Gary James' Interview With The Beatles' Chauffeur
In those early years of Beatlemania, no one was closer to the Beatles than Alf Bicknell. Alf Bicknell was the chauffeur to the Beatles, from 1964 to 1966.
He traveled the world with the Beatles and shared private times with the group in recording studios, hotels, and planes. Now, for the record, Alf has put his story down on paper, along with a special edition video, titled "Alf Bicknell's Personal Beatles Diary" (1996). You can forget all the other Beatle books. Alf Bicknell has the inside track because he was on the inside. We're very proud to present a rare interview with a true Beatles insider, Mr. Alf Bicknell.
Q - When did you meet the Beatles?
A - It was a strange thing. I had been used to working for actors and film stars, among them Charles Boyer, David Niven, those sort of people. I'd just finished working on a film as a driver and various things. I was at home when I lived at Number 28 Devonshire Mews, which is just off the back of the BBC, near Regents Park. A knock on the door came and Jean, my wife, went to the door, and there's a guy at the door saying, "Is Alf in?" She said, "yes" and called out, "Alf there's a person here who would like to talk to you." I go down and this man said he was from NEMS offices and he said, "would you be interested in working for a pop group?" I said, "yeah. It sounds interesting." I was an agency driver at the time and I wasn't doing anything at the time so I said, "Yeah, it's worth an interview. Let's talk about it. By the way, what's the band?" So he said, "It's "The Beatles." Now this was sort of the middle of 1964, middle, late 1964. So, I said, 'Yeah. Well OK, that's fine." He went away and they rang me up some time later, and arranged for an interview for me to go to Brian Epstein's apartment which was over on King Williams Mews, which is in the Knightsbridge area near Harrod's bit store. I get over there and there was a guy there who used to arrange all of Brian's entertainment. He used to do his business lunches and dinners and that sort of thing, a guy called Lonnie Trimball. I said, "I'm Alf," and he said "Yeah, I know. He's been expecting you. Come in." I sat down. He said, "I don't know how long anybody's gonna be, but here's a drink." He put a bottle of whiskey and a bottle of coke and cigarettes, and nuts and all this sort of thing. I just sat there, and sat there for about two hours. I had quite a drink out of the whiskey bottle, needless to say. Lonnie said to me, "Alf, I'm afraid I don't think anybody's gonna turn up." So I said, "Well, OK" and away I went. I got into a taxi cab and I went home and I thought well, that's the end of that. A few days later, the telephone rings and a guy from NEMS Enterprises says, "Can you get hold of a lim (limousine)?" I said, "I don't know. Give me a number and I'll ring you back." In the mean time I rang a friend of mine who had a small limousine company in West London and I said to him, "Have you got a lim going free, that you could loan me?" He said, "Well, what's it for?" I said, "It's for a pop group. It's for a rock 'n' roll band." (Laughs.) I didn't tell him any more than that. He said, "Yeah. I can loan you one. I've got a nice one here." Anyway, I quickly phoned back Brian Epstein's offices on Argyle Street, that was NEMS, next door to the London Palladium. I said, 'Yeah, I can pick one up," and they said, "Well, here's an address when you pick the lim up, go to this address and see what happens." So I got the address, jumped in a cab and went across London, picked up the limousine and I went to this address in Emperor's Gate. I sat out there looking all prim and proper in a dark suit and white shirt, black tie, and Rolls Royce cap on my head and all that sort of thing, thinking well, OK., now let's see what happens. Shortly after that, the door opened, the back door of the limo opened, and bounded in all these fellas and one guy comes around and gets in the front with me. He introduces himself to me as Neil Aspinall. I look in the rear view mirror and there is this band called John, Paul, George, and Ringo. I was quite staggered by this. I said, "Where would you like to go?" Neil said, "We'll go back to King Williams Mews." I later found out that this is the place where they all used to meet up, coming from their homes and various places. But, Ringo had an apartment there anyway. I start to drive away from Emperor's Gate and as I sort of get to the first set of traffic lights, I stop on the red, and I've got this limousine with the plain glass in it, and I can hear people shouting out, "There's the Beatles." By the time I got to the next set of traffic lights, I'm being chased by various cars and buses, motorcycles, cycles, people running, shouting, screaming "The Beatles." By this time, I'm getting a little nervous. So, I'm gonna go a little bit quicker. I eventually pull up into the Mews which is a dead end road where the apartment house was where they wanted to be dropped off. As I stopped a little bit quickly, George came forward and hit his head on the partition. He wasn't really pleased about that. He said, "Oh gosh, my poor head" or words to that effect. Alf says to himself, this is the quickest, fastest, shortest job I've ever had in my life." But, Neil quieted and calmed the situation down. From there on, it seemed like it was plain sailing. We became firm friends after that. That was the start of my life and times with John, Paul, George and Ringo. Let me add, that the whole thing started really, because when they came to do the first Ed Sullivan Show, they had a hired-in limo driver that once he dropped them off at the airport, he was afraid to come across to do the first Ed Sullivan Show, and do some gigs in the United States. He'd gone to newspapers and sold a story. So, consequently, when they returned to Heathrow in London after the tour, they were aware that this guy sold them out, as it were. So, this is how I became their driver. Once I started with them, eventually we got our own limo. I then had the windows tinted, black glass, so at least while they were traveling around, everyone soon knew that when this Austin Princess went by that this was the car the Beatles drove around in.
Q - Was that car shipped overseas when the Beatles toured?
A - No. That was mainly for just Europe and the United Kingdom. When we came to the United States it was a totally different thing. We had limos and police escorts and that sort of thing. So, that's the start of it.
Q - You went everywhere the Beatles went?
A - Yeah. Everywhere John, Paul, George, and Ringo went, whether it was for a meal in a hotel or a restaurant or whatever it was that they were doing. There was usually three people that were with them, that was Neil Aspinall, their personal "roadie," he was with them right from day one, you obviously know he runs the Apple Organization now, Mal (Evans) was the music roadie and sadly he's no longer with us, God Bless him, he died tragically in Los Angeles a few years ago. That was a very sad affair. Wherever they went, there was always the three of us. To go on, how I became more than just the limousine driver, that was a tremendous responsibility in itself as you can imagine. It was on the location of "Help!" that we were on Salisbury Plain. You recall the scenes where they go up on Salisbury Plain with the Army and all that stuff?
Q - Absolutely.
A - OK. It was on one of those occasions when we were driving from the hotel in Ainsbury down in Whishire, that's sort of Soughwest England and on our way up there, John leans forward to me very early in the morning and says, "Alf, would you like to come on tour with us as a roadie?" Now, you answer John quite quickly because at that time of day especially, if you didn't sort of speak up immediately, the subject was gone and finished. That was how quickly his mind used to work. So immediately, I just said, "Yeah, that would be nice," I said. But, inside, my heart leapt, the excitement, the adrenaline just the thought of going on tour, the next one was coming up shortly, going to the United States. So, that was another welcoming into that small circle of people. As John was quoted some time later, "Yeah, Alf was with us in the eye of the hurricane." I feel very proud of him saying that. Obviously by now, they trusted me implicitly.
Q - As a roadie, what were your duties? Were you driving?
A - No. I wasn't driving. My days and my nights were filled basically with looking after them.
Q - Assisting the road manager?
A - Absolutely. As George says in his foreward, I became sort of a bodyguard as well. I took a lot of the pressure off Neil and off Mal. Mal was always busy with the musical instruments, etc. As I say, Neil was constantly with John, Paul, George, and Ringo. I was there basically to do whatever I could to make life easier on the road. What people must realize by now is that life on the road with the four of them was out of a limo, into an airplane, off the airplane, into a limo, to a hotel, to a dressing room somewhere. It was just a constant barrage of enthusiastic and very excited Beatle fans. So we constantly needed to be on our guard, not that anybody at that time was out to hurt the Beatles, but the sheer enthusiasm sometimes could've gotten a little out of hand.
Q - I did an interview with Bob Bonis...
A - Oh, I remember Bob Bonis. He was like stage manager. He's an American.
Q - Right. He was the Beatles road manager for their '64 summer tour of America
A - He's probably a guy in his fifties.
Q - We were talking about the Beatles hotel security and he told me ex-F.B.I. agents guarded the elevators to make sure no fans got on the floor the Beatles were staying on.
A - We had ex-F.B.I. agents go on ahead. For example, if we were in Chicago, Cominskey Park, and the next concert might be in Seattle or Oregon or perhaps the Maple Leaf Hall in Toronto, Canada, these ex-F.B.I. guys would go ahead and would sort of work out the security, etc., for that.
Q - Bob Bonis told me it was impossible for anyone to get to those rooms. Now, you told David Hinckley of the New York Daily News, 'It's an absolute fact that groupies didn't exist for the Beatles."
A - That's right.
Q - Yet, John Lennon told, I believe it was Jann Wenner in "Lennon Remembers" that he had been to bed with hundreds of groupies. Was John exaggerating, or did none of that take place?
A - Well, I can't argue with John, he's not here. The way that I see groupies is what I've seen with other bands where there are sort of 20, 30 young people all around in the rooms, in the hotels, you know, sitting down drinking and enjoying the company of rock bands and this sort of thing. That is what I meant. Now whatever John was happy to say in that book about going to bed with people who were either groupies or ordinary people, it's not something that I would really want to discuss quite honestly. That was my opinion. I didn't see lots and lots of people, lots of, as you call it groupies hanging around. That is my personal observation. If it was done in a discreet way then that was OK for John to say it, but, I'm not gonna say that, because as far as I was concerned I didn't believe it ever happened. Neil will back me up as well on this. Neil will also say, there was no such thing as groupies. If that's what John said happened in that interview, then that's up to John. That was an accolade as far as I was concerned. But, I don't want to talk about that sort of thing. When did that book come out?
Q - Late '71, early '72.
A - Ok, Ok. I left the Beatles in 1966. You see, I worked for the Beatles during the years of "Beatlemania". He's gone on through '67 with "Sgt. Pepper" and with Yoko and all that sort of thing. So therefore, things may possibly have changed, as far as my time goes. Nobody can discredit me for whatever David Hinckley wrote. I did say there was no such thing as groupies and probably up to the point that I was with them, with the Beatles at the height of their fame, at the height of whatever the legend is of the Beatles, that was when what I said was absolutely true, and I hope you accept it.
Q - I do. If you and Bob Bonis say it's true, then it's true. And, it only confirms what I've always believed the truth to be. Why John would say something else, only he knows. You did tell David Hickley that "The Beatles spent their evenings with other musicians, people like Bob Dylan, and Allen Ginsberg, that sort." Bob Bonis told me the Beatles would spend time watching movies and playing games like Monopoly in their hotel suites.
A - Well, there you are, does that not bear out what I've said?
Q - Absolutely.
A - There you go. If you know anything about me at all, you know integrity is my second name. I don't say that with a pompous attitude at all. The thing to remember is, at that time when I joined them, the Beatles were well on their way to becoming legends, from sort of the middle of '64. Going back to the filming of "Help!" in Salisbury Plain when John offered this to me, there was so much work to do. A few days before they were actually coming to the States, they all got to work 'cause they had to get me a visa. I was fillin' out these different forms. We were sittin' in the car doin' this sort of thing and I got to Occupation: and Paul leans forward, and says, "Occupation? Musical Director." But obviously I didn't do that. I put down what my occupation was. There was not that many people around. There was John, Paul, George, Ringo, Neil, Mal, Alf, and Brian Epstein. That was it. So many people have got stories. You know how it's got twisted over the years. Over the years, I've tried to avoid reading what other people have written because I don't want my piece of history sort of fogged over with anything I've read. You take it from me, with hand on heart, everything I say. However inconsequential it may sound, it is the absolute truth because I was there, and I would know all the things going on.
Q - Let's step away from the Beatles for a minute and zero in on their manager. What did you think of Brian Epstein?
A - The great thing about Brian, in my opinion, having worked for so many high flyers, we're talking about captains of industries and actors, Brian was the absolute gentleman. Whenever he came on the scene he never, ever, I can never recall him saying "Oh this needs doing or that needs doing", whether we were in a dressing room or perhaps while we were in E.M.I. recording, he'd come and he'd never interfere. He'd say, "How's things? How are you getting on?" I didn't ever get to know him that well, but, as a boss he was terrific. When it comes down to it, Brian eventually moved out of NEMS Enterprises in London, and moved to a private office quite near Bond Street. At times we didn't sort of see much of him, because my time along with Neil and Mal, was completely taken up by the boys. But, an absolute charming man. I call him a gentleman. He was one of the nicest men that I've ever had the pleasure of working for.
Q - Were the Beatles as funny and witty as they appeared in "A Hard Day's Night?"
A - Yeah.
Q - Did they crack jokes all the time?
A - Oh no, not all the time, because mood swings do happen. Like on tour, we would be in each other's pocket, continuously, at a concert, or perhaps they would entertain afterwards at the hotel. They would have musicians come over, actors. They would sort of hang out. They'd have a nice dinner, and some nice wine and all that sort of thing. They were pretty good, but they still use to like their own space. At different times George would disappear perhaps to his room or go off with somebody else, another musician, and have a quiet chat. But, they spent a lot of time together and the humor would always come through. I mean, when we toured around Great Britain, especially in winter time, it was just one crazy Vaudeville act in the back of the car all the time. Let's face it, they were in the eye of the hurricane. They had to keep some sense of humor to keep some sort of priority in their lives. But there were times when they were quiet. Apart from being on tour, if we had quiet days, I would still be working and that was some of my hardest times. Whoever would phone me first in the morning, I would be out running around. Things were a little more serious then because that was sort of their home life. But, it was always light hearted, let's put it that way.
Q - Were you with the Beatles at Candlestick Park on August 29,1966 in what turned out to be their last concert?
A - I was indeed.
Q - What was their mood then?
A - Things had started to change. Apart from the weather being a cold, damp night, the mood was different. It was a little strange, but also it came as a surprise. I remember one of them asking Tony Barrow to record Candlestick Park. Obviously it came to pass that this was the last concert that was going to be. But, it wasn't until later, after the concert, we were sitting in the dressing room and we were sitting in a lounge and I was sitting beside John, having a drink and I heard John say, "That's it. No more touring." then I heard George say, "I'm no longer a Beatle." Although I expected it, I was still surprised. But then, by this time I'd been with 'em almost two years, traveling probably on two world tours with 'em. I'd seen very little of my home life. It had completely taken over my life, if you like. Having said that, I enjoyed every moment of it. When John said "No more touring," a few minutes later I said, "that's fine. Now let's get things sorted out when we get back. Let's call it a day." John said, "OK, that's fine." That was great for me. To go on from there probably took me about five years to get over that.
Q - Where did you get the film footage for this video of yours?
A - Different people. Different friends. People that have gotten to know me, they say "Oh, I took some footage here. I took some footage there." Somebody had some stuff from the Cow Palace in San Francisco in 1965. A lot of people contributed to the video with little clips of stuff for me, which makes it very entertaining. It gives you proof, in these various pieces of black and white footage from the days of "Beatlemania," Alf among the Beatles.
Q - Do you stay in some kind of regular contact with Paul, George, and Ringo?
A - I do, but I don't bug 'em. They've got their lives to lead. I sent this package to Paul, George and Ritchie...Ringo, sorry. Paul was so pleased with it. It says to me that the friendship between us, my loyalty, my love for them, it's a great accolade. If I boast about it, it's because I'm so thrilled.
Q - Alf, why did it take you so long to write your story?
A - It never occurred to me. Someone said to me much later, "Alf, you were with the Beatles in the times of 'Beatlemania,' you're almost obligated to tell your piece of history." I phoned them up. I talked to George and Paul four or five years ago. George suggested, after I told him I'd been to a Beatles Convention, "Why don't you do something?" Stupidly, I said, "What shall I say?" He said, "Whatever you like." The trust was there. So, they didn't worry about what I was gonna write. It didn't matter to them. Had either George, or Paul, I hadn't talked to Ringo, said "Alf we'd rather you didn't do it," I wouldn't be talking to you now. It sounds so simple, but that's the absolute gospel truth.
Q - What's next for Alf Bicknell?
A - I'm already planning now, 'cause people are interested in doing a more in-depth story about me, going back from childhood and incorporating "The Beatles' Story." It's another book. I just plan on trying to spend six months a year in America with my lovely wife and spending my time between here and England and going on. I want to create something more for Beatle fans. That's the most important thing. Thirty years on, all of a sudden it's a great, big part of my life, and I think I'm extremely fortunate, and very grateful for the opportunity to put this "Personal Beatles' Diary" out, and the video. We've got other ideas to do other stuff, all connected with the Beatles. So, I just want it to be an ongoing thing.
© Gary James. All rights reserved.