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Music

How George Harrison's sister helped The Beatles crack America

The world before Beatlemania seems so distant now that it’s hard to fathom what it was like when the group were in their early years of formation, wandering around unrecognisable to the public. Similarly, it’s difficult to imagine what the world would be like today if the Beatles hadn’t become the focal point of not only a musical revolution but a global cultural revolution. Would one of the other British invasion bands of the 1960s have taken the spotlight instead? Would we have had such an iconic cultural shift? These questions are, of course, unanswerable, but what we can be certain of is that the world would be a very different place today had the Beatles not existed.

A rise to fame for any band throughout history can be attributed to a talent of some description, for the Beatles, they had the talents of songwriting, showmanship and their trademark cheeky charm in their locker. However, in a bid to become successful on a global scale, on top of talent and ambition, a great deal of luck is required too. One has to be in the right places at the right times and know the right people in the right places. For the Beatles, fortune was indeed on their side for pivotal moments in their history as an accompaniment to their undeniable talent. 

Some of the aforementioned good fortune came from George Harrison’s older sister Louise Caldwell, née Harrison. After his father finally got over his reservations about George leaving his engineering apprenticeship, the Harrison family had become huge advocates for George’s ambitions with his newly formed group in the early ‘60s. His mother would spend hours answering his fan mail and inviting some of his local fans in for tea. But it was George’s sister Louise who would give him and his bandmates the biggest helping hand to boost them towards global stardom. 

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After the first small ripples of Beatlemania in 1963, the Beatles decided to take a short break. John Lennon took his wife Cynthia to Paris, and Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr went on a short trip to Greece. Meanwhile, George became the first Beatle to enter the US as he took a flight with his older brother Peter to visit Louise in Illinois where she lived with her husband Gordon Caldwell. During the holiday, George would frequent the local record shops where there would’ve been no Beatles records and walked the streets where no heads would turn. 

At one point during the trip, Louise purportedly brought George over to the WFRX-AM radio station in West Frankfort to request the DJ to play George’s own copy of the Beatles’ latest hit single ‘She Loves You’. Thankfully, the 17-year-old DJ Marcia Schafer dutifully played the song, and thus began the airwave invasion of Beatlemania in the states. Of course, it was going to take a little more than this, and so Louise would relentlessly hound Schafer to play the Beatles’ new hits over the months that followed. 

In an interview with the Illinois Times in 2013, Schafer said: “Louise came to the station several times over the summer asking us to play the Beatles’ music, which up to that time had only been available in England.”

From that summer of 1963 onwards, the Beatles name virulently spread across the US and by February 1964, they had their first US number one single with ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’. That same month, the Beatles would also make the trip across the Atlantic together to play their debut US performance on the Ed Sullivan Show on February 9th, 1964. The popular prime time television show had been known to Louise as a great platform for new bands to showcase their talent to the people of America, and so she had also been one of the key protagonists in this pivotal moment of the Beatles career too. 

Louise recalled of the months prior to the Beatles’ visit to the US: “I’d been working with Brian [Epstein] and George Martin and Dick James – been writing back and forth to them giving them all the information that I could glean from Billboard, Cash Box, and Variety.” she said, adding: “I found out as much as I could, gave him all this information, I called him every week and wrote letters to him all the time and at that time, of course, ‘The Ed Sullivan Show’ was a big thing every Sunday night. So, I kept at the bottom of the page, I would say get them on ‘The Ed Sullivan Show’”.

Louise turned 90 last year (2021), and much of her life has been oriented around her younger brother and his legacy of which she is infinitely proud. As for the Beatles, I’m sure they too were very proud and thankful of the support they had from George’s elder sister; although perhaps just shy of writing ‘With A Little Help From Louise’ for their 1967 masterpiece Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

Watch below as Louise discusses life as the big sister of a rock icon.