50 Years of Beatles: 'The greatest showbiz town ever'

Penn State Laureate Kenneth Womack’s essay series, “50 Years of Beatles,” continues with a look at Penn State Altoona's upcoming International Beatles Celebration.

On Feb. 7, 1964, the Beatles arrived to unprecedented fanfare at New York City’s newly renamed John F. Kennedy International Airport. With “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and "Meet the Beatles!" ruling the top slots in the Billboard hit singles and albums charts, Beatlemania had come to America. And as cultural life in the 50 intervening years has demonstrated, it had come to stay.

Years later, during the production of the Beatles’ "Anthology" television miniseries in the early 1990s, Paul McCartney described the United States as the “greatest showbiz town ever,” astutely referring to the nation’s commercial power as the world’s most lucrative entertainment marketplace. Indeed, on Feb. 9, 1964, the Beatles had captured the hearts and minds of Americans for the first time during their legendary performance on "The Ed Sullivan Show." The band mates played five numbers that evening on the popular variety show — including “All My Loving,” “Till There Was You,” “She Loves You,” “I Saw Her Standing There” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand” — before a television audience of some 73 million viewers. It was a watershed moment, by any measure, in popular musical and cultural history.

While Americans will be treated to a host of retrospectives during the coming week, truly understanding the Beatles’ resounding impact upon world culture is a far more complicated matter altogether. In many ways, we are still trying to understand the nature of the band’s achievement and the remarkable artistic heights that they accomplished through their enduring body of work.

At Penn State Altoona, conference attendees at the upcoming international Beatles celebration will be doing their level best to provide expert analysis and introspection about the Fab Four at the event, which will be held  Feb. 6 to 9. In addition to art exhibits, book exhibitions and paper presentations, visitors will be treated to a host of top-flight speakers and performers, including Mark Lewisohn, who is, quite arguably, the world’s leading authority on the Beatles. Among his many contributions to Beatles scholarship is his discovery of such facts as the precise date when John Lennon first met Paul McCartney. Volume 1 of Lewisohn’s much anticipated three-volume biography of the band was published in October 2013 and has emerged as an international best-seller.

Attendees will also enjoy an appearance by music theorist and musician Walter Everett, the author of the celebrated two-volume "Beatles as Musicians" series, published by Oxford University Press. In a similar vein, conference goers will be treated to a performance and presentation by Andy Babiuk, a musician, writer, and music-industry professional for more than 25 years, as well as the author of "Beatles Gear," for which he interviewed over 400 people who worked with or were closely associated with the Beatles, listened to hundreds of recordings, watched miles of film, and amassed a vast library of documents and photographic evidence of the Beatles using their instruments and equipment.

Rounding out the conference’s roster of keynote speakers are Jude Southerland Kessler and Richard Langham. Kessler is the author of three volumes in a projected nine-book biographical collection, "The John Lennon Series." Kessler began writing the first volume in 1986, spending 25 positioning herself as one of the top Lennon research authorities by conducting multiple interviews in Liverpool and the United States; by collecting and reading hundreds of books about Lennon; and by utilizing numerous interview DVDs, CDs and periodicals. As the conference’s final keynote speaker, Langham formerly served as a recording engineer at Abbey Road Studios, working with the Beatles during their early recording sessions in 1963 and 1964, as well as during the twilight of their career.

The international Beatles celebration will conclude with a commemorative screening of the band’s appearance on "The Ed Sullivan Show" at 8 p.m. Feb. 9 — exactly 50 years after the broadcast of their original 1964 performance. The conference will be held at Penn State Altoona’s Devorris Downtown Center. For further details, readers are encouraged to visit the conference Website at http://www.altoona.psu.edu/beatles/ .

Kenneth Womack is the author of numerous works of nonfiction, including "Long and Winding Roads: The Evolving Artistry of the Beatles" (2007). He has also written three novels: "John Doe No. 2 and the Dreamland Motel" (2010), "The Restaurant at the End of the World" (2012), and "Playing the Angel" (2013). A professor of English and integrative arts at Penn State Altoona, Womack was selected in April to serve as the sixth Penn State Laureate.

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Last Updated February 18, 2014