Before 'Get Back' Documented The Beatles' Final Days, Harry Benson Photographed Their Early Days
Updated: Dec 14, 2021
HARRY BENSON, THE LEGENDARY photographer who will forever be linked with The Beatles, has only watched Part One of Get Back, Peter Jackson's new three-part documentary about the iconic band’s Let It Be sessions.
Benson, who turned 92 on Dec. 2, said he’ll get around to watching it one of these days. But he's not in a rush.
Besides, he has plenty of his own Beatles memories. He was with them when they first came to America.
Long before settling in as a Wellington snowbird and fixture at the Holden Luntz Gallery in Palm Beach, Benson was a no-nonsense newspaperman who documented the rise of Beatlemania through photographs that have become almost as famous as the Fab Four.
Get Back, a candid account of the Beatles’ final days, is a unique viewing experience, thanks to Jackson’s editing of more than 55 hours of unseen footage, filmed in 1969 by Michael Lindsay-Hogg.
But Benson’s still photos of the Beatles on their first trip to America in early 1964 are just as powerful and candid. They may not be motion pictures, but they’re pictures with motion, timeless images, many captured behind the scenes, of four young musicians on the cusp of worldwide fame.
When the Beatles learned “I Want To Hold Your Hand had topped the U.S. charts, sparking a playful celebratory pillow fight, Benson was in the room with them.
When the Beatles took their first steps on U.S. soil, Benson was right behind them, aiming his camera from the door of a Pan Am jet that had just landed in New York City from London.
When the Beatles performed on "The Ed Sullivan Show,'' strolled in the Miami Beach surf and sparred in the ring with boxer Cassius Clay, Benson was there, too.
A Glasgow native who got his start shooting weddings in 1949, Benson had developed a reputation as a competitive and unflappable journalist long before the Beatles came along. But photographing the rise of Beatlemania, an assignment he initially resisted, catapulted his career on a remarkable trajectory.
He went on to photograph kings and queens, princesses and presidents, celebrities and athletes, along with landmark news events, from the civil rights movement to the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy to the resignation of Richard Nixon.
His photographs have appeared on the covers of Life, Vanity Fair and People magazines. Many are on display at The Smithsonian, a gesture of the prestige earned by a widely-respected photojournalist who has been honored by Queen Elizabeth II and featured in a documentary, Harry Benson: Shoot First.
And it all might never have happened if he’d gotten his way one day in early 1964 when he resisted an assignment to photograph a new band from Liverpool.
Meet the Beatles...in Paris
Benson was about to board a plane for an assignment in Uganda when his editor at The Daily Express called to tell him there had been a change of plans.
Benson was going to France, instead, to photograph an up-and-coming band called The Beatles, who were playing 18 shows in Paris between Jan. 16 and Feb. 4 before embarking on their first U.S. tour.
He was not thrilled.
“I was a serious journalist,’’ he said. “‘Why am I being sent on this?’ I was not a ‘rock-n-roll photographer.’’’
But once he arrived, he was won over by his young, energetic subjects — and by the excitement they generated everywhere they went.
“When I heard the music and was around them, you could see the crowds gathering, and it was like, ‘OK, I’m on the right story,’’ he said. “They were a phenomenon. ‘Beatlemania,’ as they called it, it was true.’’
The Pillow Fight
Lucky for Benson, The Daily Express booked a room for their photographer in the same hotel as The Beatles, the luxurious King George V. That helped him gain access to The Beatles’ suite late one night after photographing them at one of their concerts at the Olympia Theater.
“They had so much pent up energy after a performance, and they really couldn’t go out because they would be mobbed,’’ Benson recalled.
Instead, John, Paul, George and Ringo hung out in their hotel suite with a guest, Harry Benson of The Daily Express.
The Beatles were sitting around talking and drinking when their manager, Brian Epstein, burst into the room with big news: “I Want to Hold Your Hand” had just topped the American charts.
Epstein returned to the room a half hour later with more news: The Beatles had been booked on "The Ed Sullivan Show.''
It was 3 a.m. but John, Paul, George and Ringo were wide awake and excited and ready to celebrate.
Benson remembered how, a few hours earlier, one of the Beatles had remarked, ‘‘That was some pillow fight we had the other night.’’
And the idea hit him.
“I thought it would be fun to have (another) pillow fight,’’ he said.
But a Round Two did not interest the Beatles.
“When I suggested the pillow fight, John Lennon said to me, ‘That’s terrible and ridiculous that you should ask this because you’re making us look like stupid kids.’ And the other three agreed, ‘Yeah, right.’’’
So much for that idea, Benson thought as he stretched out on a settee.
A few moments later, Paul McCartney was sipping a brandy when Lennon crept up behind him and knocked him in the head with a pillow.
Benson grabbed his camera and started shooting.
“I wanted a picture with movement. I always like movement in my photographs. Movement catches your attention,’’ he said. “I didn't want a picture of four pretty little boys smiling into the camera.’’
Benson dissected the pillow fight photos in a 2014 interview with The Guardian.
“I like the fact Paul is hitting John and John is hitting George,’’ he said.
“There is a flow that makes the picture pretty perfect. Paul is the key. You see how his pillow is up? That's what makes the shot move. The composition reminds me of the famous Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima shot.’’
"I Feel Fine"
On that same Paris trip, Benson once again managed to embed himself in the right place at the time — in the room with Lennon and McCartney as they sat at a piano, “taking no notice of what was going on around them,’’ composing a new song.
George Harrison and Ringo Starr wandered over and joined them. Benson followed and went to work with his camera.
The song they were composing that day, “I Feel Fine,’’ would be recorded 10 months later in October and released in November as their eighth single, which topped the charts around the world.
“It seemed John and Paul could compose anywhere,’’ Benson recalled in an interview with Holden Luntz Gallery. “It was fascinating to watch how intense they were while creating a song.’’
Pan Am Flight 101
On Feb. 7, 1964, Harry Benson came to America, on the same Pan Am Yankee Clipper flight that carried the Beatles from London to New York.
Benson wasn’t the only British journalist on the flight. But he was the only photographer with the foresight to set up a unique shot of the band’s arrival at Kennedy airport.
“I had arranged with them to turn around and look at me as they exited the plane,’’ he recalled in an interview with the Holden Luntz Gallery. “But in the excitement of the moment, they forgot.
“I called out for them to turn around. Ringo heard me and reminded the other three and I took the photo.’’
Benson said the photo is special for him because it was the first time he arrived in America. “I never went back,’’ he said.
‘It was your fault, Benson!’
For the next few weeks, Benson followed the Beatles to the Sullivan show, to the streets of Washington D.C., where he photographed them throwing snowballs, and to the beaches of Miami.
Among his most memorable images are the photos he shot of 22-year-old boxer Cassius Clay (soon to be known as Muhammad Ali) meeting the Beatles at the 5th Street Gym in Miami.
Clay was in town training for his fight with heavyweight champion Sonny Liston at the Miami Convention Center one week later. The Beatles were in town to film their second appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show” at Miami’s Deauville Hotel.
Benson knew the pre-fight excitement presented a photo op for the young musicians from Liverpool. But Clay, the challenger, wasn’t their first choice.
The Beatles wanted to be photographed with Liston, the reigning champ. When Benson approached Liston, it did not go well.
“Liston told me, ‘I don’t want to see those bums. Don’t let those bums near me,’’’ he recalled.
He never told the Beatles what Liston had said. “I didn’t want to hurt their feelings.’’
Instead, he took them to the 5th Street Gym, where Clay trained. It didn’t take long for the Beatles to realize that they’d be posing with the 7-to-1 underdog and not the champ.
When Clay jumped into the ring to greet the band, all five of them hammed it up.
Clay pretended to hit George Harrison. He lifted Starr and cradled him in his arms. The four Beatles lay down on the floor of the ring and made believe they were knocked out, while Clay stood above them raising his fists.
It produced memorable photographs, but The Beatles weren’t happy.
“He completely manipulated them,’’ Benson recalled. ‘’‘Lay down, do this, do that, and when I say who is the champion you will reply, you are.’ And I’m taking pictures of all this.’’
After the band left the gym, Lennon let loose with a few verbal jabs at Benson.
“Afterward, John Lennon said, ‘You took us to the wrong person. He's not the champion. He's not going to be the champion,’’’ Benson recalled.
“‘You know he just used us as suckers and fools and it was your fault, Benson.’ He wouldn't talk to me for a couple of weeks. Of course, Clay wins the fight easily.’’
"You photograph what you see"
On that trip, Benson developed a rapport with the Beatles, and over the years became friends with them. But his passion to document news and current events took him away from the band.
“When they left Miami, they wanted me to go with them someplace else and I didn't do it because I wanted to get back to doing news stories again,’’ he said.
“I didn’t mind coming in for a few weeks or a few days with The Beatles. It was fun but it was hard work. It was always changing, where they would go, who they would meet.’’
Though Benson went to enjoy an award-winning career with a photographic body of work ranging from world leaders and celebrities to major news events, he is forever linked with The Beatles.
His Beatles images have been published in several books, including “Harry Benson: The Beatles on the Road, 1964-1966” and “Once There Was A Way ... Photographs of The Beatles.”
His latest book, “Paul” (released in August by Taschen), focuses on some of his favorite images of McCartney.
“You photograph what you see,’’ he said. ‘’That's what I've tried to do all my life.’’
Starting Dec. 18, he’ll be among a dozen photographers whose work will be displayed in a new Holden Luntz Gallery exhibit called “Movies Made America.’’
The exhibit runs through Jan. 15 and will include famous Benson photos of Alfred Hitchcock, Jack Nicholson, Al Pacino and many others. The Beatles will be represented, too, in a Benson photograph of McCartney on a train during the making of the movie “A Hard Day’s Night.”
"The Fifth Beatle''
Benson’s photographs of the Beatles offer not just an historical window into the early years of the band but also rare and candid glimpses of four musicians on the rise to stardom.
That he had the intuition and instinct to recognize “the seismic impact” the Beatles would have on society, “to see history in the making,’’ is testament to Benson’s journalistic talents, Luntz said.
“Harry has tremendous street smarts and he sizes up something and he knows if it's going to be a good story or not,’’ Luntz said.
“For Harry to be there, to appropriately understand where to be, where to put the camera, how to make a visual image that not only speaks for the moment but speaks for time itself. that's a rare gift and Harry has that gift.’’
Benson’s photographs of those early years are fresh and unique because he was able to embed himself with the band over 18 months and gain their trust, even if they didn’t always like the photographs he took.
“He had kind of a moniker of ‘the fifth Beatle,’’’ Luntz said.
“They were so used to him being around and so used to his camera that he didn't get a moment or two, he got all the access that anybody could dream of for the biggest story that was happening in media and entertainment and lifestyle.’’
Benson never wanted his career to be defined by The Beatles, but he said he is proud of the important role he played, along with other photographers, in documenting the band’s legacy.
‘’The Beatles will be with us forever,’’ he said. “We keep their image alive (through photographs) but The Beatles were capable of keeping themselves alive because the music was so good.’’
Special thanks to Harry Benson and the Holden Luntz Gallery for use of his photographs.
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