John, Paul, George and Ringo have become saints, as far as popular music is concerned. During their 8 year recording history, they have performed feats comparable to slaying dragons, converting the faithless and heralding in a new era of rock and roll. But just as the true identity, nature, and location of the Holy Grail has consumed the lives of crusaders and scholars alike, The Beatles have their own much disputed holy icon: the 5th Beatle. As I am not one in any place to declare the true member worthy of the title, I will display the candidates and in turn let you decide. Who do you think is the true 5th Beatle?
Left to right: George Harrison, Stu Sutcliffe, and John Lennon in Hamburg, Germany
- Stu Sutcliffe: Stu was John Lennon’s best friend from art school and a brilliant painter. When John was getting his small skiffle-rock group into shape to be a serious band, he found he needed a bassist. This is where Stu came in. He didn’t play bass or know anything about playing music, but he had just won a fair amount of cash in an art show, and was the only one John knew who could afford a bass. With some major convincing, he was able to get Stu on board, reassuring his friend that he didn’t need to know how to play: bassists just stand in the back anyway. Stu was the bassist when the band started making a name for themselves playing in Hambug, Germany. Towards the end of their stint, it became clear that his playing just wasn’t befitting the band they had become, and he was the first to say it. Paul McCartney, then one of the lead guitar players, took up the bass (which is why if you listen closely, Paul’s bass parts often sound like a frustrated lead guitarist playing bass. This is because it is.) Stu died from a brain aneurysm in 1962 after leaving the group to return to his painting.
Left to right: Paul McCartney, John lennon, Pete Best, and George Harrison
Pete Best: you’ll recognize a similar vein here… when the band that would become the Beatles started getting serous about rock and roll, they needed a drummer. Not unlike any other young band, they weren’t looking for a drummer as much as a guy who had drums, which were expensive and hard to come by in 1950’s England. They found their man in Pete Best. Pete had a new set of drums, could play them well, and his loving mother owned a small club in Liverpool that they often played at. Pete, like Stu, was on board with the group as they played the club scene in Hamburg, often sharing the stage with a band Rory Storm and the Hurricanes who had a drummer who went by the name of Ringo… As they boys returned to England and began to look into prospects of recording and making it big they ran into a problem: Pete was a great drummer, but didn’t share the same vibrant personalities and humor as the other 3. He was a great drummer, but not a great Beatle. He was much more dark, moody, and introverted. this drove the girls crazy, but at this point, they had been transformed into the clean-cut, charming and humorous nice-boys we know today. Not being able to dump a friend themselves, the Beatles asked their Manager, Brian Epstein, to do the dirty work for them: a decision that really hurt Pete, and that the other Beatles regret.
Sir George Matin on left, at the mixing board with Sir Paul and Ringo.
Sir George Martin: Sir George Martin was the recording engineer at the small EMI label that agreed to record the Beatles. He knew nothing about rock and roll, and the band knew nothing about recording, so in their mutual discoveries, greatness ensued. George had some very good ideas about how to record things, and either wrote or was very involved in the writing of the orchestral scores that were overdubbed onto many of the Beatles most well-known tracks.
Brian at George Harrison's wedding to model Patty Boyd
Brian Epstein: Brian made the Beatles. He was the owner of a record store in Liverpool who was asked if he had “My Bonnie”, a cut of an American vocalist Tony Sheridan backed by some English band from Germany called the Beatles… he didn’t but was always willing to meet the demands of his clients. He decided to look these “Beatles” up, and found they were playing regular lunch hour shows at a local club. He stopped in, saw a show, and fell in love. He offered the boys his services as a manager, and got them on the train to success. It is of his doing that the Beatles, then with messy hair, bad additudes, and clad in leather, came to have matching “Beatle cuts” and dress in matching suits, putting on the charm they are so famous for. Without Brian, the Beatles would not have been the Beatles we came to know, and very well might not have been heard of at all.
Billy Preston in the studio, 1972. One cool dude.
Billy Preston: Preston was a VERY soulful organ player who got signed to the Beatles record label (Apple) in 1969. Long story short, he was a great guy and the Beatles took to him quick. He sat in on their Let it Be and Abbey Road albums, providing the organ work. He can also be seen and heard during the Beatles last live appearance together: their concert atop the Apple office in 1969, which can be seen on their “Let it Be” movie and subsequently on youtube.
Who do you think is the true 5th Beatle?