Freda Kelly is one of the unsung chapters of Beatles history. One of few surviving members of the band’s inner circle, Kelly became the Beatles secretary, head of the fan club, and Brian Epstein’s personal assistant shortly after seeing them live in Liverpool in 1961. As a fan who became in charge of the fan club, Kelly, more so than anybody attached to the Beatles, could speak authoritatively about the band as well as the nature of Beatlemania.
Ryan White’s documentary Good Ol’ Freda is a wonderful testament by and character study of a woman who had been, up until now, one of the quietest members of the Beatles community. It’s a piece of Beatles history we didn’t know we were missing.
I had the pleasure of speaking with Kelly a few days after the film’s premiere at SXSW, and here’s what she had to share about her history with the most popular band of all time.
What do you think about watching the film – seeing yourself talk and tell these stories?
Oh, I didn’t like seeing myself talk. I think, “That’s not me. That’s the woman Ryan planted in there!” [laughs] I look like Marilyn Monroe, really.
Why did you think this was the time to tell these stories and get this on record?
Because of my grandson. When he was born I thought, “Well, it’s now or never.” If I hadn’t of done it now, two years later I wouldn’t have done it.
Why a documentary? Did you ever think to yourself that it should be a book?
People have asked me about books over the years, and I’ve tried to wriggle out of it, saying “There are too many bloody Beatle books already.” Then I went to America for a Beatles festival and I couldn’t believe the response there. So I thought, “Well, I do this one now.” And Kathy [McCabe, producer] got involved and asked Ryan to help out, and he took over.
Ryan told me your daughter had said that even she hadn’t heard most of your stories before.
Yeah. She knew I had been the Beatles’ secretary, and that I worked for Brian Epstein [the Beatles’ manager]. But we never had anything around the house, no pictures on the wall or anything. And she saw the film and said, “Well, you never said this or that,” and I said, “well, you never asked.” [laughs] So it’s good knowledge for her. Are you a Beatles fan?
Yes, I’m a big Beatles fan. My mom listened to them, so I grew up listening to them.
What music do you listen to now? I always like to ask young people what they’re listening to.
I’m actually listening to a bit of country music now.
Have you heard of the Ozark Mountain Daredevils?
I haven’t, no. I’ll give them a listen. I know that George, who is my favorite Beatle, was a big fan of Carl Perkins and other rock musicians who had a country flare.
Ryan White, director: George is Freda’s favorite Beatle too. She would never admit it, but from years of being around her, that’s what I think.
[Freda laughs and shrugs, but her lips are sealed]
I liked your observation in the film that George wasn’t necessarily the quiet one.
He wasn’t quiet with any of us in – I hate that word, “The Inner Circle.” But with us, he was his most natural self. I don’t think he liked Beatlemania.
I didn’t do the math, but proportionally speaking, you didn’t seem to have a whole lot to say about Paul in the film.
I do like Paul, though I’m not a Wings fan. But deep, down I like them all together. Separately, you don’t get the harmony.
You talked in the film about Magical Mystery Tour as the beginning of the downturn.
Yes, that’s when things begin to slip. You know, I know The Rolling Stones have been around for years, but they didn’t live in each others’ pockets. The Beatles lived in each others’ pockets for ten years. We were all teenagers together. But then everyone got married with responsibilities and children and that affected things. You start looking to your own little life. You can’t rave all night or whatever. Once it started becoming a job. That was a part of it too.
So the Beatles broke up around the time you wanted something a bit more normal.
Yeah, I had already gone into that box, so when they broke up, I thought to myself, “Yeah, I think it’s time now.” The timing was right. It was the end of the fan club. It was the end of March, and the new financial year started in April. I didn’t want kids sending in money for a whole new year, because I knew I was going to leave. And I was pregnant and wanted to be at home.
It was quite difficult. I went to the meeting and said, “Hello, I’m leaving.” I could see that George stood back a bit at that. He was the quiet one on that particular day. And they told me, “This is it [regarding the band].” But I couldn’t tell anyone. I couldn’t tell people they shouldn’t be in the fan club anymore. I thought, “This is going to devastate them.”
According to the film, you spent years after the Beatles broke up writing back the last fan letters.
I paused. When Rachael was born, I wanted to enjoy her babyhood. But when she was in school, I had time. I had a load of mail in the office. There were quite a few sacks of them. And I thought, “You can’t just dump it.” You can’t put it in the bin. So I thought, “Okay.” I had a spare room with nothing in it. So I put everything in there. So if she was asleep in the afternoon, I’d write a few then.
Were those letters about the break up?
No, it was all mixed. Back then you’d throw the fan mail on the floor and it would be all mixed up. I remember reading one letter that said, “I signed up my niece for the fan club four months ago and I haven’t heard anything.” And I thought, “Yeah, you’re not the only one.” We did answer them all. It just took time.
You first saw them in the cavern in Liverpool. You saw them go from local sensation to international phenomenon in a way that didn’t have a precedent in rock music. I wonder if the nature of the letters, or the way that fans, engaged with the Beatles, changed over time? Or did Beatlemania seem rather consistent?
You could always tell a letter came from a boy before you even saw the name. They would always ask about the bass playing or the guitar on this record. The boys asked the music questions. The girls were just interested…with them. But the fans did mature with us. Their questions, their sentences, differed. At first it was only teenagers. Older people later joined the fan club, and the questions changed.
Have you kept up with British popular music?
Yes, I like anything that is pleasant on my ear. I like Coldplay, The Killers, Snow Patrol. And then I’ll hop the other way and listen to Take That [Robbie Williams’s former band].
Ryan White: You should run the fan club for One Direction.
Freda: We’ll see about that.
Good Ol’ Freda is currently making the festival circuit in search of a distributor.