When did George Harrison visit Illinois and Why?
The year was 1963 and for a two week period in September George Harrison and his brother Peter visited their sister Louise in Southern Illinois. Like so many events in the life of The Beatles, the circumstances surrounding this visit, including the purchase of his first Rickenbacker, have yet to be described in any detail up until the present time. After an extended search a few individuals have been located in the Mt. Vernon area who spent time with George and his brother during this visit. They have kindly offered what they know about his stay at 113 McCann Street in Benton, Illinois and the purchase of the solid body "cresting wave" single pickup Rickenbacker 425. More than 35 years later it is quite amazing to realize that one of The Beatles was able to visit the United States for a two week period and go almost completely unnoticed. The historical information to date is presented in the brief article contained on this page. As with all of the articles on "NO REPLY" your input is requested, either in the form of a critique or in additional facts that you may be able to add.
Where was the 425 Purchased?
Mr. Gabe McCarty, formerly of the Illinois music group the "Four Vests" provided invaluable information regarding George Harrison's purchase of his first Rickenbacker, a 425 Model. Mr. McCarty experienced what most would consider to be a dream of a lifetime. He spent two weeks with George and his bother Peter in the fall of 1963. This visit took place at a time when almost nobody in the Mt. Vernon area knew anything about George Harrison. The selection and pruchase took place at the Fenton Music Store located at 601 South 10th Street, Mt. Vernon, Illinois. Lester "Red" Fenton operated this music store in 1963 at the time of the sale and continued to be its proprietor until the mid 1980's. Mr. Fenton died in 1991. There we no pictures available of this store at the time this article was posted. "NO REPLY" would be grateful for any picutres that interested readers may be able to submit to the Rickenbacker Registration Page.
What Were The Details Surrounding The Purchase?
Shortly after arriving in Illinois, George Harrison met Gabe McCarty and another member of the "Four Vests," Vernon Mandrell. George expressed his interest in purchasing a Rickenbacker guitar and Gabe knew that the only dealer nearby was the Fenton Music Store. Apparently Rickenbackers were difficult to come by in England at this time and in Gabe's words "He just had to have one." Mr. McCarty volunteered to drive Harrison from Benton to the store in Mount Vernon to try out a Rickenbacker. Gabe recalled his pitch "Red, he's a good friend of mine and wants to buy a Rickenbacker guitar. Give him the same discount you gave me." The Four Vests had fostered a good relationship with Red Fenton as they had purchased equipment from him only a short time earlier. In his reminiscence of the events that day, Gabe mentioned "George pulled a couple of guitars off the wall" and eventually decided on a Fireglo (red) Rickenbacker Model 425. This description is validated by the research carried out by Mr. John Hall of Rickenbacker International Corporation which indicates that the guitar Harrison purchased, based on the serial number of BH 439, was shipped from the factory in the Fireglo finish. It has also been confirmed by Mr. Hall, that this instrument was shipped by the factory, in error, as a Model 425 even thought it was in fact a Model 420, having no vibrato. After all these years this is not the time to rewrite history, and so a Model 425 it remains to this day. The serial number would indicate that the guitar was made in August 1962. That it was "red" is of particular interest. It is well know that Harrison performed with this guitar on the "Ready Steady Go" television show hosted by Dusty Springfield on October 4, 1963, however, the instrument had been refinished to black by that time. But how did that refinishing come about?
Why was the 425 Refinished to Black?
Just days after his return to England in September 1963 Harrison performed with his new 425 during The Beatles' first appearance on the "Ready Steady Go" television show. The guitar was, however, no longer in its pristine factory Fireglo finish but had been refinished to black. He briefly discussed his new purchase and in an interesting comment made to Dusty about its finish quipped "I made it myself." This of course, raised the suspicion of some that he had been involved in the refinishing. Fortunately the comments of the Four Vests have been most helpful in getting to the bottom of such speculation.
Gabe McCarty vividly recalled that Harrison liked the 425 very much but preferred to have it in black similar to the one owned by John Lennon. He remembers George asking "Don't you have any black ones." Red Fenton, asked Harrison to "give me a week" but that he would be able to comply with his request. Gabe described that he, Harrison and Vernon Mandrell returned to Fenton Music a week later to pick up the guitar.
Why and Where was the 425 Refinished?
Gabe McCarty could not understand why George wanted to paint over the especially nice famous fireglo finish that was highly sought after by Rickenbacker lovers. In reference to the Beatles, George explained that "all the other guys had black instruments" and that the color fit in best with the band. Gabe also felt that the gist of the argument was that a black guitar fitted in best with the dark suits that the Beatles wore on stage.
Mr. McCarty assessed that the refinishing was carried out in the Fenton Music store as Red Fenton had the expertise and there were no other shops about that Gabe was aware of that could do this work at the time. In referring to Red, Mr. McCarty offered "I thought he did it himself. It looked real good and I was quite surprised." George Harrison paid in cash, about $400 US, for the guitar. He apparently had no idea of the value of American dollars compared to the pound sterling and at first took out close to $800. to pay for the 425.
Most interesting and important historical information has surfaced thanks to the kind efforts of Mr. David Artis. Mr. Artis writes " I was only 16 in 1963 and had recently purchased my first guitar (a Harmony imitation of a Gibson 335) from Red. In 1964, I worked part-time for RED while in high school. I did not get to met George Harrision in 1963 but I remember RED telling me after the Beatles had been on the Ed Sullivan show that he had sold the insturment to Harrision and that he had redone the finish in black at his request. RED personally thought it a waste to ruin the fireglow finish of the instrument but he truly believed in giving the customer what they wanted. This seemed to be a guessed at issue, as to who did the finish,
so I thought I would give you what RED had told me.
Other Events During Harrison's Stay
There were a number of other interesting events that took place during the Harrison's visit to Southern Illinois that are related to George's Model 425 Rickenbacker. The day in which George returned to purchase his newly refinished guitar, Gabe recalled "he plugged it into an amp and we jammed for about 30-40 minutes in Fenton's Music Store." Red did not know the more contemporatry rock music songs and so George on his 425 and Gabe on a bass from the store played more traditional "pop songs such as It Had To Be You."
Mr. McCarty also indicated that George played two gigs with the "Four Vests" during September 1963 at the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) Hall in Eldorado, Illinois and also at the Bocchi Ball Club in Benton. Gabe was sure that George was going to play some of his Beatles' material but this never happened with Harrison performing mostly Hank William's country tunes at both venues. Apparently George quite fancied having The Beatles play in the Benton area at some point and went so far as to schedule a concert at the Benton Country Club. The pandemonium was so great when The Beatles visited in 1964, however, that the planned concert was never realized. George also played with the lead guitarist of the "Four Vests," Kenny Welch and Gabe in his sister Louise's livingroom in Benton at 113 McCann Street.
Gabe said that George was very taken by Kenny's style and watched him intently but never really said much about Mr. Welch's ability. According to Mr. McCarty, Harrison's style was much like the picking style of Chet Atkins. There was discussion about
moving this home before it was sold in 1995, however, it remains in its original location to the present day. Its exterior was refurbished to resemble its 1963 look and the residence is currently a Bed and Breakfast and museum honouring George Harrison's stay. A number of enthusiastic fans wold just not let the idea of saving the Residence go. For additional background information regarding the restoration of the home where George stayed in Benton please see You've Really Got A Hold On Me.