Read

For Father’s Day, An Ode to Beatle Dads

Just as the Beatle mothers had their influence on the Fab Four, so did their fathers. Their relationships ran the gambit: one ‘normal’, one close, one exploitive, and one hardly known.

 

Alfred “Freddie” Lennon

There have been debates about to whom John inherited his no-holds-barred attitude and lifestyle, and although his mother Julia was a powerhouse of fun and adventure, Freddie Lennon brought the natural comic and showmanship abilities. When he met Julia Stanley at Liverpool’s Sefton Park, they hung out together for a platonic 10 years before Julia (on a lark) dared Fred to marry her. Freddie instantly said yes; it appealed to his frivolous style. Three days later, he was out to sea as a waiter on one of the old ship liners of the 1930s.  

 

Freddie (born in December 1912) was the youngest son to John Lennon (Beatle John’s grandfather) who was called Jack” and known as a character himself. He would marry twice in addition to having children with his family housekeeper who would become Freddie’s mother, Polly. As Beatle John would later be considered one of the most creative writers of his time, it’s mind-boggling to note that Grandma Polly was illiterate and could only sign her name with an “X.” She would have another 11 children together with Jack Lennon out of wedlock, eventually marrying in 1915.

 

Of course, all these children needed to be fed, and Freddie, being the youngest boy, suffered from their poverty the most, contracting malnutritional rickets and needing leg-irons during his young life. Once Jack passed away in 1921 from cirrhosis of the liver at age 66, uneducated Polly had to give up the 11-year-old Fred (and his younger sister Edith, 9) to a charitable boarding school for the poor.

 

When grown, (leveling at a mighty 5-foot 3-inches in height) Freddie found life at sea, with its “here today and another port tomorrow,” the best fit for his free spirit lifestyle. He eventually became a steward on the SS Duchess of Bedford that sailed to the New York ports. Known as “Lennie” to his pals, he was considered a laugh-a-minute. “He was a real rascal. An absolute character,” remembers Billy Hall, his best friend of those years. “You wouldn’t think of going out anywhere without dragging Lennie along. He was always part of the fun-and if there wasn’t any, he’d make some!” Alf was never home much, and by this time, Julia was already telling her family her regrets about marrying him.

 

When John was only 3, Fred was on another endless sea assignment, this time on the SS Sammex, bound for Algeria. He would be arrested by military police and charged with “embezzling bar and tip.” Although it was possible that the entire ship’s crew was in on the scam to feed the Algerian black market with stolen goods, Alf declared his innocence in naval court. This was a tough defense for Fred, as testimony found Fred holding a bottle of stolen beer when the police came charging in. He spent 30 days in military prison. Unaware of this news, Julia was already moving on. Never legally divorcing Alf, she moved in with her new boyfriend, Bobby Dykins, and subsequently had two children with him. 

 

Freddie soon disappeared from Liverpool and played no role in John’s life from age 6 up to the time he became a famous Beatle, circa 1964. That’s when Fred turned up at London’s Scala Theater, while the Beatles were shooting the closing concert scene for A Hard Days Night. He’d been guided and cleaned up with the support of two reporters trying to scoop anything Beatlemania. Freddie described the tense meeting: “I stuck out my hand to shake his, but John just growled at me and said suspiciously, ‘What do you want?’ I told him I didn’t want anything, seeing how hostile he was.” Then John laid it out directly. “You never bothered about me before, why now?” With the charisma of a Lennon, Freddie disarmed John by sadly saying, “Isn’t being your father enough?”

 

Freddie arrived unannounced on several occasions between 1965- 1967, mostly at John’s huge Waybridge residence. As a child, John had a romantic image of a swashbuckling worldly sailor father figure, and here was this shabby toothless little man who washed dishes on cruise ships. Now Fred was hinting for a hand-out.  

 

John, wanting some kind of rapport with his father, eventually gave Fred a bit of assistance. Upon hearing from Fred (age 57) that he was engaged to a 19-year-old university student, John bought them a small home in Kew Gardens, Surrey, and even hired his fiancé, Pauline Jones, (John- “Oh no, isn’t one failed marriage enough?”) as his private secretary for 5 months. Freddie and Pauline had two sons together. When John died in 1980, he had not yet met his half-brothers.

 

When Freddie became an embarrassment, John briskly distanced himself. Along with saying publicly that he didn’t think the Beatles made good music, (“Not as good as the old stuff,”) their gulf widened when Freddie shamelessly promoted his record as the singing father of a Beatle. When the song, “That’s My Life (My Love and My Home),” found itself making the UK charts, John took a dignified silent stance to this exploitation, privately christening Fred as “The Ignoble Alf.”

 

In late March 1975, while living in New York, John was notified that his father was dying of stomach cancer in a charity hospital in Brighton. He called Fred and settled all remaining issues between them. Alfred Lennon died just two weeks after Paul’s father, James McCartney, had passed.

 

James McCartney

No other Beatle father had as much direct influence in shaping the Beatles’ music as Jim McCartney. His sway came from his own desire to be a full-time musician, beginning as the leader of Jim Mac’s band, a ragtime combo (including his brother Jack on trombone) that played Liverpool dance halls circa 1920- 1925. Jim played trumpet and taught himself the piano (one his family bought from the local NEMS store, owned by Brian Epstein’s family, who later became the manager of the Beatles). Playing by ear was a talent of Jim’s –an even greater feat considering that he was deaf in his left ear.  

 

He had a desire to be a music writer too, modestly having his band play an early composition of his called “Eloise.” Paul would later record a version of the song in 1974, retitled “Walking in the Park with Eloise.” No doubt Jim’s influence spilled over to Paul, in what John would call “Granny Music” with the creations of “When I’m Sixty-Four,” “Honey Pie,” and later, working with Wings, “You Gave Me the Answer.”

 

Jim was always encouraged Paul’s interests, giving him motivation by humbly saying, “Learn to play piano son, you’ll be invited to parties.” Jim lost his love Mary, the mother of his two sons, to breast cancer in 1956 (Paul was 14 at the time). He lived a widower life, juggling his mundane full-time job as a salesman at the local cotton exchange while raising two young boys. That left the McCartney house frequently empty — which allowed Paul and John the chance to “slag-off” from school, play their guitars, and begin creating songs.

 

Although Jim had warned Paul about John Lennon, (“He’ll get you into trouble, son”), the quiet and unassuming Jim was happy to give the boys their space. Paul lived with Jim up to the break-out of Beatlemania in late 1963, and Jim would be in the unique position to become one of the only people in the world to witness the Lennon-McCartney creations of that period. 

 

Jim would openly provide his opinions as to the tunes they were playing, although he was never a rock & roll fan. No better example of this was when the excited boys came into the front parlor where Jim was smoking his usual pipe, a newspaper in hand. They’d just finished writing “She Loves You.” After they played it for him, Jim gave his usual supportive “that sounds very nice boys” reaction. Except he asked a critical question: “Why all that American ‘Yeah-Yeah’ stuff boys? Why don’t you change it to –She loves you, yes, yes yes?”  

 

His humble nature did not change after Paul become rich and famous. At the A Hard Days Night film premiere after-party, Paul arranged an introduction of the cotton salesman to Princess Margaret. Jim unassumingly asked, did she enjoy the show?

 

62-year-old Jim would remarry in November of 1964 to thirty-four-year-old widow Angela Williams who had a 5-year-old daughter. Commenting on their short courting time of 4 months, Jim shared, “We were two lonely people, it was nice to be close to someone again, after all those years on my own.”

 

Jim, the fifth of 11 siblings, drew from a close-knit family with roots as far back as seventeenth-century Ireland. Paul who inherited his famous round eyebrows from his dad assured that they remained close, as Jim was always welcomed to attend many of Paul’s events. Watching his 1973 TV Special James Paul McCartney on YouTube today, we can see a priceless pub segment in which Paul is surrounded by his family. Jim (with a cigarette dangling from his mouth) and Angie soon join the family. Paul, with fun sarcasm, says, “Hello Dad, didn’t expect you here!”. Paul then jokingly says that he seems to be the only one paying for the drinks that evening. At that point, his dad joins in and slips his millionaire son a pound note.

 

Angie would be at Jim’s side until his death in March of 1976. Paul was on tour in Denmark with Wings when he received the news. He decided not to attend the services to prevent creating a media stir at the funeral.   

 

Harold “Harry” Harrison

When Harry Harrison saw the youngest of his three boys for the first time at birth, he said, “All I could think of was that he looked so remarkably like me! A tiny, squalling, miniature replica of myself!” 

 

Harry’s upbringing was rough, but he was undeterred by life’s hard knocks. At 17, he lied about his age and joined the Merchant Navy (18 years was required to qualify). He then became a steward on the White Star Line.

 

While on leave in 1929, he met Louise French, an 18-year-old grocery assistant in the Wavertree section of Liverpool. Sparks flew instantly, but he was scheduled to go back to sea the next day. So, he gave her an ultimatum; “I’m going off to Africa in the morning; if you give us your address, I’ll send you a bottle of scent (perfume).” In time, his correspondence turned into love letters and they married in May 1930.

 

With four children and a wife back in Liverpool, sea life lost its luster; after a period of disciplined savings, he left the White Star Line but was unemployed for nearly two years. When government assistance ran out, Harry a music lover, pawned his beloved guitar. He eventually found work as a bus driver, greeting his riders each morning with an appealing lop-sided smile, the same one George would inherit.    

 

Although likable, Harry’s deep principles sometimes made him unpopular. Knowing what it was like to be penniless, his outspoken stances with his own transportation union sometimes cut against the grain of his colleagues. He was unrelenting in his “anti-strike” stance, in an era when labor unions would walk out on a drop of a hat. His friends knew he had a serious side; once Harry made up his mind, he rarely changed it. Just like George.

 

At an early point, George decided to go to Scotland on the Beatle’s first (but cheaply paid) tour as the backup band for singer Johnny Gentle. To do this, he had to leave after 6 months as an electrician’s apprentice, screwing up any chance he would have to learn a trade. Harry was deeply disturbed by George’s decision. He had visions of opening a family-owned motor garage, with his two older sons (one a mechanic and the other a panel beater) and George as the electrician. He gave his youngest a lot of heat, motivating George to leave home and move in with his bandmate, John Lennon.  

 

Yet Harry eventually embraced George’s success; along with mother Louise, he was very involved with their fan club, and anything they could do to support the Beatles. George once asked his father how much he was being paid as a bus driver. Harry replied “10 per week.” George then offered him 30 if he would consider retiring early. Harry didn’t say “yes” right away, as his old work pride was calling him.

When he lost Louise to cancer in 1970, Harry began to visit George more often, staying with him at Friar Park for long periods. Stepping out of his conservative ways, Harry eventually grew his grey locks to shoulder length and traveled with George on his 1974 Dark Horse tour. He got to see his son’s music life from the inside.

 

After a lifetime of smoking, Harold Hargreaves Harrison succumbed to emphysema in May 1978. George has said he had a dream in which his father bid him farewell the night before his passing.      

 

Richard Starkey Sr.

Ringo never really knew his father. Richard Starkey met Ringo’s mother, Elsie Graves at the bakery in which they worked together. Reaching for the stability of marriage during the dangerous war times, they got married (1936) after a short courtship. Four years later (July 7, 1940), just a month before the worst of the German bombings, “Little Richy” (no “e” in the English spelling) was born in the upstairs bedroom of their house on Madryn Street. They lived in The Dingle, the roughest and most industrial section of the city, a perfect bombing target. Ringo was told by his mother a few years later that due to his birth, WW II was started to celebrate the event.

 

There are few records of “Big Richy’s” education or work documents to describe his life up to the point he worked at Cooper’s Bakery with Elsie. Stability in marital relationships seemed to be an elusive thing, even for Richard and Elsie. Three years after Ringo’s birth, the marriage was done. No official divorce, Big Richy just walked out in an agreed parting of the ways. The reasons are still not disclosed.  

 

Soon afterward Ringo would suffer 3 long stays in the hospital for various childhood ailments. Hearing that his son was close to death several times, Big Richy reappeared in his hospital room with a notebook in hand to ask the 7-year-old Ringo what he wanted for his birthday. He jotted down little Ringo’s desires but never delivered any of his wishes. Richard Sr. was rarely seen in Liverpool after that. 

 

Elsie would marry Harry Graves, a big influence in Little Richy’s life, (now 14 years old), as surrogate father and adult guide. It was Harry, a stable painter, and decorator, who bought Ringo his first drum kit as a Christmas present. 

 

Big Richy would eventually move to the town of Crew, marry a local woman, and work as a window washer. Ringo would not see his father again until his Grandmother Annie passed in February 1962. By now Ringo was 22, and he’d made some good money as the drummer. His anger over the lack of his father’s presence had diminished (it would be another 6 months before he would be recruited to join the Beatles). The funeral brought them together and they spent a few awkward moments together talking and admiring Ringo’s big Ford Zodiac car. When they departed, they would never meet again. 

 

When Ringo became world-famous two short years later, Big Richy didn’t try to contact him or even tell associates that his son was the drummer in the Beatles. Little was heard of him until a reporter for the Daily Express tracked him down in 1980 to write a story about Richard Starkey Sr. The only thing he would say publicly about his son was, “He’s done well, the lad, and good luck to him, but he owes me nothing.” Richard Starkey Sr. died in December 1981. The reasons are unknown.  

 

-Steven Valvano

Photo: The Harrison family, 1951

Other Posts You Might Like

4 comments on “For Father’s Day, An Ode to Beatle Dads

    • Steven Valvano

      Thanks Eoghan, coming from someone with your body of work, that means a lot to me! -SV

  1. I still have a copy of Freddie Lennon’s 45 that I picked up in a Woolworth’s bargain bin years ago. John definitely got his singing voice from old Alf.

  2. Steven Valvano

    Wow, hold onto that!! its worth something…. I have never heard the cut…not sure I want to! -SV

Leave a Reply (and please be kind!)

Love the Beatles? Get this eBook FREE when you subscribe.

It turns out there's a lot to say. Just say "yes" to get yours.