Brian Epstein stumbled into The Cavern Club on a November lunchtime in 1961 to watch The Beatles. He had no plans to become their manager, and he only attended out of a sense of intrigue. However, in the space of one short set, he suffered an epiphany that would transform the fortunes of both him and the band. “If anyone was the fifth Beatle, it was Brian,” Paul McCartney once remarked, and this is how that came to be.
Before they met, Epstein had no prior experience working directly with artists but always had a keen ear for talent. His parents were retailers in the city, and after dropping out of the prestigious performing arts college, RADA, in London, Epstein returned to Liverpool to run his father’s record shop, NEMS.
Mersey Beat had started to gather steam with a publication launching earlier that year of the same name, and Epstein even had his own column called ‘Stop the World — And Listen To Everything in It: Brian Epstein of NEMS’. The founder of the magazine, Bill Harry, was a friend of John Lennon’s from art college, and The Beatles were the cover stars of the second issue, which first alerted Epstein to their existence.
His interest was heightened on October 28th when a customer strolled into the shop and asked to order a record they’d made with Tony Sheridan in Germany. Epstein then made it his objective to discover why The Beatles were starting to gain underground momentum, and within a fortnight, he saw them live for the first time.
While Epstein was attending for business purposes, it was simply to see if The Beatles were worthy of stocking in his record shop. However, after seeing the show, things changed, and Epstein was the first to think they had limitless potential. “I was immediately struck by their music,” Epstein later remembered. “Their beat and their sense of humour on stage—and, even afterwards, when I met them, I was struck again by their personal charm. And it was there that, really, it all started”.
From that moment, Epstein became obsessed with The Beatles, and for the next three weeks, he continued visiting The Cavern to watch their sets. With every performance, his desire was enhanced to turn them into superstars. He carried out careful due diligence, and his findings would have made most people decide against signing the band, with their former manager Allan Williams warning Epstein, “Not to touch them with a fucking barge pole”. However, he knew what he wanted, and Epstein was a man who usually got whatever he wished.
The Beatles were initially reluctant to enter a management deal straight away. Their families weren’t keen on the idea, and Paul McCartney’s father opposed Epstein due to the latter’s Jewish background. It took several meetings over the coming months before they finally agreed to a deal the following January, with the band signing a five-year contract.
Within six months of his stewardship, The Beatles were signed to EMI after Epstein successfully persuaded the label to take a gamble. He refused to give up after Decca rejected them, and this determined spirit consistently broke down barriers for The Beatles. The key to Epstein’s management was that he never interfered with the band from a musical standpoint, and his hands-off approach allowed them to be free creatively. After his tragic death in 1967, every Beatle became inconsolable, and without him, ‘The Fab Four’ began to crumble.
While he never played an instrument or penned a single song, Epstein’s role in The Beatles can’t be understated. He worked his magic behind the scenes and cultivated an image that combined magnetically alongside their artistry to create ‘Beatlemania’.
Unfortunately, the music industry isn’t a meritocracy, and talent alone won’t cause pandemonium. It seems unfathomable to imagine a world without The Beatles gaining immense popularity, but that was a genuine possibility without Brian Epstein’s one-tracked business mind.