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.”
But instead of a thankless desk job, she took a trip with the biggest and most transformative band in the history of rock music, at the right hand of the band’s manager. She had just turned 18.
“We didn’t have Beatlemania in England in the beginning, and when it hit we were amazed. I remember we were all on edge in the office, we didn’t know how America was going to take them, we didn’t have mobile phones then and we were waiting on the call.
“Then Eppy rang the office and just said, ‘They’ve gone mad over here, they love them.’”
The whole world had gone crazy for The Beatles, but Kelly was not going to lose the run of herself.
“There were people in the inner circle they knew they could trust who didn’t worship them. We were there in the beginning,” Kelly said.
“It was probably my Irish upbringing too. We’re don’t get over-awed. These are four human beings, they’re not gods. They tried to have normal lives. I kept that in mind.
“And when they were getting slaughtered over John’s ‘We’re bigger than Jesus’ remark and people started burning their records and the KKK threatened to kill them, we couldn’t believe the way the Americans reacted to that. It was taken out of context, but the comment was true.
“You weren’t getting kids going to Mass on Sunday, but they were in love with The Beatles and writing to them, and that was the way John meant it. He was wondering what was wrong with the world.”
One of the amazing perks of the job was hearing The Beatles record and getting to listen to the albums long before the public.
“I got them all before they were released. Even the demo discs. I took in my stride because I was in it from the beginning and they understood that,” Kelly says.
Being a good Catholic girl, she found a good use for all of the foreign stamps that arrived with the fan mail.
“I used to collect all the foreign stamps and pack them off to The Irish Messenger (a Catholic publication, who recycled them for cash). They were located in Cumberland Street in Marble Arch in London. How’s about that for devotion?”
Kelly was one of the few people who got close to John Lennon’s aunt and guardian, (and the subject of the recent film Nowhere Boy) Mimi because, she says, she understood her.
“Mimi was like my father, she was old school and strict. John needed controlling. He was rebellious and she was a widow who was trying to do her best to bring him up right. She was a lovely person but didn’t suffer fools gladly,” recalls Kelly.
“You wouldn’t get around Mimi. She wasn’t warm in that way. He was always looking for something wasn’t he? Having no mother affects people.
“Paul’s mother died when he was 14. My mother died when I was 18 months and I was shipped around backwards and forwards between Ireland and England. It affects your character. It made me more independent. I could understand John because you develop a shell around you to protect yourself.”
When the cast of Rain traveled to Liverpool to visit Lennon’s old house they were thrilled when Kelly pulled some strings to give them a private tour. But what she didn’t tell them was that she hadn’t been in Lennon’s house, a place she knew intimately, since 1965.
“It was quite an experience for me, walking into John’s house after so long. I just stood in one of the rooms and it all flowed back – John and Mimi, it was good and bad.
“It was my own life. I just had to take breaths and tell myself to get over it. It happened a long time ago.”
And how do you follow 10 years with The Beatles once it ends? For Kelly the choice was to keep her mouth shut and have a private life. For decades she didn’t mention another word about it.
Then one day she was asked to share some of her memories on BBC 4.
“After the show broadcast I get an email on my screen from a young trainee solicitor at my office. He wrote, ‘I can’t believe what you did in your youth.’ I wrote back, ‘And what do you think I did?’
“He replied, ‘I nearly crashed my bloody car when I realized it was you who was talking. That’s got to be our Frieda in the office.
You’re talking about going to John Lennon’s house! What the hell is Richard’s secretary doing on Radio 4?’”
Kelly had worked at the solicitor’s office for 17 years before almost any of them had a clue about her past.
“I was extremely lucky, I was in the right place at the right time, I lived where they lived and I happened to know them. And I actually got paid for it.
“I am so glad I was a teenager in the 1960s because we had a ball! The world opened for us. I just loved that era.”
Rain, A Tribute to The Beatles on Broadway, is playing at the Neil Simon Theatre, 250 West 52nd Street, New York. Visit www.raintribute.com.