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.
“My daughter Rachel said, ‘You could end up doing the same to your grandson Niall. If you’re not going to talk about things now he will never know. Come on,’ she said, ‘your memory is going anyway.’”
Kelly laughs raucously at the typical Liverpudilan frankness. “Alright I said, I’ll do it for Niall. I really needed that little push you know?”
When Kelly first met the Beatles she got to know them as ordinary Liverpool lads. No matter what happened afterwards she still saw them as everyday lads, and they were increasingly grateful to be seen as everyday lads.
“I’m sure if I was ever to see the two remaining Beatles I would still be able to say come on, let’s have a cup of tea,” Kelly says.
Ringo wrote to her recently and asked how her Irish wolfhounds were doing, she reveals.
“I can’t believe he remembered that I used to keep them,” she laughs (Kelly kept them for decades through her married life in fact, and she always bought them directly from Ireland). She’s remembered as vividly by her idols as she remembers them, it turns out.
Although there’s real magic in the heady early days of the band when they were breaking record after record for ticket sales and record purchases, Good Ol’ Freda also reminds viewers that although Kelly was lucky enough to be along for the ride, the band was lucky to have her join them.
One time when Lennon got jealous of the amount of time Kelly was spending with the Moody Blues (they were appearing together in a double bill and Freda was discreetly dating one of them) he called her into the dressing room and asked her where she had been.
Never being one to tell a lie, she told him outright. “You’re fired,” he told her bluntly.
So Kelly turned and asked Paul, George and Ringo if they agreed with John, and they said no.
“I’ll stop working for you and I’ll stay working for the other three,” she told Lennon, who suddenly realized the error of his ways.
To win her back she insisted he go down on one knee. He did. There haven’t been many people with the force of personality to make John Lennon reconsider. That’s who were dealing with when it comes to Freda Kelly.
The story of breakup of the Beatles is one of the most painful in rock history, and Good Ol’ Freda pulls no punches. Archival interview footage shows a twenty-something Kelly lamenting where things were headed.
An interviewer asks her what’s missing now and her answer is simple: “There isn’t that closeness now. It’s gone.”
The Beatles were growing up and they were doing other things. “It wasn’t the death of Brian Epstein, although it shocked us all. I think even if Eppy were alive today they still would have done what they done. They’d have gone their separate ways,” Kelly says.
“I know Paul tried to hold it all together and I really respect him for that. He jumped in very quickly and tried to get us out of the grief that followed Eppy’s death. That’s where the Magical Mystery Tour came from. But they were all growing up and they wanted to do other things.”
Good Ol’ Freda provides an unprecedented insight into the life and career of the Beatles, as seen by the woman who was there right from the meteoric start to the bitter finish. And did she date any of them?
Well if she did she’s not saying, but there’s that raucous Irish laugh again. The one that made them fall for her in the first place.
Good Ol’ Freda is now playing at the Landmark Sunshine Cinema in New York City. Here's the film's official trailer:
The history behind “When Irish Eyes are Smiling”