Louise Harrison is “cursed.” So was her brother, George.
But the curse in question — a legacy of honesty and integrity handed down from the Harrison parents — isn’t so bad. In fact, it was a driving force in both their lives. In her new book, My Kid Brother’s Band… a.k.a. The Beatles, Louise tells the story of her life before, during, and after the Beatles invaded America; a life intertwined with her kid brother’s and influenced by the family “curse.”
The eldest Harrison child, Louise emigrated from Britain years before George would meet John, Paul, or Ringo, and settled in Benton, IL. By 1963, she was a fierce advocate for her brother’s band, bringing their records to the attention of any radio station who would listen. When the Beatles hit international stardom, Louise was there, experiencing the whirlwind of Beatlemania firsthand. She continued to advocate for them, creating weekly radio reports that gave an honest perspective on the endless — and often salacious — Beatles rumors swirling around.
REBEAT chatted with Louise about her new book, her parents’ remarkable influence on the Harrison children, and of course, her kid brother’s band.
REBEAT: What is the “Harrison Family Curse?”
LH: That was funny. I was reading a book on “The Philosophy of the Beatles,” and there was a little subheading saying, “the Harrison Family Curse.” And I thought, “Oh gosh, what’s that? I’ve never heard of that.” So I read through it and it turned out that because our parents were so honest and so ethical that when we grew up and went into the world, we found it to be something completely different, as they say in Monty Python.
Your book, My Kid Brother’s Band, emphasizes how your parents’ “curse” had an enormous influence on their family. What were your parents like?
We were very, very fortunate to have the most wonderful parents in the world. They were just a lot of fun, they were very supportive, and their discipline was full of humor — they kept us towing the line. But they did it in a very friendly, good-humored way.
What was your relationship with George like?
It was always very protective. He wasn’t a tiny baby because even when he was born, he was 10 1/2 pounds. So he was about the size of the average three-month old! But he was just my kid brother, what can I say? Even when they became Beatles and all these crazy stories were being told about about them, I felt I had to be protective, that I had to speak out and tell the truth.
You continue to be a protective big sister in the book. It’s not a tell-all, and you’re very clear that you won’t tell stories of his childhood — the only private years he had. Yet you’re willing to be quite open with your own struggles. How did you choose what to share and what not to share?
I think it was a matter of my parents’ integrity. There were certain things — my talking about meeting my husband — that were that was not the finest hours of my life, but I felt that there was a lesson to be learned in them.
Before the Beatles became known in the US, you were the Beatles’ unofficial American ambassador, contacting local radio stations to give your brother’s band some radio play and reporting in to Brian Epstein and EMI on the American music scene. What made you want to take on such a huge role?
It was because I had a kid brother that I loved. Part of it was that as I was growing up, my mum and dad were always being told by people, “Oh, she’s like Shirley Temple, she’s so vivacious and everything.” I was a real obnoxious kid, actually, always asking questions and wanting to know what everything’s all about. And I always had the idea that I’m going to be in show business one of these days. So when my kid brother got into show business, I was right there behind him, pushing him along.
You were responsible for some of the first spins of Beatle records in the US. Did you influence Brian Epstein to make contact with Ed Sullivan?
Actually, Ed Sullivan sought him out. But I would write to Brian every week, and in every letter I would write, “Be sure and get them on The Ed Sullivan Show.” So towards the end of the year in ’63, Ed Sullivan happened to be getting on a plane in London at the same time the Beatles were getting off a plane in London, and there were thousands of people greeting the Beatles. And so Ed Sullivan said, “What’s going on here?” And he found out who was the manager and got in touch with him. At that point in time, Brian was getting to be rather important, so he wasn’t necessarily taking all the phone calls that came into him. Fortunately, when they said, “It’s Ed Sullivan,” Brian said, “Oh, I better take that one.”
Around that time, in Summer 1963, George and another brother, Peter, came to visit you in Benton, IL. The first time he stepped on US soil, George was an unknown person who could enjoy a calm vacation with his sister and her family. But only a few months later, he came back as part of the most successful and popular bands in history. What was that whirlwind like?
I grew up during World War II — I was about 8 when it started — and if you cope with being bombed every night and reading the casualty lists each morning, you can cope with just about anything, including Beatlemania.
How did your parents react when their son’s band became an international phenomenon?
Mum and Dad were so friendly and kind to all of the fans. They would invite them in and give them cups of cocoa, and drive them home if they were a long way from home — kids that had run away from home. So they were really wonderful with the fans, and they started what I call the “global family.”
You were right in the thick of the frenzy, meeting your brother in New York for the Beatles’ appearance on the Ed Sullivan show. Not only was it the height of Beatlemania, but George was sick with strep throat and you were his caretaker. What was that time like for you?
It was very hectic, and just a matter of “you have to do what you have to do.” It was a lot of fun though, too.
What did you think of John, Paul, and Ringo when you first met them in February 1964?
For me it was like getting three more brothers. We just all blended in as if we’d always known each other. But I’ve always made a point of never pursuing them. There were so many millions of Beatle fans after them, so I never tried to get in touch with them unless I was there the same time as them for some reason.
I did see Paul fairly recently. Back in the fall he was doing a show in San Diego. I was invited to go to the show so I took one of my books with me. I gave him the book, and he looks down at it and says, “Your kid brother’s band?”
That’s so cute — Paul often refers to George as his “little brother.”
Yes, he does.
The Beatles phenomenon also launched a career for you, acting as the Beatles’ Myth-Buster-in-Chief, by preparing syndicated Beatles news reports for the radio. How did this come about?
It was totally accidental. We were invited to the British Ambassador’s home before they did the Coliseum concert in Washington. And while we were there, there was a youngster there with scissors who got behind Ringo and cut a big chunk out of his hair. He was so angry. Anyway, when I got back to Illinois, one of the radio stations that I’d been peddling to play Beatle records — KXOK in St. Louis — they had this big report on the radio saying that the Beatles were accosted, that the British ambassador’s wife, Lady Sylvia Ormsby-Gore, had wrestled Ringo to the floor and cut a chunk of his hair. And I thought, “Oh my God, this poor lady, she was such a lovely, dignified lady and she was being made a fool of all over the country.”
So I called the radio station, and of course, they knew me because I had been asking them all year to play the records. And so I said to them, “That’s not what happened at all. Would you please correct this, and let the public know that Lady Ormsby-Gore had nothing to do with that. It was just a teenager that did it. Lady Ormsby-Gore was very concerned and compassionate toward him when that happened.” So they put my piece on the radio, correcting the bad news. And later they called me and said, “There’s so much interest now in these guys, so many crazy stories, and you’d be in the position to tell what really happened.” So that’s when I started doing the radio reports. (In the clip below, Louise’s segment begins at 10:25.)
Sounds like you were one of the few people willing to tell the true story.
Probably! But I’m used to that. In fact, the funny thing is, during our lifetime, one of the things they’ve described George as is being “painfully honest.” And sometimes it does get to be painful because when you tell the truth, sometimes you get to be rather unpopular.
Radio, and music in general, was a man’s world back then. Did you have any difficulty breaking in?
Oh yes. Women weren’t supposed to mess with men’s business back in those days. Women were supposed to cook the meals, wash the clothes, and have the babies, and that was it.
That doesn’t sound like your agenda.
No. I was interested in doing more than that.