Wednesday, March 4, 2015

TMFW 78 - The "Fifth Beatle," times seven

A few weeks before yesterday, I decided to drive my car to the grocery store, and brought my daughter along to help.  On the way there, while driving through the rain the two of us were listening to rock and roll music, and we heard Billy Preston playing with The Beatles on "Get Back."  "He's famous," I told her.  "Some people say he was the Fifth Beatle."  My girl responded "I dig it, but I thought the Fifth Beatle was the guy who played the really high trumpet on 'Penny Lane.'"  (1. She was thinking of George Martin, who produced the song and helped arrange for the piccolo trumpet.  But let it be known that he did not, of course, play it. 2. I tried to act naturally, but her knowing that made me glad all over.) 
Because she and I were discussing the competing "Fifth Beatle"s of Billy Preston and George Martin, I thought to myself "when I get home, I will write a TMFW about the people who have been most commonly referred to as the 'Fifth Beatle.'"  It is sad, but that is in fact what goes on now: I have TMFW in my brain all the time. Seven of the candidates are listed below, all together now.  
1. Pete Best. 

Best, along with Stuart Sutcliffe, have the most literal claims to the "Fifth Beatle" title as they were in fact early members of the actual band.  Best was the group's drummer for just over two years, including the hugely influential time that the group spent playing in Hamburg, Germany in 1960 and 1961.  But in 1962, right after their first recording sessions with George Martin and EMI, the band fired Best and he was replaced by Mr. Richard "Ringo Starr" Starkey.

Theories of why Best was fired from the group include (a) because he didn't take drugs, (b) because he wouldn't get a mop-top haircut, (c) because he was the most handsome of the group and the others were jealous, or (d) that his mother (an early Beatles promoter) was too difficult.  But the commonly accepted reason is that he just wasn't that great of a drummer.

After leaving the band, Best was put in a few other bands by Brian Epstein and others sympathetic to his plight.  None of them made it, so by the mid-60s Best quit music and took a civil service job for the English government. 

After 20+ years of refusing to play drums for money, in 1988 Best finally came out of retirement.  He now regularly performs as a part of The Pete Best Band, where he shares drumming duties with his younger brother Roag. 
Sutcliffe was the original bass player for the Beatles, and played with the group from May 1960 to July 1961.  Like Best, Sutcliffe's tenure with the group took place during their time in Hamburg.  Sutcliffe, with John Lennon, came up with the name "Beetles," which was a play on Buddy Holly's band The Crickets.
Sutcliffe was not a particularly strong bass player, and his popularity (which came in part from his on-stage ensemble of sunglasses and tight pants) caused some jealousy from Lennon and McCartney.  Conversely, Sutcliffe was a very good artist.  As he got more and more into painting, he decided to leave the group to pursue art full-time.  Sutcliffe enrolled in a Hamburg art school in 1961, but in April 1962 he suffered a brain aneurysm and collapsed during a class.  He died en route to the hospital.

Taylor was a 31-year-old journalist when, in 1963, he was assigned to attend and review a Beatles show.  Rather than turn in a negative review - which was expected, given that the teenybopper rock-and-roll scene was looked down upon by the serious people at the time - he praised the group and fed the growing Beatles momentum.  That review earned him an invitation to meet the group, and he became a friend. 

During the early Beatlemania days, Taylor and George Harrison collaborated on a recurring column in the Daily Express newspaper, and in early 1964 Taylor went to work as the Beatles' press manager.  He was instrumental in creating much of the Beatlemania hype that came in those early days, and handled all of the press that came with the group's first visit to the US in 1964. 
Though he separated from the group in 1965 and moved to California (he did work for the Byrds and was the guy who urged the music press to treat Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys as a musical genius), Taylor was involved with the Beatles on and off throughout his career.  He remained a close friend of George Harrison and John Lennon after the band's break-up, and had a central role in organizing and publicizing John and Yoko's world peace campaign in 1969.  He died in 1997 of cancer.

Aspinall was was a high school classmate of Paul McCartney and a friend of George Harrison.  He got his start with the group as their "road manager," which mostly involved him lugging their equipment from gig to gig in a van, for which he charged them a small per-gig fee.  As the group became more popular - often playing several gigs a night at different venues - Aspinall quit his job as a trainee accountant and took a job with the band full time. 
Aspinall stayed with the group through their entire tenure; in fact, his employment with The Beatles ended with his retirement in 2007 (!!) from his position as CEO of Apple Corps (!!!) , the multi-billion dollar company that the Beatles founded to manage their business affairs.  Along the way, he'd acted as the group's personal assistant, as their driver, as their manager, and finally as the head of Apple Corps.  His careful management of the band's catalog and brand no doubt helped to cement the band's legend.

MIDDLE-OF-THE-POST-BONUS-FACT: Remember a few paragraphs up in the Pete Best section where I told you that Best now plays in a band with his brother Roag?  Well, it turns out Roag is Pete's half-brother.  While Pete was a member of the Beatles, the 19-year-old Aspinall rented a room in the Best family house.  While there, he had an affair with Best's 36-year-old mother Mona, and fathered Roag.  The boy was born in July, 1962: just one month prior to Pete being fired from the group.  Despite all of that, Aspinall stayed on working for the Beatles.  He severed his relationship with Mrs. Best, and their son was given the surname Best and raised in that household.  That must have been interesting times around the holidays.

5.  Brian Epstein. 
While running his family's record store in Liverpool, Epstein "discovered" The Beatles in 1961 at The Cavern Club and signed on shortly thereafter as their manager.  He was responsible for almost all of the business decisions that turned them from The Beatles to **The Beatles**: from securing a hard-won record deal with EMI and George Martin, to firing Pete Best and bringing in Ringo, to acting as personal shrink to each band member as they navigated fame and intra-band squabbles, to directing the group's suit-and-tie wardrobe and professional stage presence, to hiring Aspinall and Taylor, to managing licensing as the group blew up.
On the flip-side, Epstein's arrangement with the band was unusually generous: he set up a scaled percentage that was based on the group's earnings that started at 15% (the standard at the time was 10%) and stepped up to 20% and then 25%, plus payment of all of his management expenses from the band's share.  Epstein also set up the early Northern Songs publishing deal that gave the publishers a 50% share of the company, Epstein a 10% share, and McCartney and Lennon only a 20% share each.  That arrangement eventually lead to McCartney and Lennon losing control of the company in the 1969, which Michael Jackson famously acquired in the mid-1980s.  Finally, just before the expiration of his first management contract in 1967, Epstein negotiated a new record deal for the band with EMI, which included a 25% share of royalties with Epstein's company even if the band decided not to renew with him.  Despite all of this shady business, the Beatles loved and trusted Epstein implicitly. 
As the Beatles got more and more successful, Epstein got involved with drugs and developed a dependence on sleeping pills. In August 1967, he overdosed on sleeping pills and alcohol and died in his apartment.  He was 32 years old.  Epstein's death affected the Beatles greatly; John Lennon said in a 1970 interview with Rolling Stone "I knew that we were in trouble then...I was scared. I thought 'we've fuckin' had it now.'"  Without a clear leader, McCartney and Lennon's relationship deteriorated, and within three years the band was broken up. 
George Martin came to know the Beatles when he was the head of Parlophone, a label owned by EMI records.  Parlophone mostly made classical music, with some soundtrack, comedy, and novelty records mixed in.  They were most definitely not a rock label, but for Brian Epstein it did not matter.  When the two were introduced, Epstein's enthusiasm for The Beatles impressed Martin and though he did not care for the band's audition tapes he was persuaded to offer them a record deal.  Martin recalled later that EMI had "nothing to lose" from the contract, as the royalty rate for the band was extremely cheap. 
Martin produced nearly all the Beatles original recordings, starting with "Love Me Do" and "Please Please Me" and continuing through Abbey Road (chronologically, their last studio record).  His classical music expertise and skill as an arranger greatly influenced the Beatles' sound, including the "Penny Lane" trumpet solo noted at the outset of today's entry, the strings on "Yesterday" and "Eleanor Rigby," the cacophony of "A Day in the Life," the baroque piano on "In My Life," and many others.
Martin is still involved with the Beatles' music, and with his son Giles was the architect of the soundtrack for the Beatles-themed Cirque du Soleil show Love.  He is 89.
Preston was an excellent organ player who in the 1960s backed musicians like Sam Cooke and Ray Charles.  He met The Beatles when he was 16 years old and touring with Little Richard in Liverpool.  The Beatles opened the show. 
Preston's "Fifth Beatle" claim comes from his time with the group just before their break-up.  After bailing out on a recording session, George Harrison went to a Ray Charles show where Preston was playing.  Harrison brought him back to the studio, and he sat in with the group on some songs.  One of those turned into "Get Back."  When Let it Be was released, "Get Back" was credited to "The Beatles with Billy Preston."  It is the only song of theirs that officially shares credit with another artist. 
Preston also played with the band in their famous "rooftop concert," which was the last public performance of the group.  (So on that day at least, he was quite literally the fifth Beatle.)
Preston went on to a solid solo career in the 70s, with five top-5 singles including the number one songs "Will it Go Round in Circles" and TMFW-favorite "Nothing From Nothing."  He died in 2006 of kidney failure, after struggling later in life with alcohol and drug addiction.


So now you know seven of the Fifth Beatles.  If anyone ever brings it up in conversation - any time at all, whether at a birthday party, in an octopus's garden, or on a yellow submarine (OK those were a stretch, there) - you can hopefully impress them with your knowledge.  Call your family and tell them about it - your mother should know important trivia like this.
Okay, I've got a feeling that this week's gag has by this point gotten long long long.  It is starting to seem like it's all too much.  To be honest, though usually I feel fine about each week's entry, with all the time spent on this one I feel like I'm a loser.  But don't worry: it won't be long now; I'm down to my last few.  I'll be on my way for this week, but I'll be back next Wednesday with another True Music Fact. 
BONUS FACT:  Though not a candidate for the "Fifth Beatle" title, 24-year-old Jimmie Nicol had a wild week in 1964 when he played drums for the Beatles on a tour of Australia and Asia.  Nicol joined the group at the height of Beatlemania when, on the eve of a tour, Ringo went down with tonsillitis. His rise to the highest heights and subsequent fall back to Earth affected him, and he was depressed for sometime thereafter.  A common (though probably not true) story is that Nicol was often asked how he was dealing with the let down from his post-Beatle life.  He typically answered "it's getting better," which inspired McCartney to write the song of the same name. 

BONUS FACT 2:  When I was a kid, our local grocery store had a video rental section.  During the week, tapes were rent-one-get-one-free.  Don't ask me why, but a frequent selection of mine was the Saturday Night Live "Best of Eddie Murphy" video.  One of the selections from the video tells the story of Clarence Walker, the saxophone player who was the original Fifth Beatle until he was kicked out of the group in 1963.  I loved every skit on that tape, but as a young Beatles fan that one was particularly funny.

BONUS FACT 3/BIBLIOGRAPHY:  As I sketched out this post, I discovered that there is a Wikipedia entry devoted to cataloging the various "Fifth Beatle"s.  I should have known better that something like that already existed.

BONUS FACT 4/PERSONAL UPDATE:  Many of you who actually know me in my life already know this, but our family recently became a foster family.  Last month, we welcomed another girl into our house - lovely Rita.  She's a little child of five years old, and I love her

BONUS FACT 5/SINCERE APPRECIATION/EXCUSE FOR A FEW MORE:  Do you want to know a secret?  I started this weekly exercise because I had always wished I could be a (paperback) writer and wanted to have a creative outlet.  You never give me your money for any of the entries; in fact, most of the time these go out into the ether and get no reply at all.  And I don't blame you: my topics are admittedly helter skelter, they don't always come together coherently, and I write these entries for no one in particular.

But sometimes in these past 78 weeks I have gotten random words of love from readers - Jason, Jinxie, Andy, Les, Mobes, Ben: I'm talking about you - and I want to tell you that means a lot to this boy.

P.S. I love you.

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