American writer and music historian Dr Kenneth Womack speaks to LBN about his forthcoming biography of Mal Evans, the ‘gentle giant’ who was The Beatles’ ‘greatest friend’. Tony McDonough reports
For decades the name Mal Evans has been spoken often among Beatles fans and aficionados but his name hasn’t really resonated much beyond that community,
However, thanks to film director Peter Jackson’s widely acclaimed The Beatles: Get Back film trilogy, which documents three weeks in the life of the Fab Four as they wrote and recorded the Let It Be album, countless people are now asking ‘who was the big guy who was always around them?’.
Mal was a telephone engineer in Liverpool who befriended George Harrison and was hired as a doorman at the renowned Cavern Club. He later became The Beatles’ tour manager. But he was much more than that. He became their confidante, their “greatest friend”.
For many years people have talked of the legendary ‘fifth Beatle’, with producer George Martin, manager Brian Epstein, deposed drummer Pete Best, keyboard wizard Billy Preston and Yoko Ono all put in the frame. There can be little doubt that Mal also has a big claim to that title.
In February this year, a never-before displayed notebook featuring Beatles song lyrics and scribbles from Mal’s time with The Beatles, went on display at The Beatles Story museum at the Albert Dock in Liverpool.
And those fascinated by the life and times of the ‘gentle giant’, whose life met a tragic end in Los Angeles in 1976, can now look forward to a full biography of this ordinary Scouser who led an extraordinary life.
Acclaimed US-based writer, literary critic, music historian and leading Beatles authority, Dr Kenneth Womack, has worked closely with Mal’s family and his estate to produce two books to be published in 2023 and 2024. The first will be a biography of Mal’s life and the second, a fully illustrated offering from the family’s archives.
“What I’ve discovered in this archive is more than I could have ever truly imagined,” said Kenneth. “I am honoured and thrilled to present this biography and accompanying materials with the historical integrity that they deserve.”
Father-of-two Mal was nicknamed the ‘Gentle Giant’ and ‘Big Mal’ and was a constant companion of the group. On Get Back he can be seen striking an anvil with a hammer as the Beatles performed Maxwell’s Silver Hammer.
Post-Beatles he became a music producer in his own right but his life met a tragic end. Early in 1976 his wife Lily, whom he’d met at a funfair in New Brighton, asked for a divorce. Mal, who was living in Los Angeles, reportedly fell into a depression.
On January 4, 1976 it was reported to the police that a troubled Mal started brandishing an air rifle at his apartment. Police were called and he reportedly pointed the air rifle at them, at which point they shot him dead.
At the time Mal was planning his own autobiography with the written permission of The Beatles themselves. Though he started off as the band’s roadie in August 1963, he became, says Kenneth, “their most intimate companion”. He ensured their stage shows went like clockwork, prepping their instruments and making sure everything was in order.
In 1966, The Beatles had tired of live performances, the novelty of trying to make themselves heard above the screaming fans having long worn off. They retreated to the studio and experimented with different sounds and styles.
Mal played a key role in this period, says Kenneth. He explained that Mal held a “special place in the creative universe” of John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr. When the Beatles formed Apple Corps., Mal refashioned himself as a talent scout, and developed a number of rock ‘n’ roll acts for the fledgling label—most notably, Badfinger.
Kenneth told LBN it was “pure coincidence” that his work on the books, and with Mal’s family, coincided with Peter Jackson’s making of Get Back. He said: “We had already begun working together to bring Mal’s incredible story to life.”
He added the success of the film had significantly heightened the interest in Mal’s life. He explained: “The documentary has demonstrated how integral he was—not only to their story, but also in terms of making their music.
“He mothered them in many ways, providing them with meals, looking after their lives so that they could make all of this wonderful, lasting music. And by the same turn, he was always happy to help out with a lyric or play an instrument.”
In 2020, Mal’s family turned to Kenneth to bring the archives to the world. Described as vast, it includes never before seen archive material including diaries, manuscripts, and photographs associated with The Beatles. Mal’s son, Gary Evans, said: “My dad meant the world to me. He was my hero. Before Ken joined the project, I thought I knew the story of my dad.
“But what I knew was in monochrome -15 months later it is like The Wizard of Oz (Mal’s favourite film) because Ken has added so much colour, so much light to his story. Ken has shown me that dad was the Beatles’ greatest friend. He was lucky to meet them, but they had more good fortune with dad walking down the Cavern steps for the first time.”
Within the archive is a poem written by Mal about Gary, imagining the then five-year-old as a seafaring adventurer. Kenneth describes it as “absolutely heartwarming” and says it speaks to Mal’s devotion to his son. He describes it as one of the highlights of the archive. It reads:
The afternoon was pleasant and the crew just loafed about,
Using old electric irons to catch the golden trout
That fluttered in the evening breeze and left you in no doubt
As to who they loved the most.
’Twas Gary, Captain Gary, who was the perfect host!
Dr Kenneth Womack is Professor of English and Popular Music at Monmouth University. He holds a PhD and is the author or editor of 40 books. These include 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 has produced a multivolume study devoted to the life and work of Beatles producer George Martin and his latest book, John Lennon, 1980: The Last Days in the Life, was published in September 2020 to rave reviews.
The Mal Evans project has been developed by Kenneth in collaboration with the Malcolm Frederick Evans Estate and Matthew Elblonk, a literary agent with DeFiore and Company. Carrie Thornton at Dey Street Books secured World English rights. Harper Nonfiction will publish in the UK.
Although he lived day by day in the company of very wealthy people, he himself was paid a modest wage. When Apple was formed in 1968 he was promoted from road manager to personal assistant, although his £38 weekly wage remained the same.
He was reported to have had money troubles in those days. But Kenneth believes there is little sign of any resentment about his place in The Beatles’ world. He said: “Like all of us, Mal was a human being, and he longed for recognition, as well all do.
“But he was also a company man in the best sense of the phrase. He loved The Beatles, admiring them to no end and cherishing the art that they made. He was proud of his role in helping to make their professional lives and ambitions happen. It was a genuine labour of love.”