By STEVE SEYMOUR
Visiting Chicago's annual Fest for Beatles Fans is both a trip to the past and evidence the British group's influence continues unabated today.
Fans have converged on the Windy City annually since 1977, first at the Palmer Hotel, then at the Hyatt Regency O'Hare when the thousands of music enthusiasts could no longer be accommodated at the original location.
While my wife Sue and I didn't attend the confab earlier this month, we were reminded of our Aug. 14-16, 1998 trip when we witnessed a performance by John Lennon's 1950s era skiffle band, the Quarrymen.
The group included Pete Shotton, washboard and guitar; Eric Griffiths, guitar; Len Garry, tea chest bass and guitar; Colin Hanton, drums; and Rod Davis, banjo and guitar.
Recreating songs from their 50s repertoire, the group performed hits by Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Gene Vincent, with vocals by Garry. Shotton, meanwhile, stepped up to the microphone to cover material by British skiffle legend Lonnie Donegan. Between songs, they reminisced.
Historically, the Quarrymen, with Lennon on guitar and vocals, played together for just four months beginning in July, 1957. Still, as a precursor to the Beatles, they rank as an important group in the annals of rock 'n' roll. That's because Paul McCartney met 16-year-old Lennon at a Quarrymen show, and as they say, the rest is history.
Lennon, who transformed the Quarrymen into the Beatles in succeeding years, also lent his support to the first fan convention, which presaged the Quarrymen's appearance in Chicago.
The idea for annual get-togethers for Beatles fans originated with Mark Lapidos, who sought to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the group's arrival in America. The assistant manager of a record store, Lapidos approached Lennon with his notion in the spring of 1974, telling him he envisioned a convention "with films, special guests, live concerts, art museum and art contest, flea market, discussions, look-alike and sound-alike contests, auctions and a charity raffle."
Lapidos quoted Lennon as saying, "I'm all for it. I'm a Beatles fan, too." In fact, Lennon and the other ex-Beatles cemented their support by donating items for the charity raffle.
The first convention was held in New York City in 1974, just months after Lapidos met with Lennon. Chicago was added to the schedule in 1977, becoming the biggest such convention, attracting up to 10,000 fans. Other shows have been held in Las Vegas, San Franciso, Los Angeles, Seattle, Atlanta, Houston, Dallas, Orlando, Boston and Philadelphia.
With friends Bob and Carol Nygaard of Sault Ste. Marie, Sue and I have been fortunate enough to attend three or four of the Illinois fests, which have always been entertaining and impressive.
For three days fans attend continuous activities in 14 ballrooms and areas throughout the hotel.
One of the biggest draws is the Beatles marketplace where over 100 dealers from the United States, Canada and Britain sell rare records and memorabilia. One of the largest dealers is Lapidos himself who sells more than 1,000 licensed items including compact discs, DVDs, books and t-shirts. If you need a Flip Your Wig Game, pins, posters or a set of bubble gum cards, this is the place to get it.
Another popular attraction is Jeff Ausburger's world famous collection of Beatles memorabilia. Video fans can congregate in a special room showing the group's movies and promotional films. Other rooms include a Beatles trivia game contest, laser karaoke show and even a demonstration with puppeteer Bob Abdou pulling the strings of John, Paul, George and Ringo.
Live entertainment is a highlight. "Liverpool," named after the Beatles' hometown, amazes audiences with their faithful recreations of Fab Four songs in concert performances which often include authentic costumes. Dozens of solo musicians and duos also perform their renditions of Beatles songs in various contests. One evening includes a "Battle of the Beatles Bands," with 30 competing groups. Rabid fans also gather informally to sing Beatles songs under the stairwells in the hotel through the night.
During the weekend events, fans also have the opportunity to meet numerous celebrities. One of the most popular has been Louise Harrison, the Beatle's sister.
Folks attending the Fest for Beatles Fans in Chicago earlier this month were treated to a repeat performance by the Quarrymen, the group we saw in 1998, although depleted with the 2005 death of Griffiths and the retirement of Shotton, one of John Lennon's closest friends.
That his 50s era band, reunited since 1997, is still touring half a century after it was founded would probably have amused Lennon, who died in 1980. That interest in the Quarrymen has continued all these years would probably have intrigued him, as well.