When The Beatles launched the British Invasion era of rock ‘n’ roll by appearing on “The Ed Sullivan Show” in February 1964, thousands of young people were captivated by their sound. Carlo Cantamessa ’83 (CLAS) was one of them.
He remembered the reaction of his older sister to the band’s appearance on television and decided he wanted to learn to play the guitar. He started taking guitar lessons near his home in Waterbury, Conn., and eventually formed a band with friends, playing a variety of rock and pop songs, but always going back to playing songs by The Beatles.
For nearly 35 years, Cantamessa has continued to play The Beatles’ songs, performing on stage as John Lennon in “The Neatles,” “Beatle Magic: The Show,” various touring incarnations of “Beatlemania,” and his current show, “The Cast of Beatlemania,” with other veteran musicians who have specialized as the Mop Tops in various tribute bands over the years.
Along the way he has compiled a collection of vintage and replica instruments used by the band in order to authenticate the sound of The Beatles. An exhibition from his collection of 1960s instruments, “Vintage Beatles Guitars,” opens in the Plaza Gallery of the Homer Babbidge Library on Aug. 1 and continues through Oct. 25. It is the first time the instruments will be exhibited.
“I’ve got friends who are musicians who never got into the Beatle thing,” Cantamessa says. “I get two comments that kind of irk me, but I understand where they come from: ‘Are you playing music or just The Beatles?’ Another invariably says: ‘If I had your talent, I’d do more with it.’ I say: ‘I have this talent and this is what I chose to do with it, and I think I did OK.’ I still listen to Beatles music. It sounds just as fresh as when I first heard it on the radio.”
The ability of Cantamessa and his band of musicians – Lenie Colacino as Paul McCartney, Jim Filgate as George Harrison, John Delgado as Ringo Starr, and musical director Mark Templeton off-stage on keyboards – to re-create the sound of The Beatles on stage is aided by having the same models of instruments as those used by the original band. The Beatles used guitars made in the late 1950s and early 1960s by American-based guitar manufacturers Rickenbacker, Gretsch, Fender, and Gibson, along with British-made Vox amplifiers. McCartney’s left-handed playing made the German-made Hofner violin bass famous. Starr used an American-made Ludwig drum kit.
Cantamessa says he and his group have worked diligently over the years to maintain the authenticity of the original Beatles recordings, not only by playing the same instruments, but by trying to get closer to the original vocal arrangements. He adds that the “Beatles Anthology,” a three part, double-CD volume released in the 1990s, contained many previously unreleased versions of the group’s recordings that offered new insights into the music.
“You hear different harmonies where Lennon takes one part, jumps to another part, and then jumps back down,” Cantamessa says. “Then you do it with the band and, wow, it makes a big difference. [With Paul] on ‘I Saw Her Standing There,’ I remember specifically Lenie looked over and said: ‘I’ve been singing it wrong for 20 years.’ We do it. I sing my part, it sounds really good. Suddenly the hairs on your neck go up.”
“The Cast of Beatlemania” show continues to keep Cantamessa busy throughout the year, making it an enjoyable second career. He operates a family business in Wolcott, Conn., PSI-New England Storage Products, a shelving and storage products firm specializing in shelving, lockers, and library furnishings. The exhibition resulted from conversations with staff at the Babbidge Library, a client he has worked with for many years. He also has developed a solo performance, “In My Life: The John Lennon Tribute,” after requests from some promoters to have a solo Lennon show.
“I like the band thing, but [the solo], it’s fun,” he says. “It solved a couple of internal conflicts: Am I good enough to do it alone? Can I do it alone? Yeah. When I do my solo show, I get to do songs [the audience] might not remember, or how they became something else, like ‘If I Fell’ later became ‘Woman.’ But I would rather have the other guys up there, and hear the other parts of the song.”
Cantamessa has a busy summer performing with “The Cast of Beatlemania,” and has several fall dates scheduled, with more sure to come. With a new Beatles musical, “Let It Be,” arriving in New York, “Beatles LOVE” thriving in Las Vegas, and other Beatles tribute shows touring around the world, there continues to be an enthusiastic audience for the music.
“There is something magical about the Beatles’ music,” Cantamessa says. “You don’t have to be a fan of the entire catalog. At a show we have people come up to say [they’re] fans of the early music. Then a husband or wife will say: ‘I love the Sgt. Pepper stuff,’ or ‘I love the later stuff, that’s my favorite part of the show.’ There is just something magical that not only we feel, but the audience feels and we get to integrate together. We have this collective, emotional bond when you’re doing the show that you are touching this music that is ethereal and great and will never be captured again.”
“Vintage Beatle Guitars” by Carlo Cantamessa will be on display through Oct. 25 in the Plaza Gallery of the Homer Babbidge Library. A reception will be held on Sept. 29 from 3 to 5 p.m.