Fifth Beatle


george martin

The Fifth Beatle is an informal title that various commentators in the press and entertainment industry have applied to persons who were at one point a member of The Beatles, or who had a strong association with the ‘Fab Four.’ The ‘Fifth Beatle’ claims started appearing in the press immediately upon the band’s sensational rise to global fame in 1963 as the most famous quartet in pop culture. At The Beatles’ 1988 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, George Harrison at one point stated that there were only two ‘fifth Beatles’: Derek Taylor and Neil Aspinall (the Beatles’ public relations manager and road manager-turned-business-executive, respectively). In a 1997 BBC interview, Paul McCartney stated: ‘If anyone was the fifth Beatle, it was [Beatles’ manager] Brian Epstein.’

The term is not used to indicate the chronology of band members joining the group. Pete Best joined Lennon, McCartney, Stuart Sutcliffe and Harrison on the eve of their Hamburg sojourn, the five using the monikers, ‘The Silver Beetles’ and ‘The Silver Beatles’ (they would experiment with ‘The Beat Brothers’ and ultimately ‘The Beatles’ while in Hamburg with Best).

Stuart Sutcliffe was the original bassist of the five-member Beatles. He played with the band primarily during their days as a club act in Hamburg, Germany. When the band returned to Liverpool in 1961, Sutcliffe remained behind in Hamburg. He died of a brain hemorrhage shortly thereafter. Instead of replacing him with a new member, Paul McCartney changed from rhythm guitar (with John Lennon) to bass and the band continued as a four-piece.

Sutcliffe was an accomplished painter, but when compared to the other Beatles, his musical skills were described as ‘inadequate,’ and his involvement in the band was mainly a consequence of his friendship with Lennon. Sutcliffe’s input was, however, an important early influence on the development of the band’s image; Sutcliffe was the first to wear what would later become famous as The Beatles’ moptop hairstyle, asking his girlfriend Astrid Kirchherr to cut his hair in emulation of the hairdo worn by friend Klaus Voormann.

Pete Best was the original drummer of The Beatles. He played with the band during their time as a club act, in both Liverpool and Hamburg, Germany. The band during this time period consisted of Best, bassist Stuart Sutcliffe, and guitarists Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and John Lennon. While Sutcliffe left the band in 1961, and died shortly thereafter, Best continued to perform with the band until 1962 when he was let go and replaced by Ringo Starr.

In addition, members of precursor bands (such as The Quarrymen), or any one of a number of temporary Beatles drummers, most notably Jimmie Nicol, Andy White (the session drummer for the commonly-heard version of ‘Love Me Do’ and ‘P.S. I Love You’), Norman Chapman, and Tommy Moore have been discussed in this context, albeit less often. Bassist Chas Newby also performed three gigs with the band after Sutcliffe’s departure.

Brian Epstein, the band’s manager from 1961 until his death in 1967, was instrumental in The Beatles’ rise to global fame. Epstein ‘discovered’ the band in Liverpool, saw their potential, and never wavered in his faith and commitment to them. He purposefully restricted his oversight of the band, limiting himself to business matters and public image, and gave the band free creative reign in their music. Epstein also doggedly sought a recording contract for the band in London at a crucial moment in their career, fighting their perception as provincial ‘northern’ musicians.

Epstein’s death in essence marked the beginning of The Beatles’ dissolution, as Lennon admitted later. Because he was not creatively involved with the band, Epstein was only infrequently called the ‘fifth Beatle,’ but over the years he and producer George Martin have clearly been recognized as the inner circle members who most profoundly affected the band’s career. In an interview in the 1990s describing Epstein’s involvement in the band’s rise to fame, Martin declared ‘He’s the fifth Beatle, if there ever was one.’

The ‘fifth Beatle’ label is also often applied to Martin, who produced nearly all of The Beatles’ recordings (later songs ‘Real Love’ and ‘Free as a Bird’ were produced by Jeff Lynne) and wrote the instrumental score for the Yellow Submarine film and soundtrack album, and the string and horn (and even some vocal) arrangements for almost all of their songs (with the famous exception of the Phil Spector re-production on the ‘Let It Be’ album, and ‘She’s Leaving Home,’ which was arranged by Mike Leander). His arrangement of the string octet backing for ‘Eleanor Rigby’ was widely noted.

Martin’s extensive musical training (which he received at the Guildhall School of Music) and sophisticated guidance in the studio are often credited as fundamental contributions to the work of The Beatles; he was without question a key part of the synergy responsible for transforming a good rock-and-roll group into the most celebrated popular musicians of their era. As writer Ian MacDonald noted, Martin was one of the few record producers in the UK at the time who possessed the sensitivity The Beatles needed to develop their songwriting and recording talent. Martin’s piano playing also appears on several of their tracks, including ‘Misery’ and ‘In My Life.’

Martin himself deflects claims of being the ‘fifth Beatle’ to Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein. In 2006, Martin inadvertently strengthened his image as the ‘fifth Beatle’ by contributing the only piece of new music on the ‘LOVE’ soundtrack: a string arrangement on top of George Harrison’s solo acoustic demo of ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ from Anthology 3.

A close personal friend of Pete Best (he actually lived in Best’s house and fathered his youngest brother, Roag), Neil Aspinall would join The Beatles as their road manager, which included driving his old Commer van to and from shows, both day and night. After Mal Evans started work for The Beatles, Aspinall was promoted to become their personal assistant, and eventually ascended to the position of CEO for Apple Corps (a position he held until 2007).

Aspinall was involved in court cases on behalf of Apple over the years (including cases against The Beatles’ then-manager Allen Klein, their label EMI, and the case against Apple Computer). He supervised the marketing of music, videos, and merchandising for the group. Aspinall also temporarily served as the group’s manager following Epstein’s death. Although not a musician, Aspinall also made minor contributions to a handful of The Beatles’ recordings. He played a tambura on ‘Within You Without You,’ harmonica on ‘Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!,’ some percussion on ‘Magical Mystery Tour,’ and was among the many participants singing on the chorus of ‘Yellow Submarine.’

Harrison once claimed Aspinall, alongside British journalist Derek Taylor, was the fifth member. Taylor first met the band after reviewing their stage performance. Instead of the anticipated negative review of a rock-n-roll group, Taylor gave their act the highest praises. Invited to become acquainted with The Beatles’ camp, he soon became a confidante, and gained his share of exclusives on them. Eventually, he was hired away from his newspaper job by Epstein, who put him in charge of Beatles press releases, and playing media liaison to himself and the band. He also became Epstein’s personal assistant.

By 1968, he became press officer for Apple Corps. As a VIP at Apple, Taylor had a major role in the company’s ups and downs, making or enforcing many crucial business and personal decisions, for The Beatles and Apple’s staff, and witnessing many key moments in the latter days of both. As mentioned above, Harrison once claimed he, alongside Aspinall, was the fifth member.

Years after The Beatles had broken up, George Harrison, Paul McCartney, and Ringo Starr each worked with music producer Jeff Lynne on various solo projects, while Harrison and Lynne also worked together as members of the Traveling Wilburys. Lynne eventually became heavily involved with the Beatles Anthology, and produced the two Beatles reunion singles that resulted from that project, ‘Free as a Bird’ and ‘Real Love.’

During The Beatles’ existence (specifically, 1960–70 and the Anthology project), several musicians recorded with The Beatles in a more limited capacity, either on a Beatles’ album, or on another artist’s album with two or more Beatles members appearing. Hence, such artists could be dubbed ‘the Fifth Beatle’ for a single track or two. Notable artists include: Tony Sheridan, Billy Preston, and Jimmy Nicol.

While performing in Hamburg between 1960 and 1963, musician Tony Sheridan employed various backup bands. In 1961 The Beatles (comprising Lennon, McCartney, Harrison, and Pete Best), who had met Sheridan during their first visit to Hamburg in 1960, worked with him on their second. When German Polydor agent Bert Kaempfert saw the pairing on stage, he suggested that they make some recordings together (at that period in time, Sheridan was the bigger name, with The Beatles as his backing band).

In 1962, after a series of singles (the first of which, ‘My Bonnie’/’The Saints’ made it to #5 in the Hit Parade), Polydor released the album ‘My Bonnie’ across Germany. The word ‘Beatles’ was judged to sound too similar to the German ‘Pidels,’ the plural of a slang term for penis, so the album was credited to ‘Tony Sheridan and The Beat Brothers.’ After The Beatles had gained fame, the album was re-released in Britain, with the credit altered to ‘Tony Sheridan and The Beatles.’

Apart from Sheridan, American pianist Billy Preston was the only artist to receive joint credit on a Beatles single, on ‘Get Back.’ Preston also played the organ on ‘Let It Be’ and ‘I Want You (She’s So Heavy)’ and the Fender Rhodes electric piano on ‘Don’t Let Me Down’ and ‘Get Back.’ Preston had been introduced to The Beatles during the early 1960s, but did not work with them until 1969, when Harrison invited him to join them for recording sessions in order to defuse tensions in the band.

Lennon once suggested that Preston join The Beatles, even using the term ‘Fifth Beatle,’ but the idea was dismissed by the others. On the Let it Be album where Preston’s performances are used the song credits list ‘with Billy Preston,’ clearly identifying him as separate from the main group, yet also giving him a level of individuality that separated him from studio session players. To distinguish him from the common level of controversy over who is the Fifth Beatle, he is sometimes given the unique title of the ‘Black Beatle.’

During the band’s 1964 tour, Ringo became ill and the Dutch and Danish legs of the tour were almost cancelled. Instead of cancelling, however, the band hired another drummer, Jimmie Nicol, to stand in until Ringo recovered. The photographer following the band for the 1964 tour, Harry Benson, recalls that ‘John was pleasant to Nicol, Paul was ambivalent, and George downright didn’t like him and thought he was too pushy.’ George and Ringo were close and Ringo felt threatened that he was being replaced, even if it were for just a small portion of the tour.

Nicol made the most of his time in the most famous band. He signed autographs and gave interviews. Eventually there were rumors that Ringo would be replaced, but Jimmy eventually was not accepted as a member of the group, and many fans reacted with disappointment, through letters and telegrams, that Ringo might be replaced. Eventually Ringo rejoined the band in Melbourne, Australia.

The next day Nicol, after playing a number of concerts in Sydney and Adelaide, giving interviews and signing autographs was escorted to the airport by Brian Epstein and flew home to Britain. It was later reported that Nicol was paid £500 for the gigs and was given a gold watch as a memento. It is suggested, perhaps apocryphally, that the phrase ‘It’s getting better’ in the track ‘Getting Better’ (on the ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ album) was inspired by Nicol’s stock response to repeated solicitous inquiries during his time with the band as to how he was coping.

Originally ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ had only the first guitar solo in the song off of the album. However Harrison thought that it sounded weak, and was lacking something. They called in Eric Clapton to perform the lead guitar on the song and it was decided to cut one verse entirely and add another guitar solo towards the end of the song.

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