When the Beatles were about to release their debut single, "Love Me Do," at least one fan thought they were making a mistake. Freda Kelly was a 17-year-old working in a secretarial pool, spending her lunch hours at the Cavern Club, where the fast-rising Liverpool band was playing every day.
She'd been there the first time the band tried out another song, "P.S. I Love You." "I just loved that straightaway," says Kelly. The sentimental cha-cha was due to be the flip side of the single, but she felt it should be the A-side: "I was upset, whingeing and crying," she tells Rolling Stone. "I wanted it the other way 'round."
Already a regular at the Cavern Club – of the group's 300 or so performances there, she thinks she saw nearly 200 – she implored the band to switch the songs, to no avail. Soon, however, she would gain a lot more influence over the musicians, when manager Brian Epstein asked her to become the Beatles' secretary.
Freda Kelly stayed inside the Beatles' innermost circle for 11 years, through their entire run together. After decades of keeping her stories to herself, she's the somewhat reluctant subject of Good Ol' Freda, a new documentary that's as bubbly as the early days of the group's arrival on the international stage. The film opens Friday in New York and at theaters around the country over the next several weeks.
The film focuses on the first few years of Beatlemania, with Kelly overseeing the daily operations of the group's fan club. In telling her story, she says, "I tried to get over that they were just four ordinary guys from Liverpool with their feet on the ground, that they stayed normal through all this madness."
She seems to have been particularly close to Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, whom she still refers to as "Ritchie." The film offers previously unseen glimpses into the families that bred the Beatles. As the fan club secretary, Kelly befriended their parents; she grew especially close to Ringo's mother, Elsie, whom her own children knew as "Nanny Els."
"Ringo's mum used to come into the office on Thursdays," she says. "She used to do her shopping in the center of Liverpool, and her and her sister would call into the office for a cup of tea." She still visits Evie, Ringo's 96-year-old aunt.
George Harrison, she says, was a lot more chatty than his reputation as "the quiet Beatle" suggested. And John Lennon – she has funny stories about the acerbic Beatle, telling one in the film about the time he tried to fire her for hanging out with the Moody Blues in an adjacent dressing room. She told him to get down on his knees and beg her to stay.
"We just spoke to them all normal," says Kelly. "We knew each other so well." Lennon could be a handful, she says, but she's quick to point out that his personality was a direct product of his estrangement from his father and his mother's premature death.
"I think Mimi [Lennon's aunt] was brilliant with John," she says. "If he hadn't had Mimi, he could've gone down another road."
There's very little in the film about the bandmates' girlfriends and wives, or the group's "difficult" later years. "Toward the end I definitely wanted out myself," Kelly says. "The timing was right, actually. There were two camps in Apple, really, the Liverpool lot and – no offense – the American lot, you know."
Kelly says she was firm in her decision not to tell everything she knows. "They're entitled to part of their lives that people really shouldn't invade," as she says in the film.
"Freda really doesn't do conjecture," says director Ryan White, who came to the story through his uncle, Billy Kinsley, a member of the Merseybeats.
"I grew up going back and forth to Liverpool," says White, who is based in L.A. Though he knew Freda as a family friend, for years he had no idea about her relation to the Beatles.
"The people in that scene, it just doesn't come up a lot," he says. "It's just so normal to all of them. To me, having a connection to the Beatles seems like something you'd talk about a lot."
Even when he found out, he says, "I didn't know if that meant she was one of many secretaries they had. My mind was completely blown when I found out the scope of her tenure, the importance of her job."
At first White figured he might help Kelly make a short DVD for her grandson to see when he grows up. Now he's got her doing interviews to support their feature-length film, when it seems she'd just as soon go back to her quiet job as a law-firm secretary and let the work speak for itself.
"You've got me sussed," says Kelly with a laugh.