Brian Epstein had a vision: To turn a rough, local musical act called The Beatles into the biggest band in the world. Bigger than Elvis. And he brought that vision to fruition. So essential is Epstein to the history of one the greatest rock ‘n’ roll bands ever that Paul McCartney once remarked: “If anyone was the fifth Beatle, it was Brian.”
“His story an against all odds kind of thing and he is essential to why we know The Beatles at all. It was unbelievable good luck on their part to connect with him.” says Robert Rodriguez, author of Revolver: How The Beatles Reimagined Rock ‘n’ Roll, and the podcast, Something About The Beatles.
Born in Liverpool in 1934, Epstein was the son of Harry and Queenie Epstein who were of Eastern European Jewish origin and had built a successful retail business selling furniture, appliances and records. Dapper and erudite, the creative Epstein had dropped out of London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art to return to Liverpool and work at the family business where he showed a flare for fashioning visual displays and a knack for creating loyal customers, especially in the music department.
Epstein believed in The Beatles since the moment he first saw them perform
It was November 1961 when Epstein decided to take in a musical group he had been hearing about. John Lennon, McCartney, George Harrison and their then drummer, Pete Best, were performing a lunchtime concert at the nearby Cavern Club. Epstein was enthralled by what he saw. “I was immediately struck by their music, their beat and their sense of humor on stage,” he said of his initial attraction. “And even afterward, when I met them, I was struck again by their personal charm and it was there that, it all started.”
He talked the band into signing him as their manager in early 1962. “He brought utter and total belief in them that they were an entity that the world would fall in love with, just as he had when nobody else in Liverpool really saw that,” says Rodriguez.
A neophyte in the world of talent management, Epstein immediately began working on raising their profile both in and outside of Liverpool. He cleaned up their image; gone were the days of swearing, smoking and eating onstage during performances. Jeans and leather jackets made way for sharp suits and similar haircuts.
“He had the belief and the vision for what The Beatles could be when basically they were the equivalent of punks,” says Rodriguez. “He steered them to a recording contract which happened within six months of him signing with them, and by the following year, they are performing for the Royal family. He saw them as this potential entertainment juggernaut, getting them into films, getting them into TV, playing up their charisma, personality and humor.”
Epstein wasn't in it for the money - he really believed in The Beatles' talent
With the band’s new image and Epstein’s knack for engineering publicity, The Beatles were soon playing better venues to bigger crowds. Drummer Best was replaced with Ringo Starr in 1962. In 1963 the lead single from their album of the same name, “Please Please Me,” topped the U.K. charts and began a streak that would see 11 of their 12 studio albums through 1970 reach No. 1 on the U.K. charts. Later in 1963 Epstein traveled to the United States and booked an appearance for the band on Ed Sullivan’s popular Sunday evening variety television program. Beatlemania began sweeping the world.
Throughout, Epstein kept the band focused amid touring dates and studio sessions. “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,” Rodriguez says. “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.”
He wasn't a great businessman
Epstein is often accused of negotiating bad deals regarding copyright and merchandising, including the agreement that would eventually see McCartney and Lennon lose ownership rights to their classic songs. “The rap on Brian is that he wasn’t much of a businessman, that he cost them millions,” says Rodriguez. “True enough, but that’s sort of beside the point because those millions never would have been made had it not been him recognizing what they needed to connect with the public.” Even McCartney gave him the benefit of the doubt in hindsight, reportedly saying of the era: “British people didn’t know that stuff at the time.”
Epstein began to live the rock 'n' roll lifestyle
As the band achieved new heights of global success, Epstein’s personal life began to slide. Though the tight-knit inner circle of the band often teased Epstein good-naturedly about being gay, he lived in a closeted era where homosexuality was still illegal in England. He had begun taking stimulants to battle fatigue during the constant touring schedule and later developed a dependency on Carbromal, a barbiturate-like hypnotic sedative. Aware of his addiction, Epstein sought treatment at a private clinic while the band was in the studio recording the Sgt. Pepper album, but was unsuccessful in his attempt to curb his drug use.
He died suddenly during Beatlemania
The Beatles’ final commercial concert, held at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park in August 1966, marked the end of four years of almost non-stop touring and began a period dedicated to studio recording. With the constant organizational workload removed, many believed Epstein’s importance to the band would wane. That notion would never be proved as Epstein died unexpectedly due to an overdose of sleeping sedatives mixed with alcohol on August 27, 1967. He was 32. Officially ruled an accident, rumors circulated it was suicide.
Biographer Rodriguez questions the validity of such, noting in the weeks prior to his death Epstein had been dealing with the recent death of his father and would not have added further burden to his beloved and grieving mother. Though Rodriguez acknowledges Epstein had had one documented effort at taking his own life in the year prior to his death, he believes the manager had turned a corner. “He was still trying to get off his addiction to pills, he’d checked himself in [to rehab] and Paul is writing him letters of support and those two are planning the future of The Beatles. So, I don’t think, not least because of the death of his father and what it would have put his mother through if he decided he would kill himself, I don’t see that as part of his thinking at all.”
The Beatles broke up three years after Epstein's death
With Epstein gone, the band was suddenly adrift. He was the one who had kept them on track, organized their schedules and was their constant champion. Less than three years following Epstein’s death, The Beatles would disband and go their separate ways. “Every lucky break they could have got, connecting with the right person at the right time and in the right place they did, up until Brian died,” Rodriguez says of the group. “It was an astonishing run of luck. And after that things began to fall off and they knew it in hindsight.”
Epstein was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame almost 50 years after his death
Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988, The Beatles have estimated sales of over 800 million records worldwide. They have had more No. 1 albums on the British charts and sold more singles in the U.K. than any other act. Epstein, the alchemist behind the success of the Fab Four, was inducted posthumously into the Hall of Fame in 2014 in the non-performer category. The original contract between Epstein and The Beatles fetched £240,000 (more than $310,000 U.S. dollars) at auction in London in 2008.
“He had achieved his wildest dreams but I don’t think he was done being hungry artistically,” Rodriguez says of Epstein at the time of his death. “He saw The Beatles as going anywhere they wanted to that no band had gone before, no artist. Certainly, their ambitions were not curtailed in the least in 1967. They were on top of the world. The Beatles recognized the loss of Brian as something utterly devastating, to their esprit de corps, to whatever they thought they could do businesswise. He was the guy they needed and they didn’t have him anymore. If he lived it would have made all the difference.”