Before He Was Fab

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Before He Was Fab-George Harrison’s First American Visit, by Jim Kirkpatrick

Description (from the back cover): “DID YOU KNOW?? The first Beatles record played on the radio in the U.S. was played in southern Illinois. George Harrison played with a local group during his visit to the U.S. While visiting southern Illinois, George Harrison was informed that the Beatles song, “She Loves You”, had achieved record sales in England. George Harrison bought a guitar in southern Illinois that he used while playing with the Beatles. … and much, much, more!”

Before He Was Fab is another book I purchased at the Chicago Beatles festival; I bought this one in 2000. As my copy of Lennon Revealed was a version special for the Fest, this book was also at the Fest at which I bought it. It’s a numbered copy from a limited release, as is evident from the first page:

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The back cover also had this stamp:

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Each copy of the few available also featured a few autographs. As seen in the picture above, author Jim Kirkpatrick’s autograph was signed on the first page. Also featured was an autograph from Marcia Schafer, who, as a teenage disc jockey for radio station WFRX in West Frankfort, Illinois, was the first to play Beatle records publicly in the United States and was also the first person in the U.S. to interview a Beatle:

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… an autograph from Gabe McCarty, who seems to have spent a lot of time with George during George’s visit and who was a member of southern Illinois band The Four Vests, with which George briefly performed at a couple of events:

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… and, especially cool, an autograph from Louise Harrison, George’s older sister:

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As the picture shows, Louise’s autograph is personalized. I stood in line at the Beatle fest to get her autograph. The others, Kirkpatrick, Schafer, and McCarty, weren’t in attendance at that Fest, at least as far as I can remember; the books were pre-signed by the others before being made available at the Fest.

Before going into my review of the book, I’d like to describe an incident involving Lou Harrison. I think this occurred the same year that I picked up this book (maybe one of my Beatle friends can correct me if I’m wrong). At the Fest was a room with tables around the perimeter where special guests sat and signed autographs for us fans. I was in the room a little earlier than some of the special guests; I assume they were still on stage being interviewed in the Fest ballroom. A couple authors were seated at tables, and maybe a dozen or so fans were also in the room, visiting with the authors or, as I was, milling around. I had been in the marketplace and had made some purchases (probably books), and I was tired of carrying what I’d bought, so I set them down for a second at an empty table. On the table was a card specifying which special guest would be sitting there signing autographs soon; the card said “Louise Harrison/Sid Bernstein”, each using the table when the other wasn’t. I don’t remember who was seated at the next table, but I was distracted by the conversation that special guest or author was having with a fan, and I didn’t notice that Lou and a boy who I assume was her grandson came up behind me to her table. As she was getting situated behind her table, on which were the bags of items I’d bought, the boy tapped me on the shoulder to get my attention and asked me, “Are you Sid Bernstein?” Lou was looking at me as if she was thinking, “Who are you, and why are you using my table?” I apologized, explained that I’m not Sid Bernstein, gathered my things, and let her have back her table. She didn’t seem angry but maybe a little confused when she found her table being used. I find it funny that the sister of one of The Beatles wondered if I was the man responsible for bringing The Beatles to America.

One more side note, if that was the same Fest at which Sid Bernstein was in attendance, it was just as cool to meet him as it was to meet Lou. I had a nice little chat with Sid when he signed my copy of his book, and I was honored when he recognized and approached me to chat again later at that Fest. His book Not Just The Beatles … is one of my favorite Beatle books.

Although Before He Was Fab isn’t one of my favorite Beatle books, it’s still very charming, and I enjoyed reading it this week. I don’t remember reading it since I bought it, and I don’t remember what my reaction to it was then. But this time I found it very interesting, and I learned a bit while reading it. The author, Jim Kirkpatrick, obviously did a lot of research to be able to describe what life in southern Illinois was like when George visited September 1963. It’s impressive how Kirkpatrick was able to uncover so many details of that time.

For example, Chapter I, The Evolution of ’60s Rock, details what music was popular in America in 1963, covering many genres to provide an overall picture of the musical landscape. Kirkpatrick made use of many sources for this chapter and throughout his book. I appreciate when references are made to sources for facts; maybe I’m a nerd, but I dig footnotes and Ibid 🙂 But while this chapter was interesting to read, I can honestly say that if I was around at that time, I would have been musically unhappy; the music of that time, at least as described in this chapter, seemed pretty lame (apologies to fans of that music).

Chapter II, September 1963, continues Kirkpatrick’s great job in doing research. He describes not only what was going on with The Beatles at that time (easy enough to research), but also what was going on with Louise and her family and with Benton, Illinois. I enjoy hearing what life was like in small Midwestern towns about that time period; late ’50s-early ’60s was a fascinating time, in my opinion.

Chapter IV, Lou Promotes The Beatles, details George’s sister’s efforts to spread the word about The Beatles. The chapter includes reproductions of letters of encouragement she’d received from a radio program director and also from Brian Epstein. I’d forgotten how much Lou did to support George. Her comment, that she was just “trying as a sister” to help is pretty cool.

Chapter VI, The WFRX Interview, describes George’s visit to the radio station. As I read it, I thought how Marcia Schafer’s getting to meet and interview George gave her a great story to share. And, as she commented, it’s too bad that her interview and visit with George wasn’t recorded.

While reading Chapter VII, Gabe McCarty, I thought it was awesome that McCarty got to spend time with George and have conversations “one musician to another” with him. I especially enjoyed reading about George’s reaction to what he was seeing on his visit, like about seeing a waitress on roller skates at the drive-in restaurant or to seeing the Delta 88 that Schafer was driving. My favorite part of this chapter, though, was at the end when McCarty described George calling him months later to chat again and also referring to their seeing each other again when The Beatles toured America in 1965 (although that’s described more later in the book). I think it’s cool that George and Gabe were able to briefly develop a friendship based on their both being musicians and how George seemed to be enjoying his visit to Illinois.

Chapter X, The Four Vests Play Eldorado, describes the night George was able to attend a Four Vests gig at a local dance and even play along on guitar (I don’t see that he sang any during the show). The best part is the audience’s reaction: Lou described the audience when not dancing as almost ignoring The Four Vests, but when George started to play, “the whole place was electrified”, people pounding on the tables and stomping their feet. She commented on wondering that if just George, in a small rural town, where nobody knew him, could make that much of an impression, what must the four Beatles be like. It would have been fun to be present at that dance; it’s too bad that the chapter doesn’t contain more reactions from attendees.

In Chapter XIII, Coping with Beatlemania, McCarty describes reuniting with George after The Beatles concert in Chicago 1965. It’s cool to hear how hospitable George was, welcoming McCarty as a friend, introducing him to the other Beatles, offering to give McCarty his Beatle boots, and even being hugged by McCarty at the end of their visit.

The last few chapters describe Lou and her family eventually leaving southern Illinois and efforts made to preserve her house, at which a Beatle once stayed, as of historical significance. The book concludes with a Postscript chapter describing George’s life after his visit as well as descriptions of what happened to Lou, McCarty, Schafer, and others who were referred to in the book. It wasn’t till I got to this chapter that I realized that the book was published before George’s death. Although the knife attack on George and Olivia in 1999 is referred to, no mention is made in the book of the sickness that led to George’s death. With his sister being involved with the book, I wonder what George’s reaction to it was or even if he was able to read it.

My only ‘negative’ comment isn’t really a criticism, but the book is much too short; I read the whole thing in two days. But it’s very charming. I dug reading about what life was like in the early ’60s. I realize that there probably isn’t much more that Kirkpatrick could have written about George’s visit, but the details that were shared are so fascinating to me that I wish I could hear more about September 1963 and George and his visit then.

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