Almost 52 years ago, a young housewife in southern Illinois set out on a mission – to help her kid brother’s band make it big in the states. Already a sensation in their native England, the band wanted to conquer America, but they weren’t quite sure how to go about it.
Louise traveled from one radio station to the next, taking along two of the band’s singles. Almost everywhere she went, she was met with the same attitude.
“This stuff’s terrible. Nobody is ever going to listen to it. That’s awful noise they’re making.”
And while they didn’t say it outright, she knew many of the station managers were looking at her and thinking, “And why aren’t you home ironing your husband’s shirts?”
Not to be deterred, Louise subscribed to magazines such as Billboard and Cashbox, poring over them to learn what made American music tick. She hand-wrote long letters to the band’s manager, Brian Epstein, offering him advice from the research she had done. And she often signed her lengthy missives with an optimistic push:
P.S. – Get them on the Ed Sullivan Show.
Those were fateful words for Louise Caldwell, born Louise Harrison in Liverpool, England. Her kid brother George Harrison‘s band would indeed make it big, not only in America, but the world. He, along with band mates John, Paul, and Ringo, would cement their place in history as The Beatles.
Louise, now 83 and living near Branson, Mo., does her part in keeping her brother’s legacy alive through Liverpool Legends. She manages the Beatles tribute band, which will play at the Aztec Theater on Saturday.
The road from Liverpool to Branson is a long and winding one. Louise left England in 1956 with her Scottish husband, a mining engineer. They traveled first to Canada, then to South America, and then back to Canada. Finally, in March 1963, they found themselves in Benton, Ill., about 100 miles southeast of St. Louis.
George was 13 and had yet to pick up a guitar when Louise, 11 years his senior, left home. She herself wasn’t a musician. While she learned to play piano in convent school (“I was forced,”) the experience was a rather painful one.
“You know the nuns are famous for hitting you over the knuckles, so I didn’t enjoy it,” she said.
Louise and her family relied on letters to communicate since transatlantic calls were so expensive at the time. But every once in a while, she would talk with her Mum, who would catch her up on all the family news.
“About a year or so after I left, George started playing guitar,” she related. “I can remember Mum telling me one day that Elvis Presley had been on TV and after (George) had seen Elvis, he came up to her all very bashful and shy and said, ‘Hey, Mum, you think maybe you could get me a guitar?’ and she said, ‘Why do you want a guitar? That’s a lot of money.’ And he said, ‘Well, you know that guy that was on TV the other night? Well, I think that’s the kind of job I could do.’ It was so sweet and so innocent that she started saving up and bought him a secondhand guitar.”
The unsuccessful visits to radio stations didn’t deter Louise, even though it was a frustrating experience. But she wasn’t alone. She knew that Epstein, by his own admission, felt like the failed son in a very wealthy family.
“He had no knowledge of business, and he certainly had no knowledge of business in the United States, so my Mum let me know all that,” Louise said. “I wasn’t making much headway, but I was starting to do some research … and it was so very different (from England), because in England, if you get your records played on the BBC, you’re in. You need nothing else.
“But in this country back then, there were about 6,000 independent private radio stations, and to get national coverage, the only way to do it was to get the backing of one of the three major record companies, which were Columbia, RCA, and Capitol,” she said.
Louise passed the information on to Epstein, telling him it was no use in just walking into a major record company and trying to convince some executive that the band was great. They needed some visibility – a way to get into America’s living rooms.
There was no better vehicle than the Ed Sullivan Show.
“As luck would have it, in October of (1963), Ed Sullivan himself was getting off a plane in London at the same time The Beatles were arriving from some shows they had done in Sweden,”Louise said. “Ed saw the mobs of people and said, ‘What’s going on?’”
When Sullivan found out the commotion was all about The Beatles, he got in touch with Epstein. Thanks to Louise, Epstein knew what a big deal Sullivan was.
“Although there was nothing happening over here, in Europe (The Beatles) were very big, big, big, and Brian was starting to feel very important because everyone was trying to get ahold of him to book the guys, and he had secretaries to field the calls,” Louise explained. “So you know he wouldn’t take calls from just anybody, but when Ed Sullivan called, it was ‘Oh, OK, I’ll talk to him.’ The rest, I suppose, is history.”
Before that chance encounter at the London airport, George became the first one of the Beatles to step on American soil when he and his brother, Peter, came to visit Louise and her family in Benton in September 1963.
“Mostly we went camping in the Shawnee Forest, Rend Lake, Garden of the Gods, all those little places,” she said. “We had a big old orange tent with a divider, and we made it into three rooms. We introduced him to things like roasting wieners and roasting marshmallows, things like that.”
While George was visiting, “She Loves You” was released.
“He got a phone call at my house from Brian saying the song had immediately gone to No. 1,” she said.
Shortly thereafter, the two brothers returned to England, stopping in New York along the way where they saw the play, “Stop the World – I Want to Get Off,” with Anthony Newley.
“After they got back, they did a short tour in Sweden, and it was on their way back (to England) that Ed Sullivan saw them at the London airport,” she said.
The performance on the Ed Sullivan Show in February 1964 was not without its extra drama. George was sick with strep throat and had a fever of 104 degrees. He could barely talk.
“It was the evening they came in from Paris … (and there was) big excitement going on in the hotel,” Louise said. “After a while, George wandered off into his own room, and he had called the hotel doctor. The doctor came up and examined him and (told us), ‘You’ve got one very, very sick man in there. You’re going to have to get him to the hospital.’”
This did not sit well with Brian.
“He very nearly had a heart attack,” she said. “After a big panic, they decided that he would need a nurse, and they said, ‘Well, George’s sister is here,’ and there you go. So I was roped into taking care of him. The doctor gave me a list of everything, all kinds of medications. And he was to get as much sleep as he could.”
Getting some rest would prove to be a challenge.
“There was so much stuff going on, and that creepy guy, what was his name? Oh, yes, Murray the K. Talk about being a cling-on. He just moved in. He actually moved in! We couldn’t get rid of him. There was so much noise going on,” Louise said. “And outside the suite in the corridor, there was a big mob of reporters and DJs. They’re all talking in their big DJ voices, and poor old George can’t get to sleep. All this racket going on, and he said to me, ‘Is there any way you can get rid of those guys?’”
Louise went out into the hallway, determined to get George some much-needed sleep.
“And of course, I couldn’t tell them that somebody was ill, so I said, “Do you guys need to be here?’ They said, ‘Well, we’ve been promoting The Beatles. We’ve been playing their records and talking about them, and we’re not allowed to talk to any of them.’
“Later, I found out that Brian, in his innocence, had made an exclusive arrangement with Murray the K – that he was going to be the only DJ that was going to have access to The Beatles, which was a total, total mistake, but he didn’t realize that,” Louise said. “So the guys were complaining to me, ‘We’ve got 40,000 postcards from people who have written in trying to get tickets to the show.’ So I went and told George, ‘I think I’ve got a way to get rid of them. They’re asking me to go the radio station, to see all these 40,000 postcards, so I’ll go with them and get them out of here and you can get to sleep.’”
Her brother was hesitant to let her go off with a group of strangers, but she assured him she was safe.
“So I went to the radio station, and before I knew it, I had headphones on and I was broadcasting, just chatting away. After I had been there about an hour, the station manager comes running in and says to the guys, ‘Don’t worry about stations IDs. Don’t worry about commercials. Just keep talking. There’s over a million people listening.’ After a while I noticed the clock and I thought, oh my God, it’s time to give George the next medication.”
She told the DJs she needed to call the hotel.
“They realized I was talking to George. He was telling me the Rickenbacker family had just brought him a 12-string Rickenbacker guitar and he was trying it out,” Louise said. “So the guys at the station said, ‘Can we just say hi to him?’ and of course, he’s still ill, but he’s feeling delighted with having this guitar, and he’s telling them about the guitar and they say, ‘Will you play a little bit?’ So he’s playing the guitar over the phone. Unbeknownst to both of us, they recorded the conversation that they had with him, and they replayed it every hour on the half hour for the whole weekend! So Murray the K and Brian were furious. So for all the great goodwill I built up with Brian all year, all the stuff I had been doing to help him, and he had been telling me he’d be eternally grateful for everything … all of a sudden that was gone.”
Life in southern Illinois was turned upside down after the national TV appearance.
“Whenever we would come back (to the house), there would be bunches of kids on our front porch, and my poor Scottish husband! They would say, ‘Oh, Mr. Harrison!’ He hated the whole thing.”
“I know all the stuff that I’ve done. It’s not even been overlooked. It’s totally unheard of. It’s only now in the last year since I wrote the book that people are starting to know what I did,” she said. “And it’s because of my band, and Marty, who plays my brother and basically is my new brother for all intents and purposes.”
She said that over the years she would tell the band stories about her experiences.
“Marty said to me once, ‘You know, I’ve never heard anything about the fact that you were promoting them and trying to push them and all that kind of stuff.’ He said that was so pivotal to have their manager aware of all these things. This was right before my 80th birthday and he said, ‘You oughta let people know about this before you pop off the planet.’ I always said there’s so many books about The Beatles, who needs another one? But Beatles fans always told me, ‘Yes, but you have a totally different perspective. You’re one of the family.’ So finally I said, ‘Oh, OK.’”
Louise met the Liverpool Legends at a Flashback Weekend event in Chicago six weeks after her brother died.
“I was at this show and the band was playing on stage and toward the end of the show, Marty came out and did either ‘Here Comes the Sun’ or ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ – one of those, and he was wearing the long hair and the denim. I was sitting in the very back of the hall and as I’m watching this, the tears just came flowing down my face. I had not grieved at all, because I knew that George had wanted to get off this planet.
“He was sick and tired of the manipulations and the pettiness, so I wasn’t grieving for the fact that he had died,” she said. “I was just like, OK, he’s released. But on that occasion, the tears just flowed down my face. After the show we all had supper together, and I got to talking to Marty and we just sort of connected. His personality was so much like George, very kind, caring, very good sense of humor. We just adopted each other, and he’s been a very wonderful brother to me ever since.”
The brother that Louise knew is the same person the fans knew and loved.
“They already know he was a very kind, gentle, caring person. He believed in the Creator, and that there’s a little drop of the Creator in all of us. That’s what binds us together. We’re all one. And the way he explained it to me once was if you could imagine that the Creator was the ocean, we are all an individual drop of that ocean. We are exactly the same in composition. And as we go through life, we’re looking for something to make us happy. It’s not really a partner – a lover, or whatever. That’s not really what we’re looking for. What we’re really looking for is to get back to being part of the ocean to reconnect with the Creator, and that’s the ultimate thing that’s going to make us really happy.”
Her favorite song of her brother’s is “Cheer Down.”
“Most people don’t know it,” she said. “He wrote it for the movie ‘Lethal Weapon.’”
Beatles fans who attend Saturday’s show at the Aztec Theatre are in “for a great deal of fun,” she said.
“It’s one of the things that I find so endearing. Our guys are unlike many of the other Beatles bands. It’s not just a matter of going and you sit there and listen to music. We have the audience taking part in the show. They sing along with us,” she said.
“One of the things I’ve noticed many times when I’ve been sitting at a table, like at a corporate event, you’ve got all these people who come in. They’re all very sophisticated, important, and serious and everything,” she said. “And after two or three songs, they’re goofing off and having a tremendous amount of fun. And then you notice, too, that people start talking to each other. They’re not just doing this,” she said, pretending to talk on her phone.
Soon, they start talking about their favorite Beatles and their favorite song and stories of when they were 18, she said.
“And the next thing you know, they’re exchanging their email addresses and making new friends. So this is an opportunity, and I hope at the concert on Saturday that people will take the opportunity to connect with the other Beatles people, because they’ve got something in common and (they can) make some new friends. That to me is one of the wonderful benefits,” she said.
*Featured/top image: A photo of George and Louise Harrison in the mid-1960s. Public domain image.