50 Years Of Beatle Mania - Legendary Photographer Harry Benson On The Fab Four
Larry Olmsted , Contributor
In January 1964 the Beatles toured Europe, having just become a sensation with the release of their debut album the year before. While playing a series of concerts in France, they stayed at the George V hotel in Paris (now the Four Seasons George V). The Beatles’ residency here was short but very important, as they wrote the hit “I Feel Fine” in their hotel room, a song that would go to Number One on both the US and UK charts. It was in the same room that they received the phone call inviting them to visit the US for the first time. They accepted, and 50 years ago last month the group famously landed to a mob scene reception at New York’s JFK and appeared on the Ed Sullivan show, watched by more than a third of the US population. The British Invasion had begun and the rest is rock and roll history.
The Beatles were not alone in their Paris hotel room or on their inaugural US tour. They were joined by legendary photographer Harry James Benson, CBE, who has shot a litany of global celebrities and political figures, including Elizabeth Taylor, Michael Jackson, Queen Elizabeth, Dwight Eisenhower – and every US president since Ike. Benson has won countless awards, published several books, and worked for the biggest magazines inducing the New Yorker, Vanity Fair, and Life. He personally photographed more than 100 covers for People Magazine. Yet he is best known as the photographer of the Beatles, producing many iconic images, especially from that first tour. If you have seen the famous picture of the group enjoying a pillow fight, it was shot by Benson in the George V.
The Beatles half a century ago, composing songs in their hotel room at the George V in Paris, where they wrote the Number One hit “I Feel Fine.” Photo: Harry Benson
In honor of the 50th anniversary, the Four Seasons George V in Paris is running a photo exhibition of Benson’s iconic shots of the Beatles in the hotel, blown up and displayed in the lobby and in front of the bar (the photos accompanying this story are used with the permission of the photographer and appear in his latest (2013) book, Harry Benson: The Beatles on the Road: 1964-1966).
I recently interviewed Harry Benson about his original experience with the Beatles half a century ago.
Q: You were with the Beatles at the very cusp of their international stardom – did you have any idea how big they would become, or were they just another aspiring band?
A: None of us knew what was about to happen. Even the Beatles thought the excitement would last 18 months at most, and talked about what they would do afterward: John and Paul thought about writing scores for West End musicals, Ringo thought about opening a hairdressers, and George wanted to be a classical guitarist. But very quickly I knew it had changed from being a story about four young men in a band to being a huge breaking news story about how their music and they themselves were changing everything.
Q: What is your most lasting memory of that first trip to the US?
A: Besides the screaming fans everywhere we went, I guess it was going to the Ed Sullivan Show rehearsal before the performance that evening. As they left, John said for me to come along in the car with them and I photographed the girls up against the outside window of the car as we left the Plaza Hotel. When we got to the stage door of the Ed Sullivan Theatre, a guard opened the door just enough for them to get in without letting in any hysterical fans – as the guard was shutting the door in my face, John grabbed my arm and pulled me in with them.
The Beatles, weeks before their famous inaugural US tour and Ed Sullivan Show performance, reading fan mail in their room at the George V Hotel in Paris. Photo: Harry Benson
Q: Compared to the many other celebrities and VIPs you have photographed was it harder, easier, or different working with the Beatles?
A: They were all so young and what was happening was completely new to all of them. They all seemed to get along at that point and were not prima donnas in the least so it made my work easy. Paul I would say would be the one who got everyone organized if we were going somewhere to take a photograph. He could get things going. They were easy to photograph because Brian Epstein, their manager, did not impose any restrictions on me. He was terrific. It’s not that way today.
Q: Celebrities today inspire passionate crowds, but even now, 50 years later, when you see footage from the Beatles landing at JFK or their early shows it somehow seems different. Was “Beatle Mania” more powerful than fandom today?
A: I don’t know – there was Frank Sinatra and then Elvis Presley before the Beatles, but with the Beatles somehow the fame and hysteria hit a whole new level. Beatle Mania swept the world with television an important part of the communication process by that time. Reaching an audience of millions all at once became easy, and the impact was greater. But it all boils down to the music, their fabulous music. And the fact that they were four smart young men, with quick answers, new haircuts, Mod clothes, tight pants and boots. The entire package was unique – completely different from anything we had seen before, and it just worked.
Q: Your Beatles photos have become iconic and are about to be displayed yet again in Paris. As a prominent career photographer who has shot so many different people and subjects over so many years, why do you think these particular photos have stood the test of time so well?
A: Thank you for the kind words. The photographs were taken at the time their songs became number one all over the world. The photographs were taken every day for several weeks at a time and they were behind the scenes – not in a studio. They showed what the Beatles were doing at the time they became famous. And the music – the music is wonderful and withstands the test of time. John and Paul were arguably the best composers of the 20th century. The band is still number one on all the lists. The Beatles changed the way we dress, think, act, everything, and they affected all levels of society – not just the kids, but young and old alike. I am pleased to have photographed them in the beginning when everything was new and history was being made.