George Harrison made a secret trip to the US incognito five months before Beatlemania crossed the pond, his estranged sister has revealed. The music legend slipped into the country in September 1963 without fanfare, travelled the Midwest and played with a local band. It was the last time that the Beatle, who would have celebrated his 75th birthday on February 25, felt ‘like a normal human being’, said 86-year-old Louise Harrison.
Louise, who moved to the US more than 50 years ago, says her brother’s visit when he was 20 years old was very different to the lifestyle he would later have.
‘It was probably the last time in his life that George could ever go anywhere without being recognised and mobbed by fans, the last time he could feel like a normal human being,’ she said. ‘When he got off the plane in St Louis there wasn’t a single fan waiting.’Nobody tore at his clothes or screamed for his autograph. No squads of police, no gangs of reporters. It was such a relief for him. ‘In the middle of all that craziness George enjoyed a holiday in the US where he could feel human again.’
Louise had moved to America with her husband earlier that year and was living in Benton, Illinois, when her little brother, 11 years her junior, came to visit.
‘George and I went camping out in the wilds, barbecued sausages and roasted marshmallows,’ she said.
‘He was happy roughing it. He was always very down-to-earth. He spent hours playing with my kids and their train set. When George grew up we never had any toys like that.
‘We went to Saturday night dances at the Veterans’ Hall, drinking and having a good time. He loved being just George again rather than a Beatle.’
She took him diners where waitresses served customers on roller-skates, introduced him to drive-ins and went shopping together at record stores.
And when a local band The Four Vests were entertaining at the Veterans’ Hall in Eldorado, Illinois, and heard George was a British musician, they invited him on stage.
They played Roll Over Beethoven and a Hank Williams song together – the first performance by a Beatle in America.
‘The audience suddenly began cheering, shouting, dancing like crazy,’ said Louise.
‘George set the place on fire. Everyone said that he had to join the band but he explained he already had a group in England.’
The legend was invited to play alongside the band the next week at a birthday party in Benton, where he gave a 90-minute performance.
But as soon as Beatlemania hit America five months after the secret trip, things changed dramatically.
‘It was absolutely crazy,’ said Louise, who joined up with The Beatles in New York.
‘Fans were crawling over our limousines wherever we went. Out of the rear window we would see the road strewn with clothes, shoes, bags and fallen fans.
‘George told me, ‘If we’d known what was waiting for us we’d never have got off the plane.’
She added: ‘I met the rest of The Beatles for the first time and it was like having three more brothers.
‘Paul was the group’s best PR, always signing autographs, making fans happy. Jolly old Ringo never had a bad word to say about anyone. John was always commenting on society’s inequalities.
‘George earned a reputation as the quiet Beatle on that trip but he actually had a sore throat and could hardly talk. I spent much of that visit nursing him.’
Louise, who grew up with George in a terraced house in Liverpool with an outside toilet, said he ‘was a loving and compassionate child’. ‘He was born at home and I held him in my arms. His fingernails were fully grown and he had a little tuft of hair and wide eyes. It was love at first sight,’ she recalled.
‘I would often babysit him or take him to movies. Times were tough. My bus driver dad and our mum were always singing but we had no musical instruments and we had no idea George would become a musician.
‘When George first saw Elvis on TV he asked our dad to buy him a guitar. He said, ‘You know that guy on the TV last night? That’s the kind of job I can do.”
Now 17 years after his death, Louise says she and her brother, who remained close throughout their lives, will always have a special bond.
‘He had no fear of dying. He was looking forward to whatever came next,’ she said.
‘We both believed in reincarnation and came up with a secret signal so that we would recognise each other in future lives. ‘I love and miss him but I’m not sad that he’s gone. He was ready to move on and was excited about what life after death had in store.’