Like most teens in the mid-1960s, Robert Santelli found himself glued to the television as Ed Sullivan introduced the Beatles.
And, like so many, it was a life-changing experience. On that day — Feb. 9, 1964 — 12-year-old Santelli made an emphatic decision – he would be a musician.
“I was a Beatle in my mind,” he says. “The day after seeing the Beatles, I asked my mom for a guitar instead of the football I’d wanted before.”
When the guitar came, Santelli made good use of it. He created a band with his friends, wrote songs and worked his way through college.
His favorite Beatle was John Lennon, because he admired his witty sense of humor. Later, he came to feel the same about “the quiet Beatle, George Harrison.”
Santelli currently works as director of Popular Music Studies and Performing Arts at Oregon State University, teaching American Pop, Roots Music America, a course about artists of special note, as well as a string series.
He also produces programs at Corvallis’ Majestic Theater, regarding American musicians in jazz, blues, folk and bluegrass, featuring string artists covering the likes of Bill Frisell and Guy Davis.
But his career has been so much more. He founded and was executive director of the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles, and has been a freelance music journalist for Rolling Stone and the New York Times. He’s also written various books.
During Barack Obama’s presidency, Santelli spent eight years in Washington, D.C., providing music lectures on American music and musicals. He also arranged musicals at the White House. One of those has been shown on PBS with Paul McCartney.
Among those he worked with, Santelli noted that First Lady Michelle Obama was one of the nicest and smartest people he’d ever met.
The very first program he arranged there celebrated the music of the Civil Rights era, and included about 100 students. But after the program, they found themselves stuck at the White House because of a blizzard.
“While we were working on leaving, the kids started singing the Civil Rights songs and the Secret Service came running,” he says. “They told us, ‘You have to quiet down, The President and First Lady are upstairs sleeping.’”
But the kids kept singing. Later, Santelli asked Mrs. Obama if they had kept her family from sleeping. She told him, “We heard you, but we loved it.”
Bob Dylan was also invited to that program. He sang his well-known anthem, “The Times They Are A-Changin’” with these lyrics:
“Come senators, congressmen,
Please heed the call,
Don’t stand in the doorway,
Don’t block the hall,
For he that gets hurt,
Will be he who has stalled.”
And who was in the room? Senators and congressmen, of course.
Santelli put together numerous musical evenings for the Obamas. As they prepared to leave the White House, Mrs. Obama invited Santelli and his family to their home, where they met and talked with President Obama and took a picture with him. She also arranged a tour of the White House.
As if that wasn’t enough to top off a career, Santelli continues to give lectures about music around the world. He created “Leonard Bernstein at 100,” a program about the 20th-century musician and composer whose music ranged from classical to Broadway.
The show opened last September at Washington, D.C.’s Kennedy Center and is currently showing at Lincoln Center. It has been performed all over the world, from Los Angeles to Tokyo, in London, at LBJ’s Presidential Library in Austin, Texas, and the Clinton Library in Arkansas. It will finish at the Oregon Historical Museum in Portland.
He also developed a large photo exhibit on Bob Dylan and, in January, hosted a Grammy Preview at Monmouth University in New Jersey.
In 2014, he developed “Ladies and Gentlemen, The Beatles.” Like “Bernstein,” it has been shown around the world, and will close at the Oregon Jewish Museum in Portland, in fall 2019.
“I fly all over the world,” Santelli says. “I fly at least once a week. This year I’ve been to three countries in Africa: Gabon, Ghana and South Africa. But I’ve also traveled to Paris, Rome, Osaka and Tokyo.”
What brought him to Corvallis?
“I was living in New Jersey teaching at Rutgers University and wanted to move,” he says. “My daughter was a student at OSU and a swimmer. I came out here to see her swim and fell in love with Corvallis. She got a wonderful education and I got to move here.”
He puts on the American Strings Concert Series at the Majestic Theater in Corvallis, but when the new Performing Arts Center is built at OSU within the next five years, the concert series will move there. He hopes that the new center will have the same impact as the Lincoln Center when it’s completed.
“My hope is that in my own small way, I can help make Corvallis a center for culture and music, not just for Oregon, but for the entire Northwest,” he says. “We work on it every day.”