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George Harrison – The First Beatle On American Soil

Before Beatlemania set in, George Harrison visited his sister in Illinois on 16 September 1963, becoming the first Beatle on American soil.

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George Harrison Apple Corps
Photo: ® Apple Corps Ltd

In the summer of 1963 the Beatles had some time off and while the other three members of the band went on holiday to Europe, George Harrison became the first Beatle to visit America, when, on 16 September 1963, along with his brother Peter, he went to Benton, Illinois – population, 7,000 – to visit their older sister, Louise.

According to George, “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.” George also bought James Ray’s single ‘Got My Mind Set On You’ that he later covered in 1987.

When the Harrisons arrived in Benton, George and Louise hitchhiked to radio station WFRX-AM in West Frankfort, Illinois taking a copy of ‘She Loves You’ which had been released 3 weeks earlier in Britain and on the day of George’s arrival in America. ‘She Loves You’ got a positive review in Billboard but very little radio play, although WFRX did play it. According to DJ Marcia Raubach “He was unusual looking, he dressed differently than the guys here. He was very soft-spoken and polite.”

It’s often claimed that in June 1963 Louise took a British copy of ‘From Me To You’ to WFRX that she had been sent by her mother and that Raubach played it. This is probably true but the claim that this was the first time The Beatles’ music was broadcast in America is not. ‘From Me To You’ was released in Britain in late April and then topped the British singles’ chart for seven weeks’. With the Beatles at No.1 in Britain Vee Jay records released their single of ‘From Me To You’ / ‘Thank You Girl’ as VJ 522 on 27 May 1963. The single was made ‘Pick Of the Week’ by Cash Box magazine, but was not a success.

With the Beatles success in Britain in early 1963 Parlophone were anxious to take advantage of their new asset and so contacted their sister label in America, Capitol Records that was owned by EMI. Capitol was underwhelmed by the Beatles records and so decided against releasing any of their records. Instead Parlophone turned to a small US label called Vee Jay, a company started by a husband and wife in Gary, Indiana that specialised in black R & B music.

It was an irony probably not lost on the Beatles who loved and had been influenced by exactly that kind of music. In February 1963, two days after ‘Please Please Me’ made No.1 in Britain, Vee Jay released it as a single in the US. VJ 498 did get some airplay from the major Chicago top 40 radio station WLS and it even made their own chart for a couple of weeks, but nothing happened nationally on the Billboard charts. Not helping the band was the fact that Vee Jay managed to miss-spell the bands name on the record as “Beattles”.

So it was that when George stayed at his sister and brother in law’s house in Benton he really was an unknown in America; Louise’s husband Gordon was a Scottish mining engineer who had emigrated to work in Illinois’s coal mines. George did play with a local band, The Four Vests and later members of the band took him to a Mt Vernon, Illinois music shop where George bought a red Rickenbacker 420 guitar. George wanted it to be re-finished in black, which the store-owner did for him. The guitar was first seen in public on 4 October on TV’s Ready Steady Go, the day after George and his brother returned to London.

Back in Britain, Beatlemania proper was about to begin. On 1 November they began their first tour as undisputed headliners. The venue was the Odeon Cinema, Cheltenham, and the sedate town in the West of England had never seen anything like it – so much so that one newspaperman coined the phrase ‘Beatlemania’ in an attempt to describe it. Three days later Beatlemania met royalty when the band appeared at the Royal Command Performance at a prestigious London theatre. John Lennon famously quipped that the people on the cheap seats can clap; those in the expensive ones can simple rattle their jewellery.

On 7 February 1964, The Beatles left London’s Heathrow Airport on-board a Pan Am Boeing 707 for New York’s JFK Airport where, upon arrival, they held a press conference. The American press unsure what to make of the four boys from Liverpool tried everything from sarcasm to open mouthed incredulity. The following day, after a press-call in a cold and snowy Central Park the band rehearsed for their appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show.

Ironically, they were without George for the press call or the rehearsal as he was feeling unwell. Fortunately by the following day George was better and at 8 pm the band appeared before an audience of 73 million people – exactly a year earlier they had been playing to a few thousand at a cinema in Sunderland in the north of England as a lowly support act to Helen Shapiro.

Listen to the best of George Harrison on Apple Music and Spotify.

23 Comments

23 Comments

  1. sebastian Tze

    September 16, 2014 at 7:18 pm

    What a story, glad to know George had connection in ILL

  2. Michael Kennedy

    September 16, 2014 at 10:28 pm

    Great article, but almost impossible to read due to the dark background. Can you fix this? Thanks.

  3. Kevin

    September 17, 2014 at 12:23 am

    That story was amazing to read. I saw the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show, but I knew of them before that…somehow. I was nine at the time. It’s so nice to see this type of article to get to know George better….

  4. Frank Corso

    September 17, 2014 at 12:39 am

    I’ve said this before some called George Harrison the quiet BEATLE i think he was the smart one I always felt that his talent was underestimated and under appreciated but most will say that that’s just my opinion and that it doesn’t count for much but it is what it is and George Harrison was is and always will be my personal favorite there is so much more that i want to say but this isn’t about me this is about George Harrison and it’s not so much a comment as it is a tribute to a man who is loved admired and missed and not just because he was a BEATLE but because he was so much more R I P George Harrison

    • James

      September 18, 2015 at 1:19 am

      Run on sentence much?

  5. ernie

    September 17, 2014 at 2:26 am

    quite interesting. i hope they also publish that incident when the fab 4 visited manila. i still don’t know the real story 🙁

  6. Mike Wilhelm

    September 17, 2014 at 3:19 am

    Wanna see a couple of recent pics of Benton that I took and posted to my blog? http://beatlesplus50.blogspot.com/2013/09/george-and-she-sneak-into-america.html

  7. Victoria

    September 17, 2014 at 6:01 am

    Me encantó la historia: tenia conocimiento de algunos de estos datos en forma aislada, pero aquí se resumen todos. Gracias!
    I love George.

  8. Bhanu Roy

    September 17, 2014 at 8:05 am

    Read the writeups above about George’s 1st visit in U.S….but it happens with the most successful creative musicians over the World always..they bigin from the grassroot level n finally they are recognised as Top Class Internatiional Celebrity…I’ve no word to say abt him..incidently I knew him peersonally as both we are disciple of Same Mentor…as he learnt Sitar frm RaviShankar. So he had v strong versatility in various field of music. Extremely golden hearted humanbeing n simple minded. Pioneer of a popular style of presentation/Genre. I adore him n pray to God to rest His Soul in Peace…amen!!

  9. chucky o

    September 17, 2014 at 2:29 pm

    Unfortunately that is not George’s Rickenbacker in the photo, it’s the Gretsch Country Gentleman he bought used from a music store in Liverpool…

    • uDiscover

      September 18, 2014 at 12:19 pm

      We know that it is a Gretsch, it is just such a lovely photo of George taken on the Beatles first US tour.

  10. fay

    September 18, 2014 at 2:53 am

    when I was in school many years ago, everyone thougt I was odd for liking his music over the other beatkes, glad I stuck to my values, to me he was the most talented, I guess because \i was quiet also

  11. olehippy13

    September 21, 2014 at 2:55 pm

    I also heard that some of George’s guitars were stolen …….from when he visited his sister in Ill. He had left them in his car…and someone broke into it and took them…..what a shame But he was a very talented dude….
    keep smiln
    olehippy13

  12. mulders freddy

    January 14, 2015 at 6:39 pm

    I have allways love them since love me do.

  13. Abhaya Mani Dixit

    January 27, 2015 at 1:54 am

    Yes The Beatles, Love to listen them almost. I almost have listened all songs of George. They all together sounds much better……

  14. Steve Renehan

    March 20, 2015 at 4:04 pm

    What a great article! Interestingly enough, I have the exact same Rickenbacker 420, in Fire-Go red, that George purchased while visiting his sister that year. According to the serial numbers, his came off the line in August of 1962, and mine was built in April, 1963. The guitars originally came with a single pickup, though at some later date, a second one got added to his. The story goes that he used that Rick in the recording of “I Want To Hold Your Hand” to do his little lead licks that are sprinkled throughout the song. He eventually gave the guitar to either a family member or a friend, and was dismayed years later to learn that the person had sold it. That experience soured him on ever giving away any more guitars. It was recently auctioned for over $600,000.00, in 2014, I believe.

  15. George Marryson

    September 18, 2015 at 1:19 am

    George Harrisons FACEBOOK page
    has BLOCKED many people based
    on their comments, if the police
    were to look at George Harrison’s
    Facebook page they would see
    they block people for no reason
    just to be malicious or because
    the person they block has an ethnic name.

  16. Elizabeth F.

    September 18, 2015 at 1:28 am

    The house George’s sister lived in at that time was made into a bed and breakfast. My husband and I stayed there about 8 years ago just before it changed hands. Very cool part of rock and roll history.

  17. Jess DeCristo

    September 18, 2015 at 6:24 am

    I liked The Beatles, I grew up listening to their music, it pulled me through some sad and heavy times. George was always my and my mother’s favorite Beatle, ( she too was a Beatle fan ). He had so much charisma , intelligence and talent , it just naturally blended in with Lennon & McCartney’s. I’ve never believed he was a ” Quiet ” Beatles, if any, Ibelieve he was the one with the best sense of humor and the most respectfull one, compare to John. I felt George’s passing more than John’s . The main reason why he was also my mother’s favorite Beatle, is that when he grew his beard, he looked just like Jesus Christ. My mom watched his ” Concert for Bangladesh ” so many times just because he looked so Christly in there. I also believe he was the best musician of the 4, he learned to play the sitar.

  18. HermanReinders

    September 18, 2015 at 10:18 am

    The Beatles is de beste band ever

  19. XaurreauX

    September 29, 2015 at 9:56 pm

    The first time I heard the Beatles in the winter of 1963 I thought it was either the Beach Boys or someone trying to be. It wasn’t until I saw them on the Ed Sullivan Show (Feb. 9th, 1964) that I was completely hooked. They came at us from a direction no one could have anticipated.

  20. Eddie Villanuevs

    September 16, 2016 at 4:55 pm

    I had heard the Beatles in 64 when they first arrived in Anerica, but was still too young to truly appreciate them. They were all over the radio when I lived in NYC. It wasn’t till my family relocated to Puerto Rico that I came to truly rediscover the Beatles. The story is that while in 8th grade, a friend of mine asked me to accompany him to the local record store. He asked the owner if he had the Beatles’ latest song, “Something”. Once he put that single on, I was completely on board to become a full fledged Beatles fan. From that moment on I quickly began to buy all of their music. And I have to give that full credit to my friend and George Harrison.

  21. James

    September 17, 2018 at 1:29 pm

    The video link for RSG is one of several appearances the Beatles made during those days, but it is NOT the one with the BLACK Rickenbacker 420 guitar….that is his Rickenbacker 360 (Red) in your link. The 1963 RSG show (singing She Loves You) shows George with the $400USD (!!) black Ricky 420. He paid extra to have it stripped and painted black to match John Lennon’s Rickenbacker 325 Capri. SADLY….the guitar was stolen from the Beatle’s van not long after he got back to the UK. The guitar was recovered and returned to Harrison, but by then he had the 360 12 string. George later modified the 420 by adding another pickup, and eventually gave the guitar away…..which profited somebody quite nicely years later.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JRGBWdWT8Ok

    That is link to George playing the black 420 Rickenbacker. If you want a better synopsis of the guitar’s history, check out this link.

    https://uniqueguitar.blogspot.com/2013/09/george-harrisons-rickenbacker-420.html

    Beatle’s Superfan James

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