By Fred Contrada
As I spoke over the telephone toLouise Harrison at her home in Florida, I found myself closing my eyes and doing what I do with everyone I interview – trying to imagine what it’s like being them.
Although she’s been in this country for almost 50 years, I could hear vestiges of a still strong British accent from her youth. Her voice was warm and friendly, her age (80, she told me) belied by her use of the word “gig.”
Harrison was scheduled to be in Northampton this week with a band she put together to raise money for music education. Music, she insisted, stimulates various parts of the brain and improves proficiency in math and other subjects. Plus, it’s fun.
In Liverpool, where she grew up, Louise and her three brothers all got some music training in school, although George, her baby brother, had to pick up the guitar on his own. George died in 2001, and Louise undertook her cross-country mission largely because he was also a big proponent of music education. Half a century ago, George was in a rock-and-roll band. They would practice sometimes in one of the bedrooms at his mum’s house. Although the working class was struggling mightily in those post-World War II years, the Harrisons didn’t hound George to get a “real” job.
“They were great in encouraging us kids to do whatever we wanted to do in life,” Louise said.
George’s band ended up doing quite well. They had some hits in England and were looking to make inroads in the larger American market. By that time, Louise, 11 years George’s elder, had married and moved to the U.S. Her mum sent her some singles by the band and, like a good sister, she made the rounds of the local radio stations. The DJs weren’t very receptive.
“It was very difficult to get you stuff played on a radio station,” Louise said.
Louise wrote letters to the band’s manager, Brian Epstein, and its producer, George Martin, trying to avail them of what she had learned about the U.S. and its culture.
“I told Brian to get on something with clout,” she said, “something like ‘The Ed Sullivan Show.’”
Fortunately, they got that exact gig. When George and his mates, who called themselves the Beatles, flew to America, Louise went to New York to meet them and stayed in their hotel. She found her little brother a bit under the weather.
“George had a bad fever,” she said. “They roped me into looking after him.”
Louise nursed her brother until he was well enough to play with the band for Ed Sullivan. Just about every American with a pulse, including my 11-year-old self, watched that show. The rest of the story, quite literally, is history.
For a decade, the Beatles were arguably the most famous people in the world. Their celebrity was so overwhelming that the rest of us can’t really comprehend it. The four lads from Liverpool weren’t merely pretty faces; they were in people’s heads.
Strangers dreamed about them, made them characters in their own imaginary scenarios. The closest I can come to figuring out what it must have been like for them is having to constantly stare at the sun.
“Initially, they were jolly, happy-go-lucky lads,” Louise said. “The intensity became hard to cope with as individuals.”
Against all odds, the four of them made a go at having “normal” lives – relationships, families. Privacy was almost too much to hope for, however.
George got married and had a son, but had to surround his house in England with a security system after some nut job shot and killed his band mate, John Lennon, essentially because John was in his head. Nonetheless, in 1999, a deranged man managed to break into George’s house and stab him several times in the chest. Unlike John, he survived.
I asked Louise how she navigated the celebrity, how she kept her brother real amid all the hype and hoopla. Although she was often asked what George was like as a child, she said, she would never talk about it. If his adult life was in the public domain, she figured, at least his childhood would remain his own.
Recently, however, she’s decided to write a book about the early years, if only to dispel the crazy myths about the Beatles.
The Harrisons, like some of the other Beatles families, worked hard behind the scenes for the band, answering fan letters and trying to give back the love that was showered on the four lads from Liverpool.
“It’s a role we have to play in life,” said Louise. “We’re ambassadors for the Beatles.”
I didn’t ask about the “real” George, but Louise did offer this one bit about him being “the quiet Beatle.”
“I can tell you this,” she said with a laugh, “he wasn’t quiet.”
In 2001, George died after a bout with lung cancer. One of his last acts was to summon his big sister Louise to his side. It’s difficult enough losing a brother, I suggested, without having the whole world peeking through the window. George’s acceptance of death, Louise said, made it easy.
“George had gotten to the point in his spiritual quest where he was ready to be done with all the nonsense that goes on in this planet,” she said.
When George Harrison died, Bob Dylan said he had the strength of a hundred men.
“He was like the sun, the flowers and the moon,” Dylan said, “and we will miss him enormously.”
Louise Harrison misses him, of course. He was her baby brother.