Frieda Kelly, a spirited 65-year-old originally from Dublin (a city she returns to every year and still calls home) is the type of grandmother any kid would be lucky to have. Indulgent, full of fun and guided by the wisdom of her own experience, she’s the epitome of a been-there, done-it Liverpudlian (her adopted city).
But there’s much more to Kelly than her spirit or smarts. Although you’d never guess if you saw her on the street, she was once lucky enough to have a front row seat for one the biggest cultural changes of the 20th century -- the birth of the Beatles.
In her teens and twenties in Liverpool, as Beatles manager Brian Epstein’s personal assistant from 1962 until 1972, the now doting grandmother found herself daily surrounded by the most important rock band that ever picked up their guitars.
Speaking to the Irish Voice from her home in Wirral, the suburb that faces Liverpool city (you take the ferry across the Mersey to reach it) she talks about her life with The Beatles with all the informality of an old friend.
But Kelly, a notoriously private person, has only agreed to speak to the Irish Voice this week to sing the praises of the news show Rain, A Tribute to The Beatles on Broadway.
The show, which reproduces some of the most famous tracks in the Beatles catalogue, is currently being promoted by her old friend and former Beatles rep in the U.S. Merle Frimark. If Kelly hadn’t been so impressed with the show, she says, this interview would never have happened.
“Merle called me and asked if ‘d heard of Rain. I asked her what kind of music they performed and she said The Beatles. I said I don’t do ‘copy Beatles.’ I wasn’t being funny.
“I was on a ship once and I saw a band that did them, and after two numbers I just couldn’t hack it. I thought what’s the point when you’ve seen the real thing.
“And when Rain came over to England I actually tried to get that point over to them. I wasn’t particularly bothered about seeing their show. But in the end I did go, and I was very pleasantly surprised.”
Kelly knew John, Paul, George and the man she still calls Ritchie as people in her life, not as rock legends.
“I got to know The Beatles when they came to the Cavern Club in 1961. I met them in 1961 before Brian Epstein came on the scene,” Kelly recalls.
“I used to go to the Cavern three times a week on Monday, Wednesday and Friday when they were playing. They’d have two sessions from 12-1, and from 1:15-2:15. The second session was always the best one because they were always late to the first one, or one of them wouldn’t turn up.”
They didn’t have a set list, Kelly says. People would shout out the songs they wanted to hear and The Beatles would play them.
“They used to just look at each other and decide right there. It was so relaxed. It wasn’t like a concert, and that’s why I loved the Cavern. It wasn’t packed either so you had room to appreciate them.”
She’d have a cheese buttie or just soup in a cup for a shilling, and she’d stand and watch The Beatles. It’s the kind of experience that fans would kill for, and she enjoyed it all for a shilling.
“They’d play ‘Three Cool Cats’ and I used to love when John sang ‘Anna,’ which is on the first LP. I knew they were special but not like they went on to be. Nobody did.
“All the girls, we always had a gut feeling they would make it, but our version of making it was Cliff Richard level. I thought they could be as big as that. I never dreamed of what actually did happen.”
The band’s legendary manager Epstein hired Kelly in 1962 when he started representing the band. “There were three of us -- Epstein (who she still calls “Eppy”) another secretary and me.”
Kelly became his most trusted assistant. “At the time he was the manager of a record shop in Liverpool called NEMS (North End Music Store, the biggest record store in the north of England). So I got to know him to say hello to and he offered me the job as his secretary,” Kelly recalls.
But Kelly’s old school Irish father wasn’t impressed with the longhaired rockers, and he disapproved of her career choice.
“My father hit the bloody roof. I was his only child and he was very protective. Everyone in his family was a civil servant,” says Kelly.
“He’d seen the lads and he didn’t like them at all. Unbeknownst to me he went down to see Brian and he came back and told me not to take it. There was no future in it, he said. But I told him I’d give it a year, then I’d knuckle under and work for the civil service.”