Just shy of the three-hour mark in episode two of Peter Jackson’s new Beatles documentary Get Back, as the band is rehearsing “Let It Be,” an impeccably dressed gentleman with slicked-back hair glides into the studio while John Lennon looks up and sings, to the tune the nascent song was taking,“Ah, here’s to Robert Fraser.” The film then identifies the visitor, in text at the bottom of the screen, as none other than “Art dealer Robert Fraser.”
The uninitiated may not know that Fraser wasn’t just any art dealer, but one who revolutionized the London art scene; when Pace gallery organized a show devoted to him in London in 2015, the Wall Street Journal called him “the most significant art-world figure you’ve never heard of.” Also known as “Groovy Bob,” Fraser was a hard-living connoisseur with a great eye, known equally for the new energy he brought to London’s art world and the drug-fueled parties at which he merged the art and rock ‘n’ roll scenes.
Fraser was a contemporary of the Beatles and, at the time of the documentary’s filming, a man-about-the-neighborhood. In 1969, when Michael Lindsay Hogg shot the footage that figures in Get Back, Fraser was 31, a few years older than John, Paul, and Ringo. Dropping by the Apple Corps studio would have meant a short walk through London’s tony Mayfair district, whether Fraser was coming from his Duke Street gallery, which he’d opened seven years earlier to works by the likes of Jean Dubuffet, Ed Ruscha, and Dennis Hopper, or from his apartment on Mount Street. Apple Corps, it’s worth noting, was a stone’s throw from the Royal Academy of Arts.
And Fraser had a relationship with the Beatles. He had been crucial in getting his artists to work on the album covers for Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band (Peter Blake and his wife Jann Haworth) and the White Album (Richard Hamilton). Fraser also played something of a role in Apple Corps itself: According to Harriet Vyner’s Fraser biography Groovy Bob: The Life and Times of Robert Fraser, Paul McCartney collected art from Fraser, and a Magritte painting that Fraser brought to McCartney provided inspiration for the logo for Apple Records when the Beatles founded the label in 1967.
It was during that same year that Fraser spent four months in prison after a drug bust at a party with the Rolling Stones, and there is speculation that he is the “Dr. Robert” in the Beatles’ 1966 song of that name, an ode to drug procurement. Fraser even played a role in the whole Beatles-vs.-the-Stones pissing contest, a theme that runs through the new documentary with Lennon often jokingly riffing, “And your hosts for the evening, the Rolling Stones!” Vyner’s biography depicts both bands wanting Fraser’s attention and competing to get it.
Until 1961, when he returned to London, Fraser’s early years in the art world were spent in America, where he worked briefly for the then-venerable and now-infamous Knoedler gallery. The final days of his Duke Street gallery coincided with the final days of the Beatles. Fraser had his last show at Duke Street in summer 1969, around six months after the footage for Get Back was shot and shortly before Lennon announced that he was leaving the band. (An official breakup only came in March 1970, after McCartney’s departure.) The Beatles were never to return—not as a band, at least. Fraser, on the other hand, returned to the art scene in the early ’80s, showing Jean-Michel Basquiat and other stars. Lennon, who once sang, “Ah, here’s to Robert Fraser,” was assassinated in 1980; Fraser died of AIDS in 1986.