Frizzi: I Meet a Beatle! (by Charles Hawtrey and the Deaf Aids)

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SMG Rickenbacker 425
FRIZZI-PBEST

On September 21, the state of Illinois will dedicate a plaque in the town of Benton. The plaque commemorates the 50th anniversary of its own British Invasion. Gov. Pat Quinn has proclaimed that Saturday, "George Harrison Day".

Usually, such plaques commemorate a battle or skirmish involving, say, British troops and either the French or the revolutionaries, depending on what war was being fought at the time.

The particular plaque will commemorate the visit of one George Harrison of The Beatles.

Harrison played lead guitar for what is considered the most influential group in music history. He also had a successful solo career until his death in 2001. Both with The Beatles and single strength, Harrison wrote such classics as "Here Comes the Sun", "Something", "Taxman", "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" and "My Sweet Lord". He composed some of the most beautiful spiritual songs ever written. Harrison was also a film producer, with movies such as "Monty Python's Life of Brian" and "Time Bandits".

Harrison was ranked the 11th best guitarist in Rolling Stone's 100 Greatest Guitarist list. He is also credited with introducing Eastern music, most notably that of sitar virtuoso Ravi Shankar, to the Western world.

A half century ago, Harrison and his older brother Peter, came to Benton to visit their sister, Louise. She and her husband, Gordon Caldwell, a coal mining engineer, had recently moved to Benton from Canada. The Beatles, very popular in their home country of Great Britain, were unknown in the U.S. at that time. That would all change when they made their historic appearance on Ed Sullivan's immensely popular variety show in February of 1964.

Louise, who called herself "Lou", took a copy of The Beatles' single, "From Me To You", to local radio station WFRX and asked that they play it on the air. Marcia Rauback, a high school junior and daughter of the station owner, had a Saturday morning radio show. Marcia played the song repeatedly, replacing a cover of the same song by Del Shannon. That was the first time that a Beatle song was played over American airways.

Harrison, just 20 years old at the time, became friendly with the townspeople. Like his sister, he found them to be extremely kind and hospitable.

Lou's home was just a few blocks away from the town square. Located at the square was the Barton and Collins furniture store, which was the only place in the area that sold records. At one point, George stopped in the "B&C" and purchased about 30 albums. Most were rock and roll, some were country and western.

Harrison became friends with Gabe McCarty who had a local band known as The Four Vests. He was especially impressed with the playing of the lead guitarist, Kenny Welch, who had once played at the Grand Ol' Opry in Nashville. While watching the band at the VFW Local 3479 in nearby Eldorado, Harrison was invited to sit in with the Vests during the third set. It was the first time a Beatle performed in America. George would later joke that after the set, someone told him "With the right kind of direction, you could really go places." Gabe and George became good friends. Gabe even drove Harrison to a music store in nearby Mt. Vernon, where George treated himself to a black Rickenbacker guitar.

Fast forwarding about 30-plus years, Lou and her husband had long since moved from the house. They only lived there for seven years. A local Beatle enthusiast, Bob Bartel, found it and the house next door vacant, but with no "For Sale" or "For Rent" signs visible.

In his DVD, "A Beatle in Benton" (2004 Dean Williams Productions), Bartel said he discovered that both houses were purchased by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources – Office of Mines and Minerals. Both homes were to be torn down for a parking lot for state owned vehicles.

This prompted Bartel to start a grassroots campaign to save the house. He contacted the powers that be in Springfield. The story made the international papers. Louise Harrison was eventually contacted asking her about why the state of Illinois was tearing down her old home. She had no idea. According to her interview on the DVD, she thought someone had found a body inside.

Lou thought it was silly to save the home just because her now famous brother had stayed there for two weeks. But she remembered the kindness and generosity of the people of Benton when she and her husband moved there from Canada. So, she decided to help Bartel save the house.

On Feb. 4, 1995, State Senator Jim Ray, with Lou at his side, announced from the porch of the house that Office of Mines and Minerals provided a 30-day window to save the house or move it to a new location. Next door, in a vacant lot, heavy machinery was parked so close to the house that the operator could see into the bathroom window. A group purchased the house and turned it into "The Hard Days Nite" Bed and Breakfast.

In 2008, while surfing the web, I found that Benton would be having a George Harrison festival. It would be on Saturday night on Oct. 4 at the Benton High School East Gym. The special guest would be The Pete Best Band.

Pete Best? I told my wife, Heddy, that we had to go see him since Pete Best used to be a Beatle.

When The Beatles were just starting out, they did not have a permanent drummer. Needing one for their gig in Hamburg, W. Germany, Paul McCartney recruited Best. Best was described as "mean, moody and marvelous" and was very popular with the girls, another reason McCartney sought him out. Best's presence would attract more girls to the group.

One of the blemishes in the Beatles' history was the way they replaced Best with Ringo Starr. The story was that Parlophone Records producer George Martin thought that Best's drumming, while adequate for a club, was substandard for recording. When Martin approached The Beatles about a new drummer, he learned they had thought of replacing Best anyway. Allegedly, they were jealous that Pete was obviously the favorite of the female fans. Also, while The Beatles were sporting their new hair styles, Best continued with his pompadour. The reason was that his hair was naturally curly and Best felt that he couldn't pull off the look. Best also tended to keep to himself and did not associate much with the group off stage.

When Best was sacked, the girls were passionately upset. Many went to Beatle shows with protest signs saying "Pete Forever! Ringo Never!"

Benton is a small coal mining town of just over 7,000 people. It's in southern Illinois, sitting between St. Louis and Evansville, Ind. Benton is the county seat of Franklin County. It's roughly 33 miles northeast of Carbondale, home of Southern Illinois University. From Peoria, it's about a four hour drive.

Heddy and I even made a detour into downtown Mt. Vernon to find the music store where Gabe McCarty had taken George to buy his black Rickenbacker. It had since morphed into an auto parts store, much in the way that Sun Records in Memphis had before it was reopened as a studio/museum.

We drove around the town square and then went to see if we could find the high school gym. The gym was just a few blocks east. Across the street from the gym, at 113 McCann Street, sat Lou Harrison's house. It was a bright yellow bungalow with green trim. A union jack flew from the front porch. There was a sign in front marking it as "A Hard Day's Nite Bed and Breakfast". A zebra striped crosswalk, like the one shown on the album cover of "Abbey Road", led you across the street and to the house, which was closed. The group that had bought the house and saved it from demolition by the state were interested in selling the place.

The concert had the feeling of a sock hop. The back-up bands were on stage playing Beatle tunes. The bleachers were pulled out from the wall. The basketball goals had been raised. Somebody came dressed as George from his Abbey Road days and a Paul McCartney impersonator was dancing alone, high above the floor in the bleachers. The gym was far from full capacity.

Out came the drummer of "The Four Vests" to jam with the local group on stage. The group was a bit ragged sounding but improved greatly when the Vests' drummer joined them.

When The Pete Best Band played, I tried to imagine what kind of ride this man had been on. He was a member of one of the most exclusive clubs in history. He was fired just before the band took off, missing out on fame and money. He had become a working class hero like the rest of us. Best was better prepared for it than the others, being the only Beatle who had passed his "O-Level" (Ordinary Level) tests in high school. He had also been married to his wife, who he met while working at a bakery, for over 50 years. Reportedly, he had no regrets.

Best was a handsome 67 year old guy with salt and pepper hair and mustache. He was one of two drummers in The Pete Best Band and didn't sing. His band mates were younger and extremely tight as well. Their repertoire consisted of classic 50s and early 60s rock and roll. They played no Beatles music.

At that time, a man came up to the top of the bleachers where Heddy and I were sitting. He carried a snare drum case and drumsticks. I recognized him as the drummer of The Four Vests. I don't recall his name. I tried to get it from Bob Bartel's DVD. I believe his name was Vernie Boland. He looked like he could be a Vernie, so I'll call him that.

Vernie seemed a very friendly fellow by the way he was talking to his friends. As he was sitting next to me, I waited for the chance to speak with him.

I told Vernie that he sounded pretty good and he thanked me. I also told him that he really helped the local band sound much better. Modestly, he smiled. "I think their drummer was throwing them off. A band has to have a good drummer."

Then, I asked Vernie, "George Harrison. What was he like?" Again, Vernie smiled and said, "Well... he was different. But a very nice guy. We really liked him."

"Did you like his guitar playing?"

"Oh yes! He was a very good guitarist. He could play. He knew what he was doing, even then."

It was certainly my pleasure to have met Vernie and for him to give me a bit of his time. Lou Harrison was right. The people of Benton were very friendly.

At the end of the show, Pete Best and his band were available to sign autographs. They would only sign items that they were selling. That was OK with me. The man has to make a living.

I bought an 8.5 x 11 glossy copy of a picture of the very early Beatles, all in leather jackets, none of which smiled. Pete Best looked even more sullen as he sat behind his drum set. The older version of Pete would then autograph the plain white bass drum head (there was no "The Beatles" logo yet).

When it was my turn to meet Pete, he looked at me and acted somewhat startled. It took me back a bit. Then, I thought to myself, "Hmmm. I'm a big buy with a big belly, glasses and a double chin."

"My God! I probably remind the poor guy of Mark David Chapman!" Chapman, just two years older than me, is still serving a life sentence for murdering Best's former band mate, John Lennon in December, 1980.

I told Pete that his band sounded good and tight. His band heard this and broke out laughing. "Yeah! ", said one, "We're always good and tight before we go on stage." I had meant that they played in sync with each other. They thought I had meant they were playing drunk.

I thanked Pete for his time and shook his hand. I was now, henceforth, "Beatlified".

Saturday's dedication will involve music, film and a return visit from Lou Harrison. We had seen Lou years ago in Peoria when she appeared with the Beatle tribute band, "American English". The band played at a free concert sponsored by CEFCU at the old Lakeview Museum. Heddy and I got there very early to get a good seat on the lawn. It was early enough to see Lou walking with the person who played "George". He was dressed as George on the Abbey Road cover. Both looked up and we waved hello to each other. Then, we went downstairs to the auditorium where the pair was enjoying some fried chicken.

Today, Lou's house in Benton is back to being a private residence. It has been repainted a dark green from the yellow of the bed and breakfast.

On December 8, 2001, roughly a month after George passed, the city of Benton held a memorial service. Louise Harrison attended as did The Four Vests. Lou announced that in 2013, the State of Illinois would mark the 50th anniversary of George's visit with a historical marker. Lou spoke about how her daughter had mentioned that, with the world still shaking from the 9-11 attacks just three months prior, news coverage took a break from the horror and was now reporting about a person who had advocated love and peace. It was at this commemoration where Louise Harrison made the following speech:

"I started looking at historical markers throughout the country. As I was traveling back and forth, I realized that most historical markers that are out there, in this country and many others, are commemorating where one bunch of people slaughtered another bunch of people. And with a touch of whimsy, I thought to myself, maybe humanity is evolving to a point where we now have become sufficiently civilized. Instead of always commemorating violence and bloodshed, we now can commemorate a very, very kind, decent and loving young man who gave the world only love and kindness and some beautiful music."

About the Author
Donn Frizzi is a well-traveled man, if you consider Pennsylvania to southern Indiana to Texas and finally Peoria to be the definition of well traveled. But in each of his stops he gained certain insights that make him who he is — including a Pirates and Rangers fan who must travel to St. Louis to watch quality baseball without buying a plane ticket. Poetic justice, perhaps? A talented writer, Donn also can make a good point by putting pencil to paper and drawing with satirical splendor. We’re hoping to persuade him to grace our website with an occasional toon, as well.