TERRE HAUTE —
We’re pretty smart here in middle America.
Our DNA carries the common-sense chromosome. From birth, Midwestern culture begins honing us into the most rational and perceptive of human beings. Sure, our prisons are full, but generally, we mean well. And we’re wise.
With maybe one exception, back in 1963. Some grownups in the heartland got a sneak preview of The Beatles a year before 73 million other Americans met the Fab Four — 50 years ago today on the “Ed Sullivan Show.” Midwesterners heard those twentysomething foreigners first and weren’t impressed.
On a 2006 visit to Terre Haute, Louise Harrison recalled the shrug The Beatles’ sound received when she took the earliest recordings by her “kid brother’s band” from Liverpool, England, to radio stations in Illinois and elsewhere in 1963. Louise moved from the UK to the USA that year, when her husband’s coal mining job shifted to the southern Illinois town of Benton. Her sibling, George, 11 years younger, played lead guitar for The Beatles back in Britain.
Louise tried to get Americans to listen. Unfortunately, programming directors at the stations were mostly male, and responded to her pleas with condescension and chauvinism.
“They said, ‘You should go home and take care of your husband and stop worrying about your kid brother’s band. Nobody’s ever going to listen to that,’” Louise remembered in a presentation to captivated students and faculty at Sarah Scott Middle School eight years ago. Her quip drew chuckles from the adults in the school gym.
Louise went to Sarah Scott at the invitation of former principal Mark Miller, who well understood her connection to history. He told the youngsters, “I don’t know if you realize what we’ve got here, but for people my age, this is like having the president’s sister here.” With all due respect to Miller — a friend and my former freshman baseball coach — meeting Louise was better than meeting any president’s sister. There have been 45 presidents. There were only four Beatles.
I guess Miller’s analogy could apply. For Lincoln aficionados, this was like meeting Abe’s sister. It was surreal and amazing.
Louise came to tell their story and promote the Liverpool Legends, a tribute band based in Branson, Mo., and I had the chance to talk at length with her. At 74, she spoke with enthusiasm that sparkled in her sharp blue eyes. Her bright smile and Livepudlian accent conjured images of her late brother, who died of lung cancer in 2001. She brought photos of herself, roaming backstage at the Ed Sullivan Theater in New York on the night George and his mates debuted in America.
Like billions elsewhere, I’ve enjoyed their music since buying my first 45 — “Hello, Goodbye” — at the Terre Haute Kmart at 25th and Wabash. I was 7 years old, and decades later, I can still visualize standing in the checkout line with my folks, reading the record’s label and smelling the onions from the submarine sandwiches the store sold near its entrance. Beatles memories are like that — they stick.
That’s why so many people will recount their whereabouts on Feb. 9, 1964, when the foursome burst onto TV screens from Boston to Albuquerque. Just 3 then, I was too young to maintain a clear memory of it, but I’m sure our family — like 40 percent of the U.S. population — watched Ed’s “really big shoo” that night. Households didn’t have a flat-screen in every room of the house in those days. They had one television set. The whole family watched the same program, like it or not.
On Feb. 9, 1964, most Americans — especially the younger ones — liked what they heard and saw.
A youthful mind tends to be more open, thank goodness, and not every radio station turned down The Beatles when Louise showed up with their single, “From Me To You” in the summer of 1963, eight months before the “Ed Sullivan Show.” The documentary, “A Beatle in Benton,” detailed George Harrison’s trip to southern Illinois in September 1963 to visit Louise (and check out the United States). George stayed 18 days, played with a local combo at the Benton VFW, wowing the crowd, stunned by “the Elvis of England,” as he was introduced.
A few months earlier, as Louise trekked from town to town, trying to get a DJ to play “From Me To You,” she made a stop at a station in West Frankfort, Ill. A young female DJ, high-schooler Marcia Raubach, played the record on WFRX-AM, according to the documentary and a story in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. When George came to scope out America that September, he and his big sister dropped in at WFRX, and the station aired the single, “She Loves You.”
A teenager in small-town Illinois gave The Beatles their first exposure in America before Ed Sullivan.
For all those stations who told Louise “no,” a high-schooler said yeah, yeah, yeah. Kids can be wise.
Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or firstname.lastname@example.org.