Chris O’Dell on gender, drugs and rock ‘n roll

Assistant Reverb Editor

Last Tuesday, Chris O’Dell, author of “Miss O’Dell: My Hard Days and Long Nights with The Beatles, The Stones, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, and the Women They Loved,” shared with Fredonia students what it was like to work with some of the biggest rock and roll legends in history. As O’Dell said, “I worked with the Holy Trinity of rock and roll: The Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan.”

O’Dell published her book in 2009, but the project was a long time in the making.

“I had realized many, many years ago that what I was experiencing was unique and a part of history,” O’Dell said.

She said that she thought, “One day, I’ll write about it so people can experience this through my eyes.”

She knew she would have to wait because, as O’Dell said, “there was a spoken rule at the time that you did not write or talk to the press” about anything you witnessed or experienced.

When O’Dell finally decided to write the book, she believed that, since everyone was older, nobody would care anymore. She said she has a better perspective now as well.

O’Dell had lived in the shadow of these legends for 20 some years when she realized “eventually you need to come out of the shadows in order to grow.”

O’Dell has had a long and exciting history within the music industry. It all started when her father dropped her off in L.A. before she was even 20 years old. She moved into a house with a band and, through being in the right place at the right time, got a job at Dot Records. This was her debut in the music industry.

Soon after, through a mutual acquaintance, she ended up out to dinner with Derek Taylor, the press officer for The Beatles. O’Dell said that when she was asked to go out to dinner with someone who worked with The Beatles, she thought it must have been a lie.

She and Taylor hit it off, though, and he suggested that she move to London and get a job at the new Apple Publishing office. After much encouragement from Taylor and her roommate, actress Teri Garr, she sold her car and her records and went.

When Armand Petri, the professor of music business responsible for bringing her to campus, asked her how she found the courage to go, O’Dell said that, “It takes faith in the universe to up and leave, as well as a little help from your friends.”

She also added, “Derek Taylor could charm you out of your home.”

With Taylor’s help, O’Dell got her first job at Apple Publishing; she was cutting newspaper clippings of The Beatles and pasting them into scrapbooks. After a few side jobs, O’Dell made a move that would secure her a job as an official employee: she went out and got sandwiches.

Soon after, Peter Brown, the assistant to Brian Epstein (manager of The Beatles), decided to take O’Dell on as his own personal assistant. O’Dell was then in charge of booking recording sessions which constantly placed her around the studios. This lead to close proximity with The Beatles, and she eventually made her way into their inner circle.

O’Dell said that The Beatles were kept very isolated; they didn’t have a lot of friends and even their girlfriends were kept hidden from the media and public for a long time. This rare relationship she had with them lead to many incredible experiences and opportunities later on in her career.

For example, O’Dell was in the studio when The Beatles were recording “Hey Jude” and she was asked to lend her voice to the track. She was present when John and Yoko made their first public appearance. O’Dell was even one of the few people on the rooftop of Apple Publishing in January with The Beatles when the band played their final song.

When it came time for The Beatles to break up, O’Dell compared the atmosphere to living with parents who have contemplated divorce — everyone was walking on eggshells. George Harrison then asked her to be his personal assistant and she went to live and work with Harrison and his wife, Pattie Boyd, at Friar Park. It was due to this close relationship that he wrote the song “Miss O’Dell” about her years later.

O’Dell’s professional resume, as well as her trove of stories, includes many more artists than just The Beatles. Between her class lecture and her evening talk, O’Dell told a number of incredible stories about her interactions with various superstars.

O’Dell shared stories about telling off Eric Clapton, going on a blind date with James Taylor and trying to interview Keith Moon as he was somersaulting around the office. All of O’Dell’s stories both entertained students and taught them valuable lessons about the reality of the industry.

As for her professional career, O’Dell said, “I started at the top of the ladder and worked my way down.”

After working with The Beatles and then George Harrison, she became the first female tour manager in the business. She organized and managed tours for The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young just to name a few. O’Dell said she was constantly mentally and physically exhausted from working long, stressful hours. Along with all her other responsibilities, she remembered having to be a mother, a therapist and a babysitter. O’Dell admitted that she had her moments of breakdown.

Being the first female tour manager was only occasionally a disadvantage. In fact, she could only recall one or two instances of sexism. Perhaps that is why it was so shocking to O’Dell when she was called a groupie by the media after the release of her book.

O’Dell said that the media doesn’t get the greater point of her book because they’re so focused on the few stories it contained of O’Dell having sex with rock legends. She thinks it’s a shame that the media is still playing at the ‘sex’ level. Luckily, O’Dell was not so much insulted. In her experience, groupies were important to the industry because of their support and enthusiasm.

In addition, O’Dell talked a lot about her relationships with the women closest to the rockstars she worked with. She got to know the men and the band members at work, so the men trusted her, but it took time before the wives and girlfriends trusted her. Eventually the women became the most important people in her life and her closest friends because they were the heart and the homes of the musicians she worked with.

“If you wanted to be in that circle, you need[ed] to be friends with the women,” said O’Dell.

O’Dell didn’t shy away from questions about the drug culture that surrounded the 60s and 70s, another prominent theme in her book. She said that she allowed the drugs to enter into it to convey what that time was like and to show that people can come out of it.

Drugs had become normalized because everyone did them, she said, so you didn’t have to hide it. O’Dell openly told students that she had spent her time backstage during shows drinking and doing drugs, and the only reason people would hide it was because they didn’t want other people asking for any of their drugs.

O’Dell made sure to make a lesson out of her drug use for students. She continually made jokes about her memory failing due to her abuse of drugs and said that while some people recovered from their drug abuse, others never did.

Her advice to the music business majors was that “if you’re on the business side, [doing drugs] would be suicide.”

O’Dell, for one, made an incredible recovery from her drug abusing days. When she was 39, married and had a one and a half year old son, she decided that she was not being the mother she wanted to be, so she got clean.

She and her family moved back to the states and she and her husband earned masters degrees to be counselors. The couple began working with patients who suffered from addiction and mental illness. O’Dell said that the addicts and alcoholics she has helped are generally very nice, sensitive people who are trying to cope with a tough world.

After 20 years of therapy work, she and her husband decided to go and travel the world. They are currently living on an island in Thailand.

Britney Loveland, senior music business major, said that hearing O’Dell speak in her class and during the lecture was “inspirational.”

“She’s wonderful; she’s genuine, and it was a great experience being able to talk to living history one-on-one,” said Loveland.

Loveland also commented on what it was like to meet the women who had blazed the trail for females in the industry. “Having someone here who was the first female tour manager, it was amazing to see how far the industry has come,” she said.

Loveland said that women still aren’t 100 percent equal in the business, but have come a long way.

As for the names the media called O’Dell, Loveland said, “It’s offensive, because after sitting with her, talking to her and reading her book, you realize that she worked extremely hard for everything she had . . . she had a few flings with a few rockstars, but she was much more than a groupie; she was irreplaceable to them.”

O’Dell spoke the morning of Tuesday, Oct. 29 in a music business class, History of the Music Industry and again at 6:30 p.m. in Fenton 105. The later talk was free and open to all students, faculty and community members. It was extremely well-attended, filling the room beyond capacity.

The students from the morning class created quite a buzz around campus, which Petri believes contributed to the large turnout at the evening’s talk.

Petri said she was received well beyond his expectations

“Chris’s personality, I think, wins over a lot of people,” said Petri. “My expectations are always guarded when you’re meeting someone with that kind of history. Within three minutes of meeting her, all that went away. She was, for someone with her background and history, extremely comfortable with herself, which tends to put other people at ease.”

Petri said he hopes his students learned to, “Never say ‘No,’ grab every opportunity that you can and be creative and innovating in your environment in every way.”

O’Dell had a very similar message.

“Courage comes with youth, so take your risks now,” said O’Dell. “When opportunities arose, I said yes.”

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