Brian Epstein and the Beatles in 1963. From left, Ringo Starr, George Harrison, Epstein, Paul McCartney and John Lennon. (Getty Images / Popperfoto / Paul Popper)
You could form a whole new band with all the people who've been called the fifth Beatle over the years. There was Stu Sutcliffe, who played with the band in their early days in Hamburg before dying of a brain aneurysm at age 22. There was Pete Best, who drummed with the group back when they were still known as the Quarrymen. Producer George Martin has been given the title for his role in shaping their sound, and road manager turned Apple Corps CEO Neil Aspinall is another name that often crops up.
But for the definitive word on the subject, we might turn to Paul McCartney. "If anyone was the fifth Beatle," he told the BBC in 1997, "it was Brian."
He's speaking of Brian Epstein, who managed the group from their early Liverpool days, through the peak of Beatlemania, and into their experimental phase before his unexpected death 45 years ago. Given the enduring popularity and influence of the Beatles, it's worth taking another look at the man who launched a franchise still going strong 50 years later.
Born 19 September 1934, the son of a successful furniture store owner in Liverpool, there was little in Epstein's background to prepare him to manage perhaps the most important musical group of all time. An indifferent student with no apparent early musical interest, he was kicked out of two boarding schools for laziness and initially wanted to embark on a career as a dress designer before turning his attentions to acting. He studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London at the same time as Albert Finney and Peter O'Toole, but soon quit and returned to Liverpool.
He was given a job in the family business which had expanded to include an enterprise called NEMS – the North End Music Stores complex (where Epstein's father had once sold McCartney's father a used piano). Epstein was put in charge of the record store and it soon became one of the biggest in Northern England. He began writing a monthly column covering new record releases for Mersey Beat – a local magazine started by one of John Lennon's art school friends.
Reportedly it was the Beatles' appearance in Mersey Beat that prompted Epstein to visit the Cavern Club on his lunch hour one November day in 1961. Impressed with their act, he asked them if they had a manager. And the rest, as they say...
Except it so nearly wasn't. During their first business meeting with Epstein, Lennon, George Harrison and then-drummer Pete Best arrived late and hung-over, and McCartney didn't show up at all (he was "having a bath"). Epstein had been warned by another promoter not to go near the lads as they'd allegedly cheated him out of revenues during their Hamburg years. There were doubts from the Fab Four's camp as well. Lennon's aunt and legal guardian didn't take Epstein seriously, seeing him as a rich man merely indulging in artist management as a hobby. McCartney's parents thought Epstein might be good for the boys, but by the same casually anti-Semitic reasoning, feared he might not – Jews were tricky with money, after all. Epstein's own parents had to be assured that his managing the group would not interfere with running the record store.
The first contract the Beatles signed with Epstein wasn't even legally binding, as half of the group was under the age of 21 (the original document recently sold at auction for nearly $400,000). Epstein is generally credited with smoothing some of the Beatles' rough edges during those early years – he convinced them to wear suits instead of jeans and leather jackets, and warned them off drinking and smoking onstage. He also got them an all-important recording audition at EMI, after Decca records rejected them with the now infamous statements that "guitar groups are on the way out" and "The Beatles have no future in show business." At EMI, they were first produced by George Martin who, though not particularly impressed in the beginning, would go on to work with them on every album except Let It Be.
The juggernaut success that began almost the moment the Beatles released their first record took its toll on Epstein. In the span of a couple years, he went from running a record store to arranging world tours, as well as negotiating recording and publishing contracts, licensing and merchandising agreements, and movie deals. After his success with the Beatles, he became a sought-after manager, moving his operation to London and taking on acts like Gerry & the Pacemakers, The Cyrkle and Cilla Black.
To keep up with the demanding work schedule, he began taking the stimulant Phenmetrazine. With The Beatles' growing fame, his own private life was also coming under scrutiny for the first time. Though his homosexuality was an open secret among those close to him, engaging in homosexual acts was still criminal in England at the time, and he'd been forced to lead a double life since admitting his sexual orientation to a psychiatrist when he was 15. Prior to his association with the Beatles, he'd been kicked out of the Army, arrested for "persistent importuning," and had been beaten, robbed and even blackmailed as a result his furtive sexual encounters. His fame in England made such behavior even riskier, and he increasingly went on solitary vacations to more tolerant cities such as Amsterdam and Barcelona.
Epstein checked himself into the Priory Clinic at least twice to treat amphetamine addiction and insomnia, and had left the clinic only weeks before he his death 27 August 1967 at the age of 32. Though there was widespread speculation that his death was a suicide, the coroner ruled it an accidental overdose, the result of mixing the powerful sedative Carbrital with alcohol. The Beatles, who were with the spiritual guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in India at the time, immediately flew back to England but did not attend his funeral at the request of Epstein's family, who didn't want to turn the event into a media circus (they attended a subsequent memorial service at a synagogue in London).
Though all the Beatles save Ringo Starr would at some point later complain that Epstein's lack of business acumen cost them millions, on a personal level they were all fond of him. He'd been there since the beginning, had taken four scruffy lads in a dank cellar club in backwater Liverpool and helped make them the biggest band in the world.
And then they were on their own. "I knew that we were in trouble then," Lennon later said of Epstein's passing. "I thought, 'We've [expletive] had it now.'"