Blogging the Beatles: Before the British Invasion, a Beatle Comes to America

Slate's Culture Blog
Sept. 19 2013 8:30 AM

Before the British Invasion, a Beatle Comes to America

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Brow Beat is following the Beatles in “real time,” 50 years later, from their first chart-topper to their final rooftop concert. Fifty years ago this month, George Harrison made an early trip to America. Andrew Jackson, author of Still the Greatest: The Essential Songs of the Beatles’ Solo Careers, describes the trip, including how Harrison found his future No. 1.

When the Beatles were given the rare luxury of time off in September 1963, John Lennon and his wife Cynthia went to Paris, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr went to Greece, and George Harrison traveled to Benton, Ill., a coal-mining town of 9,500, to visit his older sister, Louise “Lou” Caldwell. The Beatles were still almost completely unknown in the United States, and Lou, who had moved to southern Illinois with her husband, a mining engineer, was keen to promote them to the Top 40 radio stations in the region.

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Harrison arrived in the U.S. on Sept. 16 accompanied by his older brother Peter. Harrison and Lou hitchhiked to local radio station WFRX, where Harrison gave his first American interview to the station owner’s teenage daughter. Lou knew a guy from the local dry cleaner named Gabe McCarty who played bass in a band called the Four Vests, and McCarty showed Harrison around for the next two weeks, taking him to guitar stores (Harrison bought a Rickenbacker 425 in one) and the local drive-in restaurant, where Harrison was reportedly transfixed by the waitresses on roller skates.

On Sept. 28, Harrison played his first show in the U.S. The Four Vests invited him onstage during their gig at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Hall in Eldorado, Ill. They introduced Harrison as the “Elvis of England,” and he ripped through some of the usual covers from the Beatles’ live act— “Johnny B. Goode,” “Matchbox,” and “Roll Over Beethoven”—along with Hank Williams’ “Your Cheatin’ Heart.” According to Lou, the audience was indifferent to the Vests until Harrison got the crowd clapping and stomping their feet. Harrison and his brother then visited New York for a few days before flying back to England on Oct. 3.

Harrison combed the record stores of both Illinois and New York and picked up a lot of R&B, including records by Bobby Bland and Booker T. and the MG’s. He also came across the self-titled debut album of James Ray, an R&B singer whose single “If You Gotta Make a Fool of Somebody” was a regular part of the Beatles’ act. The purchase proved fateful: More than two decades later, Harrison returned to that same LP to find the last No. 1 hit by any solo Beatle, “Got My Mind Set on You.” By that time, Ray, though beloved by the Beatles, was long dead and largely forgotten.

James Ray Raymond was born in 1941 in Washington, D.C. He released his first single, the plaintive “Make Her Mine,” in 1959 under the name Little Jimmy Ray, because he was five feet tall and sounded like Little Willie John (whose “Leave My Kitten Alone” the Beatles covered in 1964 to incendiary effect). But “Make Her Mine” did not make a splash, and by 1961 Ray was homeless, sleeping on a rooftop and singing on street corners for money.

His luck changed briefly when Rudy Clark, the man who would write “I’ve Got My Mind Set On You (Parts 1 & 2)” for Ray, discovered him singing in a club. Clark, six years older than Ray, was a mailman whose route included the office for the Caprice Record label. Songwriting was Clark’s passion, so he performed his material for label owner Gerry Granahan, who said he was interested in the songs if Clark could find someone else to sing them. Clark returned with Ray in tow and Granahan quickly produced Ray performing Clark’s “If You Gotta Make a Fool of Somebody.” He also bought Ray a new set of clothes and found him a place to live.

After the song hit, the team followed it up with the James Ray album, which included the Clark-penned “I’ve Got My Mind Set On You (Parts 1 & 2).” Arranger Hutch Davie (“Sleep Walk,” “My Boyfriend’s Back”) matched Ray’s strong, clear voice with imposing horns, a trilling gospel choir, country-flavored strings, and even a banjo, all rising to a dynamic crescendo. But neither “Set On You” nor the album’s other single, “Itty Bitty Pieces,” made much impact for Ray. Ray died of a drug overdose, possibly in 1963 though the exact date is unknown. Clark went on to write such classics as Betty Everett’s “The Shoop Shoop Song (It’s in His Kiss),” the Rascals’ “Good Lovin’,” and the Main Ingredient’s “Everybody Plays the Fool” (perhaps a nod to his first “Fool” hit with Ray).

The soulful sound of “Set On You” resonated with Harrison, and so, perhaps, did its themes—the primacy of the mind (à la “The Inner Light”), the need for patience and dedication (à laMy Sweet Lord”), and the necessity of money (à laTaxman”). But Harrison never covered the song with the Beatles. In August 1963, Harrison wrote his first song (“Don’t Bother Me”) and would soon stop performing other artists’ material on Beatles albums.

Twenty-four years later, recording a new solo album after a five-year hiatus, he realized he couldn’t find a better anthem with which to stage his comeback. He omitted two lines from the original version, in which Ray laments that bad luck always follows him (which certainly turned out to be prophetic), and molded the track into a wholly optimistic statement that anything can be accomplished if one focuses hard enough.

Producer Jeff Lynne lifted the drum beat from “My Sharona” and processed Jim Keltner’s skins with the ultimate ’80s gated “big drum” sound. Lynne also stacked Jim Horn playing a “Savoy Truffle”-esque saxophone 12 to 14 times. Warner Brothers shelled out for a slick video with a purple-jacketed Harrison doing backflips in his study while his furniture comes to life.

“Got My Mind Set On You” became the last No. 1 U.S. single by any solo Beatle. Harrison’s album Cloud Nine made the top ten on both sides of the Atlantic. The song crossed over from the Baby Boomers to the Gen Xers in high school, the last time the Beatles as solo artists were commercially potent with teenagers. It even generated a “Weird Al” Yankovic parody, “(This Song’s Just) Six Words Long.” The hit made Harrison the Beatle with the second-most No. 1 solo singles in the U.S., with three. McCartney had nine, and Lennon and Ringo were tied with two.

In the mid-’90s, Lou Harrison’s old house at 113 McCann Street in Benton, Ill., was saved from demolition and turned into the Hard Day’s Nite Bed and Breakfast and Museum, celebrating Harrison’s first trip to the U.S. The B&B has since closed and the site is now a four-unit apartment complex, but this month a marker will be unveiled at Benton’s Capitol Park to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Harrison’s visit. Lou is scheduled to attend the dedication ceremony on Sept. 21.

Read more recent posts from Blogging the Beatles
The Beatles Say Goodbye to the Cavern Club
Quiz: Who Wrote It, Lennon or McCartney? The With the Beatles Edition
How Lennon and McCartney Wrote “She Loves You”
Quiz: Who Wrote It, Lennon or McCartney? Please Please Me Edition
When John Lennon Was Simon Cowell
The Beatles Overtake Their Idols
The Beatles Get Their Own Show
Did John Lennon Have a Secret Affair With Brian Epstein?

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