Few people can claim to have spent the whole of their youth with The Beatles, and fewer still would have come out of the experience unscathed. Freda Kelly — who was 17 when she first laid eyes on the Fab Four at the now-legendary Cavern Club in Liverpool, is one of those people, perhaps the only one.
The year was 1961 and Kelly, who had just left school, was working as a secretary in a Liverpool office. She used to sneak into The Cavern on her lunch hour and after work, and in a matter of months she was handpicked by The Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein to work as their secretary. “And I kept at it for 11 years,” Kelly told The Japan Times while in Tokyo to promote “Good Ol’ Freda” — a documentary about The Beatles, pieced together from her testimonials.
In the movie and during the interview, Kelly was frank, straightforward and even exuberant. But she wasn’t about to give anything away, and she certainly wasn’t ready to talk about their private lives, whether from 1961 or 2013. It’s just not her style.
For years, the British media tagged her as “the girl with the most enviable job in England.” And during that time Kelly worked tirelessly to promote and support The Beatles, every one of whom she cherished as both an idol and a dear friend. “You know, I’m often asked, if I had to marry one of them who would it be, and I answer that I’d marry four times and get divorced four times!”
Now 68, Freda Kelly still works as a secretary — for a solicitor in Wirral, across the Mersey from Liverpool. “I haven’t left the place, really. How could I?”
Famed for spawning the Merseybeat style of pop music, Liverpool is Kelly’s treasured home, and where she fell in love with the city’s iconic sound. Yet while hailing from a musical family, Kelly didn’t take to classical music training. Her forays into the Cavern Club, and subsequent job with The Beatles instead led her to a life frequenting clubs, dressing rooms and Liverpool’s Empire Theatre (which was where all the bands played when they made it big). “I always fancied bass players,” laughed Kelly. “And my best friend fancied drummers. We never had a conflict over that. I even married a bass player!” In the movie, Kelly says that at one time she was dating someone from The Moody Blues, another famous British band. Was it him she ended up marrying? “Nooo. Someone else. But a bass player. And don’t go on thinking that about the bass-playing Beatle!”
In 1964, when she was just shy of her 20th birthday, Kelly joined The Beatles on their world tour. But it was not until the summer of 1966 that the band made it to Japan, where they played three dates at the Budokan in Tokyo. According to Kelly, security was so tight that the lads weren’t allowed outside their hotel room (the Tokyo Hilton, now the Capitol Tokyu Hotel in Akasaka). A concession of souvenir shops was installed in one of their suites, so they wouldn’t have the excuse to go shopping. “But that didn’t stop them,” chuckled Kelly. When the four returned to England, Paul McCartney showed her a photograph of him selecting a pair of shoes, presided over by a “very nice-looking Japanese gentleman.” Apparently, McCartney was adamant about seeing the city and procuring shoes was something he had hankered to do. “(The band) wanted to go out on their own in Tokyo,” recalled Kelly. “But they couldn’t. They hated that side of stardom, though I know Paul always put a good face on it, he didn’t lose his temper. But sometimes he could do things like that — like just go off and buy a pair of shoes in a foreign city.”
Part of Kelly’s job was to pick a team of secretaries to handle the band’s global fanbase — one for almost every city. “I had a man in Tokyo,” she said. “Everyone else was a woman but this gentleman was a very dedicated Beatles fan. My impression of Japanese fans in general was that they were very calm. That surprised me a bit because I was so used to fans screaming, and asking for locks of hair and such. But the Japanese — they were always so polite.”
Kelly has kept in touch with one of them, a former cabin attendant for British Airways who actually showed up in Liverpool to get acquainted with Kelly. “I called her Suzie. I liked her straightaway.”
In “Good Ol’ Freda,” Kelly said she always wanted to help out the fans “because I was one myself.” Once, she got a bulky package in the mail that contained a pillow slip and a letter asking Ringo Starr to sleep with his head on it, and then to autograph it. Kelly took it, went over to Starr’s house, and asked him to follow through on that request. He obliged. “They were like that, they were always very good about dealing with fans and signing autographs. I think it was partly because Liverpool people are just naturally friendly and partly because they didn’t think they were going to last very long. John always said they wouldn’t last another two years.”
Kelly said she briefly thought about quitting her job to go and work as an au pair in Greece (“I wanted to travel, see the world”) but dispelled that thought. “For about five minutes, I thought it would be nice but I realized that Brian would have no trouble replacing me. Every girl I knew wanted my job. Even I wanted my job! So I just said to myself, ‘Hang on there,’ and I did.”
When The Beatles broke up in 1970, Kelly decided to devote herself to home life and raising two children. She didn’t go back to work until they were in school and at one point, got herself in college to relearn her secretarial skills, outdated since the days when she typed replies to fan-mail on a manual typewriter. Did she never want to take advantage of her past position, or become a promoter, or …
“No,” Kelly said emphatically. “I still love The Beatles. In a way I’ve never stopped being a fan.” Her favorite song? “If I Fell (in Love With You). I’ve always loved that one.”
“Good Ol’ Freda” opens in Japan on 12/7.