When the Death of ‘5th Beatle’ Stuart Sutcliffe Shocked the Fab Four

Though John Lennon and Paul McCartney were there from the beginning (1957), the rest of the Beatles lineup took several years to become finalized. By 1962, the group still wasn’t sure about its drummer. (Ringo had just joined the band in August of that year.)

The year before The Beatles dropped Pete Best for Ringo, they still had a fifth member in the group. That was bassist Stuart Sutcliffe, a guy whose style impressed far more than his musical abilities. When The Beatles first traveled to Hamburg in 1960, Sutcliffe played bass.

Later, after finding a girlfriend (who quickly became his fiancée), Sutcliffe defined the early Beatles look even though he didn’t stay with the band. In fact, he was the first to don a leather suit and get the so-called ‘Beatles haircut.’

But Sutcliffe had serious health problems that turned deadly in ’62. When he became ill and passed away suddenly, The Beatles experienced what Paul McCartney described as “a real shock.”

Sutcliffe’s brain illness left him dead at 21.

Stuart Sutcliffe who was a modernist painter and was once in The Beatles Pop group Pre 1962 | Collect/Mirrorpix/Mirrorpix via Getty Images

The story of Sutcliffe joining the band is a reminder of how innocent The Beatles once were. Long before the battles over album releases and production techniques, they were just a bunch of young guys trying to find an audience that would listen to them play.

Sutcliffe, who was a promising artist, made it into the band following a painting he sold for 65 pounds. Talking with John, Paul and George Harrison, everyone decided he ought to buy a new Hofner bass with the windfall. Though hesitant at first, Sutcliffe agreed and became the fifth Beatle in late ’59.

The following year, John and Sutcliffe came up with a new name for the band (still the Quarrymen at that point). Following Buddy Holly’s Crickets, they decided on The Beetles. (It next became the Silver Beetles before changing to The Beatles.)

During the group’s extended stay in Hamburg, Sutcliffe fell in love and stayed behind when The Beatles returned to Liverpool. By 1961, he was experiencing serious health problems and died in early ’62 of cerebral paralysis. He hadn’t even turned 22.

Paul noted the ‘shock’ and ‘guilt’ following Sutcliffe’s death.

GERMANY – CIRCA 1960: Photo of Stuart SUTCLIFFE and BEATLES; L-R. Pete Best, Paul McCartney (at piano), George Harrison, John Lennon, Stuart Sutcliffe performing live onstage at ‘Top Ten Club’ | Ellen Piel – K & K/Redferns

During a subsequent visit to Hamburg, Sutcliffe’s fiancée Astrid Kirchherr was wearing a leather suit that the band soon adopted as their stage gear. She also convinced Sutcliffe to style his hair the way everyone in the band (outside Pete Best) did.

Of course, Sutcliffe had also grown up with everyone in Liverpool and gone to art school with John. When he passed away, it affected the band members (especially John and Paul) in a big way. In Anthology, Paul spoke of the shock that had “a little guilt tinged with it.”

“Not many of our contemporaries had died; we were all too young,” he said. “Everyone was very sad.” Kirchherr described John “crying his eyes out” as he tried to comfort her and tell her it was time to move on.

Even though he had departed the band by then, Sutcliffe’s influence would remain with them throughout the band’s run — or at least until everyone grew their hair long.

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