While John and Cynthia Lennon were holidaying in Paris, and Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr flew to Greece with their partners, George Harrison and his brother Peter visited their sister Louise Harrison Caldwell in Benton, Illinois.
Although The Beatles would conquer America in February 1964, with this trip Harrison became the first of the group to travel to the US.
I’d been to America before, being the experienced Beatle that I was. I went to New York and St Louis in 1963, to look around, and to the countryside in Illinois, where my sister was living at the time. I went to record stores. I bought Booker T and the MGs’ first album, Green Onions, and I bought some Bobby Bland, all kind of things.
Ringo Starr originally planned to join Harrison on the US trip, but eventually decided to go to Greece instead. Most of the group wanted a restful holiday, and Louise Harrison was keen to promote The Beatles’ music with local radio stations.
She had previously been sent a copy of From Me To You by their mother, which she took to the WFRX-AM radio station in West Frankfort, IL. The song was played by DJ Marcia Raubach in June 1963, the first time The Beatles’ music had been broadcast in the United States.
When the Harrisons arrived in Benton in September, George and Louise hitchhiked to WFRX with a copy of She Loves You, which had been released the previous month in the United Kingdom. The single was also played by the station.
The Harrisons stayed mainly at Louise’s house at 113 McCann Street, Benton. The small city of around 8,000 people had a substantial coal mining community; Louise had emigrated there in early 1963 as her Scottish husband Gordon was a mine engineer.
While in Benton, George Harrison performed with a local group, The Four Vests, at the VFW (Veterans of Foreign Wars) Hall in Eldorado, IL. The guest spot was arranged by Louise. The Four Vests played their normal set during the first half of the show, then returned to the stage and introduced Harrison as “the Elvis of England”.
He also performed with the group at the Bocchi Ball Club in Benton, and with the group’s Kenny Welch and Gabe McCarty in Louise Harrison’s living room. Although The Four Vests had been given a selection of Beatles records, they played mostly Hank Williams songs.
Two members of The Four Vests, Gabe McCarty and Vernon Mandrell, took Harrison to the Fenton Music Store at 601 South 10th Street, Mt Vernon, IL. At the store Harrison bought a fireglo red Rickenbacker 420 guitar.
The guitar had the serial number BH 439 and was manufactured in August 1962. Harrison asked for the guitar to be refinished in black to match John Lennon’s, so the store owner, Lester “Red” Fenton, reluctantly agreed to carry out the work.
Harrison returned with McCarty to collect the guitar around a week later. He plugged it into an amplifier in the store and jammed for around half an hour, with McCarty playing bass guitar.
The instrument cost around $400. Harrison reportedly had little idea of the value of US dollars, so brought around $800 to the store. The Rickenbacker was first played in public on the UK television show Ready Steady Go on 4 October 1963.
Harrison and Gabe McCarty also visited local record stores, in one of which Harrison bought the James Ray single Got My Mind Set On You. Harrison released a cover version of the song, which was written by Rudy Clark, in 1987.
George and Peter Harrison also travelled to New York for a couple of days before returning to England on 3 October 1963. It has been claimed that they were on a New York street corner when President Kennedy passed by in a limousine, and that they also visited Washington DC, but these stories are untrue.
Louise Harrison Caldwell moved out of 113 McCann Street some time later. It was sold in 1995 after being slated for demolition, but was saved by local investors after a campaign. The exterior was refurbished to how it had looked in 1963, and it was converted to the A Hard Days Nite B&B and a museum commemorating George Harrison’s stay and the birth of The Beatles in America.