We’ve all seen the black-and-white footage of the Beatles arriving at the airport in New York to the accompanying screams of thousands of fans during this week 47 years ago. And if you didn’t happen to be one of the 73 million Americans who watched their first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show on February 9, 1964, you have undoubtedly caught the clip on YouTube. (BTW, was John’s mic working that night?)
But while the trip to New York was the group’s first official foray to America, a little known fact is that this was not the first time a Beatle had been to the States.
The scene was quite different a few months earlier when George Harrison became the first Beatle to ever step foot in America. There were no screaming fans, no police escorts, and no press conferences. And while the Beatles were feted at luxury hotels during their first stay in America, George spent most of his time in a small house in Southern Illinois.
In his book Before He Was Fab, George Harrison’s First American Visit, author Jim Kirkpatrick tells the story of the two-week vacation the young Beatles guitarist took with his brother Peter to the small town of Benton, Illinois, during mid-September to early-October, 1963.
At the time of the trip, She Loves You was firmly perched at number one in England. The Beatles were working on their second album, With The Beatles, at the time, and George had just completed recording the song Don’t Bother Me a few days earlier. The group decided to take a much-needed vacation, and Ringo and Paul took off to Greece, while John and his wife Cynthia accompanied the group’s manager, Brian Epstein, to Paris.
George used the break to come to southern Illinois to visit his sister Louise who had earlier moved to the coal mining town of Benton with her husband, who was a mining engineer.
George was said to have loved his time in the Midwest, and befriended some of the locals who accompanied him to record stores, where he was said to have purchased a copy of the single Got My Mind Set On You by James Ray. Harrison would later record a cover of the song in 1987, which went to number one.
George found time to sit in with a local band called the Blue Vests at a VFW Hall, where he wowed the crowd with his version of Roll Over Beethoven and a few other early Beatles standards. He even appeared on radio station WFRX, which had earlier become the first station in America to play a Beatles song when they aired a copy of From Me To You which had been given to them by Louise.
George ended his visit to America with a brief stop in St. Louis and a couple of days in New York, where a story persists that he actually saw JFK’s limousine go by.
The home where George stayed at 113 McCann Street was saved from demolition in 1995, and is today the Hard Day’s Nite Bed and Breakfast.
When the Beatles were flying to New York to appear on Ed Sullivan a few months later, George told the journalists on-board about his trip, and commented about America by saying, “They’ve got everything over there. What do they want us for?”
Benton has had other encounters with celebrities. Former NBA star Doug Collins is from the area, as is former game show host Gene Rayburn, and renowned actor John Malkovich.