Behind every great band or artist is a person or team of people who, one way or another, help guide them to the greatness they inevitably achieved. Even The Beatles can’t escape this distinction: Brian Epstein, their first manager, played a pivotal role in their rise to international superstardom in the 1960s.
Epstein, whose death occurred on August 27, 1967 due to a tragic drug overdose, helped define the Beatles as the world would come to know them and helped transform John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr from a scruffy band of misfits into the squeaky-clean studs that set the pop music landscape on fire.
It was Epstein who saw something in the band as they performed in small clubs, and made just the right amount of changes to the right aspects of the band’s aesthetic to launch their careers as legit stars. The band didn’t always agree with him, but they still owe a big debt to his work as manager.
Epstein wasn’t perfect – he did once try to manipulate the band into signing a low-paying, fixed-rate contract and thus keeping most of their future fortune for himself – but there’s no denying how big of a role he played in making the Fab Four into the group that would eventually become the most beloved band of all time. Here are three big reasons…
1. He believed in them when few others did
The Beatles show their Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) medals at a news conference in London, England, on Oct. 26, 1965. The Beatles, from left, George Harrison, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr and John Lennon, were awarded the MBE by the Queen of England at a ceremony at Buckingham Palace. Manager Brian Epstein is standing in background at left. The man at right is not identified. (AP Photo)
When Epstein first went to see the Beatles perform at Liverpool’s famed Cavern Club, he was drawn in right away. Even though the band originally featured an aggressive “bad boy” image, Epstein felt enamored by their mere stage presence.
The book Beatles Forever says that Epstein was “instantly mesmerized by the raw, magnetic energy of the scruffy quartet.” Despite being a raw, imperfect act at the time, the Beatles showed plenty to Epstein, who met the band after the first show and went back many more times.
According to 2005’s Beatles Biography, when his assistant Alistair Taylor once said after a show that the band was “awful”, Epstein responded that they were “tremendous”. If not for Epstein’s enthusiasm for the band, the Beatles may have never gotten the break they clearly deserved.
2. He cleaned up their image
Paul McCartney gives the thumbs-up to the screaming fans at London Airport, in England, on Sept. 21, 1964. The Beatles were returning from New York after their successful tour of the United States. Crowds of teenage girl swarmed over the airport terminal buildings singing we love the Beatles as they waited their idols return. Left to right, George Harrison, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, behind partially obscured, and John Lennon. Behind Ringo is the group’s manager Brian Epstein. (AP Photo)
When you think of the Beatles, what image do you conjur up? Suits, ties, mop cuts, clean-shaven faces? That was Epstein’s idea.
Initially, the Beatles were vulgar and irreverent on-stage. They wore jeans and leather jackets, swore like sailors, and drank and smoked during shows. Epstein urged them to throw that out and start fresh.
Going in line with their poppy musical style, the guys donned the suits, toned down their behavior and cleaned up their faces, even after some resistance from Lennon. And there’s no question the guys’ new boyish image played a major role in their rise to the top of the industry. The screaming girls and fainting fans grew exponentially as soon as the “new” Beatles took the stage.
3. He never messed with the music
The Beatles leave London Airport, 1964. From left: manager Brian Epstein, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr and George Harrison. (AP Photo)
This is easily the most important thing Epstein did – or didn’t do, depending on how you look at it. He knew what the guys were capable of writing on their own, so he let them do their thing instead of forcing them into watered-down radio pop. The very idea of a group writing all of the music and lyrics themselves was unheard-of in the early-1960s, but Epstein insisted on it. We like to think that was a pretty good decision.
Not only did Epstein let the guys write freely, he picked the right songs to promote. When “Roll Over Beethoven” was proposed as a U.S. single, Epstein instead pushed “Can’t Buy Me Love”. That song only went on to reach No.1 in the same week where the Beatles famously held all of the top-five singles spots on the charts.
This goes back to Epstein simply believing in the band and seeing their potential. Not that he didn’t at times try to use their talents to his own advantage, but fans still wouldn’t have the Beatles as they know them without Epstein’s work.
John and Paul tend to agree; McCartney called Epstein the “fifth Beatle” at one point, while Lennon once remarked that Epstein’s death was the beginning of the end for them.
Epstein is incredibly not yet in the non-performers’ section of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, despite his major role in the launch of the biggest band of all time. There is an online petition to induct him, as well as a Facebook page dedicated to him. One day he will get the recognition he truly deserves.