Brian Epstein was born on 19 September 1934 in Rodney Street, Liverpool – an exclusive area well known for its concentration of doctors. The grandson of a Polish immigrant, Brian was the first of two children born to Queenie and Harry Epstein.
When the war broke out, Liverpool became a prime bombing target because of the docks, and – along with hundreds of other children – Brian was evacuated to Southport (a West Coast resort). In 1943 – with the bombing over – the Epstein family returned to Childwall, a suburb of Liverpool.
Brian attended a number of schools around England in rapid succession, but his stays were never very long or rewarding.
It was not until he was 14, and found himself at Wrekin College in Shropshire, that he discovered he had a talent for acting and began taking part in school plays. He also expressed a desire to leave school before his exams and become a dress designer.
His parents had other ideas and on 10 September 1950 – aged very nearly 16 – Brian started his first job as a sales assistant at the family’s Liverpool furniture store. He started work at £5 a week (not a bad wage at the time) and grudgingly built up an interest in his work. As far as Queenie and Harry were concerned, things were looking up for Brian.
In December 1952 a buff envelope arrived through the door notifying Brian that he was to attend a National Service medical. He passed as an A1 (the only ‘A’ he had ever received) and so began his two years service as a clerk in the Royal Army Service Corps.
Within 10 months of joining the army, he began to suffer with his nerves and was dispatched to an army psychiatrist, who reached the conclusion that Private Epstein was not fit for military service and promptly discharged him.
He arrived back in Liverpool prepared to work very hard in the furniture trade, which he did – for a while.
He began toying with the idea of becoming an actor and got himself an audition at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. After reading pieces from Macbeth and Confidential Clerk he was accepted to begin studies from the following term. And so, at the age of 22, he became a student at RADA.
It didn’t take Brian long to realise that studying was not his forte and he returned, once again, to the family furniture business – where it now seemed he would spend the rest of his life.
With the business expanding, the family opened a new branch in the city centre – a branch with a record department. By 1962, Brian’s store (for he had been given control of the city centre shop) was running to absolute perfection.
At about 3 o’clock on Saturday 28 October 1961, a young customer came into the store, dressed in the usual youth costume of the time – black leather jacket and denim jeans. He said: “There’s a record I want. It’s My Bonnie and it was made in Germany. Have you got it?”. Brian knew his stock inside out and replied that he did not. But his policy of keeping the customer satisfied was about to pay handsome dividends.
“Who is it by?” he asked. “You won’t have heard of them,” said the young customer. “It’s a group called The Beatles“. Brian learned that they had just returned from Hamburg and were currently playing a residency at the local Cavern club.
Curiosity overtook Brian and he decided to visit the cellar club and find out what it was about this group that made the local youth react as they did. He wasn’t too impressed with what he heard, although he found their personalities’ magnetic and stayed until they completed their set. When they left the stage he was taken to the band room to meet them so he could ask them about the record.
George Harrison was the first to speak to him. He shook Brian by the hand and said: “What brings Mr Epstein here?”. They obviously knew of him from the record store. Brian explained about the several requests he had had for their record and they duly played it to him. On hearing it, Brian asked the four young lads to visit his office a few days later. Their first meeting was set for 3 December 1961.
A second meeting duly took place the following Wednesday and Brian asked the band if they would like him to manage them. John Lennon said “yes”, the other three agreed and Brian trotted off to his family’s solicitor, Rex Makin, to ask what a management contract consisted of.
The following Wednesday, with a contract duly drawn up by Makin, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Pete Best all put their signatures to the piece of paper, and all were countersigned by witness Alastair Taylor, Brian’s assistant. The only signature conspicuous by its absence was that of Brian Epstein.
Brian felt that the first task of a manager was to secure a record deal, and he managed to lure Mike Smith of Decca to the Cavern to see The Beatles play. Smith was knocked out and arranged for the band to attend an audition at the Decca Record Company in London.
On 1 January 1962, they played several numbers which were duly recorded and returned to Liverpool to await word from the Decca hierarchy. Three long months later Brian was summoned to the Decca offices to meet two important executives – Dick Rowe and Beecher Stevens.
Dick Rowe informed Brian that the company did not like the band’s sound and added that “groups of guitarists are on the way out”.
Brian was determined, though, that someone somewhere was going to like his Beatles. Pye, Philips, Columbia and countless others all rejected Brian’s tapes and as a final resort, he embarked on an all-or-nothing raid on London, resigned to the fact that if nothing happened this time he would call it a day.
Through a string of coincidences, he met up with a music publisher called Syd Coleman who liked what he heard, but told Brian he would like a second opinion from a friend of his – a gentleman by the name of George Martin, who worked at Parlophone – part of the EMI group. Martin liked the tape and invited the band along for an audition, followed a few weeks later by the offer of a recording contract.
On their first recording session The Beatles recorded two songs of their own; Love Me Do and P.S. I Love You. On 4 October 1962, the record was unleashed upon the nation and within weeks had reached the #17 spot on the British charts.
Soon after, Brian walked into the office of music publisher Dick James with a demo disc of the follow-up single, Please Please Me. James loved the song and telephoned a friend of his, Philip Jones – a light entertainment producer at ABC TV who was just starting a new music show called Thank Your Lucky Stars. The breaks started to snowball virtually from that moment.
As the hits went on and on, everything Brian Epstein touched turned to gold. He signed Gerry & The Pacemakers and Billy J Kramer & The Dakotas and they too wallowed in hits. Cilla Black, The Fourmost, The Big Three, The Merseybeats and many others followed.
He formed an empire and called it NEMS (North East Music Stores) after his record shop in Liverpool.
But with success came increased pressure, and Brian was soon working 25 hours a day, eight days a week – always careful not to lavish too much attention on any one act, and trying very hard (albeit unsuccessfully) to share his devotions. Brian was devoted to his artists and saw more of them than he did of his own family.
A few years later, while The Beatles were in Bangor studying meditation under the Maharishi Yogi, Brian was found dead in bed in his Belgravia (London) house.
The coroner pronounced the death as accidental due to the cumulative effect of bromide in a drug known as Carbitol. Brian had been taking this for some time because of the ever-increasing pressures, which in turn led to insomnia.
The world had lost a man whose foresight was greater than any other musical personality before or since.
The Beatles had lost more than they could have possibly imagined. Brian Epstein was the fifth Beatle. He was as much a part of them as they were of him.
Words cannot adequately describe the loss of a man of his stature, but perhaps the last words should come from his long-time secretary Joanne Newfield:
“A lot of people seem to forget and they say ‘oh he didn’t do that much’, but if you look at the record since his death it makes you wonder. A lot of people say that The Beatles made Brian Epstein; I don’t think Brian Epstein made The Beatles, but I think he did a great deal more than he is given credit for.
A lot of managers could have found a group like them and completely messed them up. It wasn’t just their talent alone, it was their talent plus a very creative person behind them. Maybe business-wise he wasn’t the greatest, but creatively he was a genius.”
“I want to manage those four boys. It wouldn’t take me more than two half-days a week”
Brian Epstein (1961) after seeing The Beatles perform