He had to choose between his best friend, the woman he loved... and the greatest rock & roll band in the world
- Backbeat's tagline.
Stuart Sutcliffe, known to his friends as 'Stu', found fame as a member of The Beatles for short three years, 1959-1961. This overshadowed the fact that he was an extremely talented painter. His passionate life story with its mysterious, early death captured the imagination of filmmakers and Beatles fans worldwide.
Stuart Fergusson Victor Sutcliffe was born in Edinburgh on 23 June, 1940. His parents were Charles Fergusson Sutcliffe, a man whose hobbies included painting, photography and music, and Martha, known as 'Millie'. When they met, Charles was already married to another woman named Martha, although this marriage was dissolved. In 1942 the War Office posted Charles to a munitions depot in Birkenhead, an area that would, following the war, be engulfed by growing Merseyside. There Millie worked as a teacher. Charles later became a seaman, spending long periods at sea away from home, and the family soon moved to a larger house in Liverpool .
Stuart was the oldest of three children of Charles and Millie, two years older than Joyce and four older than Pauline. All three had piano lessons at an early age, but Stuart had little talent for the instrument. Stuart also proved unable to play the bugle in the Air Training Corps or an acoustic guitar his father had bought him. Yet he could sing, and was head chorister at local St Gabriel's church until his voice broke. At school he possessed a flair for art and creative writing from a young age, passing the 11-plus exams to enter grammar school. He progressed to Liverpool College of Art in 1956 at the age of 16, younger than students were normally admitted in recognition of his tremendous artistic skill. This was also the year he discovered the music of Elvis Presley.
At the Liverpool College of Art he gained a reputation for being an outstandingly talented student, soon attracting the attentions of noted painter and teacher Arthur Ballard, who gave Sutcliffe additional tuition at the studio he shared with housemate and fellow student Rod Murray. Rod and Stu shared a studio flat. Stu often painted at all hours of the night, and his oil paints affected his mother's asthma.
He was a member of the Students' Union Committee as was Bill Harry, a student who later created the Mersey Beat newspaper. Harry was close friends with another pupil, John Lennon, and by 1959 Lennon and Sutcliffe were extremely close friends, almost inseparable. John described their friendship with the words,
I looked up to Stu. I depended on him to tell me the truth. Stu would tell me if something was good and I'd believe him.
John had his own band, first called the Quarry Men but in October 1959 renamed as Johnny and the Moondogs. This included two younger pupils from the neighbouring Liverpool Institute1, Paul McCartney and George Harrison. George described Stu with the words,
Stuart was a thin, arty guy with glasses and [at college] a little Van Gogh beard. John really liked Stuart as an artist, Stuart obviously liked John because he played the guitar and was a big Ted2. Stuart was cool. He was great-looking and had a great vibe about him, and was a very friendly bloke. I liked Stuart a lot, he was always very gentle.
One of Stu's acts as a member of the Students' Union Committee, seconded by Bill Harry, was to allocate funds to buy an expensive amplifier, to be used by bands performing on college premises, including John's band, who performed regularly every Saturday. John Lennon later appropriated this amplifier.
Paul had already begun co-writing songs with John, and it has been frequently alleged that he felt John's new best friend Stu was a potential threat. However Stu was absorbed in his artwork, entering a painting entitled 'Summer Painting' in the biennial John Moores Exhibition at Liverpool's Walker Art Gallery in late 1959-early 1960. This was one of over 2,000 works of art displayed. When the exhibition opened, John Moores himself was so impressed with Stu's work that he bought the painting for £65.
Stuart Sutcliffe – Musician and Silver Beatle
In late 1959 John Lennon realised that what his group really needed was a bass guitarist, an instrument both George and Paul at the time refused to play. John informed two of his friends, Stu and his housemate Rod Murray, that the first of them to get a bass guitar could join his band, saying that as a bass guitar only has four strings and no chords, it would be easy to learn how to play. Rod began making a bass, but Stu used the money he had gained from selling his painting to hire purchase a Hofner President bass, an instrument paid off monthly and chosen based on its appearance.
Stu was instrumental in emphasising that the band needed to have a look, and that The Beatles' appearance must grab the audience's attention as much as the music, and as a member of the band he dressed to impress. Stu always on stage wore dark glasses, inspired by Polish artist Zbigniew Cybulski but also looking like James Dean.
It was Stuart Sutcliffe who instigated the group's name change to 'The Beatles', as a lot of the band's favourite music was by Buddy Holly and the Crickets. Stuart suggested that the band should call themselves The Beetles as a play on 'Crickets', John amended this briefly to The Beatals, to include the word 'Beat' and to emphasise that he hoped the group would beat all others to the top of the charts. Over the following months they tried various combinations of the name including the Silver Beats and the Silver Beetles they eventually settled on The Silver Beatles. However, when John was introduced on stage in August 1960 as 'Long John Silver' of the Silver Beatles, he immediately shortened the name to The Beatles.
Audition: Silver Beatles sent to Scotland
On 10 May 1960, as the Silver Beatles, Stu and the group attended their most important audition yet, for music promoter Larry Parnes, who managed several acts including Billy Fury3. The earliest published record of this was Allan Williams' The Man Who Gave The Beatles Away. His description of this audition has become accepted as fact, although more recent research has shown Stu in a more positive light. Paul McCartney's description of this book was some parts of this book are partially true.
Williams had first met Stu and John when he employed them as Art College students to paint his Jacaranda coffee bar. Williams later discovered that they had a band, and would act as a booking agent to give them gigs. In his book Williams claimed that Sutcliffe was a terrible bass player, and on this occasion stood with his back to the audience to hide the fact that he did not know how to play, and it was Sutcliffe's performance that discouraged Parnes from signing The Beatles. In fact, photographs show that Stu played facing the audience, and Parnes himself has stated he was impressed with Stu's performance, but had reservations about their drummer, Tommy Moore, who had arrived late. Parnes noted 'Silver Beatles – very good. Keep note for future work' and signed The Beatles up for a week's tour of Scotland, backing one of his acts Johnny Gentle. For this tour Stuart, Paul and George changed their names to sound more show business, to Stuart de Staël after the Russian artist Nicholas de Staël, Paul Ramon and Carl Harrison. This was the only time they did so as they concluded that stage names were a bit silly.
Hamburg and Happiness
After The Beatles returned from Scotland they frequently performed at the Grosvenor Ballroom as well as the Jacaranda coffee bar, owned by Allan Williams. In early 1960 Williams met Bruno Koschmider, a German nightclub owner looking to book acts for his Kaiserkeller club in Hamburg. Williams successfully sent him Derry and the Seniors, and Koschmider, impressed with the act and planning to open more nightclubs in the area, asked Williams to send more groups over. Acting as The Beatles' agent that August, Williams arranged for The Beatles - John, Paul, George, Stuart and new drummer Pete Best - to travel and play in Hamburg, with Koschmider supplying the vital work visas and arranging for, underage at 17-years-old, George to play in his clubs.
In Hamburg they initially played at the dingy Indra Club, a former strip club, before progressing to the KaiserKeller after the Indra Club was closed. A neighbouring old lady, who was perfectly happy with the Indra Club being a strip club, complained about the noise from The Beatles' live performances. They shared a room above Koschmider's Bambi Kino cinema, crammed into a room next to the toilets, sleeping on dingy mattresses on the floor and using the basin next to the urinals in the cinema's gents to wash in.
These nightly performances in Hamburg were gruelling, with the band expected to play up to six hours every night, seven days a week, for 30 Deutschmarks a day each. In order to maintain the energy to play, the group, including Stu, started taking Preludin tablets. Although outlawed in Britain, these were easily available from West German chemists.
The Beatles performed for over 500 hours total in their first stay in the city. This trial by fire helped polish The Beatles into the greatest act in the world, and provided Stu with much more.
One October night in 1960, Manfred Klaus Voorman had another in a long series of arguments with his girlfriend, Astrid. She locked him out of her mother's house, where they both lived, and so Klaus, beginning to accept that their relationship was drawing to an end, went to the cinema in order to allow time to cool things down. On the way back he passed the KaiserKeller, where he heard the live music from within. Entering the club he saw The Beatles perform live and was amazed.
He returned the following night. Klaus was an art student and had designed an album cover for a cover version of The Venture's 'Walk Don't Run' by a band called The Typhoons. He approached the band after their performance, showing John his work, but John, tired after the show, explained that Stu was the group's artist and encouraged Klaus to talk to Stu. From that meeting a close friendship between Stu and Klaus developed.
Klaus was, unlike their usual audience, from a privileged background and well-educated, able to engage in fluent conversations in English. He also was musically talented, being able to play piano, flute and flamenco guitar. He was a member of a student subculture known as 'Exis', a group inspired by Existentialist ideas. Klaus was fascinated by The Beatles, and returned the following night and, the night after, brought his girlfriend, Astrid Kirchherrr, and their friend Jürgen Vollmer. Both Astrid and Jürgen were photography students.
Astrid came from a wealthy German family and lived with her widowed mother and boyfriend Klaus in her mother's large family home. Blonde, attractive and two years older than Stu, she was a talented photography student having initially studied fashion design. Astrid later described entering the KaiserKeller and seeing Stu for the first time by saying,
I couldn't see Stu's eyes behind those glasses, but I knew, somehow I just knew, he was looking at me. At this first moment, I also knew that one day there would be something real between us.
By all accounts it was love at first sight for them both, and Astrid wasted no time before inviting The Beatles to attend a photo session at Dom, Hamburg's funfair. There they posed with their instruments4 and that afternoon met Astrid's mother. Stuart agonised over his feelings for Astrid, writing to his mother,
But!!! She has a boyfriend. I'm sure she loves him and certainly he her, although no sign of affection is passed between them.
Almost three weeks after they had met, they were dating, with Klaus graciously stepping aside to allow the lovebirds to be together. Astrid then cut Stu's hair in what would later be associated with The Beatles haircut5. Soon after, Stu had moved in with her and by November that year they were engaged.
As his relationship with Astrid grew, his interest in The Beatles lessened.
Could he Play?
The big debate asked about Stu during this period is how well he played and performed as a musician. Stu regularly sang a solo version of 'Love Me Tender', and after the other Beatles left Hamburg, was asked to be in other groups. He tried writing his own songs, though John and Paul (their own songwriting at this time lacked the brilliance that would later develop) mocked his efforts. Paul and John were not the best judges of songwriting ability in others, as both later belittled and underestimated George's talent throughout the time he was in The Beatles.
Paul by all accounts felt that Stu was not as talented as the rest of the group, and potentially a weakness that may affect their ability to succeed in the music business. He has admitted as such in his autobiography Many Years From Now, saying,
Stuart… and I used to have a deadly rivalry… I think we were probably both fighting for John's attention… So I wasn't such a big friend of Stuart's. I was always practical, thinking our band could be great, but with him on bass there was always something holding us back.
There is no doubt that he looked stunning as a musician. Klaus described him with the words, The image of James Dean was there, too, in Stuart, mystery behind sunglasses. Inspired by Stuart's musical talent, Klaus asked Stu to teach him how to play the bass. Klaus later said,
He was a really great bass player, a very basic bass player, completely different, so basic that you could say he was at the time my favourite bass player but primitive. But, of all the people or groups and when we saw groups later, he was my favourite bass player.
In late 1960 when Stu stayed in Hamburg, George wrote to him, pleading,
Come home sooner, as if we get a new bass player for the time being, it will be crummy... It's no good with Paul playing bass, we've decided.
Perhaps Vollmer has described his musical ability the best.
He didn't take it seriously like the other ones, he was such a dreamer that he didn't really pay much attention to the music… It's not that he was bad, it's just he didn't put his mind to it a hundred percent like the others.
In October 1960 a rival and more upmarket Hamburg club, the Top Ten owned by Peter Eckhorn, opened nearby. This employed Tony Sheridan as house entertainer, although his current backing group the Jets' contract was due to expire on 1 December. Eckhorn was keen to offer The Beatles a job as Sheridan's backing group. The Beatles had often visited the Top Ten Club during their half-hour breaks and even sneakily performed there with Tony Sheridan now and then. Koschmider, furious that his musicians were being wooed by his rival, informed the police that George was under 18 and had him deported on 21 November.
Soon after, the remaining Beatles left Koschmider's employ to play at the Top Ten Club, and as they moved out of their accommodation at the dingy Bambi Kino, a fire was started in the corridor. This caused little damage, but Koschmider reported them to the police for arson, and Paul and Pete were deported. Stu, who had been with Astrid at the time, described this experience in a letter home with the words,
I arrive at the [Top Ten] Club, and am informed that the whole of Hamburg police are looking for me. The rest of the band are already locked up, so, smiling and very brave on the arm of Astrid, I proceed to give myself up. At this time, I'm not aware of the charge. All my belongings, including spectacles, are taken away, and I'm led to a cell where, without food or drink, I sit for six hours on a very wooden bench.
John and Stu's work permits were either lost by Koschmider or had never existed, and so John left Hamburg to return to England and perform with The Beatles back in Liverpool. Stu stayed for some time in Hamburg with Astrid. Here they regularly attended parties with her friends, often cross-dressing, before returning to Liverpool in January 1961.
1961 - Top of the Pops at the Top Ten
In early 1961, Stu was unsure what direction his life should take, knowing only that he wanted to spend it with Astrid. He also felt that until he had a job they could not marry. He applied for both a visa to return to Germany as well as an Art Teacher's Diploma course at Liverpool College of Art. The Liverpool College of Art promptly rejected his application, possibly because of his role in the loss of their amplifier. Stu still occasionally played with The Beatles in Liverpool, including his only performance at the Cavern, which took place at lunchtime on Thursday 9 February. During the week of 30 January, following a performance at the Lathom Hall in Huyton in Liverpool, Stu was badly assaulted. Although legend states that this attack caused numerous kicks to the head that resulted in an undetected brain injury, witness Pete Best remembers,
When Stu came back there was an incident at Lathom Hall… reputed to be a tough gig. While we were on stage there was a gang of lads who picked on Stu… These lads staged a fight with Stu... so John and I dashed out. We threw a couple of punches, sorted things out and pulled Stu back in again... When people talk of Stu being beaten up, I think it stems from this incident. I don't remember Stu getting to the stage where he had his head kicked in, as some legends say, alleging that this caused his fatal brain haemorrhage.
In late February Stu was interviewed for the Art Teacher's Diploma course and soon after learnt that he had been unsuccessful. He then promptly arranged to return to Hamburg, returning on 15 March. The other Beatles soon joined him on April Fool's Day, employed by Eckhorn for the next 92 days to perform for a total of 503 hours at the Top Ten Club. Tony Sheridan was still in residence there as top of the bill, with no regular backing group since the departure of the Jets. Stu would continue to perform in Hamburg with the group, frequently taking preludin tablets in order to stay awake.
It was at this time that Tony Sheridan recorded an album, asking The Beatles to be one of his backing groups. Tony and The Beatles had been spotted there by Bert Kaempfert, and on 22-23 July they recorded a dozen songs, credited as 'The Beat Brothers', including 'My Bonnie', which was released as a single in Germany, getting to 32. Yet Stu was not present at this recording; by this time, he was ready to leave the group for good.
His Heart led to His Art
There goes Stuart Sutcliffe – he could have been in The Beatles.
Stu applied for a position on a painting master class at Hamburg's Staatliche Hochschule or State School of Art, and with glowing testimonials from Arthur Ballard, Scotsman Professor Eduardo Paolozzi 'the most important artist in Europe' was keen to enrol him in the class. Because of his potential Stu was even granted a rare scholarship, despite not being German. Paolizzi would descibe Stu as
One of my best students. He is working very hard and with high intelligence... a very perceptive and sensitive person, and very restless. I think that one could almost use that appalling phrase 'child of our time'. He was always slightly ahead of the rest of the class. Whatever he did, he'd take things a bit further than anyone else… Stuart would always be the most imaginative, the most daring. He had brains, and he wasn't inhibited.
Inspired by studying with one of the period's great artists, Stu began burning the candle at both ends by playing with The Beatles at the clubs until late, painting through the night until dawn and attending classes during the day. His ability to keep awake was assisted by preludin. Soon, Stu began suffering from serious headaches, dizzy spells, nausea and insomnia while oversleeping and missing lessons at school. In June he was forced to admit that he could no longer be a full-time Beatle as well as a student, and to mark his last full-time appearance he sang a farewell 'Love Me Tender'.
In his autobiography Paul wrote,
There's a theory that I maliciously worked Stu out of the group in order to get the prize chair of bass. Forget it! Nobody wants to play bass, or nobody did in those days… So I definitely didn't want to do it but Stuart left, and I got lumbered with it. Later I was quite happy, I enjoyed it, but I'd started as a guitarist until my guitar had fallen apart... I then became a pianist... Then finally I became a bass player. Stuart lent me his bass till I got one, so I was playing it upside down.
Stu was happy to frequently lend both Paul and Klaus his Hofner President bass, and would perform an odd song with the group now and then. Stu usually spent some time in the Top Ten Club most nights each week, until the remaining Beatles left to return to Liverpool in early July.
Perhaps to make up for no longer being part of the group with his best friend, John, Stu began writing a novel about him called Spotlight on Johnny, although this was never finished.
The headaches and dizziness continued to worsen, with the symptoms including temporary blindness, blackouts and severe weight loss. Stu was examined by Dr Hommelhoff, Director of Medicine at Hamburg hospital who diagnosed too much alcohol and preludin, and also advised him to have his appendix out. As this was a costly operation in West Germany, Stu asked his mother to arrange a NHS appointment for when he was next due back in Liverpool. Although Stu did not turn up for an appointment with a consultant from Sefton General Hospital, as the hospital had no evidence of any problems with his appendix no operation took place.
In early 1962, with his painting class due to be completed that September, Stu decided that he would return to England with Astrid and reapply to teach art. His German was not strong enough to allow him to teach art there.
Stu visited Liverpool in February, meeting The Beatles new manager, Brian Epstein, for the first and only time. Brian, impressed, offered Stu an assistant manager job. Stu replied that he would think about it, and let him know in in mid-April, when The Beatles were due to return to Hamburg for a third time, playing at the newly opened Star-Club from 13 April.
Back in Hamburg, Stu occasionally played with other groups on stage, anticipating his friends' return to Hamburg. In lessons it was noticed that his behaviour was getting odder; in March he had a serious convulsive fit in class, and was taken home by Astrid. Dr Hommelhoff and two of his colleages were called, they enquired whether Stu had suffered any serious blows to his head, with the only occasion that Stu could think of being the attack in Liverpool. Hommelhoff recommended a period of residential care in a sanatorium, however no space was available at the time. Millie, Stu's mother, sent copies of X-rays and his medical records to the Dean of Liverpool University Medical School, who advised that Stu immediately return to England for treatment. Stu felt unable to travel, and remained in Hamburg. He suffered another serious seizure on 2 April.
On Tuesday 10 April, 1962 around midday he collapsed at the home he shared with Astrid. Dr Hommelhoff was called, who suspected a cerebral haemorrhage and transferred him to Heidbert Hospital's neurological clinic at 12:45pm. Four hours later, Stuart was dead, dying in Astrid's arms. The post-mortem concluded the cause of death was 'cerebral paralysis due to bleeding into the right ventricle of the brain'. He was only 21.
The following day John, Paul and Pete arrived in Hamburg, looking forward to seeing Stu and Astrid, who announced, 'Stuart died, John. He's gone'. The following day George6 and Brian, as well as Stu's mother Millie arrived. John reacted badly to the news, swollen with inexhaustible anger, while Astrid retreated into depression and solitude, consoled by John who turned his anger onto everyone and everything around him, but never her.
Paul has described Stu's death with the words,
Not many of our contemporaries had died, we were all too young. It was older people that died, so Stuart's dying was a real shock. And for me there was a little guilt tinged with it, because I'd not been his best friend at times. We ended up good friends… Stuart's death was terrible, because if nothing else he should have been a great painter...
John didn't laugh when he heard Stuart died, as people have made out.
Stuart was buried in Huyten Parish Cemetery.
Cause of Death?
There have been many hypothesis over what caused Stu's death.
Was it a result of his falling down the stairs? Bill Harry, when he inquired after his friend's health, was apparently told that he had fallen down the narrow stairs to the attic where lived with Astrid in early 1962, and the headaches started soon after.
Another theory is that his death was a result of his preludin addiction, with many of the symptoms he suffered in his last days associated with withdrawal from those sort of amphetamine. The post-mortem mentioned no sign of head injury such as would be expected in the case of assault or accident. Preludin may have similarly contributed to the early death of musician Dickie Pride.
Allan Williams, in his book The Man Who Gave The Beatles Away, stated that the cause of death was a fight outside Litherland Town Hall. No fight took place there, as when The Beatles performed there in December 1960, Stu was still in Hamburg and in any case Williams was no longer acting as The Beatles' agent. Pete Best also denies that this ever happened, although a fight did take place in Lathom Hall in 1961. As this was 18 months before Stu's death, it is unlikely to be the cause of death. George said,
All the stories make out that somebody kicked him in the head and he died of a haemorrhage, and I do remember him getting beaten up after a gig once in Liverpool, just because he was in a band, but that was a couple of years before.
Allan Williams is not the only author of a book that mentions a cause of death for Stu. In his discredited The Lives of John Lennon, Albert Goldman7 alleged that John himself had attacked Stu and caused the brain tumour that killed him. Except, of course, that Stu died from a haemorrhage and not a tumour and the rest of the book is littered with errors and inaccuracies.
Curiously, two years after co-writing Backbeat: The Real Life Story Behind Stuart Sutcliffe: The Lost Beatle in which she concluded that Stu died of preludin addiction and withdrawal, Pauline Sutcliffe, Stu's sister, wrote The Beatles' Shadow: Stuart Sutcliffe's Lonely Hearts Club Band. In this she states that John beat Stu to death in Hamburg because they were lovers, despite not having been present at the time or having any evidence to support this assertion, other than the fact that John felt guilty about Stu's death. Astrid has since disputed this, saying,
John never, ever raised his hand towards Stuart. Never ever. I can swear that. That's all Pauline. The doctor explained it to me that his brain was, in a way, too big for his head – one day it just went click.
The band that Stu had played in and changed the name of from 'Johnny and the Moondogs' to 'The Beatles' would become the most famous band in history. However Pete Best would be replaced by Ringo Starr as the group's drummer in August 1962.
Stuart Sutcliffe can be seen on three Beatles album covers – on Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band he is the on the far left on the third row from the back. He also appears top-right of the cover of Anthology 1 and Anthology 3.
Stu can also be heard performing on three songs on Anthology 1 recorded on a borrowed tape recorder in 1960: 'Hallelujah, I Love Her So', an early Paul McCartney and John Lennon composition called 'You'll Be Mine' and a McCartney instrumental entitled 'Cayenne'.
Stu's artwork has been frequently exhibited worldwide since his death. Despite his dedication to creating proper artwork, because of his association with The Beatles his paintings are generally classified as pop memorabilia instead. When his paintings were first displayed at the Walker Gallery in Liverpool, over 10,000 people, a record-breaking number, attended. His work has inspired those who had not previously visited art galleries before to visit, which is not a bad thing, and in many ways a significant achievement. Stu's sister Pauline has founded StuArt, dedicated to keeping his memory alive.
As for his artistic reputation, in his lifetime he secured the approval of the three most famous artists of his generation that he encountered: John Moores, Arthur Ballard and Eduardo Paolozzi.
Astrid's influence of The Beatles' appearance continued as they became famous, with the look of the With The Beatles album cover inspired by her black and white shadow photographs8. She later married Gibson Kemp, who had played with Klaus as Paddy, Klaus and Gibson.
Stu's protégé Klaus Voorman, whom he had taught how to play bass, later enjoyed an outstanding musical career. He continued his artwork, creating the front covers of The Beatles' Revolver9 and all three Anthology albums, as well as for the Bee Gees, for Ringo's Ringo album and Jackie Lomax.
He played bass and flute for Manfred Mann and often bass for The Beatles after they had split up, such as for George Harrison's Concert For Bangla Desh and on many of John Lennon's Plastic Ono Band and solo albums and singles, as well as for the Concert for George. On the album Ringo, he plays bass to McCartney's composition 'I'm the Greatest' with Ringo, George, John and Billy Preston10, the closest The Beatles got to reforming after they had split.
His story has inspired plays, such as the one-man show Stu, written by Jeremy Stockwell and High O'Neill and first performed by Paul Almond, and documentaries, including 2005's Stuart Sutcliffe – the Lost Beatle. He has also been portrayed in Beatles Biopics, including Birth of The Beatles as well as the film of his life story, Backbeat.
Stu's first acoustic guitar is owned by the Museum of Liverpool.