Beatles secretary Freda Kelly with Paul McCartney in the early 1960s.
COURTESY OF FREDA KELLY
By Peter McDermott
Freda Kelly’s father was “old school,” she says, and so was John Lennon’s Aunt Mimi. More below about the other Beatle parents, but Mary Elizabeth Smith, who raised Lennon in middle-class gentility, indeed had a stern reputation. Still, she generally smiled for the camera, while Freda’s dad had the look of a friendly Irish farmer or Christian Brother.
He didn’t think much, though, of the leather-clad rockers known as the Beatles. “He’d approve of anybody with a suit and tie,” recalled his daughter.
We learn all of this from an absolute gem of a documentary, “Good Ol’ Freda,” which has been shown at venues all over America and is now available via livestreaming or disc on Netflix.
In 1961, the secretary of the Beatles fan club acquired a boyfriend and passed on her job to Freda Kelly, a fellow Liverpool teenager and regular at the group’s lunchtime gigs at the Cavern Club. She hung out with them there in the band room and she’d telephone Paul McCartney at home to request a song for a friend’s birthday the next day or approach him for money owed on postage.
The 16-year-old had left school and was working in a typing pool. Whereas the other secretaries had posters of Pat Boone, Elvis Presley, Tommy Steele or Cliff Richard, Kelly pinned up a tiny photo of her favorite band. “Who are they,” asked the personnel manager one day. “They’re the Beatles. They’re from Liverpool,” Kelly said. “Never heard of them,” he replied.
Future manager Brian Epstein saw them for the first time at the Cavern in late 1961. Epstein, who ran his family’s record store NEMS, soon began to remold the band’s image. For one thing, like Freda Kelly’s dad, he understood the importance of suits and ties.
In 1962, the manager made Kelly, then 17, a full-timer and she was ensconced in an office in his father’s factory, upstairs from the store. The fact that Eppie, as people called him, had elevated a mere teenager in this way made people respect and take notice of her.
He “had an aura about him,” Kelly recalled, had a posh accent and fine clothes, and came from a well-known Liverpool family. She told Lennon that there seemed to be something different about Eppie, but she couldn’t figure out quite what it was. “You’ve no idea?” the Beatle asked. “No idea about what?” He responded: “Well let’s say this, Free – if you were with him on a desert island, you’d be safe.”
Freda Kelly today. PHOTO: AUSTIN HARGRAVE
Kelly was trusted with the band’s secrets – one of them being Lennon’s marriage in 1962. When a close friend of hers began dating the star, she wished she could tell her the truth, but “when the company you work for asked you not to say things, you have given your word.”
Journalists found her incorruptible, and employees at different levels of the organization thought it best not to cross her.
When McCartney’s stepmother Angie met her, she was surprised to be confronted by a “snip of a teenager,” who was “vivacious and fun.” Angie McCartney adds that Kelly would later become the main communication link between the world-traveling Beatles and their families back in Liverpool.
She first met family members to help deal with fan mail, but regularly on Wednesdays, a traditional work half-day, they would socialize together. Jim McCartney on such occasions tried to educate her about fine liquors, coffee and cheeses, while Harry Harrison proposed to teach her ballroom dancing. The latter activity she found embarrassing because of the age and height difference (their daughter-in-law Patti Boyd described the Harrisons as “quite short and very Liverpudlian”).
But it was with Ringo Starr’s mother, Elsie Starkey Graves, that the bond was closest. The reason was obvious: there were no other Starkey children and Kelly’s mother had died of cancer when she was 18 months. (Ringo, whom Kelly still calls “Richie,” appears on screen with a message at the end of the film.)
When Liverpool gave a civic reception to the Beatles upon their return from their first U.S. tour, the invite was strictly for families only, but Elsie and her husband put her on their list for the dinner. Outside, 200,000 fans showed up. “The penny dropped with me, then, how big they were,” said Kelly, who still works as a secretary.
It was decided at this point to move the operation to London, and Kelly, worried about her father’s health, gave notice to quit. But Epstein and each of the Beatles insisted she stay on to run the office in Liverpool.
By the time she quit the band’s Apple organization another nine years on, Epstein was dead and the Beatles had gone their separate ways.
“My mother never played the fame game,” says Rachel Norris in the film. After she retired to private life, the charming Kelly rarely if ever discussed the old days, even with family. However, now divorced, her elder child, a son, dead, and a grandson newly arrived, she decided she’d talk for the record, but only this one time.
And so finally, what Angie McCartney says was one of the last great untold Beatles stories has been shared -- and with great style.
“Good Ol’ Freda” was directed by Ryan White and he wrote and produced it with Kathy McCabe and Jessica Lawson. It's available on Netflex disc or via livestreaming.