by Marshall Terrill
(Photos courtesy Chris O’Dell)
Chris O’Dell is quick to point out that she was never famous, or even almost famous, but she was there. Indeed.
The former Apple secretary and one of rock’s first female tour managers was in the studio when the Beatles recorded The White Album, Abbey Road, and Let It Be, and sang in the chorus of the final cut for “Hey Jude.”
She was at Ringo’s kitchen table when George Harrison said, “You know, Ringo, I’m in love with your wife.” And Ringo replied, “Better you than someone we don’t know.”
She typed the lyrics to George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass and was present when he read about the Beatles breaking up in a London newspaper.
She’s the subject of Leon Russell’s “Pisces Apple Lady,” a song he wrote to woo her. Other rock legends with whom she was intimate include Ringo, Mick Jagger, and Bob Dylan.
She’s “the woman down the hall” in Joni Mitchell’s song “Coyote” about a love triangle on Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue tour. She’s the “mystery woman” pictured on the back of the Rolling Stones album Exile on Main Street. She’s George Harrison’s “Miss O’Dell”, the famous B-side to “Give Me Love,” his No.1 single from 1973.
Miss O’Dell: My Hard Days and Long Nights with the Beatles, The Stones, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, and the Women They Loved (Touchstone Books) is the remarkable story of an ordinary woman who became a part of rock royalty’s trusted inner circle. Miss O’Dell is a backstage pass to some of the most momentous events in rock history and is the ultimate fly-on-the-wall rock memoir.
Now enjoying two decades of sobriety, O’Dell is a counselor and hypnotherapist specializing in addiction recovery. In this exclusive interview with Daytrippin’, O’Dell shares her memories of the Beatles, Apple’s glory days, and why fame isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
Q: Chris, it’s been more than 40 years since you were first employed by Apple. You and Jack Oliver (President of Apple Records) seem to be the last holdouts on writing a book, which leads me to ask why have you now decided to publish Miss O’ Dell?
CO: I think the time was just right. I knew that I wouldn’t write the book till I was older because of my loyalty to the Beatles. And there is still so much interest in the Beatles, the Stones, Dylan and the other people I worked with. I was in a unique position and I wanted to share it with people who couldn’t be there.
Q: Let’s start at the beginning. Can you tell our readers how you got the job at Apple?
CO: It was by chance, really. I met Derek Taylor, the Beatles press agent and friend in LA, and he invited me to come to London to work there. I write about this in the book in some detail.
Q: It’s been said Apple was a crazy, never a dull moment, vibrant place to work. Tell us in your own words a typical day in the life at Apple?
CO: It was never dull. I’d arrive to the hustling and bustling of the offices on Savile Row and go to my office in the rafters of Apple. I’d work with Peter Asher, answering mail and booking studio time. There was always the option to break for a few minutes and visit one of the other offices to soak up their enthusiasm. When one of the Beatles was in the house, the energy seemed even greater. And then we had drop-ins by famous people like Lauren Bacall and Duane Eddy to mention just a few. I’d often stay late as it was like home.
Q: Can you give a brief thumbnail sketch of each Beatle’s personality?
CO: Paul was the diplomat, the mediator, the marketer. George was the quiet one, the intense one, the spiritual one. John was the cynic with a strong personality and interest in world happenings. And then there was Ringo, who wasn’t around a lot but was fun and easy to talk to.
Q: You seemed to have the deepest connection to George Harrison. Why do you think that is?
CO: We’re both Pisces! Actually, it’s like any friendship – you can meet a group of people but certain ones you just seem to bond with. That was George. He liked my sense of humor and easy-going attitude. I liked his sense of humor and gentle ways.
Q: It appears you had the least connection to John Lennon and Yoko Ono. From reading your book, one gets the feeling that once John met Yoko, that being in the Beatles got in the way of his life.
CO: Well, actually, I hung out with them at the beginning of my time in London. But they were so involved in their own things – like bed-in and peace activism – that they weren’t really involved in the daily running of Apple. Then they moved away. I think he just grew out of the Beatles in a way.
Q: Who were some of the other key figures at Apple and give a brief thumbnail sketch of them as well.
CO: Well, this depended on where you were sitting! Jack Oliver, Tony Bramwell, Peter Asher, Ron Kass, Peter Brown, Derek Taylor were a few of the key figures. Everyone was so different. Jack Oliver, who had the most cynical and in-your-face approach, remains one of my favorite friends to this day. Tony Bramwell was always off in his own world of promotion and networking. And there were so many girls working there that were loyal and hard working like Barbara Bennett, Peter Asher and Neil Aspinal’s personal assistant and Laurie McCaffrey the switchboard operator.
Q: You also developed strong friendships with Patti Harrison and Maureen Starkey, but your take was that it was tough to be a Beatle wife. Tell us why in your opinion.
CO: They just didn’t know who to trust. They were slow to warming up to women and once you were in they were as loyal as could be. The Beatles world was a tight, closely watched and protected ‘family’. It took a lot to get in and a little to get pushed out. These women trusted me after a while and became dear friends.
Q: Substance abuse is a constant theme throughout Miss O’ Dell in both your personal life and in the lives of the people you worked for. Why are drugs and alcohol so prevalent in the music industry?
CO: I don’t know what it’s like today, but then it was just part of the culture. No one knew it was a problem. It was fun, a way of escaping, relaxing and just hanging out. I think one of the reasons that it took so long for me to admit to having a problem and finally getting clean and sober is that no one around me considered it a problem. And, of course, there was the money to afford the drugs.
CO: One of the strengths of your memoir is that you don’t always paint such a rosy picture of fame. Why was it important for you to underscore that point?
CO: Because people idolize so many celebrities and see it as such an elevated life when celebs are dealing with the same everyday problems (except for money, usually). Then add to that a complete lack of privacy. Back in those days the press was nothing like they are today. It’s totally out of hand now. I’m also trying to paint a picture of what life was really like in that world at that time.
Q: The good times at Apple seemed to fade quickly once Allen Klein entered the picture. Can you explain what those days were like compared to when you first started?
CO: I think I do this fairly well in the book but the most important piece is that the Beatles were running the whole show and wanted it to be different. We had fun, and the sky was the limit for creativity and possibilities. Sadly, however, it cost them a lot of money. The party just had to come to an end.
Q: You write that the Beatles were mostly upbeat and got along quite well while groups like The Stones and CSN&Y worked on an almost dysfunctional level. With that said, how did their breakup affect them on an emotional level?
CO: I think being a Beatle became very difficult for them. They had a different set of problems than the Stones and CSN&Y. They didn’t tour that much, they couldn’t go out of their hotel rooms, and they lived in a bubble. I think breaking up for them, and I can only guess, was a relief and very difficult at the same time.
Q: Are you amazed that four decades later we’re still talking about the Beatles and they only seem to get bigger with the passage of time?
CO: This is truly amazing, isn’t it? Sometimes I notice when I get into my car my son, Will, has borrowed it and John Lennon is playing on the CD player. My friends tell me their kids love the Beatles and some of the other artists of that time. I’ve had teenage clients tell me that they wished they’d lived in the Sixties. I guess we were pretty lucky.
Q: Can you tell me briefly how George was inspired to write Miss O’Dell and what was your initial reaction to the song?
CO: George wrote the song one night when I was supposed to go out and visit him and I didn’t. When I finally made it to his rented house in Malibu, he played me the song. I was overwhelmed. The idea that he felt inspired to write a song with me in mind was amazing.
Q: In Miss O’ Dell, you allude to having a conversation with George as you got older but never really discussed his death in the book. When was the last time you saw George?
CO: The last time I saw George was in the late eighties or early nineties when I was in London. We were at a party at the Dorchester Hotel, I think, after Ringo’s concert and had a nice visit. I saw him for many years but after that we just lost contact. I have spoken to Olivia in the past few years.
Q: You knew and worked with some amazing legends – the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Led Zeppelin, Eric Clapton, CSN&Y, Leon Russell and Queen to name but a few – during an artistic, cultural and social renaissance (1960s & 1970s) that we’ll never see the likes of again. Do the times make the people or do the people make the times?
CO: Ah, what a question. From a sociological point of view, I believe the times made the people. We were the off-spring of the Great Depression and World War II. My parents tried to give me everything they could to make up for what they didn’t have. The music was in flux with black music becoming more acceptable and seeping into the mostly white charts. And then, here comes the Beatles with “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” We were caught between the sexuality of the black music and the innocence of the Beatles. Amazing…
Q: Tell us about your life today?
CO: I am happily remarried to a wonderful man who supports me and accepts me as I am. My twenty-three year old son is amazing and gives me some credibility as a parent! I have a private practice in Tucson, specializing in addiction and mental health counseling. My two dogs are happy and life is just better than I would have expected.
Marshall Terrill is the author of a dozen books. His next publication, Steve McQueen: A Tribute to the King of Cool, will be released in March 2010.