The fifth Beatle

When the Beatles hit the stage at the “Ed Sullivan Show,” on 9 February 1964, probably very few, if any, of the nearly 73 million viewers were thinking about the group’s manager or his Jewish roots. But those roots, stretching back across the Atlantic ocean into the ghettos of Russia and Lithuania, helped form the man, who helped define the Beatles. For Brian Epstein, called by many, including Paul McCartney, “the fifth Beatle,” came from an orthodox Jewish family which can be traced back through Liverpool, Manchester and into Russia and Lithuania. And many would credit Epstein with guiding the Beatles to their unparalleled success.

From a rather unassuming start in the family furniture store and then record business in Liverpool, Epstein’s career budded after a short stay in the armed forces and a try at acting. Born on Yom Kippur, 1934, Epstein became curious about the group after repeated requests in his store. So, on his lunch hour one afternoon, Epstein decided to investigate for himself what the young people of Liverpool already seemed to know: something cataclysmic and revolutionary was going on at the Cavern Club, a local venue more renowned for its “charm” than its acoustics. Taken with the lads’ wit, humor and potential, Epstein, who had never managed a rock band before the Beatles, set his sights on the group. At first, his parents were cool to the idea. Assuring them that it would only take a few hours a week away from the record store, his parents capitulated.

Epstein signed the band to its first management contract in 1962. Within a few months, he had secured a recording contract but not without a stack of rejections along the path. Perhaps imposing his own sense of style and decorum, Epstein persuaded the boys to refine their stage presence, quit smoking and swearing during their sets, and fitted them in suits and ties, rather than leather and blue jeans. Hence the Beatle image was born.

The group landed in New York when America desperately needed music and joy. Still mourning the assassination of John F. Kennedy 77 days earlier, the group invaded Idelwild (now JFK) airport, the streets of Manhattan and finally the Plaza hotel. Beatlemania was born.

Playing five songs, three in the first set and two in the second, the group also performed a week later on the Sullivan show from Miami. Epstein helped create large-scale concerts bringing the Beatles to venues such as Shea Stadium and Candlestick Park. The concert experience would never be the same again.

Before his death, in 1967, by accidental overdose, Epstein managed other musical acts, although none approached the success of the Fab Four. The band, which stopped recording together in 1969, is still the top-selling act of all time.

It may have been 20 years ago today that Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play, but it was Brian Epstein who brought the group to the world’s attention with a little help from his friends.

About the Author
Adjunct professor of criminal justice at George Mason university. Practicing attorney with undergraduate degree in journalism. Seasoned print and broadcast journalist. Married with two daughters. Member of conservative shul in Fairfax, Va.