Gary James' Interview With
Chief Executive of Brian Epstein's NEMS Enterprises
Geoffrey Ellis was Chief Executive of NEMS Enterprises, Brian Epstein's company at the height of Beatlemania. He ran the business affairs for not only The Beatles, but Gerry And The Pacemakers, Billy J. Kramer And The Dakotas and Cilla Black.
Mr. Ellis has written a book about his life titled I Should Have Known Better, A Life In Pop Management, The Beatles, Brian Epstein And Elton John. (Thorogood Publishing - http://www.thorogoodpublishing.co.uk/
Mr. Ellis spoke with us about his time with The Beatles and Brian Epstein.
Q - Mr. Ellis, what does the title of your book mean? Brian Epstein, The Beatles or yourself?
A - Myself. As you know, it's a title from "A Hard Days Night" LP.
Q - What should you have known better?
A - (laughs) Well, I was happily settled into a fairly ordinary job in the insurance industry, doing quite well, modest promotions and so on and you know, when the chance came to completely change and work in this business, I thought to myself, if I had a wife and family, I would probably turn it down and carry on doing a more ordinary job. This is something completely different obviously, so I bet my life and said "Yes, OK."
Q - You were working as an attorney for The Royal Insurance Company. What did you do for Royal Insurance?
A - I was an Assistant Underwriting Manager at the time, in New York.
Q - So, for the NEMS job you had to go back to London didn't you?
A - Indeed, yes.
Q - You write; your upbringing, education and earlier career by no means prepared you for the work you did for NEMS. In fact, you didn't particularly care for Pop music.
A - That's true.
Q - Having said all that, how is it that you performed so well for NEMS?
A - I was brought in by Brian Epstein in fact, to do a lot of the administrative work, which he didn't care for and he had no time for. That is to say both running the office, running the personnel and dealing with a lot of administration matters and also a lot of the business affairs as it related to The Beatles, the contracts for recording, publishing, appearances and so forth.
Q - Brian Epstein announced to you at his parents house that The Beatles would be bigger than Elvis. What went through your mind when he said that? What did you think?
A - I thought he said it with his tongue somewhat in his cheek, but he certainly believed in them and thought they were going to be stars. Whether he sincerely believed that they would in fact be bigger than Elvis I really can't tell. I was there at his parents home and his mother was in the room as well. Brian walked out of the room to do something else and she and I sort of smiled at each other and thought, well, isn't that great. (laughs)
Q - Did Brian ever tell you what he initially saw in The Beatles? The group that America saw on The Ed Sullivan Show is not the same group that he saw on The Cavern stage.
A - Only one change surely...Pete Best was out and Ringo was in. The other three were the same. So, 75% were the same.
Q - The way they were tailored onstage was different. Gone were the leather jackets and in its place, the collarless suit jackets.
A - That was Brian.
Q - And they bowed.
A - Yes. They had to in fact behave onstage rather than just rush around like some Pop groups did and some still do I believe.
Q - You saw Barbra Streisand's first professional appearance at a bar. Did you think she would go on to bigger and better things?
A - Really, I had no opinion. Along with the rest of the surprised audience at the rather small night-club, we were taken aback by her voice. I don't know about personality. She was so young then, I think a teenager, but she really hit those songs. Don't ask me what she sang. I have no idea at all. But she certainly had projections. I had no idea as to what her future would be.
Q - Since you knew Brian at an early age, did you believe he was destined for greatness.
A - No. It never occurred to me.
Q - Why did he take on the management of so many acts. Colonel Parker only had Elvis.
A - I think it was perhaps a little bit of vanity. The acts came to him certainly in the early years. Cilla Black...I don't know if you know her.
Q - I do.
A - She was a young girl performer. I'm not quite sure how she came to him, but I don't think he sought her out. And the same is true of Gerry And The Pacemakers. Gerry Marsden is still active all these years later. Billy J. Kramer And The Dakotas, they came to him. I don't know if they came to him directly. I think they came to him before I joined NEMS, but after the increasing success of The Beatles, he seemed to attract other acts.
Q - I don' see how he could have devoted enough time to each group.
A - Absolutely right. A lot of them, or some of them became quite worried about this and complained that he was taking up all his time with The Beatles. He used to have a row about once a month with Cilla Black. She would say "You're only interested in those Beatles." He would say No, no, no Cilla. Look, I booked you into this, that and the other. And he'd invite her out to lunch or dinner and they'd kiss and make up, until the next time. But, she did very well.
Q - I don't know how much success she had in America.
A - Not a great deal. You're absolutely right. Brian got her booked into the restaurant at the Plaza Hotel as a cabaret act and she was not a great success.
Q - You write that Brian's time was consumed by the artistic career of The Beatles...the tours, TV and film appearances, their songwriting and recording. What was Brian's involvement in their songwriting and recording? I recall Paul asking Brian that he not involve himself with their songs or recording and he agreed.
A - Well, I may have been inaccurate or over enthusiastic. He didn't have any direct influence. He didn't say change that word to this, change that note to that. But he did watch very carefully over their actual recordings. We'd go to studios and listen. But he did not have an artistic input to their artistic doings, nothing like as much, for example as George Martin, their record producer.
Q - What was he looking for in the studio? Could he tell if something didn't go right?
A - I can't answer that. I don't know. I simply don't know. I never went to them myself, so I don't know.
Q - I wonder if Brian Epstein understood just how unique the songwriting was in The Beatles. No one ever wrote a song like "Eleanor Rigby" or "Yesterday" or "In My Life". We had The Beach Boys and they were writing songs about cars and surfing.
A - Well, it's interesting that you should mention that. I remember quite vividly having a meeting, I don't know whether it was a business or social meeting with Brian. I think it was at his home in the early evening. He was enthusiastic about he new song that they had just recorded. I remember there was an accountant as well. There were three of us, Brian, the accountant and myself. He said "You've got to listen to this" and it was "Yesterday". So, I'm one of the first people who ever heard "Yesterday". (laughs) I can assure you that I had no idea that later on it would become the most covered song in the whole of music. Whether it still is or not, I don't know. It certainly was fifteen, twenty years ago.
Q - On page 159 of your book, you refer to the NEMS organization as being ramshackle.
A - (laughs)
Q - Which by definition means rickety or ready to collapse. Was NEMS ready to collapse at one point?
A - I've checked the word in my dictionary as well. Ramshackle is an unfair word. I should have said informal rather than ramshackle. People did tend to walk in and walk out, to work their own way, which is not the way I was accustomed to work as an insurance manager. (laughs) But we got the things done. There were two or three accountants in the office. They worked hard. But as I say, the people who were on the tailcoats if I can put it like that, of the artists were very informal. So, ramshackle is unfair and to you I withdraw it.
Q - What was a dinner party at Brian's house like?
A - Just enjoyable. He had a butler, can you believe? And the butler's wife was an excellent cook. He had fine wines. It was perhaps a little more formal than many dinners people involved in Pop music at the time (would have). Very pleasant. Extremely pleasant. I think I mentioned in the book when he had George Harrison's wedding, which was delightful.
Q - Did he ever have entertainment at one of these parties?
A - No, not that I can recall.
Q - Because of the high tax rate in England, did anyone ever suggest to The Beatles that they should move to another country?
A - Yes. You mean for tax purposes?
Q - Yes. The Stones moved to France.
A - It was suggested by tax advisors, put forward as a suggestion, but it was not acted on. The Beatles as you're aware had a very high profile, higher certainly than The Stones. They wouldn't like their fans or the public generally to get the impression that they were moving for that purpose, not to pay taxes in the country of their birth. They did OK anyhow.
Q - I often wondered why they didn't record in the States.
A - I can't answer it in detail, but I think they were very comfortable at the Abby Road Studio at EMI. They had George Martin and Geoff Emerick there. I think they liked to do it in familiar surroundings with familiar people.
Q - You write that you didn't particularly like John Lennon.
A - (laughs)
Q - "He was, to use an over-worked phrase, too clever for his own good." Now what does that mean?
A - In my view, he was snide, sarcastic and un-feeling. There's an occasion you probably read on or know of, when he passed by children in push chairs in a hospital or somewhere in the States. They were all very keen to speak to him and get autographs and he just walked past and said "Oh, for Heaven's sake." I'm sure he had pleasant sides to his character. I didn't seem him and I wasn't a personal friend of his, obviously. (laughs) But I didn't care for him. I really didn't. I'm sorry.
Q - You discount the stories of an physical relationship between John and Brian. Where do you think those stories got their start?
A - I don't know. There certainly were people that did speak of it. Brian told me emphatically "No!" I did ask him once or perhaps more than once "What do you see in John Lennon? Are you having a thing with him?" He said "Absolutely not." I think he was attracted to him, but he knew that John was not like that and was not attracted to him. So, I have no doubt whatever that they didn't.
Q - You actually asked Brian Epstein if he'd ever thought about changing his name. I've always thought that Brian Epstein was the perfect name for the manager of a Rock 'n' Roll group.
A - (laughs)
Q - Why did you think otherwise? Did you think there would be prejudice against his last name?
A - Yeah, at that time, forty-five years ago, there was a sort of anti-Semitic feeling, not so much admittedly in show business, although there were certain people high-up in show business that I'm not going to name, but I could do, who were Jewish and who were spoken of in anti-Semitic terms. It may have been after one of these minor outbursts that I may have casually said to Brian "Did you ever think of changing your name?" He was emphatic that he certainly wasn't going to. He was proud of his name and quite right to.
Q - Had he changed his name to something like Brian Edwards, it just doesn't make it.
A - No. You're right. (laughs)
Q - Towards the end of his life, Brian Epstein wasn't such an optimistic, happy person. What would have been the reason for that?
A - He was nervous about The Beatles. He was concerned that The Beatles would go somewhere else and he would be dropped. I don't know whether they would have done that or not. I think probably not. Although Brian and I did discuss at one point the possibility that they would renew their management contract, which was due for renewal a few months after Brian died, it would be renewed for slightly less favorable terms. Brian took 25% of their earnings as a management fee and I think he and I discussed whether he would accept a renewed contract on 20%, with perhaps some restrictions on his own activities with them, but I can't go into detail on that. He would've been hurt had they terminated their contract completely. He would've seen it as a vote against him and the public would think he's had his day and that was that.
Q - I don't know what other manager The Beatles might have turned to. There was no other Brian Epstein.
A - Well, it's all hypothetical isn't it?
Q - How do you think Brian Epstein will be remembered? What is his legacy?
A - In this country (England) most middle-age and older people remember the name Brian Epstein. Most of them have a fair idea he was The Beatles manager and very successful. (The) Younger generation probably have less idea of who he was. With some of them, it was a long time ago...probably don't even recognize the name. There are exceptions to this of course, those involved in the music business or indeed show business as a whole, writers, performers, promoters. If I may say so, I myself recently had the idea of arranging for what we call here a blue plaque to be placed on the exterior wall of Brian's house in London, coincidentally just a few streets away from where I live now. This plaque would mark that he had lived and died there. These plaques are generally placed on houses where statesmen, artists, famous writers and so on, lived. So, it would be something of a departure from sort of the establishment's routine. The fortieth anniversary of his death last August (2007) seemed to me an appropriate time for this to be done. I put in an application to the body responsible for these plaques which is called English Heritage. It's a sort or quasi-establishment body. They responded. They were generally favorable to the idea. They told me it may take up to three years for a decision to be reached and for a plaque, if they do agree, to be put up. I think having a plaque on the wall of his house saying that he lived and died there would be an excellent memorial to him. People in many years to come, if they didn't recognize the name, might take the trouble to find out.