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He Could Have Been the Fifth Beatle But Changed His Mind

Rosemary Giles
Photo Credit: Keystone Features/ Getty Images/ Cropped
Photo Credit: Keystone Features/ Getty Images/ Cropped

The Beatles have been one of the biggest bands in the world ever since their rise to fame in the mid-1960s. With members John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr, the group has been known as a foursome pretty much since its inception. But if you trace the band back to its origin, there was a fifth Beatle who is often forgotten today: Stuart Sutcliffe.

Stuart Sutcliffe

McCartney, Harrison, and Lennon had known each other since childhood, and it wasn’t until Lennon decided to enroll in art school that Sutcliffe was introduced to the rest of the group. He also attended art school and ended up sharing an apartment with Lennon. By this time, Lennon was known on campus for being in a rock band and, since they needed a bass player, he asked Sutcliffe to play with them.

Pete Best, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, John Lennon, and Stuart Sutcliffe performing a musical number on stage.
(Left to right) Pete Best, Paul McCartney (at piano), George Harrison, John Lennon, and Stuart Sutcliffe performing live onstage at the Top Ten Club, 1961. (Photo Credit: Ellen Piel – K & K/ Redferns/ Getty Images)

Sutcliffe quickly agreed. He dedicated himself to the endeavor even though he didn’t actually know how to play, though he seemed to pick it up quickly enough. According to Harrison, however, “He wasn’t really a very good musician. In fact, he wasn’t a musician at all until we talked him into buying a bass.” It didn’t seem to matter to their fans, as Sutcliffe was attractive and decent enough on the bass.

The ‘Fifth Beatle’

His popularity didn’t help Sutcliffe’s relationship with the other band members, who admitted that they were envious of the new bassist. McCartney in particular felt this resentment deeply: “When he came into the band, around Christmas of 1959, we were a little jealous of him; it was something I didn’t deal with very well. We were always slightly jealous of John’s other friendships. It felt as if he was taking the position away from George and me.”

Stuart Sutcliffe wearing a waist coat, while shirt and tie, sitting in a chair with his leg crossed over his knee and his hands clasped together.
Stuart Sutcliffe, who was a modernist painter and was once in The Beatles, posing shortly before his death. (Photo Credit: Collect/ Mirrorpix/ Getty Images)

As his musical prowess left much to be desired, Sutcliffe’s biggest contribution to the band was helping to think of their name. He and Lennon came up with the name The Silver Beetles, a tribute to their favorite group, Buddy Holly and the Crickets. This name would eventually be shortened to just The BeatlesBy 1960, the band group (along with original drummer Pete Best) got their first serious gig playing in Hamburg, Germany for hours every day as a club act. They eventually returned to Liverpool in 1961.

Giving it all up

While the rest of the group returned to their home city, Sutcliffe decided that he wanted to go back to his career in art. He officially left the group in July 1961, enrolling at Hochschule für bildende Künste Hamburg where he continued to study art. This change in direction was at least partially prompted by meeting Astrid Kirchherr, another artist, who came to see the band perform in Germany. She and Sutcliffe were eventually engaged.

Mick Fleetwood wearing a suit scowling with a guitar in his lap, paintings in the background.
Mick Fleetwood holding Stuart Sutcliffe’s first guitar at a press conference to unveil the artwork and memorabilia of Sutcliffe at the Westwood Gallery in New York City. (Photo Credit: Scott Gries/ Getty Images/ Cropped)

While studying art in West Germany, Sutcliffe collapsed on two separate occasions after experiencing extreme pains in his head. The latter incident resulted in his death while he was being taken to the hospital in an ambulance. Doctors had performed tests in the past to see what was wrong but were unable to determine anything until after his death when they realized he had a brain hemorrhage. He was just 21 years old when he passed away.

More from us: Remember When Ringo Walked Out On The Beatles And Paul Had To Play The Drums?

Kirchherr traveled to Liverpool soon after Sutcliffe’s death to grieve alongside the other Beatles. Of all the men, Lennon took the news the hardest, believing that he, in some small way, contributed to Sutcliffe’s death by not treating him better. As Kirchherr recalled, “He just can’t believe that darling Stuart never comes back. He just crying his eyes out.” As a tribute, the band included a photo of him on the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

Rosemary Giles

Rosemary Giles is a history content writer with Hive Media. She received both her bachelor of arts degree in history, and her master of arts degree in history from Western University. Her research focused on military, environmental, and Canadian history with a specific focus on the Second World War. As a student, she worked in a variety of research positions, including as an archivist. She also worked as a teaching assistant in the History Department.

Since completing her degrees, she has decided to take a step back from academia to focus her career on writing and sharing history in a more accessible way. With a passion for historical learning and historical education, her writing interests include social history, and war history, especially researching obscure facts about the Second World War. In her spare time, Rosemary enjoys spending time with her partner, her cats, and her horse, or sitting down to read a good book.