It’s difficult to peg a phenomenon to just one specific date, but it could be argued (convincingly) that the global fury of Beatlemania started fifty years ago today with the American release of “I Saw Her Standing There” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” Just two years before, The Beatles were an unknown and unsigned club band in Liverpool, gigging birthday parties and lunchtime concerts. That all changed when Brian Epstein arrived.
The son of Jewish furniture merchants and the grandson of Russian and Lithuanian émigrés, Epstein was born in Liverpool. Before deciding on business, he toyed with the idea of being a dressmaker and an actor; he was admitted to the Royal Academy for Dramatic Arts and studied beside the likes of Albert Finney, Susannah York, and Peter O’Toole. Eventually, he dropped out and returned to the expanded family business, which now included records.
From the prologue of Epstein’s 1964 autobiography A Cellarful of Noise:
At about three o’clock on Saturday, October 28th, 1961, an eighteen-year-old boy called Raymond Jones, wearing jeans and black leather jacket, walked into a record-store in Whitechapel, Liverpool, and said: ‘There’s a record I want. It’s “My Bonnie” and it was made in Germany. Have you got it?’
Behind the counter was Brian Epstein, twenty-seven, director of the store. He shook his head. ‘Who is the record by?’ he asked. ‘You won’t have heard of them,’ said Jones. ‘It’s by a group called The Beatles….’
The rest is not exactly history, although it should be. Epstein was bestowed with the “Fifth Beatle” honorific by Paul McCartney, but was never inducted into the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame, despite his work with the Fab Four and groups like Gerry and the Pacemakers.
Epstein’s specific feat was the hawking and harnessing of The Beatles’ talent. He cultivated their image, convincing them to wear suits on stage and synchronize a bow at the end of live performances. He tossed Pete Best and brought in Ringo Starr. As record label after record label rejected them, Epstein persevered, eventually convincing (or, by some accounts, cajoling) George Martin to sign them to EMI. A string of hit records and an appearance on the Royal Variety Show followed shortly thereafter. Then came the British Invasion.
The details of Epstein’s personal life are less storybook. He was thrown out of two boarding schools, discharged from the army, and closeted in a conservative milieu that was not yet tolerant of homosexuality. According to legend, Paul McCartney’s father was distrustful of Epstein because he was Jewish and urged his son to tread carefully before giving Epstein control of his finances. Epstein also battled drug addiction, which ultimately took his life in 1967 at the age of 32. He was buried in the Kirkdale Jewish Cemetery in Liverpool.
Epstein has since been immortalized in a stellar (recently published) graphic novel and will be the subject of a biopic to be released next year. It’s the first-ever movie with authorized use of The Beatles’ song catalog.
Epstein was also immortalized in song. Enjoy “Brian Epstein Blues,” a scratchy outtake which was recorded (and thankfully not released) during the White Album sessions. Epstein did have a mother named Queenie (her real name was Malka) and a brother named Clive. Rough cut and lyrical oddness aside, John Lennon’s vocals here are outstanding.
Adam Chandler was previously a staff writer at Tablet. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, Slate, Esquire, New York, and elsewhere. He tweets @allmychandler.