Stuart Sutcliffe: Four Myths About the 5th Beatle

The original fifth Beatle, Stuart Fergusson Victor Sutcliffe, died 60 years ago, April 10, 1962, at age 21 and 10 months. He’s long considered the person who played a major role in putting art in the fabric of the developing Beatles.

Stuart Sutcliffe was a gifted canvas painter. Even as a young artist, he received recognition and awards for his creations in and around Liverpool. Although on the surface he and John Lennon seemingly had nothing in common, his talent didn’t go unappreciated by John.  By 1960, Lennon would consider Stuart his closest friend while the two of them were attending the Liverpool College of Art. John’s affinity to connect with people on an artistic level was strong and he found that Sutcliffe had something he desired in himself: artistic integrity and originality.

Stuart would also bring his strong visual abilities to the Beatle’s stage that would aid in establishing their presence with his striking image –James Dean with an oversized bass strapped to his back. He was thin, pale, 5ft 7in, meek and mild, constantly wearing his thick glasses.  When not on the stage, he was the very opposite of cool.

Considered the most intellectual of the early Beatles (and credited with Lennon for coming up with the name “Beatles”), his legacy continues to grow, continuing many myths that have been attached to Stuart’s life. On this 60th anniversary of his passing, we clear some of them up.

Myth #1- Sutcliffe always wanted to be a rock musician

Those who grew up with Stuart have testified that his musical background was limited. He had a few piano lessons as a kid, sang in the local church choir, and owned a Spanish guitar that he hardly touched. So how did he become the 5th Beatle playing bass with John, Paul, and George Harrison (and later drummer Pete Best)?

In the early days of January 1960, one of Stuart’s paintings was selected to be displayed in the influential Walker Gallery as part of a show, The John Moores Liverpool Exhibit 2. Moores soon expressed an interest in buying Stuart’s Summer Painting, considered a work in the style of abstract expressionism. For his work, he received the sum of 90 British pounds, a King’s ransom for its time (context: it was nine times the weekly wage of Paul McCartney’s father). Meanwhile, guitar players John, Paul, and George’s current incarnation of the band (at that point called the Quarrymen) needed a bass player. Once they heard of Stuart’s fortunes, that was John and Paul’s cue to get semi-tough with their “wealthy” friend in the basement of Pete Best’s house. “They gave Stuart the choice of drums or bass,” George remembered years later, “They weren’t fussed-they needed both.” Rory Best, Pete’s brother, described the scene, “Stuart sort of got hemmed in the corner, and they (John and Paul) would not take no for an answer, even though Stuart kept saying it.”  Childhood friend Rod Murray has said of Stuart, “He thought of painting 24 hours a day, so being in a rock group was a dilution of his attention.” The whole idea was crazy, and that is what apparently intrigued Stuart enough to buy the bass and join his best friend’s band.

Myth #2 -Paul was jealous of Stuart’s playing the bass in the band

Paul was one of the three guitarists at this point in the band’s history and was not about to give up this position. In fact, he long considered the bass in any band “the fat guy’s instrument.” Although history will certainly show that Paul would change his perceptions about the bass, he was jealous of Stuart on another level. Paul, (like others around him) vied for John Lennon’s attention…but in this era, Stuart had best-friend status sewed up. This created constant tensions between Paul, (who often teased Stuart about his poor playing, his “wee” size, and his thick glasses) and Stuart. The situation came to a head when in the Spring of 1961, on the stage of the Top Ten Club in Hamburg, Paul made a derogatory remark about Astrid Kirchherr, Stuart’s girlfriend. George Harrison remembered, “Stuart suddenly got this amazing strength that Paul hadn’t bargained for.” He landed a direct punch on Paul knocking him to the ground, with both bandmates ending up rolling around the stage floor. Reflecting years later, Paul recalls, “I always assumed I’d win (in a fight with Stuart) because he wasn’t big, but the strength of love or something entered into him because he was no easy match at all.” 

Myth #3- Stuart died because of an earlier kick to his head

Having left the Beatles and living in Hamburg with Astrid, now his fiancée, Stuart began to have violent headaches around March of 1962.  All those around him could see he was not well, and no matter how many doctors he was to visit, no one could diagnose what was happening with his health. Writing to his mother in Liverpool, Stuart described his inability to stop staggering while walking and experiencing multiple bouts with headaches: “hour after hour, screaming at the frustration, pain, and helplessness.” By April 10, he had slipped into a coma, while speeding in an ambulance to the hospital; he died in Astrid’s arms from a brain hemorrhage. For many subsequent years, it has been speculated that Stuart’s condition may have been caused by the attack he suffered at the hands of toughs (called Teddy Boys in England) a year earlier in late January 1961. There at Lathom Hall, in the north end of Liverpool, Stuart was surrounded and brutalized by the gang, with no known justification. In the pile-up, Stuart had been kicked in the head. Would this violence bring on the hemorrhage nearly a year later?  A post-mortem report gives Stuart’s cause of death as a blood clot on the brain. Astrid was told he suffered from a rare condition where the size of his brain was gradually increasing and pressing against his skull. Connecting that to the blow onto his head remains pure conjecture.

Myth #4- John laughed when told of Stuart’s passing

The Beatles, now a foursome, were just returning to Hamburg for their next set of multiple engagements to play the local city clubs. They looked forward to seeing Stuart again, along with Astrid and their other German friends. When they met up at Hamburg Airport, Stu was obviously absent. Now Astrid had to relay the bad news. That is when John reportedly went out of control. He might have laughed; he might have cried. He definitely sat on a bench, huddled over, rocking back and forth.  As Astrid put it, “John went into hysterics. We couldn’t make out, in the state we were in, whether he was laughing or crying because he did everything at once.” Paul has subsequently made it clear, “John didn’t laugh when he heard Stuart died, as people have made out.” Paul has described it as a complex psychological reaction of sorts, remembering John’s own experiences in his young lifetime (then 21) with the passing of his Uncle George and his own mother.

Today, original paintings by Stuart Sutcliffe have been auctioned at over $10,000.

-Steven Valvano

Photo: Ron Jones / Alamy Stock Photo

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4 comments on “Stuart Sutcliffe: Four Myths About the 5th Beatle

  1. RIP Stuart and John. Say hi to Cynthia. Love you all.

  2. Stuart was the 4th Beatle. Pete Best joined after Stuart, just before the band went to Hamburg for the first time, so he was the true 5th Beatle.

  3. Why did Stuart often not face the audience?

    • That’s a myth perpetuated by a couple of photos taken when he was still learning the bass. By the time he left the band he was quite proficient. He even joined another Hamburg band for a while after the Beatles but remained focused on his art studies.

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