If Not for This Artist, the Beatles Might Not Have Been

Stuart Sutcliffe was never forgotten, and his contribution can't really be overstated
By Mike L. Ford,  Newser Staff
Posted Apr 10, 2022 10:40 AM CDT

John Lennon called him his "soul mate." George Harrison called him the band’s "art director." He's the reason Paul McCartney switched to bass guitar. He had the fashion sense and the stage presence. He even invented the band's iconic "mushroom head" hairdo. As Ted Widmer writes in a lengthy piece for the New Yorker, original Beatles member Stuart Sutcliffe "remains a spectral presence in Beatles lore"—so much so that he appears in the eclectic crowd on the Sgt. Pepper's cover. Widmer examines Sutcliffe’s heavy influence in the band’s earliest days and leaves the impression that, without him, the Beatles never really would have been. (Incidentally, the band’s name was a joint creation between Sutcliffe and Lennon.)

Sutcliffe and Lennon met at Liverpool College of Art in the age of Beatniks and Pop art. Sutcliffe "quickly established himself as a star painter;" music was Lennon’s thing. After Sutcliffe sold a painting in a major exhibition, Lennon convinced him to use the proceeds to buy a bass and join the band. Sutcliffe had never played, but he learned. Moreover, he devoted his creativity and social prowess to the endeavor, building connections that landed the Beatles a whirlwind 1960 tour in Hamburg, where he helped them refine their style and showmanship. But Sutcliffe was always drawn back to his own art. He left the band on good terms in 1961 and dove into his work, only to die suddenly in 1962 from "cerebral paralysis due to bleeding into the right ventricle of the brain," possibly caused by a head injury he suffered during an attack after a gig. (Read about Sutcliffe's short but impactful life here.)

Stories to sink your teeth into.
Get our roundup of longform stories every Saturday.
Sign up
Get the news faster.
Tap to install our app.
Install the Newser News app
in two easy steps:
1. Tap in your navigation bar.
2. Tap to Add to Home Screen.