How I Photographed The Beatles

24 June 2019
The Beatles, Muhammad Ali, Harry Benson
Images: Harry Benson
Yesterday hits cinemas this week, charting a world where The Beatles never happened. So we went to Harry Benson – the photographer who charted the band’s rise – for some reassurance

The Beatles with Cassius Clay, 5th Street Gym, Miami, February 18, 1964
I had seen Cassius Clay yelling, gesticulating, and bragging that he was going to win the world heavyweight boxing title from the champ Sonny Liston, and thought him and The Beatles would make a great picture.

All the guys agreed, except John. He didn't want to meet the big mouth about to get pulverised by the reigning champ. John wanted to meet Liston. So, off I go to his training camp with my request. Liston was tying his shoes and didn't even look up. "I don't want to meet those bums," he said.
I would have to box clever.

I got a big car and picked up The Beatles – who thought they were going to meet Liston – and took them to the 5th Street Gym to meet Clay instead. For once they encountered someone who was as quick-witted as they were. Clay, was dancing around the ring, pointing at Paul and shouting, "He's pretty, but I'm prettier." He made them dance to his tune that day and they were furious.
“Clay made us look like monkeys, Benson,” said Lennon, “and it was your fault.” He then went on to tell me that I couldn’t get a ride back to the hotel with them – and it was my car! I didn't mind, I left the next day to photograph Ian Fleming at his home in Jamaica.

I returned to Miami in time to cover the Clay-Liston fight in which Clay became the heavyweight champion of the world. And when I saw the Beatles again, all was forgiven.

The Beatles

The Beatles, George V hotel, Paris, 1964
I would never have managed this shot if I hadn’t got rid of The Beatles PR. It was 3am after a concert at the Olympia in Paris, and the band just had so much pent up energy. But they couldn't go out – they’d be mobbed.

As we sat around talking, their manager, Brian Epstein, burst into the room with news. Their single, "I Want to Hold Your Hand" had got to number one in America – their first in the States. This meant The Beatles were going to the US to be on the legendary Ed Sullivan Show, which meant I was going with them too. It was a huge turning point in both our careers.

As for the shot itself, they were excited about having a number one hit in America and had talked about a pillow fight they’d had a few nights before, so I suggested it – I thought it would make a good photo. At first they were into the idea, but John felt it might make the look a bit silly. The fight was off. At least that’s how it seemed. A moment later, he sneaked up behind Paul and hit him over the head with a pillow, spilling Paul's drink. Ringo and George joined in and they were off.  I had no real plan, just photographing four young guys and watching Beatlemania take hold of the world.