to Hold Your Hand” rose to number one in the U.S. charts. Harrison went on to write such classic Beatles songs as “Taxman,” “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and “Something.” He died in 2001.
The unveiling of the marker will also be known as “George Harrison Day” in the city of Benton. Furry plans on having a celebration along with the unveiling and says the marker will be located within a block of Main Street. The date for the unveiling is yet to be set.
The historical marker will be sponsored by the Franklin County Historic Preservation, the Illinois State Historical Society and Beatles fans everywhere.