Long-lost John Lennon interviews from Winnipeg-born journalist go up for auction

Growing up, Leo Zeilig always knew his dad once snagged a series of interviews with John Lennon and Yoko Ono in the late 1960s. But it wasn’t until last year that his family finally discovered what had become of those recordings from Winnipeg-born freelance journalist Ken Zeilig.

Ken Zeilig’s tapes, spanning 91 minutes with Lennon and Yoko Ono, could fetch nearly $53K

Ken Zeilig worked as a freelance journalist for decades before his death in 1990. He's pictured here in his studio in the 1980s. (Submitted by Leo Zeilig)

Growing up, Leo Zeilig had always known the story of how his dad once snagged a series of interviews with John Lennon and Yoko Ono in the late 1960s.

But it wasn't until recently, while stuck at home during pandemic lockdowns last year, that his sister stumbled across a box tucked away in her Los Angeles basement and they finally discovered what had become of those recordings from their late father, Winnipeg-born freelance journalist Ken Zeilig.

Inside the box were 12 reel-to-reel tapes holding three interviews — 91 minutes — of unaired audio of the iconic couple.

"They were the tapes of the interview of legend," Leo recounted from London.

"This incredible archive, this treasure trove of interviews, was just gathering dust."

The family was able to make digital copies of the recordings to hold on to for sentimental reasons, Leo said.

But the tapes themselves are now set to go to auction this week, where they're expected to fetch between $34,000 and nearly $53,000 CAD, U.K.-based auction house Omega Auctions says on its website.

Martin Zeilig holds up photos of his late brother, Ken Zeilig, whose long-lost interview tapes of John Lennon and Yoko Ono are going up for auction this week. (Karen Pauls/CBC)

"This publicity that we're getting for the tapes feels like a real honouring of my father and his work — his extraordinary work and legacy," Leo said.

Ken's younger brother, Martin Zeilig, said he thinks his brother would be relieved to know that someone finally discovered his tapes. 

"My hunch is that he would say, 'Finally. Finally, these tapes are going to be heard,'" Martin said in an interview in Winnipeg.

From Winnipeg to the Wedding Album

Martin said his brother was "fiercely proud" of his roots in the Manitoba city, where he grew up in the North End and became a teacher before moving to London and studying journalism and filmmaking.

Ken's work took him across Canada and the world over a span of several decades, including jobs at CBC, Martin said. He died of cancer in Winnipeg in 1990.

Martin said he's glad the unaired tapes are finally going to be shared, and that people will know "it was a journalist who was originally from Winnipeg who did these amazing interviews."

One of the reel-to-reel tapes up for auction is pictured. (Omega Auctions)

Leo said getting to listen to the tapes more than 30 years after his father's death was surreal.

In one of the interviews, he said, his father told the couple how much their Wedding Album, which had just come out, meant to him and his wife at the time — Leo's mother.

"There's this wonderful meeting of the three of them at that point in the interview when they're all expressing their feelings about love and sharing a life of being together," he said.

"And, of course, to hear it about your parents in an interview with John Lennon and Yoko Ono is extraordinary."

A 'tenacious' journalist

Ken's family says they're not sure why only a few minutes of audio from the tapes was ever aired anywhere. 

They also don't know exactly how the journalist was able to lock down not just one, but three interviews with the famous duo at their home in 1969 and 1970 — right before The Beatles broke up.

But knowing Ken, they're not surprised, either.

"My father was exceptionally tenacious, so if he wanted an interview, [he'd] get it. And he would use all his contacts to get it," Leo said.

Musician John Lennon and artist Yoko Ono perform in their first public appearance as the Plastic Ono Band at Toronto's Varsity Stadium in September 1969. (The Associated Press)

It's how Martin remembers his brother, too.

"He had those qualities to make people want to talk to him. He was charming. He was very forceful, but not in a sort of hostile way. And he was interested. He was very interested in people," Martin said.

"He had this capacity to draw things out of people that they might not otherwise say to anyone else."

More auctions possible

Ken's family says they're interested to see who goes home with the tapes after they're auctioned off.

And with the money from the impending sale, Leo said he hopes they'll be able to digitize and auction off the originals of more of his father's "astonishing" back catalogue of recently discovered interviews.

"Every major cultural, political figure of the 1960s, '70s and '80s, my father interviewed," he said.

"It's incredibly rich, from Alfred Hitchcock to Audrey Hepburn."

Ken Zeilig's interviews with John Lennon and Yoko Ono will be auctioned on Tuesday.

Canadian’s rediscovered John Lennon interview going up for auction

2 years ago
Duration 2:32
The tapes of some long-forgotten interviews with John Lennon and Yoko Ono done by a Canadian journalist are going up for auction in the U.K. The 91 minutes of audio recording could fetch more than $50,000.

With files from Karen Pauls