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Another Fifth Beatle: Klaus Voormann

klaus voorman

The “5th Beatle” moniker is a mythical mantle claimed by many. Back in 1964, radio personality Murray The K was probably the first to have crowned himself as such. More established nominees for the title include Jimmy Nicol, Stu Sutcliffe, Brian Epstein, and George Martin. Fans have engaged in this amusing game of solidifying that role. In recent years, Paul McCartney has weighed in, naming at various times, both George Martin and Brian Epstein.  I’d like to make the case for Klaus Voorman. He was there at the genesis – before the mania, moptops, and magic. Voorman has stated, “I was the 5th Beatle at the crack of dawn.”

Klaus Voormann, born 1938 in Berlin, stumbled across an early iteration of The Beatles during their epic Reeperbahn days as a raucous bar band in Hamburg, Germany. Those were the days of 14-hour amphetamine-fueled sets featuring beer-drenched covers of Elvis Presley, Little Richard and Chuck Berry from the band formerly known as The Quarrymen. This lineup of The Beatles included John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Pete Best (on drums) and Stu Sutcliffe on bass. Voormann’s stylistic and artistic influence permeated the band in such a visceral way that even his girlfriend, Astrid Kirchherr, served as muse for the band. She later became engaged to Stu Sutcliffe, who would pass away before the rise of Beatlemania.

When Sutcliffe left the band, Voormann offered his bass-playing services to The Beatles. He was rebuffed by John, who politely told him that Paul was picking up Stu’s bass and they would remain a quartet. Imagine how history would have turned with The Beatles roll call going like this: John, Paul, George, Pete (and/or Ringo) and Klaus! But, Voormann can safely say that he was a 5th Beatle during one gig in Hamburg when he sat in with the Fabs on bass.

And ultimately, Klaus Voormann earned a claim to 5th Beatle status with his cover design for The Beatles’ Revolver album. The album, filled with sonic, groundbreaking songs like “Eleanor Rigby” and “Tomorrow Never Knows,” is considered by many to be the best album The Beatles ever laid to wax. Revolver is an iconic testament to the timelessness of the band, and Voormann’s graphic design for the cover is just as important as the music.

Related: “Tension, Release and ‘Revolver'”

His bass playing was also very much appreciated by the solo Beatles and his session work is well-regarded. Being entrusted to fill a cosmic musical space by a solo Beatle is a badge of honor. And Klaus Voormann wore that badge proudly on such hallowed solo Beatles albums as “Imagine” by John Lennon and “All Things Must Pass” by George Harrison. His minimalistic, melodic bass-playing on Lennon’s “Plastic Ono Band” is a revelation. The rhythm section of Ringo Starr and Klaus Voormann on that first solo foray of John Lennon’s is a musical epiphany. It also gives one pause to think of the “alternative universe” possibilities of a Beatles lineup that included the rhythm section of Klaus and Ringo. Listen to “Remember” off that album to get a full sense.

Related: “Ringo’s Top 10 Songs”

His creative efforts later garnered him a Grammy Award for Best Album Cover. Another Grammy earned by Klaus Voormann was for Album of the Year, with his bass resonating on The Concert for Bangladesh with old mates George Harrison, Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton, Billy Preston, and Leon Russell.

In the post-mania of The Beatles’ break-up, it was rumored that The Beatles were going to reform without Paul McCartney. This new incarnation of the band was rumored to be renamed The Ladders. It would feature Billy Preston on keyboards (another “5th Beatle” candidate!) and Klaus Voormann on bass, along with John, George, and Ringo.

The Ladders was another entry in The Beatles Urban Legend catalog along with “Paul-Is-Dead,” but you can hear what The Ladders may have sounded like on Ringo Starr’s 1973 John Lennon-penned track, “I’m the Greatest.” In this case, it’s John, George, Billy, and Klaus. It’s a glorious sound that this version of the “alternate” Beatles creates, and the closest we got to a Beatles reunion in John Lennon’s lifetime.

But Klaus Voormann did not simply remain a satellite in the Beatles Universe. He made regular studio contributions, playing bass on tracks by Harry Nilsson, Carly Simon, and Randy Newman, to name a few.

A respected artist and musician who resonated with the Fabs both pre- and post-breakup, Klaus Voormann can justifiably carry the moniker of “5th Beatle.” Most importantly, he was a true “mate,” their first real fan. Klaus was the one who fell in love with The Beatles all those years ago in Hamburg.

Look closely on the Revolver album cover and you can see a small picture of Klaus embedded within the numerous strands of hair from the four Beatle heads. The band got a good laugh out of that and agreed to keep Klaus on the cover. His small portrait on the album cover is quiet and unassuming. It’s as he’s staring at the band in silent admiration and firmly out of the spotlight  — as a friend.

-Sean Gaillard

Photo Credit: Genesis Publications Guildford /AP

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Long-time school educator and self-proclaimed Beatles fanatic, Sean Gaillard is the author of The Pepper Effect – a book that talks about how the band’s secrets to success and creative collaboration can be applied not only in the schoolhouse but to life. In his spare time, you’ll find him browsing used record stores.

2 comments on “Another Fifth Beatle: Klaus Voormann

  1. Avatar
    Corey Gomel

    There was a time the 5th Beatle honor was held by disc jockey Murray the K, Billy Preston (the only musician besides the band members to be credited on a Beatles record), George Martin (Beatle producer) and even Eddie Murphy’s fictional SNL character, Clarence Walker. But that mantel was passed down at the end of the 1980s to Jeff Lynne.

    The connection goes back much further. In 1968, Lynne, already an avid Beatles fanatic, was invited to a session for the Beatles’ White Album at Abbey Road Studios. “George and John were in one studio, with George Martin conducting, doing the strings for ‘Glass Onion,’ ” Lynne says.” And Paul and Ringo were in the other studio doing ‘Why Don’t We Do It in the Road.’ It was like getting into Buckingham Palace or something. It was the rarest treat of them all.”

    Lynne wrote a song for the Idle Race mentioning “John and Paul and Ringo and George” in “Girl At The Window”. And when Jeff and Roy Wood formed ELO in 1971, the idea was for ELO to “Pick up where ‘I Am the Walrus’ left off.” John Lennon, on a radio program in 1974 about to play ELO’s Showdown stated “I call ELO ‘son of Beatles’ – although they’re doing things that we never did, obviously. But I remember the statement they made when they first formed was to carry on where ‘The Beatles’ left off with “Walrus” – and they certainly did.” High praise from John Lennon.

    Lynne would mention the Beatles in song again on “Shangri-La” from 1976’s “A New World Record”. In 1983, Jeff recorded a tribute to the Beatles titled “Beatles Forever” intended to be included in the double-length release of ELO’s Secret Messages. But when that album was trimmed down to single length, “Beatles Forever” was cut. The song was played for a select group of fans in 2001 of which I was fortunate enough to be in attendance, but the song has never officially been released. And for ELO fans, to obtain a clean recording of the version intended for SM of this song is like finding the Holy Grail.

    Then in 1987, George Harrison went back to the recording studio after a 5-year hiatus and asked Jeff Lynne to help produce Cloud Nine. It was a huge comeback hit for Harrison. In the Rolling Stones’ review of the album, they stated “some of the credit for Cloud Nine’s success must go to Harrison’s co-producer, Jeff Lynne. If somewhere along the line the Beatle George forgot how to shape a pop record, Lynne — who’s led the Electric Light Orchestra on its own heavily Fab Four-inspired magical mystery tour — obviously has not.”
    Not too long after that, Lynne and Harrison formed the Traveling Wilburys with Tom Petty, Roy Orbison, and Bob Dylan. A true supergroup of all supergroups.

    Lynne went on to produce Paul McCartney’s “Flaming Pie” in 1997, netting Macca at the time his highest album chart position (No. 2) since 1982. And after producing a one-off remake of “I Call Your Name” for Ringo Starr in 1990, Lynne also produced three tracks for Ringo’s 1992 comeback album, “Time Takes Time.”

    Then came the Beatles’ massive “Anthology” release in the 1990s. The three remaining Beatles asked George Martin to produce a couple of “new’ songs for the anthology. Martin, who was living in Montserrat part time, told the boys “my ears are too old, get Jeff Lynne to produce the new songs.” And produce Lynne did. Lynne was behind the boards for the Beatles’ final hit records: “Free as a Bird” and “Real Love,” painstakingly recorded around existing Lennon demo tracks. The singles reached No. 6 and No. 11 on the Billboard singles chart, respectively.

    Lynne did more than just produced (along with son Dhani) George Harrison’s last studio lp Brainwashed. Lynne was part of a legendary performance of While My Guitar Gently Weeps with Tom Petty and Prince at the George Harrison tribute concert, and also performed “Hey Bulldog” with David Grohl of the Foo Fighters at the Beatles 50th TV special.
    There are so many more Beatle connections to Lynne that could be listed, but this article, like all this and WW2, is already long enough.

    Jeff Lynne, singer, songwriter, producer, and current 5th Beatle.

  2. Avatar
    Keith Shauger

    A very well presented case for Jeff Lynne, who I also admire as a multitalented artist whose work will certainly continue to pass the test of time.

    However…

    Call me “old school”, but this Beatles fan sees no one other than George Martin “worthy” of the Fifth Beatle mantle, beginning with the fact that he was the only record producer who agreed to record them, and played numerous uncredited piano/keyboard performances on their songs (“Rock and Roll Music” “In My Life” “Lovely Rita” “Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite” to name a few)

    As the Fabs progressed into more elaborate ideas, Martin had to find physical solutions to ideas they could only hear in their heads. He had the right connections with the right musicians to perform the (again, uncredited) scores that he often wrote to embellish their songs.

    Finally, Martin continued long after the Beatles’ breakup to unearth and oversee the previously unreleased material (“Live At The Hollywood Bowl” “Anthology”) with both passion and respect.

    This is my story, both humble and true; tear it to pieces and mend it with glue.

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