The Sad And Short Life Of Stuart Sutcliffe — The Fifth Beatle

Published October 9, 2021
Updated November 9, 2021

There was a time when Stuart Sutcliffe — before he quit and tragically died in 1962 — made the Beatles an actual five-piece band.

Amongst Beatle fandom, there’s a lot of talk about if there was ever a fifth Beatle, and if so who was it? Some say it was the group’s manager Brian Epstein or their producer George Martin, both of whom Paul McCartney has attributed the title to on separate occasions. Others refer to Pete Best, the drummer before Ringo.

That kind of debate has its place, but there was a time when the Beatles were actually a five-piece band with a literal fifth Beatle. His name was Stuart Sutcliffe.

The Beatles With Stuart Sutcliffe

Michael Ochs Archive/Getty ImagesStuart Sutcliffe, left, playing bass in Liverpool with the Beatles in 1960.

Before the British Invasion and before the peak of Beatlemania, Stuart Sutcliffe was a member of the legendary band as the original bass guitarist. He died when he was just 21 years old. His stint, like his life, was brief. Yet he still had a major impact on the group.

What can’t be determined is how profound an impact he would have had on the history of the Beatles if he’d stayed in the group. Would things be different if Sutcliffe passed away while he was still a Beatle? After all, dealing with the loss of a friend is different than dealing with the loss of a bandmate. Is it possible Sutcliffe’s death would have led to the dismemberment of the Beatles before they even really began?

It’s hard to say for sure where fate begins and destiny ends, but it’s safe to say the Beatles in their final formation were not the initial intention.

Stuart Sutcliffe Helps Form The Beatles

Stuart Sutcliffe was born in Edinburgh Scotland in 1940, but his family moved to England shortly after. He happened to meet John Lennon at the Liverpool College of Art when he was introduced by a mutual friend. The three of them were all studying at the school, and Sutcliffe was noted as a brilliant painter.

When he was kicked out of his flat, Sutcliffe moved into a rundown area in Liverpool, where John Lennon moved in with him. Sutcliffe got involved with the Beatles when Lennon and McCartney convinced him to buy a bass guitar. Sutcliffe is credited along with Lennon for coming up with the band’s original name, the Beetles, inspired by Buddy Holly’s band, the Crickets.

Stuart Sutcliffe began playing gigs with the Beatles in Hamburg, which is where he met his fiance, artist Astrid Kirchherr. Love Me Tender was reportedly Stuart Sutcliffe’s signature song. It’s been reported that when he sang it, he received more cheers from the crowd than the other Beatles. This caused tension with McCartney, who was said to have already been jealous of Sutcliffe’s friendship with Lennon.

Lennon apparently started giving Sutcliffe a hard time as well.

Stuart Sutcliffe With Beatles At War Memorial

Keystone Features/Getty ImagesStuart Sutcliffe, top left in glasses, with Beatles and associates in Arnhem, the Netherlands. Aug. 16, 1960.

When asked about Sutcliffe in the The Beatles Anthology, George Harrison replied:

“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… He picked up a few things and he practiced a bit…. It was a bit ropey, but it didn’t matter at that time because he looked so cool.”

His cool look, considered a transformation of sorts, included James Dean style sunglasses and tight pants. So before the four Beatles, in addition to their music, gained attention for their style and mop-top haircuts, Stuart Sutcliffe was proving looks sell.

Life After Being The Fifth Beatle

It’s disputed how talented of a musician Sutcliffe actually was. Feeling pressure to pursue his true gift, visual art, Sutcliffe left the band in July 1961 to study in Germany.

Stuart Sutcliffe

FlickrStuart Sutcliffe in his signature sunglasses.

At this point, the former Beatle started to get bad headaches and grew sensitive to light. On April 10, 1962, he collapsed. Stuart Sutcliffe died in the ambulance on the way to the hospital from a ruptured aneurysm.

To this day the reason for Sutcliffe’s aneurysm is unclear. His sister, Pauline Sutcliffe, has claimed that her brother’s brain hemorrhage was the result of a fight with John Lennon a few months before he died, during which the songwriter beat him up. If you were to look into Lennon’s darker side, this actually wouldn’t seem too farfetched.

However, this contradicts earlier reports that Lennon and Best had actually come to Sutcliffe’s aid in a fight following a performance in January of 1961.

It’s clear the Beatles did not forget Stuart Sutcliffe.

In addition to being referenced in various films and biographies, he can also be seen on the album cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, all the way to the left in the third row down. While the importance of his role in the band may be debated, his place as a fifth Beatle in a non-metaphorical way is undeniable.

Of course, there’s always Yoko Ono.

Enjoy this article on Stuart Sutcliffe, the little-known fifth Beatle? Next, read why Paul McCartney was a better Beatle than John. Then, read about the historic day the Beatles appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show.

Kara Goldfarb
Kara Goldfarb is a writer living in New York City who holds a Bachelor's degree in journalism from Ithaca College and hosts a podcast for Puna Press.
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Goldfarb, Kara. "The Sad And Short Life Of Stuart Sutcliffe — The Fifth Beatle.", October 9, 2021, Accessed June 13, 2024.