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Epstein, Brian Samuellocked

(1934–1967)
  • Michael Brocken

Brian Samuel Epstein (1934–1967)

by Robert Whitaker, 1964

© Robert Whitaker; collection National Portrait Gallery, London

Epstein, Brian Samuel (1934–1967), popular music entrepreneur and retailer, was born on 19 September 1934 at a private nursing home at 4 Rodney Street, Liverpool, the first of two children of Harold (Harry) Epstein (1901–1967) furniture retailer, and his wife, Malka (Queenie), née Hyman (d. 1996). Both parents were of the Jewish faith. Harry's father, Isaac, was a penniless Polish immigrant who opened a furniture store, I. Epstein & Sons, in Walton Road, Liverpool, in 1901. Queenie's family owned the Sheffield Cabinet Company. The family house at 197 Queens Drive, Childwall, Liverpool, was given to the couple as Queenie's dowry. The family moved to Prestatyn, north Wales, for a short time in 1939, at the onset of the Second World War, and then lived for three years in Southport, where Brian attended Southport College. The young Epstein was also educated at Croxton preparatory school and, at the age of ten, entered Liverpool College. He was unhappy there and left after twelve months to attend Wellesley School in Aigburth, Liverpool. Following a further period of insecurity he was dispatched to a Jewish boarding-school, Beaconsfield School in Frant, Sussex. He spent two undistinguished and disconsolate years there, followed by a brief period at Clayesmore, near Taunton, and then Wrekin College (where his younger brother, Clive, excelled). He left Wrekin in the summer of 1950 to begin work in the prospering family business.

At the age of eighteen Epstein was conscripted for national service. Having been rejected by the RAF, he began a two-year stint in the Royal Army Service Corps at Aldershot. He was, however, discharged after ten months, deemed mentally and emotionally unfit for service. Upon returning to the family business he was placed in charge of a subsidiary branch, Clarendon Furnishing, in Hoylake, Wirral, where he proved to be a highly successful retailer and manager ('Brian was a great hit on the Wirral … he could sell snow to the Eskimos', Joe Flannery commented in 1996). Along with his close friend Flannery, Epstein had a great interest in theatre and became friendly with actors and actresses from the Liverpool Playhouse. He passed an audition for the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA), on 19 September 1956, but left and returned to Liverpool, and the family business, in 1957.

When Epstein's father decided to expand his business into the centre of Liverpool, he opened a branch in Great Charlotte Street. The North End Music Stores (NEMS) was originally the name of an annexe to this Epstein furniture store selling pianos and sheet music. Brian and his brother, Clive (1936–1988), were placed in charge of this new outlet. Brian handled the ground-floor record section, while Clive ran the white goods and furniture-based electrical goods department on the first floor. Following the success of the record department, the family then opened a larger record store at 12–14 Whitechapel, and Brian was placed in charge while his friend Peter Brown took over the record section at Great Charlotte Street.

Despite his retailing success, Epstein's personal life was constantly in a fragile condition. He was homosexual at a time when it was still illegal, and he was constantly searching for other artistic outlets after his deficiencies at RADA. Joe Flannery recalled:

Brian informed me he was gay—not an expression we used then, of course—before his family … I felt sorry for him, I realised that his sense of (Jewish) family honour had placed him in an invidious position … open to blackmail and beatings … which happened, of course. But his confessions to me also made me realise just what a ‘lost soul’ he really was … a ‘lost soul’ with great attention to detail!

Flannery and Brocken

Enchanted by a unique local popular music publication in July 1961 (Mersey Beat), Epstein became absorbed by the local rock 'n' roll scene and, in particular, by a group which featured prominently in the paper, the Beatles. At lunchtime on 9 December 1961 Brian arranged to see the Beatles play at the Cavern cellar club, only a short walk away from his office in Whitechapel. He became their manager the next day. Epstein's commission as manager was to be 10 per cent of all income up to £1500 p. a. and 15 per cent above that figure. The deal was for five years. By 1963 Epstein's commission had increased to 25 per cent.

The Beatles were already good musically, but Epstein further reconstructed them into a thoroughly professional outfit. Paul McCartney was later to admit:

we were getting good. But we needed someone to push us … it became obvious that Brian was that person. He had a theatrical flair, having gone to RADA … It is always helpful having someone theatrical out front … It's a director, that's really what he was.

Savage

Relying on the advice of several local experts such as the Cavern disc jockey Bob Wooler and his old friend Joe Flannery, Epstein began promoting not only the Beatles but also large dances and concerts at such venues as the Tower Ballroom, New Brighton, the Empire Theatre, Liverpool, and the Queen's Hall, Widnes, in order to have the Beatles support such rock luminaries as Little Richard, Bruce Channel, and Joe Brown.

A record contract for the group was also arranged with the smallest EMI imprint Parlophone (after many refusals from other labels) and the Beatles' first disc, 'Love Me Do', was issued on 5 October 1962. One anecdote persisted in Liverpool that Epstein had purchased 100,000 copies of the disc to ‘hype’ this first Parlophone single into the charts. Whatever truth lies behind this rumour (and it was ceaselessly denied by Epstein), its minor chart success signalled the group's emergence on the national scene.

In the meantime, and taking his cue from that other famous pop entrepreneur Larry Parnes, Epstein built up his own stable of ‘personally managed’ artists. Following the signing of the Beatles he signed Gerry and the Pacemakers, Billy J. Kramer, Cilla Black, the Fourmost, the Big Three, the Remo Four, and Tommy Quickley—all popular artists in Liverpool. During 1963 (the year of ‘Beatlemania’) and 1964 most of these ‘Merseybeat’ artists achieved some degree of success. The Beatles, of course, went on to become the most celebrated artists in the history of popular music. Brian Epstein was at the helm, guiding them all.

Epstein's NEMS Enterprises outgrew Liverpool and moved to a prestigious suite of offices in London. He also signed more (non-Liverpudlian) artists such as Sounds Incorporated and the Silkie as well as promoting his own shows. In 1964, after the Beatles had conquered the United States, he published his autobiography, A Cellarful of Noise. His business dealings with the American music industry, however, were criticized as rather naïve and, despite considerable personal financial backing, his later signings did not prove successful. Furthermore, his venture to establish the Savile Theatre in London's West End as a major rock and theatre venue was an expensive failure. His personal life also remained precarious and he had developed a passion for gambling. He made a suicide attempt in the autumn of 1966.

Certainly by 1967 Epstein appeared to be losing confidence. He was heavily dependent on a combination of narcotics (some of which were prescription drugs that he had been taking since the late 1950s) and he expressed fears that the Beatles would not re-sign with him when their contract lapsed ('there was no question in our minds that we would stay with Brian. We didn't want another manager', Paul McCartney told Jon Savage in 1998). He unquestionably had less of a role in their day-to-day affairs after they ceased touring in 1966, and was subsequently seldom seen at his offices.

On Sunday 27 August 1967 Brian Epstein was found dead at his home, 24 Chapel Street, Belgravia, London. The coroner's verdict was that he had died, probably on 25 August, of an accidental overdose of Carbrital. Despite the finding—and because of his profile and sexuality—some publications have perpetuated myths about suicide and even murder, but it appears that it was simply a tragic mistake made by a depressed and fragile character. Epstein's body was buried at the Jewish cemetery in Long Lane, Aintree, Liverpool (section A, grave H12). John Lennon was to admit to Rolling Stone's Jann Wenner in 1970:

The Beatles broke up after Brian died … it was just me and a backing group, Paul and a backing group … And I enjoyed it, but we broke up then … I knew that we were in trouble then. I didn't really have any misconceptions about our ability to do anything other than play music and I was scared. I thought ‘we've fuckin' had it’.

Wenner

Brian Epstein was undoubtedly a deeply troubled man, but also someone who found his true vocation. His crucial musical judgements in the early 1960s heavily influenced the development of popular music. His often compassionate managerial approach attempted to take his artists and their fans seriously, and he helped to change, immutably, the face of popular music performance, appreciation, and consumption. He was clearly one of the first pop managers who considered himself an artist, an approach far removed from that of the majority of managers of the day, who were primarily interested in money. Much criticism and dismissal of Epstein circulated after his death, generated and complicated by the mythologizing of the Beatles phenomenon. But his importance as a mould-breaking manager should not be underestimated, and Paul McCartney was to comment in 1998: 'If anyone was the fifth Beatle, it was Brian' (Savage).

Sources

  • B. Harry, The ultimate Beatles encyclopedia (1992)
  • J. Flannery and M. Brocken, Standing in the wings
  • B. Epstein, A cellarful of noise (1964)
  • private information (2004) [J. Flannery]
  • J. Wenner, Lennon remembers (1972)
  • J. Savage, The Guardian (18 Dec 1998)

Archives

  • U. Lpool, Institute of Popular Music, MSS

Film

  • BFINA, Arena, BBC2, 25 Dec 1998
  • BFINA, documentary footage

Sound

  • BL NSA, documentary recordings
  • BL NSA, oral history interviews
  • U. Lpool, Institute of Popular Music, Robert Shelton archive

Likenesses

  • R. Whitaker, photograph, 1964, NPG [see illus.]
  • photographs, 1964–7, Hult. Arch.
  • four photographs, repro. in The Guardian

Wealth at Death

£486,032: administration, 19 Dec 1967, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

Calendars of the grants of probate … made in … HM court of probate [England and Wales]