Local man owns massive collection of rock and roll history
One night, probably in 1961, a young woman named Erica went to a little club in Liverpool called the Cavern to take in a show. Of the acts performing that night, one was an up-and-coming group of local lads called The Beatles. When the show was over, Erica asked the group to sign a piece of paper and they did: John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Pete Best.
Uber-collector Tom Fontaine has thousands of bits of pop culture history, including a T-shirt worn by Buddy Holly.
There was also a group called Rory Storm and the Hurricanes on the bill that night, and on the opposite side of the piece of paper, she asked the garrulous drummer of that group to pen his name. That drummer was Ringo Starr. And that is how the Fab Four — plus one — all ended up signing the same piece of paper on the same night. I know this because that piece of paper, along with thousands of other bits of pop culture history, is currently in the collection of Indianapolis resident Tom Fontaine. From the first-aid kit that belonged to Elvis when he was in the Army to a necklace worn by Jimi Hendrix, Fontaine’s collection touches on nearly every great moment in the history of rock and roll. But it all began with The Beatles. “When I was 6,” Fontaine recalls, “I was playing on my street when a big rain storm blew through. I saw these girls running across the street to catch a bus, and I noticed all these things flying up in the air behind them. When the rain stopped, I went to where the girls had been and found a bunch of Beatles trading cards.” The cards led to an interest in the band, which led to records and magazines related to The Beatles and, eventually, to other musical groups. In the late ’70s, Fontaine began collecting in earnest. The urge to gather artifacts from his favorite bands was partly a way to recapture those halcyon days of his youth. Also, as he says, “You’re witnessing a part of history. You’re not there, but these things were signed or produced at the time. It’s the one way that you can be a part of that history.” As if that wasn’t enough, his love of The Beatles is also one of the things he had in common with Mary, the woman who would become his wife. They’ve been married for 18 years now, and they often travel to memorabilia conventions together. In order to ensure that the items in his collection are really what they appear to be, Fontaine has learned how to authenticate the things he buys. “I go into when and where things were signed, as well as what authentic signatures look like. And, through reputation, I learned who to buy from. It takes a lot of patience and experience.” His patience paid off. He became so good at telling legitimate collectibles from shams, in fact, that he has become a noted expert on the subject, quoted in books and magazines as an authority on verifying autographs, especially signatures of The Beatles. While Fontaine doesn’t quite consider himself a dealer, he does occasionally sell pieces of his collection. He does it, in large part, so that he can continue to collect. Just last year, at an auction that was held at the Hard Rock Cafe in Indianapolis, he sold a copy of Meet the Beatles that was signed by all four members backstage at their first appearance on the Ed Sullivan show. The album set a record that still stands, selling for $77,000. And then there is the piano once owned by Elton John. It was on this instrument, in fact, that Elton composed the music for his first five albums. That piano is currently on loan to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, along with a jumpsuit that once belonged to Elton, although it looks more like something the Vegas-era Elvis would have worn with its plunging collar and shimmering rhinestones. These items will be coming back to Fontaine next year, but he is open to displaying them again, along with the rest of his collection. “The main thing is getting some kind of sponsorship, because it takes a lot of time and effort to put a decent exhibition together.” Take it from someone who has seen only a fraction of the collection, witnessing such an exhibition would be like a trip to rock and roll heaven, without the inconvenience of dying. Anyone interested in contacting Fontaine can do so at T1964J@aol.com.