A case can be made for all of the above and others to claim the title of “5th Beatle,” but they’d be wrong. For me, it will always be Stuart Sutcliffe, John Lennon’s art school roommate, the band’s original bassist, and the creator of both the “mop top” and the double entedre misspelling of “Beatles.” An artist to the core, Sutcliffe was so cool Lennon and McCartney had to convince him to learn bass and join the band with his winnings from a juried art show.
Sutcliffe looked like James Dean and painted like Willem De Kooning.
Maybe the Beatles (or its inevitable fans) couldn’t stand to have any more awesome? It wasn’t meant to be. The progressive expressionist painter, bassist and backing vocalist for the band remained in Hamburg in the summer of 1961 after the group returned to Liverpool from its second extended stint on the Reeperbahn when he decided to marry German photographer and longtime Beatles friend/muse/stylist Astrid Kirchherr. He’s the only musician who left the Beatles on his own accord. As McCartney moved from guitar to bass in place of Sutcliffe and the band stood on the verge of super-stardom back in England, the artist died of a brain hemorrhage on April 10, 1962 after collapsing in the middle of an art class. He was just 21.
Now, Sutcliffe’s sister has released what she claims is her one-time choirmaster brother performing a solemn rendition of Elvis Presley’s 1956-hit “Love Me Tender.” That this song was Sutcliffe’s spotlight lead vocal in the Beatles’ Hamburg sets is well-documented, but the origins of this recording and its authenticity are, rightly so, being questioned by fans and music historians the world over. I have my doubts, but take a listen for yourself. Whether it is real or not, it is another reminder that the evolution of the band from a pub band into transcending artists in the mid and late 1960s may have been even more startling had Sutcliffe lived to collaborate on album covers, promo films and other creative projects for Apple Records with his friends, the Beatles.