If it weren't for coal, you would not be reading this. If it weren't for coal, a British wife, her Scottish husband and their two young children never would have left their home in Inverness, Scotland, in 1956 and taken a journey that led them to Canada, Peru and finally to Benton, Illinois, where they landed in September 1963.
The husband was an engineer in the mining business. The wife was George Harrison's sister.
Louise Harrison — the only Beatle sister — stayed in the Midwest for much of the last five decades, primarily in Illinois and Missouri. In that time her life was not marked by anything out of the ordinary. Divorce, various jobs, moves to small towns and big cities, birth, death, good moments and bad moments. Yet there was and always will be that one thing that makes her anything but ordinary, that blood link to a man who is revered throughout the world, a brother whose fame transcends fame itself.
It's hard to imagine being in her shoes. Do you take advantage of the name, or try and disassociate from it? Eldest sibling Louise, 83, and family baby George bookend the four Harrison offspring; in between were Harry and the late Peter Harrison, who died of cancer in 2007. The brothers — who both worked for George as groundskeepers after he purchased a massive, Downton Abbey-like estate in England in 1974 — shunned the spotlight completely.
Louise, not so much.
Back in '63 she promoted the Beatles to any media outlet in the Benton area that would listen; bear in mind the group was unknown in the United States at the time. She petitioned radio and TV stations, sent letters, made calls, wrote Beatles manager Brian Epstein lengthy letters advising how to break the band into America. (Epstein refused to make Louise an official band rep). In '64 and '65 she wrote and broadcast "daily Beatle reports nationwide."
Since those heady days, she has given countless interviews, spoken to "her global family of Beatle people" at numerous functions around the world, and, for the past ten years, managed Liverpool Legends, a Branson-based Beatles tribute band.
Now after spending most of 50 years in the Midwest, Harrison set off this past December for California, leaving behind two properties she still owns in Missouri and enough memories to fill a 354-page book. Louise Harrison's autobiography, My Kid Brother's Band a.k.a. The Beatles!, came out last year from Acclaim Press and tells the story of her early life in Liverpool, her subsequent move to America, and ups and downs as a mother with two alcoholic husbands. All of it centers on how her life has been intertwined with her brother George's.
"It was the guy who plays my brother in Liverpool Legends who urged me to do it," Harrison says of the memoir. "I was not at all interested, but he said, 'All that stuff you did in 1963, helping Brian to know what to do to get the Beatles started over here, that's all kind of important, and nobody knows about it.' I said I wasn't doing it for publicity, I was doing it to help my kid brother."
The guy who plays her kid brother — a surreal idea at that — is Marty Scott, a man Harrison says has "filled the space that George left in my life in many, many ways."
"I think she was grieving a bit when I met her," says Scott of their 2001 introduction shortly after George died. "It might have given her something to hold onto a bit, but we've gone so far past that. I've probably spent more time with her than George did."
That's no exaggeration, given two facts: Harrison has worked with Scott for fifteen years, and she left Liverpool when her brother was twelve. The next time she saw George, he was twenty and she 32, living in a 1930s bungalow at 113 McCann Street in Benton, behind Benton Consolidated High School, just off Main Street.
So. It's late September, 1963. The Beatles are on fire throughout the UK and Europe, topping the charts with the singles "Love Me Do," "Please Please Me," "From Me to You" and "She Loves You," which had reached the No. 1 slot earlier in the month. (It had been released in the U.S. but failed to chart.) With the break, George planned a trip to visit his older sister, initially with Ringo, who, after learning that Louise had arranged a local TV appearance, begged off, saying, "If she's going to make us work, I'm not going."
And so it was that George Harrison, along with brother Peter, stepped off a plane at Lambert Field in St. Louis and became the first Beatle to set foot on American soil.
And no one cared.
There were no throngs of screaming, frenzied young girls, no gang of reporters, no legions of police, no limo. Instead, there was a twenty-year-old British traveler with a strange haircut holding his bags, standing at his designated meeting spot beneath a replica of Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis, waiting for his ride.
Five short months later he would step off of another airplane at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport and enter the national zeitgeist, where he has remained.
Louise, then-husband Gordon and their son and daughter brought their foreign uncles back to the house in Benton where "our German shepherd Sheba greeted him," which George loved, says Harrison. "We could never afford a pet when we were growing up. In Benton we had a five-bedroom house, and one bedroom was made into a playroom and they had train sets. When George grew up we never had any toys like that, so he and Pete spent hours playing with the kids."
In 1963, Benton was — as it is today — a tiny berg of a few thousand people in Southern Illinois. Its notable residents have included TV game-show host Gene Rayburn, legendary thoroughbred trainer Noble Threewitt and Oscar-nominated actor John Malkovich. (In '63, nine-year-old Malkovich lived not far away on South Main Street. His mother owned the Benton Evening News.) When you look up Benton history on the city's website, the 373 words on the page reveal but two highlights: The last public hanging in Illinois took place there in 1928 — "local gangster Charles Birger," for the record — and, yes, "George Harrison of The Beatles visited Benton while on vacation."
It's a small American town, and the then-nameless Beatle quite happily did what one does on vacation in a small American town. Which, for a raw lad from the north of England who grew up without indoor toilets, were simple, previously unknown delights. According to Louise, they went to the A&W where George gawked at the waitresses on roller skates. They went to the drive-in (his first) out on Route 37. They went shopping in the town square where George bought records and lost his wallet. (A teenager returned it.) They purchased T-bone steaks to barbecue, a grand novelty to the Liverpudlian.
"And we went camping and toasted wieners and marshmallows, which was completely new to him, at a place called Garden of the Gods," adds Harrison. "But I don't think George was ever a fish out of water. He was a Pisces, you know."
The after-dark thrills weren't confined to wieners and marshmallows, however. Louise, the self-appointed, ever-networking queen of Beatles promo, hooked her brother up with the hottest band in Southern Illinois, the Four Vests, a move that resulted in another historic moment: He was the first Beatle to play onstage in America. Down the road in West Frankfort. At VFW Post 3479.
Gabe McCarty was the Vests' bassist, playing a '59 Fender Precision he still owns. Now 81, the lifelong Bentonite, who was a sheet-metal worker for 52 years, recalls how it all went down.
"She called me on the phone, said her brother was coming over from England. She'd heard that I had the best band around, so she wanted to know if I wanted to meet him," says McCarty with the flat, measured tone of a man describing a rebuilt carburetor. "I said yeah." How Louise got his number remains a mystery. "I don't know. I guess she asked around. Back then, it was easy to get your phone number."
Louise had played the Beatles' first UK album for McCarty, who thought it was "really different." Meaning he liked it. And he liked George, too. "He was really well-mannered. He had that long hair, it was unusual. Nobody else had hair like that. But he had a real nice disposition," says McCarty. The bassist invited the Beatle to the Four Vests' show that weekend at the VFW in nearby Eldorado, where — for a handful of songs, anyway — Harrison became the fifth Vest.
"I introduced him, and he got up and did a couple numbers," says McCarty. "We did 'Roll Over Beethoven,' then he wanted to do a Hank Williams song. Can you imagine that?"
"It really was amazing," recalls Louise of that long-ago night, the first time she had ever seen her brother perform. "When George started to sing and play, it was like a lightning flash had gone through the room. People were yelling and applauding."
McCarty backs up the story.
"They were all really pleased with him. One guy told me, 'Oh, you oughta hire that guy if he's trying out with you.'"
Would he have hired the guy? "Oh, yeah."
A few nights later, Harrison — clad in a dark suit, white shirt and no tie — took the stage yet again with the Vests, this time for a birthday party at the Bocce Ball Club in Benton. There he played "most of that job 'cause Kenny [Welch, the Vests' lead guitarist] just let him play, an hour, hour and a half. It went down pretty good, we had a good time that night. People wanted to know who he was, I told 'em he was from England, told 'em the story."
Interestingly, Harrison — a decade younger than the Vests — had enough material in common with the band to fill 90 minutes onstage. And nary a Beatles tune was played.
Speaking of Beatles tunes, McCarty trots out another memory that should have any dedicated Beatles fan salivating: the lost Harrison songs.
"We was at his sister's house, just pickin' around a little bit, and George asks if I ever wrote any songs, and I says no, I never did try. He says wait a minute. He run upstairs and come down with a leather bag and he has about sixteen handwritten songs, some chords and lyrics, that they had never recorded."
Who wrote these?
"I think he wrote all those," says McCarty flatly. "And he said, 'If this'll help you, you can take these and use 'em.' I said OK. He gave me an album, a long-play album the Beatles did, and I stuck 'em all in there, in the cover."
Assuming McCarty's memory is correct, he's talking about original Beatles songs that are apparently not even a footnote in Beatles lore. Remember that in the band's early years, John Lennon and Paul McCartney — who were cranking out hits at an astonishing rate — essentially wanted nothing to do with George's tunes. On the group's first UK album, Please Please Me, the lead guitarist's writing was nonexistent. He was only allowed to sing two lead vocals: "Chains," a Goffin-King number, and Lennon's "Do You Want to Know a Secret."
It's a romantically plausible notion that George was carrying around his rejected tunes and handed them over to McCarty as a goodwill gesture, or at least in the hope that someone might use them, especially a band in America. But what happened to them?
"I had a fire in my trailer," says McCarty, "about a year or so later. They were in there. Burned up every damn thing I had."
Getting onstage with the Four Vests wasn't Harrison's only public exposure during his two weeks in Benton. Marcia Schafer Raubach was a senior in high school and host of the Saturday Session show on WFRX (1300 AM) in West Frankfort where her father was station manager.
Thanks to Louise's Beatle pushing, Raubach — who played hits of the day from Elvis to Sinatra to early Motown — landed a small spot in Beatles history.
"She walked in the station one day," Raubach recalls of her introduction to Louise. "I didn't really think a whole lot about it. This gal was the sister of someone in England. She said he was in the biggest group in England, but we'd never heard of them, so I was not really impressed. But I did take the record. She gave me 'From Me to You.'"
Raubach began airing the single that summer, making her arguably the first DJ in the country to spin the Beatles.
"She told me that George was coming to the States in September, and he'd like to meet me," says Raubach, "so that's when she brought him to the station." Clad in a white shirt, jeans and sandals minus socks, future ladykiller Harrison impressed the teenager. Sort of.
"He didn't look like the guys here," she recalls. "The boys over here had the DA's and the turned-up collars and smoked cigarettes; that wasn't George. He was very clean cut and very polite. I think George became better looking as he got older, as he matured. But he was a cute little guy." Her live interview with the Beatle was not recorded and only a few minutes long. Of that, Raubach says, "he didn't want to talk about himself, he wanted to talk about the band."
During his last week in Benton, Gabe McCarty took Harrison a half hour down I-57 to Fenton Music Store in Mt. Vernon, Illinois, where Red Fenton sold him a red Rickenbacker guitar, model 420. George wanted it black to match Lennon's guitar, so Fenton had it painted.
"I couldn't believe he wanted to do that," says McCarty, still chagrined. "It was a beautiful guitar."
And then George Harrison left town, never to return. In February of the next year, when the Beatles became the Beatles in the States, Louise traveled to New York to see the group on The Ed Sullivan Show. She met the rest of the band for the first time — "I just felt I had three more brothers" — and found herself tending to an ill George.
"He'd invited me to come up and spend the time with him, and then it turned out he had a strep throat and a 104-degree temperature when I got there," she recalls. During the band's historic performance, when 73 million Americans watched on television and 700 lucky audience members went berserk, there was one person who was not slack-jawed or screaming, one person who had other concerns.
"I spent most of my time sitting there trying to will my energy into my brother to make sure he could keep standing up through the show," explains Harrison. "That was my entire consciousness, trying to connect his energy with mine. His temperature was still 102."
But surely she must have felt something extraordinary at this life-changing moment, this defining night in social history, witnessing her kid brother's rise from the streets of Liverpool to the glorious heights of the Sullivan stage?
"I'm British," Harrison replies. "We don't get excited. We just stay calm and carry on."
Since that night 51 years ago at the Ed Sullivan Theater, Louise Harrison has indeed carried on. It hasn't always been easy, as she details in her new book. Divorced, she moved to Florida in 1970 to pursue her interest in environmental issues, starting a nonprofit and various related projects that evaporated due to funding problems. She remarried and divorced again. By the early '90s, she was living a few miles from Benton in rural Franklin County — surviving largely on a monthly $2,000 stipend from her brother granted in 1980 — when plans were announced to demolish her onetime home on McCann Street, the place where an actual Beatle once rested his head, to create a parking lot. Local friends of Harrison rallied successfully to preserve the site of the virtually unknown Beatle visit, ultimately launching the Hard Day's Nite Bed & Breakfast.
"I was roped in to try and promote the bed and breakfast," Harrison says warily. "People magazine did an article and wrote that it was Louise Harrison's bed and breakfast, and it never was my B&B. The last thing I want to be doing is changing people's bed linens."
News of the project reached George, who allegedly was not happy about it, creating a rift that lasted until a deathbed reconciliation.
Harrison says she wasn't aware of the problem, and says she had trouble reaching her brother.
"Earlier on he used to call me when he changed [his phone number], but during his second marriage, he stopped calling to give me his latest number. I don't really remember...all I can say really is I never tried to exploit the Beatles."
And that two grand a month? It was stopped a year after her brother died of cancer in 2001.
"After I'd been married twice and both husbands had problems with alcohol, my brother said to me, 'Don't go getting married again. There's no reason, given my circumstances, that my sister should have any kind of hardship.' He agreed to give me a $2,000 a month pension. After he died, that was canceled," Harrison says.
As to why, it's a she-said-she-said mystery.
"Louise was good friends with George's first wife, and when he married his second wife...she and Louise basically hate each other," offers Marty "Beatle George" Scott. "That's about all I know. I think it's a woman thing."
"I have enough abilities that I can earn a living," states Harrison, who was left out of her multimillionaire brother's will, "so don't worry about that. Obviously somebody needed the $2,000 a month more than I did. It's only money. As far as I'm concerned, I'm wealthy, because I have really good friends."
These days Harrison's earning abilities stem from managing Liverpool Legends, the tribute band that brought her to Branson. The partnership began after a Fab Four-related encounter with Scott.
"I was performing at a Beatles convention with my old band in Chicago, and she was a guest speaker," he explains. "I'm the George guy, and of course I'm freaking out when I heard she was there. I was like, 'Oh, man. George's sister. I hope I don't suck!'"
The pair hit it off and decided to put together "something really special," Scott continues. "There's a lot of Beatles bands out there, some good ones and not-so-good ones."
On the Beatles tribute circuit, Liverpool Legends is reportedly a very good one, and certainly the only one sanctioned by a member of the Beatles family.
"The first year we started the band we toured all over the place," says Harrison. "Then someone called and asked if we'd do a few gigs in Branson, and then a theater owner asked if we wanted to play from January to December or something, and that's a lot easier than touring."
Harrison takes the stage for Q&A sessions and narrates video segments during shows. "The economy has gotten worse, so last year we had to rent the theater ourselves."
Her role as manager is nontraditional, explains Scott.
"Honestly, she's not really a manager per se, she's never really been a business manager, but Louise helped me from day one with pretty much everything. She's a media person. What she's done since the early '60s is deal with the press. With us she's been very hands-on, she's helped us load the truck at times. She'll get done with a TV interview, and she'll be sewing the buttons on our jackets."
A theme in Louise Harrison's life seems to be helping others. A few years ago she and the band initiated Help Keep Music Alive, "a nonprofit program where we go to schools and give a free concert, and have the school's bands and choirs play with us," Harrison explains. "I promote the show and hopefully sell an auditorium full of tickets, and then give a nice chunk of money to the music departments."
"We've been trying to get more funding, and it's growing," says Scott. "We have people on the West Coast who were interested in helping, so Louise is out there networking."
So this is where George Harrison's sister has arrived in her journey that began with following a man following coal — all the while maneuvering through life with the strange, wonderful and frustrating baggage of being George Harrison's sister.
"She's always been in a totally unique position," says Scott, who remains impressed by Harrison's vigor after all these years. "She's hanging out with a bunch of rock & rollers. She probably should be home knitting sweaters or something, but she'd rather be going to gigs."
One wonders, though: Can the Midwest expect its Beatles connection to return to the region she's called home all these years? Don't rule it out entirely. Says Harrison of her recent move to Southern California: "It's as permanent as anything can be when you're 83."
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