You would never guess that Freda Kelly was front and center of the Beatles’ epic rise to fame and fortune because that’s how she’s always wanted it.
Funny, straightforward and completely uninterested in the limelight, for four decades she had no desire to cash in on her enviable experience or to see her name in print she says.
But it might become a little harder for Kelly, an extremely private person, to avoid increased media attention now that Good Ol’ Freda, the fascinating new documentary film about her life with the Beatles, has just opened.
Kelly, born to Irish parents in Dublin, was the Beatles’ trusted fan club secretary from 1963 until it closed in 1972. But she has a deep Irish distaste for showing off, and that’s part of the reason why it has taken her over four decades to finally open up and reveal just how central she was before, during and after the worldwide phenomenon that was Beatlemania.
As the film makes clear, she was there right from the start. The Beatles’ legendary manager Brian Epstein hired Kelly before the band even had a record contract. At the time she just knew them as the four local Liverpool lads who played the Cavern Club and whose music she loved.
But like the band, she had no idea of just what lay ahead of them. She knew they’d go far, but she had no idea how far.
Hired to be the Beatles’ secretary at the tender age of 17, Kelly immediately excelled at the job and soon became close friends with John, Paul, George and Ringo (who she knew then and now as Ritchie) and their proud parents. Even Epstein, the famously snooty Beatles manager slowly came to depend on her and was determined to keep her around at any cost.
Being close to the Fab Four and their extended families, Kelly soon found herself privy to some explosive secrets (like John Lennon’s secret marriage to his childhood sweetheart Cynthia) that she could be relied on to keep. Soon she was being spoken of as a family member herself because she knew them better than anyone.
“I thought I was only going to work for a year with Brian Epstein,” Kelly tells the Irish Voice. “If you’d have said to me you’ll be in this office in 10 years time I would have said no way. That I was with them for so long is the biggest surprise of the whole thing.”
She was kept busy. As Beatlemania swept the world in 1964 she was receiving between 2,000 and 3,000 letters a day. She read them all; she made sure they were all answered. That often meant going without a lot of sleep.
As a fan of the band herself she understood what the kids were looking for from their idols, and she did her best to make sure they got it. Each day she saw that all of the fan club mail was opened, and she sent out the newsletters and messages to the membership of over 16,000.
“It didn’t really dawn on me just how big the Beatles were until they appeared at a 1964 civic reception in Liverpool,” Kelly says.
“The whole city turned out for them and I was so proud of them that day. Proud I was able to work for them and proud for their parents too. When you’re a hero in your hometown you’ve really made it. They don’t really go overboard in Liverpool. To see them all turn out was fabulous.”
But how could she have said no? Over the course of those 10 years the Beatles became the most commercially successful and critically acclaimed band in the history of pop music. That’s a record that still stands, by the way.
Most people would be shouting their involvement with the Beatles from the rooftops, but Kelly hasn’t offered a public word about them for four decades.
In our own era when sources run to the press directly from the hotel or club after their run-ins with celebrities, Kelly’s discretion can seem astounding. But the Beatles were people she worked for and grew to love, so a salacious tell-all is never going to happen.
“I would never do what other people have done. I just don’t think it’s right. Maybe that’s my Irish upbringing,” she says.
That’s she’s talking publicly about the Beatles at all now is actually all down to her grandson Niall. She wants him to know what his granny did with her life and to be proud of it.
“I wanted him to have a record of who I was and what I’d done with my life. When I was told that Beatle people (the phrase she has always used to describe ardent Beatles fans) might be interested, I didn’t think they would be. It’s just an ordinary little tale so I cannot understand what all the fuss is about.”
Why me, she still wonders? But she knows the world devours any contact with the Fab Four.
It’s an interest that she only started to appreciate over time. Kelly’s Irish father had lived a very interesting life, she says, but she only realized after he’d passed that she had missed so many things.