Stuart Sutcliffe was an artist and The Beatles’ original bassist in Liverpool and Hamburg. His paintings were highly acclaimed, and he is often referred to as “the fifth Beatle”.
On discovering a fourth little even littler man called Stuart Sutcliffe running about them, they said, quote: ‘Sonny, get a bass guitar and you will be all right,’ and he did – but he wasn’t all right because he couldn’t play it. So they sat on him with comfort till he could play.
Mersey Beat, 6 July 1961
He was born Stuart Fergusson Victor Sutcliffe on 23 June 1940 in Edinburgh. He was raised in Liverpool, and attended Prescot Grammar School. He showed early artistic talent, and enrolled at Liverpool College of Art where he met fellow student John Lennon.
Paul and I got to know Stuart Sutcliffe through going into the art college. Stuart was a thin, arty guy with glasses and a little Van Gogh beard; a good painter. John really liked Stuart as an artist. Stuart obviously liked John because he played the guitar and was a big Ted. 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. John had a slight superiority complex at times, but Stuart didn’t discriminate against Paul and me because we weren’t from the art school. He started to come and watch us when we played at parties and he became a fan of ours. He actually got some parties for John, Paul and me to play at.
Sutcliffe lived at 9 Percy Street in Liverpool before moving to 3 Gambier Terrace with fellow art student Margaret Chapman. In early 1960 Lennon moved into the flat, and he and Sutcliffe painted the rooms yellow and black.
In July 1960, The People newspaper ran an article entitled The Beatnik Horror. It featured a photograph, arranged by The Beatles’ early manager Allan Williams, taken in the flat below Sutcliffe’s, in which the 19-year-old John Lennon was pictured lying on the floor.
After Sutcliffe sold a painting for ￡65, he was persuaded to use the money to buy a musical instrument. He was encouraged to buy either a set of drums or a bass guitar, as both positions were needed by the group. Eventually he agreed to buy a bass.
The work, titled The Summer Painting, had been selected for inclusion in the biennial John Moores exhibition at Liverpool’s Walker Gallery, which took place between November 1959 and January 1960. The Summer Painting was bought by Moores himself, a significant event for a young art student.
What do you do with ￡65? We all reminded him over a coffee: ‘Funny you should have got that amount, Stuart – it is very near the cost of a Hofner bass.’ He said, ‘No, I can’t just spend all that.’ It was a fortune in those days, like an inheritance. He said he had to buy canvases or paint. We said, ‘Stu, see reason, love. A Hofner, a big ace group… fame!’ He gave in and bought this big Hofner bass that dwarfed him. The trouble was he couldn’t play well. This was a bit of a drawback, but it looked good, so it wasn’t too much of a problem.
When he came into the band, around Christmas of 1959, we were a little jealous of him; it was something I didn’t deal with very well. We were always slightly jealous of John’s other friendships. He was the older fellow; it was just the way it was. When Stuart came in, it felt as if he was taking the position away from George and me. We had to take a bit of a back seat. Stuart was John’s age, went to art college, was a very good painter and had all the cred that we didn’t.
Although he didn’t take to playing rock ‘n’ roll immediately, Sutcliffe had previously sung in a Huyton church choir, and had taken piano lessons as a child. He had also played the bugle in the Air Training Corps, and had learned some rudimentary guitar.
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. We taught him to play twelve-bars, like Thirty Days by Chuck Berry. That was the first thing he ever learnt. He picked up a few things and he practised a bit until he could get through a couple of other tunes as well. It was a bit ropey, but it didn’t matter at that time because he looked so cool. We never had many gigs in Liverpool before we went to Hamburg, anyway.
Sutcliffe took centre stage on occasion, to sing Elvis Presley’s Love Me Tender. However, for the majority of their shows he stayed out of the spotlight, preferring to hide his deficiencies as a musician. In addition to performing with the group, Sutcliffe also arranged bookings for them to perform, and occasionally allowed them to rehearse in his flat.
In 1960 the group became The Beatles, although it was a while longer before the name became permanent. It was Lennon and Sutcliffe’s suggestion to change it, and the new name inspired a number of variations: the Silver Beatles, Silver Beats, Silver Beetles, Silver Beatles once more, before settling in August 1960 on The Beatles.
It was John and Stuart who thought of the name. They were art students and while George’s and my parents would make us go to bed, Stuart and John could live the little dream that we all dream: to stay up all night. And it was then they thought up the name.
One April evening in 1960, walking along Gambier Terrace by Liverpool Cathedral, John and Stuart announced: ‘Hey, we want to call the band The Beatles.
The name was a pun inspired by Buddy Holly’s group, The Crickets, with a nod to the beat music that had replaced skiffle among the young Liverpudlians. It has been claimed that Sutcliffe was inspired by the film The Wild One, starring Marlon Brando, in which Lee Marvin referred to biker girls as ‘beetles’.
The connection was raised in books and interviews by Derek Taylor and George Harrison. However, The Wild One was banned in Britain until the late 1960s, and it is extremely unlikely that any of the group would have been able to see it.
It is debatable where the name came from. John used to say that he invented it, but I remember Stuart being with him the night before.
There was The Crickets, who backed Buddy Holly, that similarity; but Stuart was really into Marlon Brando, and in the movie The Wild One there is a scene where Lee Marvin says: ‘Johnny, we’ve been looking for you, the Beetles have missed you, all the Beetles have missed you.’ Maybe John and Stu were both thinking about it at the time; so we’ll leave that one. We’ll give it fifty/fifty to Sutcliffe/Lennon.