The Fifth Man: Brian Epstein and the Beatles

Michael Beschloss 4/10/15 NYTimes.com

In a ceremony last year at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, the Beatles’ original manager, Brian Epstein, was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

The honor was well deserved. Epstein’s early oversight of what many consider to be the most popular musical act of the 20th century led some to call him the fifth Beatle. Some of the strategies he used to propel the Beatles to prominence (while also probably costing them a fortune in lost potential revenue) would be ill suited to today’s world of digital streaming, music piracy and YouTube, which makes Epstein a case study in how much music management has changed since the early 1960s
Epstein was born in Liverpool in 1934 to Harry and Queenie Epstein, who were of Eastern European Jewish origin; they owned a group of stores that sold furniture, appliances and records. Brian Epstein was worldly, elegant and eager to escape the bonds of the family business. Having dropped out of London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and living again in Liverpool, he decided one day to see John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and their then drummer, Pete Best, performing in the dank Cavern Club. It was November 1961.

Impressed by “their music, their beat and their sense of humor onstage,” Epstein soon decided that the Beatles would be “the biggest in the world.” He later said, “My own sense of inferiority and frustration evaporated with the Beatles because I knew I could help them.”

His prospective clients were little known beyond Liverpool and Hamburg, West Germany, where they also performed, and they were flattered that Epstein, the local scion, whom Harrison called a “very posh, rich feller,” would take an interest in them. As quoted in Mark Lewisohn’s 2013 history of the early Beatles, “Tune In,” Lennon later said, “We were always waiting for the big man with a cigar.”

In 1962, the Beatles, now with Ringo Starr as drummer, signed contracts that put Epstein, 28 that year, in command. Unlike today’s top entertainment managers, who often have training in business and law, Epstein was a neophyte who relied on his own strong instincts to shape the group’s image. He told them to stop smoking, eating and swearing during performances, made them bow together onstage and got them similar haircuts, mohair suits and neckties. Leather jackets and jeans were prohibited.

Lennon said, “I’ll wear a bloody balloon if somebody’s going to pay me.” Epstein had put the Beatles on the ladder to world renown. Using his relationships with higher-ups at London record labels — his family’s stores were important customers — he got the Beatles a deal with EMI’s Parlophone Records.

Epstein was also a shrewd marketer. In late 1963, he flew to New York and told Ed Sullivan, who had seen the Beatles being mobbed in London, that when they began their first American tour that winter, he would allow them to appear on Sullivan’s enormously popular Sunday-night television show on CBS (in exchange for expenses and a relatively modest fee) only if they received top billing. Epstein’s vision of what the Beatles could achieve helped move their concerts from theaters and auditoriums to sports arenas like Shea Stadium in New York, paving the way for other groups to do the same

In other areas of Beatles management, however, Epstein was out of his depth. Eschewing the kind of legal help a modern manager would secure, he unwisely allowed majority control of copyrights and royalties to pass to others, causing Mr. McCartney and Mr. Lennon to lose ownership of their classic songs.

Some of Epstein’s missteps also cost the Beatles merchandising arrangements for commercial use of their names and images that might have earned them millions of dollars. As Debbie Geller reported in her 2000 book, “In My Life: The Brian Epstein Story,” Mr. McCartney gave Epstein the benefit of the doubt, explaining, “British people didn’t know that stuff at that time.” Mr. McCartney added, “I think he looked to his dad for business advice, and his dad really knew how to run a furniture store in Liverpool.

After an August 1966 performance at Candlestick Park in San Francisco, the Beatles said goodbye to the public spectacles that Epstein had staged with such skill, deciding instead to concentrate on studio work. By 1967, the Beatles’ world had expanded far beyond Brian Epstein — or any one impresario — and he knew it.

An expert at planning events that encouraged mob scenes and screaming fans, he was not as valuable in the studio and was less at home with the otherworldly strains of the group’s 1967 “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” and its new infatuation with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.

By then, an anxious Epstein was predicting to friends that the Beatles would not renew his management contract. He took refuge in gambling and drugs and is said to have scrawled suicide notes. In August 1967, at age 32, he was found dead in his bed in London. A coroner ruled that he had died of an “incautious self-overdosage.” The New York Times reported that in the future, the Beatles would “manage themselves.” Three years later, they broke up.

In our own time, YouTube and social media mean that talented musicians do not necessarily require a gifted alchemist like Epstein to pull them up from oblivion. But with a half-century of hindsight, it is more obvious than ever that the Beatles could never have reached their full potential without the help of Epstein or someone like him.

In 2013, a best-selling graphic novel called “The Fifth Beatle” focused on Epstein’s importance to music history and his struggles with being gay at a time when his country deemed his sexual orientation illegal. (English law was changed in 1967.) At least one feature film on Epstein is reportedly in development. People may not buy many 33 r.p.m. albums anymore, but Brian Epstein lives on.

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