The former Beatle’s mother Mary died in 1956 when McCartney was just 14, long before Sir Paul, now 70, became one of the greatest musical icons of the age.
She died at 47 from an embolism following an operation for breast cancer but the young Sir Paul, who has described her death as the “big shock” of his teenage years, only learned of her illness later, saying: “I didn’t know then why she had died.”
For her part his mother had taken precautions before going into hospital. She had cleaned their terrace home at 20 Forthlin Road in Liverpool and laid out her two sons’ school clothes ready for the next day, telling her sister-in-law: “Now everything’s ready for them in case I don’t come back.”
While her sons – Paul and his younger brother Mike – didn’t even know she was having an operation, her death had a lasting impact on Paul, later helping him forge a strong bond with his Beatles’ bandmate John Lennon, who lost his own mother at a young age. It also inspired one of the Beatles’ most famous hits, Let It Be. Mary, an Irish Catholic, was a nurse and midwife who married Jim McCartney at 31 after the couple met during an air raid on Liverpool in 1940. Jim, a British protestant, worked as a cotton salesman as well as being a self-taught pianist but Mary, unusually, was the breadwinner and her earnings helped the family move to better, if still modest, areas of Liverpool.
“She was very hardworking, my mum,” Sir Paul recalled in an interview a few years ago. “She wanted the best for us. We weren’t a well-off family – we didn’t have a car, we just about had a television – so both my parents went out to work. At night when mum came home she would cook so we didn’t have a lot of time with each other but she was just a very comforting presence in my life.”
AS A midwife Mary was on call day or night and one of Sir Paul’s earliest memories is of watching his mother cycling to work at three in the morning when the streets were “thick with snow”. He has also confided how Call The Midwife, the BBC’s Fifties-set drama, reminds him of his mother. One of the most difficult aspects of her death, he has confided, was the reaction of his father who simply fell apart with grief.
“That was the worst thing for me, hearing my dad cry. You grow up real quick, because you never expect to hear your parents crying. It shakes your faith in everything. But I was determined not to let it affect me. I carried on. I learnt to put a shell around me.”For McCartney it was music that “saved” him from his grief and he has also acknowledged that his loss connected him to John Lennon. Julia, Lennon’s mother, died when he was 17 the year after the two musicians first met and their shared loss was, according to Sir Paul, a “big bond” between them.
“We both had this emotional turmoil which we had to deal with and being teenagers we had to deal with it very quickly,” he has said.
Bill Harry, founder of Sixties music newspaper Mersey Beat, knew the teenage Lennon and McCartney and says Paul was “very private about his mother. He really didn’t speak about her, unlike John, who was almost obsessed by his own mum’s death. But it was a big factor bringing the two of them together because it gave them an understanding of each other”.
Sir Paul has admitted that “young people don’t show grief – they’d rather not” but that occasionally the pain would set in and he and Lennon would “be sitting around and we’d have a cry together”.
Sir Paul has also spoken movingly of how his mother inspired the song Let It Be. When McCartney wrote the piece in 1968 the Fab Four had experienced unprecedented success but were by then divided by bitter arguments and the band was close to breaking up. But during this period of stress McCartney had something of a breakthrough.
HE once explained: “One night, somewhere between deep sleep and insomnia, I had the most comforting dream about my mother. There was her face, completely clear, particularly her eyes, and she said to me very gently, very reassuringly: ‘Let it be.’ It was lovely. I woke up with a great feeling. It was really like she had visited me at this very difficult point and gave me this message: Be gentle, don’t ? ght things, just try to go with the flow and it will all work out.
“So being a musician I went to the piano and started writing a song: ‘When I find myself in times of trouble, Mother Mary comes to me, speaking words of wisdom, let it be.’”
When the single was released in 1970 it went on to become one of the Beatles’ greatest – and last – hits. They announced they were splitting up in the same year. “So those words are really very special to me because not only did my mum come to me in a dream and reassure me with them at a very difficult time but also, in putting them into a song and recording it with the Beatles, it became a comforting, healing statement for other people too.”
Seeing his mother again so clearly was a great boost for McCartney, not least because as the years had gone on, he had found it more and more difficult to recall her face. But McCartney also got together with his first wife Linda shortly afterwards and believed it was “as if my mum had sent her”.
The couple named their first child Mary after McCartney’s mother but it was a cruel irony that Linda was diagnosed with breast cancer, the disease which killed Sir Paul’s mother, in 1996. She died three years later after almost 30 years of marriage. As for McCartney’s mother, her last words – told to her sister-in-law Dill Mohin – were of concern for her two sons. “I would love to have seen the boys growing up,” she confided. Had she done so, Sir Paul can be comforted to know that she would have been beyond proud.
By: Julie Carpenter