EAST MOLINE — Tom Vaccaro recalls seeing The Beatles in concert as if it were yesterday.
“I remember it very clearly, the songs they sang,” he said recently of attending a 1965 show with his family at the old Comiskey Park in Chicago. He was 11 at the time.
“We were in the upper deck, over third base. They came out of the third-base dugout, walking toward second base where the stage was. People say you can't hear anything at their shows, but I could hear. It was muffled. I compare it to standing outside a room with a door closed. It's not real sharp, but you could hear it. I knew every song they were doing.”
Vaccaro's sister's middle name is Elizabeth, and she went crazy for their cover of “Dizzy Miss Lizzy.” “She loved that. I remember that really clearly,” he said.
An Alleman High School and St. Ambrose University alum, the 64-year-old Davenporter is an artist, actor, director, scenic designer, musician and teacher who will be part of the crowd at Tuesday night's sold-out Paul McCartney concert at the TaxSlayer Center in Moline, the former Beatle's first-ever appearance in the Quad-Cities.
Since '65, Vaccaro has seen Sir Paul live 10 other times, the last in 2012 in St. Louis. He has met him twice.
“Who would have ever thought — never in my wildest dreams I thought he’d come to Moline,” Vaccaro said.
“Paul is very rare. He will do a three-hour show, no intermission. He just goes and goes," Vaccaro said. "He’s got the energy for it. He just loves what he’s doing. Why stop? It’s just incredible. People will be amazed at his stamina, his energy. At any age, that’s incredible.” McCartney will turn 77 June 18.
“The phenomenon of The Beatles, McCartney, crosses all generations, all races,” Vaccaro said. “He he just loves it so much, it's intoxicating. He can't stop. It has to be passion for what he's doing. He doesn't want to be a footnote. He wants to be in everybody's conversation. He's staying relevant."
Up close and personal with celebs
The first time Vaccaro met McCartney was in 2005 at a concert in Des Moines. Vaccaro, who was sitting in the 11th row, held up a charcoal drawing he had done of McCartney and his then-wife, Heather, which got McCartney's attention.
“He'd look over and smile, give me the thumbs-up. After the show, he autographed it for me. He was enthusiastic, energetic."
Vaccaro met Paul and his then-fiancee, Nancy Shevell, in 2011 in Las Vegas at the Cirque de Soleil production of The Beatles “LOVE.” Vaccaro gave the couple a drawing he had done of them, and McCartney autographed a copy for him.
“Usually the picture opens the door. It's personal,” he said of the many celebrity portraits he has done that have helped him meet the subjects. “When I saw Paul in Vegas, I was the only person he stopped for on the red carpet.”
"He put his arm around Nancy and said, 'Nancy, you're a star,'" Vaccaro recalled. McCartney and Shevell, now 59, were married in October 2011.
In 2012, Vaccaro did separate drawings of Paul's older children — Stella, Mary and James — and brought them to St. Louis, hoping he'd get another chance to give them to the former Beatle.
Vaccaro saw Shevell at St. Louis' Scottrade Center before the show, introduced himself, and gave her the drawings. He also made a poster of three copies that he held up from his seat during the concert.
During the last song, he walked down to the front row and held up the poster, and McCartney looked at him, smiled, and gave a thumbs-up sign. When Vaccaro got home at 4 a.m., he found an email from the ex-Beatle that said: "Just saw the lovely pictures of my kids you drew. Thank you very much. Cheers, Paul." The email the star sent was from Shevell's business account.
"I had put my email and home address on the back of the portraits. I didn't really expect I would get anything," Vaccaro said. "I was very surprised, very pleased."
50 years of famous faces
The first portrait Vaccaro did was of Robert Kennedy, after he was assassinated in June 1968. Vaccaro, who then lived in Rock Island, was 14 at the time. “I had a fascination with the Kennedys. When I was about 6 years old, I got to meet John F. Kennedy when he was campaigning in Rock Island,” he said.
Bob Hope (1903-2003) was the subject of the first portrait Vaccaro got autographed. That happened in 1976, when the comedian was commencement speaker for Vaccaro's St. Ambrose graduating class.
Each portrait takes about six to eight hours to complete. Early on, he hand-drew his copies, but in ensuing years, he has started making copies of the portraits, giving the originals to his subjects, then having them autograph the copies.
“They're so nice about it,” Vaccaro said of the celebrities who have signed his portraits.
He got to spend 45 minutes with comedian Red Skelton (1913-1997) in 1980 at Western Illinois University in Macomb. Vaccaro had a friend on the committee that brought Skelton to campus.
“He got out some of his paintings, and we talked about art together," Vaccaro said. "He carries them with him wherever he goes. And he brought a keyboard with him, and he wrote a little song every day. Forty-five minutes I got to spend with him, just two guys talking about painting. In most cases, that's what it is, leveling.
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“Not that I'm on the level of Paul McCartney. But here's my art; you bring your art,” he said. “We meet artist to artist, instead of just some guy handing him a piece of paper. That's what I really enjoy about it, that personal connection. Usually it's used to get to them, to get their attention.”
Among the subjects he's drawn and received autographs from are Ringo Starr in 2000 in St. Louis, Peter Noone of Herman's Hermits in 2001 in Dubuque, film star Mickey Rooney (1920-2014) in 2001 at Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse in Rock Island, Davy Jones of the Monkees in 2011 in Bettendorf, and Mike Love of the Beach Boys at Milwaukee's Summerfest a couple years ago.
Vaccaro met singer Kenny Rogers in the early '90s when he was performing at the Adler Theatre in Davenport. Rogers made use of local choirs for a couple of songs. Vaccaro was in the First Presbyterian Church Choir, which got to sing with him. Next to his autograph, Rogers wrote: “You do beautiful work.”
Friendship with George's sis
Vaccaro struck up a friendship with George Harrison's older sister, Louise, in 2000, when he met her at a Beatles festival in Chicago and gave her a drawing he did of the former Beatle, hoping she could have him sign it. Unfortunately, George Harrison died of lung cancer in November 2001, at age 58.
"I have it on my wall. It's lovely, beautiful," Louise Harrison said in 2011 of the portrait.
Vaccaro has kept in touch with her over the years, especially since 2006, when the Beatles tribute act she hand-picked, Liverpool Legends, launched in Branson, Mo.
"I've seen many tribute bands; they're clearly the best," Vaccaro said, noting the band has performed a number of times in the Quad-Cities. "They themselves are more like Beatles were off-stage, their sense of humor. These guys are what we perceive them to be. They have the humor, the sincerity. Their sound is absolutely perfect.”
He said Louise had his George portrait put on T-shirts she often wore to Liverpool Legends gigs. She's now in her late 80s, and the last time Vaccaro saw her was two years ago, he said.
'Yesterday' is his favorite
Like his idol, Vaccaro plays bass and sings. The Generations Band, which he formed 12 years ago, specializes in songs from the '60s and '70s.
The band will perform a pre-McCartney show at 6 p.m. Tuesday at Rascals Live, 1415 15th St., Moline. A shuttle will be available to take people from Rascals to the TaxSlayer Center.
Eight to 10 Beatles songs are among the band's repertoire, and Vaccaro called “Yesterday” his favorite.
“The lyrics are so well written, and it's such a beautiful song,” Vaccaro said.
He cited “Jet” and “Silly Love Songs” as favorites from McCartney's 49-year post-Beatles career, along with the 2005 album “Chaos and Creation in the Backyard.”
In addtion to admiring McCartney' prolific songwriting success, Vaccaro also marvels at his dexterity across instruments, noting he not only plays bass, but also piano, acoustic and electric guitar, and ukulele for Harrison's “Something.”
“He can play anything,” Vaccaro said.
Offering description for visually impaired
Vaccaro has had a long career in TV broadcasting, theater and music, and he currently teaches part-time courses on film history at Black Hawk College, Moline, and English-language skills at Scott Community College, Bettendorf.
Also, for 35 years, he has provided audio description services at area theaters for visually impaired audience members.
Blind or otherwise impaired audience members get wireless receivers and use an earbud to listen to Vaccaro offer narration, describing sets, costumes and actions of actors, while taking care to not talk over dialogue or songs.
“Our slogan is, 'The visual made verbal,'" he said, noting he usually sits in an area where other patrons can't hear him speak into a mic. “It's like if you turn on your TV, turn away from the picture so you can't see. How much did you miss?”
“It's all about equality; I'm very much a person who believes in equality, inclusion,” Vaccaro said. “Theater should be based on our desire, not on our ability or disability. My favorite quote from somebody is, they said, 'I feel like I actually saw the show tonight.'”
He treasures the communal experience people get through theater productions, films and live concerts.
“You go with people, talk about it, sit together, laugh together, and you cry together,” Vaccaro said. “It's a reflection of the human experience.”