It's been said that you could form a whole new band with all the people who have been called "The Fifth Beatle" over the years… maybe even a chamber orchestra. The title is applied to early bandmates who didn't stay with the band, to managers and roadies and producers, to frequent collaborators and even folks who just played on a Beatles song or two.
One of those Fifth Beatles, Neil Aspinall, died five years ago today. In his honor, we're remembering a few of the Fifths who have passed away. We'll never forget Pete Best, the Beatles' former drummer, who happily is still alive and kicking; band manager Brian Epstein, who died in 1967; nor the many others who were such integral parts of the Beatles' inner circle that they became known as the Fifth Beatle. Here are five of those famous Fifths.
1. Neil Aspinall was a part of the Beatles from their earliest days, starting with his friendship with another Fifth Beatle, Pete Best. As the band's popularity grew in the early 1960s, they found that their usual method of riding public transit to shows was getting unwieldy. Aspinall was willing to buy a van (a famously red and grey beast that soon became a graffitied masterpiece) and drive the band around, so he became their first road manager. As the years went on, Aspinall's contributions grew. Though he mostly stayed on the business end, he did play on a few Beatles songs, including a singing stint on the chorus of "Yellow Submarine." In 1967, when manager Brian Epstein died, Aspinall took his place. He soon rose to become the head of the Beatles' company, Apple Corps, a position he held for decades. Aspinall died of lung cancer on 24 March 2008, at age 66.
Pictured, from left to right: George Harrison, John Lennon and Neil Aspinall during filming of "Magical Mystery Tour" in 1967 (Chris Walter / WireImage / Getty Images)
2. Stuart Sutcliffe was an original member of the Beatles, playing bass with the band when they were first spreading their wings in Hamburg, Germany. A close school friend of John Lennon, Sutcliffe helped name the band – and, with his Ray-Ban sunglasses and tight pants, helped create their cool image. Indeed, Sutcliffe was more visual than musical. His bass playing was criticized as an "artless thump," but he was a gifted painter who ultimately left the Beatles in 1961 to pursue his art. Less than a year afterward, Sutcliffe died of a brain hemorrhage on 10 April 1962, only 22 years old. He leaves dual legacies of art and music – several of his paintings can be seen at Liverpool's Walker Art Gallery, and his bass playing is preserved on three songs available on the Beatles' compilation, Anthology 1: "Hallelujah, I Love Her So," "You'll Be Mine," and "Cayenne."
3. Derek Taylor was a journalist who discovered the Beatles when he was assigned to write up one of their concerts. His editors thought he would write a scathing criticism of faddish rock music. But Taylor ended up loving the show, and he wrote a glowing review. It may not have been what his editors expected, but they were soon on board, asking Taylor to collaborate with George Harrison on writing a regular column. They worked well together, with Harrison providing the stories and Taylor prettying them up – so well that the Beatles decided to woo Taylor away from the newspaper to become their press officer. He held the position for just one tour, leaving in 1964 to form his own public relations company, but his legacy was so strong that Harrison later proclaimed him one of only two legitimate Fifth Beatles – the other being Neil Aspinall. Taylor died at age 65 on 8 September 1997, 10 years after writing the book It Was Twenty Years Ago Today, a memory of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and the Summer of Love.
4. Billy Preston was a session musician who worked with the Beatles, becoming one of only two non-Beatles to be credited on a Beatles recording: "Get Back" is listed as being performed by "The Beatles with Billy Preston," thanks to his prominent keyboards throughout the song. And it was during that 1969 recording session that John Lennon even proposed adding Preston to the group as an official Fifth Beatle (Paul McCartney didn't like the idea, saying it was bad enough with four). In addition to playing on Let it Be tracks, Preston also contributed to Abbey Road's "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" and "Something." And Preston, who died at age 56 on 6 June 2006 after a successful session and solo career, was there for the famous rooftop concert 30 January 1969, which became part of the Let it Be film. Though the focus was on the Fab Four, Preston can occasionally be seen jamming on the keyboard.
5. Tony Sheridan was the other musician who had the honor of being credited on a Beatles recording. He often performed and recorded with the Fab Four during the Hamburg years – sometimes Sheridan would step in on one of their songs, and sometimes one or more Beatles would back Sheridan on a track of his own. One recording session produced a few songs that were, at the time, released under the name Tony Sheridan and the Beat Brothers. The lead single, "My Bonnie," with Sheridan on vocals, was later released as a Beatles song, crediting him alongside the band. While Sheridan was collaborating with The Beatles in the early '60s, industry insiders thought he was the one with star potential and expected him to make it big. But the success that The Beatles found eluded him, and he's mainly known for his association with the lads from Liverpool. Sheridan died on 16 February 2013, at age 72.
As long-lost Beatles material continues to surface, perhaps so will more Fifth Beatles, making the Fab Four into the Fab Fourteen, or perhaps even Fab Twenty-Four.
Written by Linnea Crowther