BENTON, Ill. – Nearly six decades have passed since The Beatles first stepped foot in America, but one of their own enjoyed a sneak peek of the states months before his close comrades. That included a brief, yet monumental trip to southern Illinois.
In 1963, The Beatles released their first two studio albums and several chart-topping singles to critical acclaim, and it was only a matter of time until they ventured full force to the United States. The Beatles agreed to a small break in September in which all four band members planned to travel, recharge, and learn more about life away from their England roots.
Lead guitarist George Harrison ended up in southern Illinois for several days. Archives from BeatlesBible.com note that he flew into New York and caught a connecting flight to St. Louis before a roughly hour-and-a-half car ride to southern Illinois.
At the time, Harrison’s sister, Louise, had recently moved to Benton, Illinois, with her husband, Gordon Caldwell. He was a passionate engineer and found opportunities within Illinois’ coal mining industry.
Once settled, Louise encouraged local radio stations to play 45s of Beatles songs that her family sent from Liverpool, according to an in-depth report from the Smithsonian Magazine. When George came into town, she stepped up her efforts even more. The two visited local radio station WFRX with a copy of “She Loves You.” The station played the overseas hit and even interviewed George about his music experience, though “She Loves You” didn’t immediately soar in popularity in the states.
Later during his trip, Harrison visited a local music shop (Fenton’s Music Store) in nearby Mt. Vernon, Illinois. He bought a Rickenbacker guitar for $400 at the time, which would be valued around $4,000 in present day over inflation-based costs. According to the Chicago Tribune, the guitar made appearances in many TV programs featuring the Beatles and fetched around $650,000 during an auction in 2014.
Near the end of his trip, Harrison paid a visit to Eldorado, Illinois. With help from his sister, he connected with a rockabilly band known as The Four Vests. The group was scheduled for a performance at a local VFW Hall on Sept. 28, 1963. To make the most of the experience, they invited Harrison to sit in for a few songs.
According to a plaque outside the VFW Hall, which was unveiled in 2021, The Four Vests introduced Harrison as “The Elvis of England” and he jammed to several popular US rock songs, including “Johnny Be Good,” “Your Cheating Heart” and “Teddy Bear.” Though not thoroughly documented at the time, Harrison’s performance was significant because it was the first time a member of The Beatles ended up playing in America.
The experience paved the way for a promising future in the United States. It’s estimated that the Beatles have sold more than 600 million records worldwide, including roughly 180 million certified units in the United States, making them one of the best-selling musical bands in history.
A mural along Interstate 57 in Benton, Illinois, celebrates George Harrison’s achievements and the story of his first time in America. A few YouTube creators, including The History Guy and HistoricallyMarked have further documented his trip in southern Illinois.
Nearly half a year after Harrison’s trip, on Feb. 7, 1964, The Beatles arrived to America. They played their only show in St. Louis on Aug. 21, 1966 during heavy rain, one of their final performances in the United States as a whole.