1962: Original Bassist For The Beatles, Stuart Sutcliffe, Dies At 21
George Harrison, Stuart Sutcliffe, and John Lennon photographed in 1960 by Astrid Kirchherr. © Astrid Kirchherr / Getty Images
Stuart Sutcliffe, bassist for The Beatles before they were famous, quit the band in July 1961 and was dead of a brain hemorrhage less than a year later. Though the term "Fifth Beatle" has been misapplied to various people, it's appropriate for Sutcliffe, as the Beatles were literally a five-piece band while he was with them, with John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Pete Best rounding out the lineup. These were the "greaser" Beatles, bumming around Hamburg, Germany, in their black leather jackets and jeans, and there was Sutcliffe, with his spiky hair and trademark Ray-Ban sunglasses. Sutcliffe, an art school student, left The Beatles to focus on painting, and might have become an accomplished artist had he lived.
Stuart Sutcliffe was born on June 23, 1940, in Edinburgh, Scotland, but raised in Liverpool. His mother, Millie Sutcliffe, was a schoolteacher and his father, Charles Sutcliffe, was a former civil servant, who became a ship engineer. Charles had children from his first marriage and had three children with Millie: Stuart and his two younger sisters: Joyce and Pauline. Because of his work, Charles was often at sea because of his work, but when he was home, he drank heavily and was often cruel to his wife.
His Time In Art School
Sutcliffe attended the Liverpool College of Art, and while there, he worked on the Liverpool Corporation’s waste collection trucks. At 16, he got a flat so that he had a place to work on his art away from his mother and younger sisters. A college friend, Bill Harry, introduced Sutcliffe to John Lennon while they were at school. Sutcliffe helped Lennon to improve his artistic skills, and eventually Lennon moved in with Sutcliffe in early 1960. Sutcliffe and Lennon were not great tenants, as they painted the walls of the flat yellow and black, and at one point, for warmth, they burned the furniture in the flat. Sutcliffe was a very talented artist and one of his paintings, the Summer Painting, was chosen for inclusion in the John Moores exhibition at the Walker Gallery in Liverpool from November 1959 through January 1960. Sutcliffe sold the painting during the exhibition to John Moores himself. Using the proceeds from the sale of his art, he debated between buying either a drum set or a bass guitar, as both instruments were needed in the band that would eventually become the Beatles. Lennon convinced Sutcliffe to buy a Hofner President 500/5 bass guitar. Sutcliffe was no stranger to music, having sung in the church choir; he also took piano lessons from the age of nine, played bugle in the Air Training Corps, and his father, who had bought him a Spanish guitar when he was only 14, taught him some guitar chords. In May 1960, Sutcliffe joined Lennon, McCartney, and Harrison in the band. This roughly coincided with the change of the band’s name; they were transitioning from being The Quarrymen into the Beatles.
His Brief Career With The Beatles Begins
Once Sutcliffe purchased the bass, he got Dave May of the Silhouettes to teach him Eddie Cochran’s “C’mon Everybody”.
Sutcliffe and Lennon came up with the group’s name, which was reportedly was inspired by the name of Buddy Holly’s group The Crickets as well as a nod to the beat music popular in Liverpool. During the spring and early summer of 1960, the fledgling band rehearsed at McCartney’s home, taping them on a tape recorder borrowed from Sutcliffe’s flatmate. When they were the Silver Beatles, they backed Johnny Gentle on an eight-day tour of Scotland.
His Stage Presence
Although Sutcliffe was a competent musician, Bill Harry thought he should stick to artwork, as Sutcliffe had a very elementary playing style. However the only real criticism of Sutcliffe’s ability came from Allan Williams, who made dubious statements in a 1977 book and claimed to be the Beatles’ manager when he was little more than a booking agent in Liverpool. Sutcliffe’s popularity increased as he started wearing Ray-Bans and tight pants and he helped to create the Beatles’ look. According to some, he typically stayed in the shadows during performances, allowing him to hide his deficiencies as a musician, but this is a belief that many have argued against. He did take center stage on occasion, however, to play Elvis Presley’s “Love Me Tender,” but he did not play with his back to the audience as some have claimed. As Sutcliffe’s sister Pauline said “He was in love with rock ‘n’ roll and loved being on stage. His stage presence was excellent and the female fans loved his ‘James Dean’ look”.
He Meets The Love Of His Life
The Beatles played more than 20 clubs around Liverpool before heading to Germany. In Germany, they were expected to play for hours each night, giving the band a tremendous amount of practice, allowing them to grow as musicians. According to Ian Softley, who directed Backbeat, a film about the Beatles’ time in Hamburg, as a bass player, Sutcliffe “was very punk, very insistent.”
After a Beatles show at the Kaiserkeller club, Sutcliffe met Astrid Kirchherr and they started dating soon after. By November, 1960, they were engaged. In July 1961, Sutcliffe decided to leave the Beatles to pursue his painting, enrolling at the Hamburg art school after he received a scholarship for post-graduate study. While he was at the Hamburg art school, he studied under Eduardo Paolozzi and moved in with Kirschherr and her mother. He set up an art studio in their attic. His artwork in Hamburg was innovative; he used metallic car paint and charcoal, sometimes painting on massive canvasses. His style was closely related to abstract expressionism. He loaned McCartney his bass and then sold it to Klaus Voorman. He borrowed it back from Voorman when he was asked to play with the Bats, a German group. He played at the Hamburg Art School Carnival and at the Kaiserkeller. Voorman, a highly regarded bassist himself, has praised Sutcliffe’s playing.
His Death At 21
He started experiencing headaches and sensitivity to light while he was in Germany, and some of the headaches caused temporary blindness. In 1962, he collapsed during an art class, but doctors were unable to determine the cause. On April 10, he collapsed again and Astrid Kirscherr took him to the hospital, but he died on the way. The cause of his death was determined to be a brain hemorrhage caused by a ruptured aneurysm.
His Story Lives On
While the exact cause of the aneurysm is unknown, Sutcliffe had sustained a head injury outside Lathom Hall after an attack in January 1961. Lennon and Pete Best went to his aid, but Sutcliffe suffered a fractured skull in the attack. He refused medical attention and did not keep an x-ray appointment.
Although he was no longer in the Beatles after 1961, his photograph appeared on the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band in 1967.
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