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Remembering The Beatles' Stuart Sutcliffe


Sunday (June 23rd) marks what would have been original Beatles bassist Stuart Sutcliffe's 73rd birthday. Sutcliffe left the group in the summer of 1961 to continue art college in Hamburg, Germany. He died of a cerebral hemorrhage on April 10th, 1962 at the age of 21, with most sources attributing his death to a blow to the head which he received after a post show run-in with local Liverpool thugs -- not John Lennon as has been often been incorrectly reported. In the months leading up to his death, Sutcliffe, whose brain was literally swelling against his skull, would fall into incredible fits of rage due to the pain, and was often rendered blind by the agonizing attacks.

Sutcliffe, an award winning-painter was John Lennon's best friend and classmate at the Liverpool College of Art. It was with the prize money he earned from the sale of his work that Lennon, Paul McCartney, and George Harrison -- then still known as alternately as the Quarrymen and/or Johnny & The Moondogs -- convinced Sutcliffe to purchase a sunburst Hofner President 500/5 model bass guitar.

Lennon's first wife Cynthia Lennon went to art school with Lennon and Sutcliffe and told us that their personalities balanced each other out perfectly: "What John gave Stu was the ability to laugh at himself and have humor, because he was such a serious student. And what Stuart gave John was a kind of. . . he was inspirational. I mean, John had no faith in his abilities to do anything serious -- or complete anything. And Stuart was constantly supporting him."

She says that even while still in her teens, she was able to recognize Sutcliffe's brilliance as a painter: "Stuart was special. He was in art college with us. He was the most brilliant student. He was awesome, the stuff that he did. And he was a gentle, gentle young man."

Sutcliffe, who was only a member of the Beatles for 15 months -- from May 1960 to August 1961 -- toured with the band in Scotland for their first out-of-town dates and was part of their legendary and historic Hamburg residency.

Although barely competent on the bass guitar when he first joined the group, Sutcliffe reportedly became a good enough bassist that he had offers to join other Liverpool groups after leaving the Beatles.

Sutcliffe's lone solo spot in the Beatles' stage act was a cover of Elvis Presley's "Love Me Tender." His bass work with the Beatles is featured on several tracks on the group's 1995 Beatles Anthology 1. Paul McCartney became the band's bassist after Sutcliffe's departure and his original Hofner bass is now in the possession of his and the Beatles' close friend and collaborator, Klaus Voormann.

According to numerous sources, it was Sutcliffe who named the band, "The Beatals" -- spelled with two "a's."

He, along with fiancee Astrid Kirchherr, played a crucial role in the band's development as artists -- namely Lennon -- and also influenced their look, with the couple introducing the band to the legendary "Beatles haircut" and signature collarless jackets. As George Harrison remembered: "Stuart was more than our bass player -- he was like our art director."

The Beatles paid tribute to Sutcliffe by featuring him as one of the faces on their 1967 Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album.

Lennon only publicly commented on Sutcliffe once, while interviewed in 1967 for the following year's The Beatles Authorized Biography, when he told author Hunter Davies, "I looked up to Stu -- I depended on him to tell me the truth, the way I do with Paul today. Stu would tell me if something was good and I'd believe him."

Musically, Sutcliffe death was indirectly touched upon in such early Beatles classics as "Baby's In Black," "Yes It Is," and "In My Life."

Years later, Lennon's widow Yoko Ono said, "I felt I knew Stuart because hardly a day went by that John did not speak of him."

Sutcliffe's time in the Beatles was dramatized in ABC's 1979 made-for-TV movie Birth Of The Beatles, and the 1993 theatrical release Backbeat.

In 2005 his younger sister and caretaker of his estate, Pauline Sutcliffe, helped produce the definitive documentary called, Stuart Sutcliffe: The Lost Beatle.

Earlier this year, Backbeat: The Musical, the stage version of the 1994 film, ran at L.A.'s Ahmanson Theater. The show had a successful West End run in 2011, featuring a new script co-written by the film's director Ian Softley.

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