Good Ol’ Freda: True tales from the Beatles’ loyal secretary

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Michael Gerber

Publisher at The American Bystander
is Blogmom of Hey Dullblog. His novels and parodies have sold 1.25 million copies in 25 languages. He lives in Santa Monica, CA, and runs The American Bystander all-star print humor magazine.
Michael Gerber
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Good Ol' Freda posterGuest review by LINDA MARSHALL-SMITH • When 17-year-old Beatles fan Freda Kelly was hired as Brian Epstein’s secretary in 1962, she couldn’t have known she was in for a uniquely intimate ten-year view of Beatlemania and its aftermath. Unlike many of the Beatles’ former associates, Kelly—a self-described “private person”—has kept her stories of the band under wraps for decades. In Ryan White’s newly released documentary, also available on iTunes, she finally shares her tales. (Well, some of them.)

A Beatles fan’s dream job

Kelly’s firsthand observations about the Beatles and their inner circle make the film well worth watching. She tells stories about John’s myopia, Ringo’s fan mail, George’s taxi service, and participating in the filming of Magical Mystery Tour, among many others. There are limits to Kelly’s openness, however: When questioned about intimate relationships with the band members, she admits to having crushes, but gets schoolgirl giggly and remains coy. Her comment that, after she joined the Beatles organization she “grew up, overnight, in more ways than one” leaves viewers wondering.

The “Scent of the Cavern”

Paul McCartney and Freda Kelly

Paul: an easy touch on birthdays

Kelly’s association with the Beatles began in 1961, when she was working as a secretary in Liverpool. One afternoon, a friend invited her to go to the Cavern.  She saw the Beatles and was instantly hooked; over the next two years she saw over 190 Beatles shows at the club. She remembers being late getting back to work from a lunchtime Cavern excursion and being unable to lie about where she’d been because the “scent of the Cavern” (sweat, decaying fruit, faulty plumbing) was on her clothes.

 She got to know the Beatles by always standing in the same spot at the Cavern, one easily accessible to the “band room” so she could spend time with them during breaks. At this point in their career the Beatles readily took requests, especially Paul. “I’d ring Paul up and say, it’s so and so’s birthday on Wednesday.  Could you sing her favorite song for us, Paul?”  He always came through.

Making John Lennon beg

While Kelly clearly enjoyed working for the Beatles, she admits that her role had its difficulties, with John Lennon’s mercurial nature being one of them. At one point John wanted to fire her for spending what he thought was too much time in the Moody Blues’ band room. When it was clear the other Beatles didn’t want her fired, John said he was only kidding. Kelly told him to get down on one knee and beg forgiveness, and he did. Quite a testament to Kelly’s importance to the band!

John’s extramarital affairs also affected Kelly. For one thing, he dated a close friend of hers; for another, Kelly was told by Brian Epstein not to reveal that John was married. She kept the secret, of course, but was conflicted about it. But Kelly also highlights how John could be kind—as on the day she mentioned she felt there was something “off” about Brian. John took her aside and explained Brian’s sexual preference in an affectionate and humorous way.

Brian Epstein emerges as having an exacting work ethic, and a temper. He was ready to fire anyone who didn’t come up to his standards; he might hire you back, but might not. Kelly was one of the only people in the Beatles camp who was never fired by Brian, although she did come close when she accidentally erased part of a Dictaphone tape. She says that on this occasion John saved her job by stepping in and ribbing Brian, making a joke of the incident.

 Good Ol’ Freda: Brisk and Well-Shot

Overall, the documentary is shot well and moves quickly, taking Kelly to significant places in her life with the Beatles. We see her at the Civic Center, for example, where they had their triumphant return to Liverpool greeted by 200,000 fans. At Ringo’s childhood home in Dingle, Freda talks of how close she was to Ringo’s mum. She helped all the parents deal with the happy calamity of Beatlemania; the onslaught of fan mail, and the bevy of girls who would hang out at each Beatles’ house waiting for a glimpse.

Freda Ringo George 1967Intercut with clips and historic photos, the majority of the first half of the film is a one-shot of Kelly sitting on a sofa, reminiscing about her days as Beatles secretary.  The couch is positioned beneath a staircase that cuts off the room and hangs over her head as a symbol, perhaps, of her keeping the lid on her experiences for so long.  This symbolism notwithstanding, I would have liked to see her interviewed in a more cinematic room or at least a little more attention paid to the art direction.

Never Capitalized on Her Access

Almost as amazing as Kelly’s experiences with the Beatles is her not having sought fame or money for her memorabilia or stories. When she left the Beatles’ employ in 1972, she gathered up some leftover autographed photos, some locks of Beatle hair, and a few hundred unanswered fan letters, and took the whole lot home.  In 1974, she gave away a large part of her collection to some Beatles fans, something she was glad to do because “I know it went to other fans.”

Of her reticence about sharing her Beatles stories prior to now, Kelly says, “Occasionally, I’d see something on telly and I’d remember being there, and I’d say, ‘Oh, that was a fun day.’” According to the film, even her daughter did not know half the tales Kelly shares.

Freda Kelly 60s

Freda during her Beatles heyday. We should all have such a heyday

“One of the last true stories”

A few notable appearances in the film: Billy Kinsley, an original member of the Merseybeats; Tony Barrow, the Beatles press officer; and Angie McCartney, Paul’s stepmother and the only living Beatles’ parent.  “This story of Freda Kelly is one of the last true stories of the Beatles that you’ll ever really hear,” notes McCartney.

Thanks to Paul and Ringo’s warmth towards Kelly, the filmmakers were able to secure the rights to four Beatles songs, along with a myriad of historic photos and clips—some never seen before.   They raised the initial funding for “Good Ol’ Freda” on Kickstarter and exceeded their $50,000 goal.   Isn’t technology grand?

But why did Kelly decide to share her Beatles’ tales at long last?  After the screening I saw, a panel discussion revealed that American-born Ryan White is the nephew of the Merseybeat’s Billy Kingsley, and had traveled back and forth to Liverpool all his life.  He’d met Kelly on these trips and the project came together.  But that’s all I’ll say about it—you’ll see what finally inspired Kelly to open up when you see the film.

Meeting Freda

I had the pleasure of meeting Kelly, and talking with her a bit about Beatle fandom. I showed her my “official Beatles fan club member” cards that I dug out of a box of Beatles memorabilia. As a kid I had joined the fan club through the US branch. The only items I ever received were a British fan magazine and two photo cards; one was for autographs and had their signatures embossed on the back with space for additional autographs, and the other was an ID card, which said I was an official Beatles fan.  Kelly thought it hysterical that under “In an emergency, call…” the young me had written “Paul McCartney!”

An Envelope of George’s Hair

One of the producers, Kathy McCabe, told me that a collector had given the filmmakers three strands of Paul’s hair.  They auctioned it for $3000, which went towards production costs.  Imagine what Kelly might get for the remaining locks of Beatles hair she still has?  You’ll see in the documentary what she does with an envelope of George’s hair, but I don’t think she could ever bring herself to sell it.

Freda Kelly today

Beatle hair: $1K per strand

Although “Good Ol Freda” is full of fun anecdotes of the historic, meteoric rise of these four normal guys from Liverpool, you can’t help but come away thinking there must be so much more to this story — Beatlestuff, sure, but about Freda Kelly, too.  Even so, I was happy to have gotten what she gave, and to be taken back to a time when you couldn’t wait for the next Beatles single to be released, or to catch them on TV, or see them in person somewhere.

“Good Ol Freda” reminds us of that happy music, an exciting time, and a fascinating glimpse into the lives of the Fabs from their humble beginnings through the break up and beyond, by someone who knew them so well.  If you’re a Beatles fan, you won’t want it to end.

Schedule of screenings
(The film is also available on iTunes.)

Official trailer
www.youtube.com/watch?v=LqO3DIaKTXM

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12 Comments

  1. Avatar linda a. wrote:

    Thank you Linda. I have been waiting to see this film. I’m a little disappointed that itunes is not offering it for purchase, but only to rent. Do you know if they will offer it for permanent download?

  2. Avatar Linda wrote:

    Hi Linda. I am not sure about a permanent download, but will try to find out and report back. Thank you for raising the question.

  3. Avatar linda a. wrote:

    Thanks for trying to find out! It will be available on dvd and BluRay at Amazon in early December also. I wonder if that’s when itunes will provide a way to purchase it. It looks so interesting.

  4. Avatar Linda wrote:

    Just got confirmation on this from the folks at “Good Ol Freda:” The film will be available for a permanent iTunes download beginning December 3rd, which is also the day of the DVD release.

  5. Avatar hologram sam wrote:

    The Beatles were fortunate to have a loyal fan as secretary. I remember stories of early American rock ‘n rollers, who got bags full of fan mail, and their management concealed them, because they didn’t want the artists negotiating better contracts. Very sad.
    The American rockers, the guys who came after Chuck Berry and LIttle Richard but before the Beatles, were often royally screwed by management and record companies. They had little or no creative control over what happened to their records (often strings and ugly “background” vocals were overdubbed without their permission).
    I remember first hearing about Ol’ Freda back in the late ’60s, when I heard the Beatles’ Christmas messages. They did a shoutout to her in one of the early Christmas records, while mentioning “jellybabys” a candy that they were being deluged with after George mentioning in an interview that he liked them.
    What I find most amazing about Freda… she is one of the only Beatle people who never penned (or dictated) a tell-all biography.

    • Sam, I think it’s remarkable that more of The Beatles’ inner circle DIDN’T write tell-alls–and even those who did, didn’t write hatchet-jobs. Only Peter Brown succumbed to the temptation of a book deal, and in retrospect, The Love You Make has been well outstripped by many other books since. (And IIRC, none of its assertions have proved to be out-and-out lies.)

      Neil Aspinall, Mal Evans, Jane Asher–all of these folks could’ve retired at 30 on a juicy tell-all…and didn’t. Freda’s another in a long line of Beatle people that kept the secrets, and have continued to. Certainly some of them felt they could make more hay by staying inside Beatles, Inc–but after all these years, the pattern has been that people don’t talk. Which makes me think that, on balance, The Beatles are pretty decent guys. In spite of this…

      “A poached egg in the Underground on the Bakerloo line between Trafalgar Square and Charing Cross? Yes, Paul. A sock full of elephant’s dung on Otterspool Promenade? Give me ten minutes, Ringo. Two Turkish drawfs dancing the Charleston on the sideboard? Male or female, John? Pubic hair from Sonny Liston? It’s early closing, George (gulp), but give me until noon tomorrow.”

      …working for/with The Beatles seems to have been a pretty good gig.

      • Avatar hologram sam wrote:

        Very true, Michael, about all the folks who kept secrets. It says a lot about the basic decency of the lads, that employees weren’t falling over each other to publish attacks. But it seems Freda has been excessively quiet, until now. And this documentary wasn’t her idea.
        Also, I need to find a way to disable this gosh-darned “auto correct” on our new macbook. It turned “shout out” into “shoot out”…. it reminds me of Thurber example of proofing errors like “Don, give up the ship” vs. “Don’t give up the ship”

  6. Avatar Linda wrote:

    Could it be that perhaps those involved simply cherish their memories and do not want to be exploited?But what about all their many, alleged, conquests? Why have not more of these women come forward with tales of their own — with claims of giving birth to their offspring, say for example? You can’t tell me that with all the sexperiences in which they purportedly engaged, that they were “careful” with their lust 100% of the time. I’ve read that during Epstein’s tenure, Paul was allegedly caught with his pants down on a few occasions, but Eppy did his Eppy thing and hushed up the situation. Years later, after DNA testing became available, one fellow claiming to be Paul’s son, asked Paul to submit to a DNA test and he did. The results proved that Paul was not the father.

  7. Avatar Water Falls wrote:

    Linda, I think some just cherish the memories, some may have bragged to friends and were met with varying degrees of belief. Some may have had families or lived in communities where harsh judgement about the unmarried sexual behavior of girls/young women was met with condemnation and harsh treatment to those young women and their babies. Some may have had boyfriends, fiances, or husbands who thought the babies were theirs, or in some cases step up and accepted them as their own, and the women may not want to open up that can of worms for themselves or their children.
    In an absurd bit of irony (forgive me for dredging up the ridiculous) Paul’s DNA that proved he wasn’t the father of the fellow in question, also “proved” to some hardcore conspiracy nuts in PIDdom that he wasn’t the original Paul. They believe the “real” Paul’s DNA would prove paternity. For them, it is easier to believe any female whose ever admitted to sleeping with a famous rockstar would never lie about it OR be mistaken about her pregnancy whose paternity she insist is the result of sleeping with the famous rockstar, than it is to believe 74 year old Paul McCartney is the same guy who burst into worldwide fame in The Beatles over 50 years ago.

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