Author, educator, and renowned Beatles authority Dr. Kenneth Womack is currently curating and annotating the legendary Mal Evans archive. Mal was road manager and personal assistant to the Beatles, and he’s a key player, albeit an enigmatic figure, in the band’s story. When I found out about the project, I was actually thrilled to hear that Mal’s mythical trunk of Beatle memorobilia does indeed exist.
Mal Evans was not himself a particularly notable person, but the circumstances of his life are quite spectacular. A telephone engineer turned club doorman at the Cavern Club in Liverpool, he seems like a wonderfully average guy who stumbled into an extraordinary situation.
Dr. Womack has an upcoming two-volume biography of Mal, including an omnibus fully-annotated catalog of the archive. 360°Sound had an opportunity to chat with the Monmouth University professor about the Mal Evans archive, and about the life of this hero in the trenches of Beatlemania.
360°Sound: Can you give me a bit of background on your project and how it got started?
Dr. Womack: My fascination with Mal goes way back. We almost can’t help ourselves, right? He’s always there. He’s in the photos, sometimes in the shadows, but more often than not, in the camera’s lens. My interest was piqued by his untimely, and seemingly mysterious, death.
At the onset of COVID, a third party got Mal’s estate in touch with me. They were interested in seeing their father’s story finally go into print. The first thing I wanted to know was, does all this stuff really exist? This treasure trove that we’ve been hearing about forever? Gary Evans, Mal’s son who’s now 61, said to me, “You bet!” The next thing I know I’m receiving a thorough accounting of the material. A box arrives here on the Jersey shore, and lo and behold it’s always been true!
Why did the estate reach out to you, personally?
I’d like to believe it’s because I’ve written so widely about the band. I’ve also specialized more recently in biography. For instance, I’ve written about George Martin over two volumes. They were also assured that I’m someone they could trust – that was very important to them. They wanted to make sure that a certain amount of care was taken in telling the story. I’ve been very moved by Gary’s complimentary comments about the work that I’ve done.
As people will discover when [the annotated archive] is published in full next year, the materials are wide-ranging; they don’t tell a pure composite story. So, I think one of the reasons that my relationship with the estate has worked so well is that I have painstakingly gone down the rabbit hole of these materials to piece them together.
Mal’s life with the Beatles didn’t have a blueprint. This is a story that evolved in ways that most of us will never experience. One minute he’s a telephone engineer from Liverpool, and the next he’s traveling the world with this group that seems to have no end in sight. [laughs]
That’s the magic of the Beatles – the end still isn’t in sight. Two are dead and yet here we are, still deeply involved in their story. I think that will be true for decades, if not centuries, to come.
[The Beatles] didn’t have a plan. Certainly no one – Mal or the Beatles – knew where this phenomenal story was going. Consequently, Mal is collecting material and making diary entries and taking notes and compiling manuscripts at a time of intense activity. What people will find when they finally see this material is that it is voluminous.
The bits of Mal’s journals that I’ve seen seem to include a lot of almost mundane detail – what they had for breakfast, or who popped ‘round the studio – that sort of charmingly normalizes the Beatles. And yet, there’s been no published biography of Mal to date.
He had been working during the last year of his life on compiling his memoirs, which were to be titled Living the Legend of the Beatles but were never published. He was organizing his large collection of photographs, because these would have been illustrated memoirs. He did also leave notes about how the illustrations would appear.
In many ways you’re correct about the humanizing nature of Mal’s story, and the way he humanizes the Beatles. We know one thing for certain is that [the band] worked incredibly hard. They worked long hours and were terribly dedicated to their work. Indeed, that’s one of the reasons that I love teaching the Beatles, because their story has so many wonderful side aspects that I can share with students – the power of hard work and dedication, and wanting to be great. Mal’s compilation of their lives and times does really show this.
What’s fascinating about the diaries is that he would take notes about the quality of an experience or what was happening. And every now and then he would drop something in that changes the way we think of the story. Sometimes I was forced down the rabbit-hole, trying to understand why a certain person suddenly appeared in the story. Or why did this happen on this day, and not that day?
So, the diaries do help us to reframe the story. But you’re absolutely right, it’s that normalization that makes it so very fascinating. These are human beings, living this extraordinary existence and making this remarkable music.
Yes, and creating the rock star mythology out of whole cloth. To this day we’re gripped by the global pop star hysteria that first coalesced around the Beatles.
You bet! And the Beatles are still the outlier. In class [his Beatles class at Monmouth University], when I talk about the value of hard work and dedication and being an artist, I have to remind students that we’re talking about a path that does not magically open its doors to everyone. This is an outlier experience for all sorts of reasons, not the least of which is this incredible, timeless music they’re creating.
Compared to today’s numbers, there was a small cast of characters who were in the Beatles’ orbit. I’m sure when Paul McCartney goes on tour now he has at least 500 people and all these 18 wheelers. The Beatles had two guys – Mal and Neil [Aspinall, also road manager & personal assistant].
Mal’s story reminds us that nobody does it alone. In Western culture we’ve gotten to the point where we like to believe in the solitary genius – the person working by candle light late into the night writing their masterpiece. As I talk about in class, we can go back to Charlotte Bronte writing Jane Eyre in the 19th century. She wasn’t doing all of this alone; there were people who worked with her. There were publishers, editors, second and third parties who cared about her work and helped her to see it to publication.
In the Beatles case, Mal sometimes also performed a creative role. He might play an instrument, or be asked to toss in a lyric. We all saw this magically in Get Back. He was also the guy who would allow these sessions to go from six or seven hours to twelve hours – vitally important in those later studio years. It helped to have a guy who, after the canteen had closed in Abbey Road, could arrange for a meal. Or if a guitar failed on them, or they needed strings, Mal had such an extensive Rolodex that he could wake people up at midnight. That allowed them to continue to follow their muse. We can’t calculate the difference that must have made.
I read about “the bag” that Mal developed over the years with all kinds of goodies in it that he might need for the lads.
In a way he was quite maternal. The bag might have aspirin or bandaids. He was just the ‘Mal of all trades.’ He was able to perform those duties, particularly as Neil becomes more ensnared in Apple Corps, making other sorts of arrangements for [the band]. Mal is spending more time with them than their significant others.
Certainly more than his own significant other.
That alludes to one of the great challenges in telling Mal’s story. This increasing realization that he is making, very willingly, an incredible sacrifice that involves his family. Because he, like many of us, just can’t get enough of the Beatles.
It doesn’t seem like Mal fully participated in the filthy lucre aspect of the proceedings. His salary is widely reported to have been £38 per week [approximately $1000 today]. How would you say he was treated by the Beatles? How did they view him?
I have made a very careful accounting of his salary; it did shift over time. It’s notable that he was paid much longer by them than people know. Of course it all starts with Brian Epstein. Mal and Neil did not work for record labels, nor did they work for Epstein’s NEMS. They worked for Beatles & Company. Mal and Neil were paid into the mid-1970s directly by the Beatles & Co., and that partnership didn’t end until December 1974.
So, essentially his salary came out of the pocket of the Beatles, not out of the gross take?
That’s right. And that was important, because as [notorious American music industry executive] Allen Klein will embarrassingly find out, he could not fire Mal and Neil; that was not possible, although he tried. That number [£38] begins with Brian Epstein and it does grow over time. Perhaps not as precipitously as the Beatles’ fame did, or their own financial success, but it does grow. And when Mal and Neil started, their wages were way more than competitive, in terms of the expectations of the time. You have to give Epstein credit; he made sure he understood what a working wage was for somebody doing that kind of job.
To be fair to the Beatles, no one knew where this was going. Magnificent things are happening. They realize after a while that they are artists, that they are creating this timeless body of work that’s going to be larger than they are. They are making these realizations particularly by the late 1960s that this is something really important, that this is not any kind of normal situation. This is indeed an outlier. But, when dealing with record companies in the world of royalties and residuals, the money is slow to roll in. That’s why, to this day, musicians engage all sorts of accounting apparatus to be able to chase down their dollars. Where’s the money for all those streams on YouTube? How do we get at that?
The larger point is that, certainly the Beatles were millionaires by the end of their working career in 1969. But, as George Harrison said that same year, ‘They keep telling me I’m a millionaire, but where is it?’ [chuckles]
One of the great tragedies of Mal’s story is that he exits so early from the world. Consequently, he doesn’t see the incredible fruits of these labors. When Mal dies in January 1976, they haven’t seen anything yet, really. Obviously by then they’re the stuff of myth, but it would go to incredible places. The ‘90s with the Anthologies. They’re going to be #1 in 36 countries in the year 2000. Amazing! Mal did not live to participate in those things.
The Beatles get unfairly treated over the issue of Mal’s compensation. Mal and Neil were making far more than the working man.
Certainly far more than if he was still a telephone engineer.
Yes, although of course the telephone engineer job had a pension. There was no such guarantee with the band. In fact, there was quite a lot of stress in Mal’s family.
I’m sure Lily [Mal’s wife] would have preferred he stay a telephone engineer.
His whole family would have, because he was throwing over a really solid career for the pure risk of this pop group. By then thousands of pop groups had come and gone, even at that time, and there was no reason to believe this would be any different.
Dr. Kenneth Womack is Professor of English and Popular Music at Monmouth University in West Long Branch, NJ where he teaches a course on the Beatles. He is the author or editor of more than 35 books, including Long and Winding Roads: The Evolving Artistry of the Beatles (2007), The Cambridge Companion to the Beatles (2009), and The Beatles Encyclopedia: Everything Fab Four (2014). He delivers Beatles talks worldwide, and reaches even more Beatle-philes via the podcast Everything Fab Four. His biography of Mal Evans is slated for publication by HarperCollins in November 2023, with the annotated archive catalog to follow in 2024.
Keep up with Dr. Womack on his web site, kennethwomack.com