Did You Know that George Harrison of the Beatles Vacationed in Southern Illinois?
Gotta Love Those "Fly-over States"
Whenever I learn about a famous person visiting my neck of the woods, it is hard not to feel a little awestruck. I mean, when I heard about Johnny Depp visiting Owensboro, I almost lost my mind (this is only a slight exaggeration). Living in Indiana, it is easy to feel like the Midwestern states are often overlooked by famous people. They aren't called "fly-over states" for nothing.
Surprisingly, it turns out the tristate area isn't as overlooked as one may think.
A Beatle in the Tri-state
If you haven't visited the Garden of the Gods in Illinois, you are definitely missing out. Not only does the area offer spectacular views and hiking, but you could also find yourself standing where one of the Beatles set foot.
According to Smithsonian Magazine, Beatles' guitarist George Harrison visited the area when he was 20 years old, right before the band's popularity exploded around the world.
In 1963, the Beatles were just gaining popularity in England but were still pretty unknown in America. After gaining success in England, the band decided to take a break from touring and recording. Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr visited Greece. John Lennon and his wife enjoyed a trip to Paris. George decided to visit his sister, Louise Caldwell, who lived in Benton, Illinois roughly 30 miles from Harrisburg.
George's Illinois Getaway
George spent two weeks vacationing in Illinois in September of 1963. He flew out to Lambert Airport in St. Louis with his older brother, Peter, where his sister picked them up. It's weird to consider a time when one of the Beatles could cruise freely around town without being recognized. But George spent his time in the Prairie State doing ordinary things, only getting noticed for his unusual haircut and wearing jeans with sandals.
During his visit, Louise took him to see a movie at the Marion Drive-In Theater, where they saw the comedic musical, Wonderful to Be Young. Since drive-in theaters weren't around in England, George was impressed by the concept saying in an interview, "You drive your car in and you see all these little things like parking meters, but they’re not parking meters; they’re speakers, and you pull them in the car and wind your window up, and it’s great.”
The siblings also went on a camping trip to the Garden of the Gods. It was during this trip that the family went to Harrisburg to watch a Shriner's parade. Two brothers that met them during the parade commented on George's ripped jeans and long hair.
George also met Benton's most known local band, The Four Vests. The band's bass player, Gabe McCarty took him to the Boneyard Bocce Ball Club, which still exists in Benton today. McCarty and the band's guitarist, Vern Mandrell, also took him to an A&W root beer stand.
Later, Mandrell took George to the Fenton Music Store in Mount Vernon, Illinois, where a fire-red Rickenbacker 425 guitar caught George's eye. He wanted it to be refinished in black and purchased the guitar which he later used when recording "I Want to Hold Your Hand." The guitar was later sold in an auction in 2014 for $657,000.
Throughout his trip, Louise, as any great sister would, promoted the Beatles' music all over town. She landed George an interview on one of the local radio shows where they also played a couple of Beatles songs. She also set up an interview with the Benton Community High School newspaper, Echo, where the interviewer wrote a story on George as a favor to Louise. How crazy to interview someone from one of the world's most iconic bands, and not even realize it.
A Once in a Lifetime Performance
Two days before heading back to England, George needed a tie for an upcoming show that the Four Vests were performing at Post 3479 VFW Hall in Eldorado. He stopped in at Edwards’ Men’s Clothing store with Louise where he bought a striped necktie.
Later that night during the show, the band asked George to join them on stage. After some hesitation, he picked up a guitar and joined them in singing Hank Williams' “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” and Carl Perkins’ “Matchbox,” which the Beatles later covered.
You Just Never Know
It wasn't until the Beatles performed on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1964 the people of Benton learned that George Harrison was the guitarist of the famed band. With that show, the Beatles became popular in the U.S., leaving Louise to hire high school girls to sort through all of the fan mail George received.
It just goes to show you never who you may run into.
The city of Benton commemorated George's visit with a mural located along Interstate-57. The mural, which is 16 feet tall, was pointed by Californian artist John Cerney.
To celebrate the 60th anniversary of Harrison's visit to Illinois, the Rend Lake Water Festival (which is celebrating its 50th anniversary) will be honoring the late Beatle.
The 2023 Rend Lake Water Festival theme "A Tribute to George Harrison” will celebrate the 60th Anniversary of George Harrison's visit to Benton. This was the first time a Beatle visited the US!
This Tribute to George Harrison will start downtown Benton with the Carnival Midway rides, games, and fair food. The Talent Contest will be on Wednesday and on Thursday will be an Art Contest/Show and a t-shirt tie-dye event. On Friday, bring the lawn chairs to sit back and enjoy the free Gluten Three concert as they cover the Beatles. Robert (Bob) Bartel director of the movie/documentary "A Beatle in Benton" will give a presentation on George Harrison and his historic visit to Benton. Saturday will be the parade, vendor fair, Volkswagen Beetle Car Show and of course the Carnival Midway all week long. For more information, check the website. All at the 2023 Rend Lake Water Festival at Benton just 5 miles south of beautiful Rend Lake in Southern Illinois. Come to where the fun begins! -enjoyingillinois.com
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