This Is How The Beatles Took America

31 March 2019
The Beatles, Harry Benson
All images: Harry Benson
Fifty-five years ago, The Beatles became the first act on the planet to hold the top five positions in the US charts. Nobody documented their time in America more than Harry Benson, a British photographer who brought the most iconic moments of the 20th century to life…

The Beatles, George V Hotel, Paris, 1964

I would never have managed this shot if I hadn’t gotten rid of The Beatles' press officer. 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 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 few moments later, he sneaked up behind Paul and hit him over the head with a pillow, spilling Paul’s drink everywhere. 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.  

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 it dawned on me that Clay 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 at the time. He didn’t even look up. “I don’t want to meet those bums,” he said.
I would have to be clever, so I got a big car and picked up The Beatles – thinking 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 jumping around the ring, pointing at Paul and shouting, “He’s pretty, but I’m prettier.” He made them dance to his tune and they were absolutely furious.

“Clay made us look like monkeys, Benson,” said John, “and it’s 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, the next day I left to photograph Ian Fleming in Jamaica.

I returned to Miami in time to cover the Clay-Liston fight, and when I saw the Beatles again, all was forgiven. 

Senator Robert F. Kennedy, Ambassador Hotel, Los Angeles, June 6, 1968 

I knew Bobby had won the California Democratic Presidential Primary, but I decided to go to the celebration that night anyway. The mood was jubilant, with campaign workers chanting, “Bobby, Bobby,” and, “Sock it to ‘em, Bobby”.

He spoke, gave the victory sign and said, “And now it’s on to Chicago and let’s win there.” I started to go out the way I had come in, but it was so crowded I decided to follow the senator to the back entrance towards the kitchen, instead. I was a few feet behind him when I heard a girl scream. In the midst of the bedlam Bobby lay on the floor, shot in the head by Sirhan Sirhan with a .22 caliber gun.

At this point, I was up on the centre counter, got pushed off, shoved around, my coat torn. I was trying to find space to take the pictures, telling myself, ‘This is for history. Bobby would understand. Don’t let me mess up today.’ 

I put the exposed rolls of film in my sock in case the police ordered me to empty my camera and was the last photographer to leave the kitchen that night. I knew everything I photographed would be important historically. I had done my job.

I didn’t go to the hospital that night, there was no hope. I had seen Bobby lying on the floor, eyes glazed, blood flooding from the back of his head. Words just cannot express the horror and sadness of the situation.

James Brown, Augusta, 1979

This was a lot of fun to do and James was a great sport, but when I got to his home he was actually in the living room with his hair in curlers.
I just started taking photographs. He eventually turned to me and told me to jump in his car, saying that he wanted to show me around his town. So off we went.

Every so often, James would stop the car, jump out and run into someone’s yard. He would then do the splits and shout, “I feel good!” As people stood staring, he would quickly jump back in the car and drive off.

It was such a fun thing to photograph, but I think the best part was probably looking at the reactions of the people whose yard he was in. Here was James Brown, this absolute legend, running at them and doing the splits on their front lawn. That’s something they’re going to remember for the rest of their lives.

Amy Winehouse, The Savoy Hotel, London, 2007 

I found Amy to be very professional and personable, not at all what I had expected.  And she was all business in the recording studio. Island Records executive Shane O’Neill was there to keep things moving along as we worked to get photographs for an album she was recording at the time. But I like this portrait of her as she looks lovely and intensely focused. She really was a great talent. 

Mia Farrow and Frank Sinatra, Truman Capote Ball, Plaza Hotel, NYC,  1966

Everyone wanted to be invited to what is still being called the ‘party of the century’. It was the hottest ticket in town – it’s said that those who weren’t invited went out of town for the night. It seemed everyone who was there was famous for one reason or another. The party was given in honour of Kay Graham, owner of the Washington Post, and for the detectives who broke the murder case Capote wrote about in his ground-breaking, non-fiction novel, In Cold Blood. Truman was on top of the world.

But the thing was that you weren’t allowed in without a mask. Sinatra, with his tough-guy image must have felt a little bit silly coming up the stairs in a cat-mask with actress wife, Mia Farrow as a butterfly. Someone yelled at Frank, “Hey Frankie Bat-Man.” A scowling Sinatra looked up directly at me and I snapped the photograph. 

Andy Warhol and Bianca Jagger, The Factory, NYC, 1977

I first met Andy Warhol when I came to New York in 1964 with The Beatles, when he was making one of his underground films, and I photographed some of his entourage at the Chelsea Hotel. But I hadn’t seen him for some time. Bianca Jagger suggested we have lunch at The Factory, Warhol’s studio.

The talk was mostly about politics and Warhol, with his quiet voice, was controlling the conversation – but in a pleasant way. He was snapping photographs as well, documenting the day for his magazine, Interview

He was fascinated to learn that I knew, and had photographed, the eccentric but fascinating chess champion Bobby Fischer and said he would love to meet him. Personally I think he would have had as much chance of getting Queen Elizabeth to The Factory – Bobby was the most reclusive person I have ever met.

But what’s interesting to me about the photograph is that it’s two consecutive frames, first he’s in focus and she’s not, but in the second frame taken immediately afterward, I had changed the focus and it’s the reverse.

Photography: Harry Benson