Residents of Southern Illinois, especially those of the original Beatles-loving Baby Boomer generation, are well aware of the fact that George Harrison visited Benton in September of 1963. The first Beatle to come to America, George traveled across the pond to visit his sister Louise, who had recently purchased a home at 113 McCann St. in Benton with her husband, Gordon Caldwell, who had found work as a mining engineer in Franklin County.
Louise, the eldest of the Harrison children — George being the youngest — promoted her brother’s band on the radio waves of Southern Illinois and to anyone who would listen on the street. When George visited just four months before the Beatles’ big debut on The Ed Sullivan Show, he and the Beatles were still unknown in the United States and he was able to enjoy a carefree excursion in the region, playing on stage with a local band, purchasing a Rickenbacker guitar in Mount Vernon, visiting Garden of the Gods in the Shawnee National Forest, and hitting up the local root beer stand and drive-in movie theater. In 2017, a mural was even constructed near the Benton exit on Interstate 57 commemorating George’s visit in early fall of 1963.
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What is less known are some of the personal connections that Louise formed during her time in the Midwest. One such experience that provided a once in a lifetime opportunity for a local musician stemmed from Louise’s memories of her brother, George. Robby Clark-Stokes, who resides in Herrin and is the principal of Thomas School in Carbondale, wrote a song commemorating George Harrison, with the help of his father, Robbie Stokes, of Carbondale.
The tune, “Believer”, which Clark-Stokes and his father recorded in the basement studio of Clark-Stokes’ childhood home, began with a trip to Louise’s former residence on McCann Street in Benton, which had become a bed and breakfast called The Beatle House.
Clark-Stokes’ mother heard that a candlelight vigil, given the recent passing of George, was planned at The Beatle House and she was able to book two rooms for the event.
“I brought my guitar. Louise was there and someone asked me to go up on stage and play a song. I think I played ‘Twist and Shout,’ something really simple. I played that and got to talk to Louise quite a bit. Afterwards she said she would like to stay in touch,” Clark-Stokes said.
And keep in touch she did. Louise and Clark-Stokes spoke on the phone regularly, chatting every few months, and during those conversations, he would pick up small tidbits about George and eventually began writing “Believer” as a tribute to the man known as The Quiet Beatle. Clark-Stokes remembers watching the The Beatles Anthology, recorded from ABC in 1995, several times as a child. Through later research he gathered details and began forming the lyrics in the small black book he used for writing.
“As a Christian, I was really intrigued by his thoughts on religion. So lyrically that’s where it went. My whole take on it was that he was a believer. Not necessarily a believer in God, but a believer in something much bigger than him. So there’s a lot of play on words in the song,” Clark-Stokes said.
He and his father worked together to complete the lyrics of the tune, with Stokes adding suggestions like changing the line, “walking in your English garden” to “puttering in your English garden” for a more authentic take on the vernacular of the Beatles.
The father-son duo played all instrumentals for the recording and Clark-Stokes provided all vocals. During his freshmen year of high school, Clark-Stokes and his father released the song, “Believer,” and sent a copy to Louise.
“We sent it to Louise and she really liked it. She was attending the Beatles convention up in Chicago and said we should come play the song during the intermission of the Beatles tribute band,” said Clark-Stokes.
The performance was held at the Pickwick Theater in Park Ridge, just outside of Chicago. Clark-Stokes and his father were also able to spend time at the convention, which was known as Beatlefest at the time, to experience the fascinating world of Beatlemania while perusing and observing the hundreds of vendors and impersonators at the convention.
“She gave me a really cool opportunity,” said Clark-Stokes.
Thanks to her connection to Southern Illinois, Louise happened upon Clark-Stokes as a young musician and was so touched by his lyrical tribute to her brother, that she invited him to perform his original song for a live audience in Chicago, an opportunity any budding artist would delight in. Instilled with a love for the Beatles thanks to his mother and borne with a natural talent from his father, Clark-Stokes is one Beatles fan who gained a rich experience thanks to George and Louise Harrison’s ties to Southern Illinois.