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He Discovered the Beatles

Paul McCartney called Brian “the fifth Beatle.”

Brian Samuel Epstein was born in Liverpool in 1934 to a Jewish family originally from Lithuania. His father Harry owned several retail shops, including a store that sold musical instruments.

Expelled from two schools for laziness and poor grades, Brian was finally sent to boarding school, where at age 15 he wrote a heartfelt letter to his father explaining his dream of becoming a fashion designer. Harry thought this was a lousy idea, and after graduation Brian returned home and started working in his father’s furniture store.

Brian was homosexual at a time when there was a huge stigma to being gay. He began seeing a psychiatrist, who encouraged him to leave Liverpool and move to London, where he could be part of a larger gay community. Brian wanted to be an actor, and he enrolled in the prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, where his classmates included Albert Finney and Peter O’Toole. However, Brian didn’t enjoy being a student, and was more drawn to the business side of the arts. He later said that he “felt like an old man at the age of 21.”

Returning to Liverpool, Brian worked in his father’s music store, which now sold records as well as instruments. Brian labored “day and night” to improve and promote the store, and soon it was the biggest record store in Northern England. The Epstein family opened another store and Brian was in charge of the whole operation. At night, Brian explored the thriving local music scene. He wrote a column for the Mersey Beat, a music magazine, called “Stop the World – And Listen to Everything In It.”

On November 9, 1961, Brian and his assistant Taylor attended a lunchtime concert at The Cavern Club to see the Beatles, a new band that had been covered in the Mersey Beat. Taylor was unimpressed, but Brian was blown away by the act. He later said, “I was immediately struck by their music, their beat and their sense of humor on stage – and even afterwards, when I met them, I was struck again by their personal charm. And it was there that, really, it all started.”

After the show, Brian and his friend went backstage to meet the band. As frequent customers of his music store, the Beatles all recognized him. George Harrison asked, “And what brings Mr. Epstein here?” Brian replied, “We just popped in to say hello. I enjoyed your performance.” Afterwards, at lunch, Brian asked Taylor what he thought about the group. Taylor said they were “absolutely awful” but Brian just sat there smiling, and after a long pause he enthused, “I thought they were tremendous!” As they were leaving the restaurant, Brian had a spontaneous idea. “Do you think I should manage them?” he asked, despite having no experience managing a band.

Over the next few weeks, Brian attended every concert the Beatles played, and learned they had no manager. On December 3, 1961, Brian met with the group to propose the idea of managing them. Three out of four band members were under 21, and needed the consent of their parents before signing a contract. John Lennon’s aunt (his legal guardian) was skeptical, and suspected that Brian would lose interest as soon as a bigger band came along. But John had just turned 21, and he ignored his aunt’s advice. Paul McCartney’s father was also against the idea, because he didn’t feel a Jewish manager could be trusted. [Paul did not inherit his father’s antipathy toward Jews; his first wife Linda was Jewish, as is his current wife Nancy Shevell.] Despite some parental disapproval, the Beatles signed a five year contract with Brian in January 1962.

Although he had no experience in music management, Brian had strong opinions about the band’s image and behavior onstage. Like virtually all rock and rollers at the time, their unofficial uniform was jeans and leather jackets. They were very casual onstage – smoking, eating, and talking while playing. Brian urged them to clean up their act, and got them to stop cursing, smoking, drinking and eating onstage. He also told them to wear suits and ties, and to bow gracefully together at the end of each performance. These details helped them stand apart in the crowded Liverpool music scene.

The sartorial changes didn’t happen overnight. Brian later explained, “I encouraged them, at first, to get out of the leather jackets and jeans, and I wouldn’t allow them to appear in jeans after a short time, and then, after that step, I got them to wear sweaters on stage, and then, very reluctantly, eventually, suits.” He took them to a master tailor to make sure they looked spiffy.

John Lennon resisted, but later said, “I’ll wear a suit; I’ll wear a bloody balloon if somebody’s going to pay me.” Brian began to tirelessly promote the band, charming newspaper reporters into covering them, and booking them into bigger, higher-paying venues. The next step was to get the young band a record deal, and Brian paid out of his own pocket to record an audition tape. He traveled to London to visit record companies, but was rejected by virtually all of the major British record labels. Finally, George Martin, an EMI producer who managed their smallest division, Parlophone, agreed to meet Brian at Abbey Road Studios. Martin later said that he wasn’t sure if he liked the Beatles or not, but he got swept up in Brian Epstein’s enthusiasm for the band and decided to sign them.

Over the next five years, under Brian’s keen management, the Beatles became the biggest musical act in the world. Today, fifty years later, they remain the most popular rock and roll band of all time. Paul McCartney called Brian the fifth Beatle.

While the Beatles rose to fame and fortune, Brian battled his own demons. Homosexuality was illegal in the UK, so he had to remain in the closet, although his orientation was an open secret among his friends. John Lennon teased him about it, but it was good-natured. John was furious when one of his oldest friends asked sarcastically, “Which one of you [Beatles] does he fancy?” The next day the friend received a letter demanding a complete apology. Even though he apologized, Paul McCartney told him to have no further contact with anybody in the band.

Brian suffered from chronic insomnia, which he treated with prescription sedatives. As he developed a tolerance, he needed more and more of the drug to sleep. On August 23, 1967 Brian attended a Beatles recording session, which would be his last. Four days later he was dead of an accidental barbiturate overdose. Brian Epstein was 32 years old.

The Beatles were on a meditation retreat with their Indian guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi when Brian died. When they heard the news they were utterly devastated. In a 1970 interview with Rolling Stone, John Lennon said that Brian Epstein’s death was the beginning of the end for the group. “I knew that we were in trouble then… I thought, ‘We’ve had it now.’”

Beatles biographer Richard Rodriguez said of Brian Epstein, “The thing that really sets him apart from other management types of the era was he was never in it for the exploitation. He wasn’t in it to make his fortune off The Beatles’ back and hard work. He recognized that there was something special there and he needed to keep them on a certain trajectory. Which he did to his dying day.”

Without Brian organizing their schedule, advocating for them, and smoothing out internal divisions, the band was adrift. Three years later came the band’s notoriously acrimonious breakup, a colossal loss for fans around the world. If Brian Epstein had lived longer, who knows what might have been….

The band did not attend Brian’s funeral to preserve his family’s privacy – it would have become a public spectacle – but they went to a memorial service at the New London Synagogue several weeks later. Brian Epstein is buried in the Kirkdale Jewish Cemetery in Liverpool. He was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2014.

For bringing the Beatles to the world, we honor Brian Epstein as this week’s Thursday Hero.

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