Chris O’Dell is one of the few people who can claim to have been on the payroll of both The Beatles and The Rolling Stones.
That’s her smiling on the back cover of Exile on Main St. in a Robert Frank photo collage which otherwise features images of the Stones and a 1955 portrait of a priest on the banks of the Mississippi River outside Baton Rouge, Louisiana from The Americans.
An American herself, O’Dell originally landed in London to work for The Beatles’ Apple Records Corp., joining the staff in 1968 during the making of “The White Album.”
She spoke to the North Shore News in 2010 about those heady times in conjunction with the publication of her memoirs.
Miss O’Dell: My Hard Days and Long Nights with The Beatles, The Stones, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton and the Women They Loved by Chris O’Dell (Touchstone, 2010, 416 pages).
Chris O’Dell is ground zero for a lot of iconic rock ’n’ roll history.
She was in the studio when The Beatles recorded The White Album, Abbey Road and Let It Be and was up on the roof as a witness to their last live concert. As an Apple employee O’Dell lived with George Harrison and Pattie Boyd for a period of time on their Friar Park estate and became a member of the band’s inner circle just as everything began to fall apart.
O’Dell also worked on the Rolling Stones Exile on Main St. and Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue tours in between other plum assignments as a lover, friend, personal assistant, drug runner, tour manager, gofer, mystery girl and muse to the stars. Harrison wrote “Miss O’Dell” for her and she is the subject of several classic Leon Russell songs including “Pisces Apple Lady” and “Hummingbird.” She was also “the woman down the hall” in Joni Mitchell’s song about a love triangle “Coyote.” She seems to have been everywhere in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s and her new book Miss O’Dell takes readers behind the scenes to that time and place.
North Shore News: It all starts with happenstance -- you meet Apple Records exec Derek Taylor at a dinner in Los Angeles and he introduces you to the Beatles world. He invited you to London to work at Apple Corps. There was a promise of a job but nothing concrete -- what did you think when you first got there?
Chris O’Dell: It was a huge shock moving from L.A. to London. But you know, the minute I got there, I felt like I had been there before. It was the oddest thing, it just felt so comfortable to be in London. I knew Derek and I knew he wouldn’t just let me sit around there and go home. He was a man of his word. He was going to do something and I knew he would do it in a very diplomatic way. I felt pretty sure I was going to get a job there. And eventually I did. I also had to participate in that quest but I did get a job.
North Shore News: Where did The Beatles record when you were at Apple?
Chris O’Dell: They worked in Abbey Road when I first got there because they were doing The White Album. I think all that was done at Abbey Road then, as time went by we began to use Trident Studios for other Apple artists. Paul went there and did some recording with Mary Hopkin and he liked the studio and George went there and so we began to book sessions at the Trident Studios. A lot of stuff started to happen over at Trident. Even George Martin was OK with recording at Trident.
North Shore News: Were you responsible for booking all the sessions?
Chris O’Dell: I booked all the Trident Studio sessions for Apple but I think George Martin’s office did a lot of the booking for The Beatles specifically. As time went by I would book for Paul or George or John or whoever wanted to actually use the studio. I was the link to that.
North Shore News: You mention individual names -- did they record separately?
Chris O’Dell: Not in terms of Beatles but they began to produce other artists. Paul had Mary Hopkin and George had Jackie Lomax and Billy Preston and Doris Troy. And John was using it mostly for him and Yoko -- whatever they were doing.
North Shore News: You were there for many of the Beatles most iconic moments including the gig on the roof -- what was that like?
Chris O’Dell: It was so cold. Isn’t it weird to think that of all that was going on the thing that I remember most was how cold it was? They had talked about doing a live performance. They looked at various places that they could do it but in the end it was just much easier to move upstairs to the roof. They were recording in the basement studio. I was very lucky to have been there because the employees were told they couldn’t go up. The roof was not very strong and they had to reinforce it. I was friends with the cameraman who was filming the Let It Be film and he said, ‘Come up I need you.’ So I went up and in the end I didn’t really do anything I just sat there and watched the show.
The whole idea was that the music would suddenly be playing all over the West End of London which is where a majority of the business and shopping is. In actual fact that wasn’t the case as the amplifiers were way too small to cover that vast a territory but it was fun to hear the music and know that people were hearing it on the street looking for the source of it.
North Shore News: What was downstairs?
Chris O’Dell: The Apple studio, which they had been working on, was to be a 16-track studio. Back at that time we were still doing four and eight. It was supposed to be the all-time perfect studio and in fact it wasn’t. It was in their offices, they got it working and it was a lot easier to just come to Apple and do everything than it was to go to Trident or Abbey Road. It was a disaster as it was supposed to be state-of-the-art and it wasn’t. They did get it to the point where it was working adequately and they could do eight-track recording.
North Shore News: By the time you met the Beatles were their established routines beginning to break down?
Chris O’Dell: By the time I met them they were starting to find their own individual interests. Up until that time it had been pretty much a Beatles focus. George had discovered spirituality and Eastern religion and Ravi Shankar, and John had discovered Yoko (laughs) and art you know their whole art venture. Paul was very much into keeping the Beatles together and doing as much as he could for Apple. That was a real focus for him and then of course Linda came along. Ringo was doing movies. By that time things were starting to fall apart in terms of the Apple business. Each of them had discovered a new part of themselves it was time for them to move on. Apple began to fail as a business. They had invested a lot of money into and it wasn’t making a lot of money. In the meantime John and Paul had lost some of their songwriting royalties. There was some financial stress at that point. It wasn’t a very financially productive time for them because their Capitol Records deal was pretty pitiful, they didn’t really get anything off their merchandise. That was a time when they weren’t really making a huge amount of money.
North Shore News: Is that why they brought Allen Klein in?
Chris O’Dell: I think they brought Allen Klein in to figure out how to begin to trim the fat and make it a more money-producing enterprise. And in fact Apple still exists, it didn’t just disappear but what disappeared were the records, the publishing, the films -- all of those kinds of things that didn’t work.
North Shore News: And the lady with the tea cart . . .
Chris O’Dell: And the lady with the tea cart. I hope she’s still there.
North Shore News: You were closest to George and Pattie but you seemed to get along with all the Beatles.
Chris O’Dell: Paul was the first one I really got to know. We had a good relationship and when he brought Linda to the studio the first night she and I had Tucson in common because she had gone to school there. I was from Tucson so we had kind of a little pact between us. As time went by George invited me to come and live at Friar Park, and it’s pretty hard to live with someone and not get to know them, so I got to know Pattie really well during that time. And all our life we’ve maintained our friendship.
North Shore News: You must be one of the only people, other than Allen Klein, who worked for both the Stones and the Beatles. You saw them both up close on a daily basis. How were they different?
Chris O’Dell: First of all I was really a Beatle person. I loved their music and overall they were four guys who had families and they didn’t go off on tour and they didn’t travel a lot. They didn’t travel at all as a group by the time I met them. When I went to work for the Stones they were living in L.A. and I was at Mick’s house everyday and I was at Keith’s house a lot and it was all a personal thing. It was much more of a hands-on personal assistant job than when I had worked at Apple. And then when we went on tour that changed everything. I’d never had that experience before. The Stones were road guys. They liked the road, they toured, they’re still touring and that came out in their personalities just this harder way of living. They really focused on touring and on their albums. The way they are today is what they were like then. The Beatles were really looking for something to do when I was with them. And of course there were drugs in the ‘60s but what happened in the ‘70s was the drugs became harsher. By the time I worked for the Stones there was a lot of cocaine around. I didn’t run into that with the Beatles.
North Shore News: I guess if Exile on Main St. was your first tour that was starting out in the deep end of the rock ’n’ roll lifestyle.
Chris O’Dell: Yes, it was jumping in the deep end without a doubt. There was so much energy going on. There were people coming and going all the time. We had Truman Capote and Lee Radziwill (Jackie Kennedy’s sister), Terry Southern, the writer, we just had these amazing amounts of people that just kept showing up and becoming part of the tour. And the Stones tour like nobody else tours. Exceedingly organized but yet an organized chaos.
North Shore News: What was your role on the tour?
Chris O’Dell: I was probably more of a burden than I was a help. Mick called me and asked me to come out on the tour because I was their personal assistant in L.A. but I wasn’t necessarily scheduled to be a part of the tour. Mick asked me to bring his new costumes out that he’d had made, and once I got out there they just kept giving me things to do and before I knew it I was on the road touring with them as their personal assistant more or less. So in a way I wasn’t really helpful to the tour I was one of those extra bodies in the way.
North Shore News: Keith always found ways to keep you on the tour.
Chris O’Dell: Keith, Mick and Bill Wyman were really good about that and I tried to quit once because it was politically just a very charged atmosphere. I was extra money, extra weight and I didn’t like being in that position so I went home. The next day there was a break in the tour Keith called me up at home and said, ‘Why aren’t you here?’ And I said, ‘Well it’s probably not the right place for me to be. People are not happy about me being there and he said, ‘Well I want you here.’ So I went back for more abuse.
North Shore News: Keith usually doesn’t seem to be paying attention but he actually seems to be a very thoughtful person.
Chris O’Dell: Keith is an extremely thoughtful person. I think anyone who knows him recognizes that he is a very kind man. The only damage Keith does to anyone is to himself.
North Shore News: Have you ever seen the Robert Frank film?
Chris O’Dell: The CS Blues? Yes I have actually. Well you know I was there and I saw some of the parts of it. I have to say it was a very dark film, but then Robert Frank is a very dark photographer so he would be a dark filmmaker as well. I think the whole thing on the orgy on the plane was such a negative thing to have happen, and it’s still a part of that film. I think it’s very degrading to women. That was a bad day.
North Shore News: Was the Frank crew much of a presence on the tour?
Chris O’Dell: Yes, he was there all the time. He had a cameraman and a soundman. I think there were three of them on the tour. Interestingly enough, Robert Frank was introduced to Mick by Jon Taplin, my boyfriend at the time. Jon is a very educated and knowledgeable man and I was living with him at the time and he came to Mick’s house one day to see me and started talking to Mick about Robert Frank and he thought Robert Frank would be great for an album cover. He got Mick a book and Mick agreed and they got a hold of Robert. Robert came in to do the album cover and then the film kind of grew from that.
North Shore News: Of all the bands and shows you saw what were the most memorable?
Chris O’Dell: There isn’t a tour that I was on that I don’t have amazing memories of and I loved the music. There were certain parts of the Stones that I would watch every night or with Dylan, I loved watching him do “Sara,” “One More Cup of Coffee” and certain songs that I just wouldn’t miss every night. That was kind of my highlight, to go and listen to those particular songs. Queen, I loved, and it was not music that I grew up with. I was a little surprised. They were extremely good showmen and I was just amazed at what a great band they were. I didn’t know much about them but I was very excited when I went to work with them.
North Shore News: You mention in the book meeting Cameron Crowe when he was a 17-year-old reporter working for Rolling Stone. In so many ways your story seems to be the real Almost Famous. The real deal.
Chris O’Dell: That’s right. Actually I sent him an early copy of the book before it was in its final edit and he e-mailed me back and said that he loved it.
North Shore News: What made you write the book now?
Chris O’Dell: The time had come. I always felt that I had been in a very fortunate position and a very unique time in music history. And new generations seem interested as well. I’ve spoken at colleges and even though the kids don’t know the names, they are interested in the story. And they have me sign the book for their parents.