55 Years Ago: Former Beatle Stuart Sutcliffe Dies
In April 1962, when the Beatles arrived in Hamburg, Germany, for their third stint playing in the city’s music clubs, the band members were met with bad news from Astrid Kirchherr. The German photographer and friend of the Beatles revealed that her fiancé (and former Beatles bass player) Stuart Sutcliffe had died on April 10. No one was more shocked than John Lennon, who reportedly broke out in a fit of hysterical laughter at the idea of losing his art school buddy.In need of a bassist, Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison had brought Sutcliffe aboard during their Liverpool days. A teenage artist, Sutcliffe sold one of his paintings to buy a bass guitar, and the three musicians helped him learn some basic musical structures.“He wasn’t really a very good musician. In fact, he wasn’t a musician at all until we talked him into buying a bass,” Harrison later recalled. “He picked up a few things and he practiced a bit. … It was a bit ropey, but it didn’t matter at that time because he looked so cool.”Over the years, Sutcliffe’s bass playing has been maligned, although many claim he became a much better musician in the artistic cauldron that was the Beatles’ exhausting residencies in Hamburg. Regardless of his musical proficiency, the so-called “fifth Beatle” was important to the band’s formative years. It was Sutcliffe and Lennon who came upon the idea of calling the band “the Beetles” (in tribute to Buddy Holly and the Crickets). He also helped alter the band’s style – and fashion history.When the Beatles first came to Hamburg in 1960, Sutcliffe fell in love with the hip and artsy Kirchherr, and they were engaged only two months after meeting each other. It was Kirchherr who gave her lover the infamous “mop top” haircut that would become famous on the heads of John, Paul, George and Ringo.“All my friends in art school used to run around with this sort of … what you call Beatles haircut,” Kirchherr said. “And Stuart liked it very, very much. He was the first one who really got the nerve to get the Brylcreem out of his hair, and asking me to cut his hair for him.”When the Beatles’ second run in Hamburg ended in July 1961, Sutcliffe notified his bandmates (which also included drummer Pete Best) that he would be leaving the group to stay with Kirchherr in Hamburg and focus on the visual arts. McCartney took over on bass while Sutcliffe enrolled in the Hamburg College of Art and won a scholarship. Things seemed to be working out all right for everyone.But all was not well for Sutcliffe in Hamburg. He began to develop excruciating headaches and a sensitivity to light while living with Kirchherr and her mother. In the winter of 1962, he suffered such an extreme episode that he collapsed during an art class. Mrs. Kirchherr took him to local doctors to seek treatment, but the physicians could find nothing wrong. Allegedly, they encouraged Sutcliffe to return to England to undergo more tests – advice the 21-year-old ignored.