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 September 16, 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 May 27, 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 specialized 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 band’s 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 members of the band later 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 October 4 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 November 1, 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 simply rattle their jewelry.
On February 7, 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.