This Day in Jewish History / Brian Epstein Signs the Beatles

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On January 24, 1962, Liverpool businessman Brian Epstein signed a contract to manage a local rock-and-roll band calling itself The Beatles. The contract was for five years, and it provided Epstein with 25 percent of the group’s gross income.

Epstein was born on September 19, 1934, to Harry and Malka Epstein, both of whose families had their origins in the Russian empire. The family owned a large furniture store that expanded to be a chain of shops that also sold musical instruments and appliances. It was called North End Music Shops. Brian Epstein had dropped out of school at the age of 15, but was reluctant to enter the family business – he told his parents he wanted to be either an actor or a fashion designer. They weren’t moved by that, but after a brief tenure as a furniture salesman and a psychiatric discharge from the Royal Army Service Corps, he did attend acting school at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London. Despite showing promise, he quit after three terms.

Back in Liverpool, Epstein took over the record business at North End Music Shops, which quickly expanded. By 1961, the chain had nine branches and was one of the largest retailers of recorded music in the north of England. It was in this capacity that he became aware of the Beatles, who received prominent coverage in the local music newspaper Mersey Beat, for which Epstein wrote a column. In November of that year, he went to hear them play a lunchtime gig at the Cavern club, which was around the corner from one of his stores. He wasn’t sure what to make of them. “They smoked as they played and they talked and pretended to hit one another,” he later recalled. “They turned their backs on the audience and shouted at them and laughed at private jokes.”

Still, he went back for more, until, several weeks later, on December 3, he met with the members of the group – then John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Pete Best – and expressed interest in managing them. (Best, the drummer, was dismissed from the band the following August, and replaced by Ringo Starr.)

Because McCartney, Harrison and Best were still under 21 years old, they needed legal consent from their parents to enter a contract with Epstein. McCartney’s father was not happy about his son’s having a Jewish manager, and Lennon’s aunt and guardian was not impressed with Epstein either, but the group signed in the end. Epstein himself never bothered to sign the contract. Even before the arrangement was formalized, he arranged for the Beatles to audition at the record company Decca. The tryout did not go well: The selections the band chose to play did not highlight its talents, and at one point, when Epstein offered some advice from the control room, Lennon angrily called him a “Jewish git.” A month later, they learned that Decca was not interested in signing them.

A recording contract only came the following May, after George Martin of EMI, a company that did significant business with the Epstein chain of stores, reluctantly agreed to produce them. The company offered the group, collectively, one penny on every disc sold. Their first recording session with Martin took place on June 6, 1962, after which Martin asked them to replace Pete Best.

Brian Epstein, by all accounts, played a central role not only in all the band’s business matters, but also in the way the Beatles presented themselves to the world – and style was always a major part of their allure. He admitted that he was enchanted by just about everything about the band, and later, when it became known that he had a secret homosexual life, theories that he was sexually obsessed with the members or even had relationships with one or more, began to circulate; though there is no evidence that he did more than modestly propose to both Lennon and Best, one time each.

It was a time when homosexuality was illegal in the United Kingdom, and although the band knew about Epstein’s life, and protected his secret zealously, he was a tormented man. He became addicted to amphetamines, and even underwent drug treatment at a clinic. But it was sleeping pills that did him in. On August 27, 1967, Epstein took six Carbitral pills while he had alcohol in his system. By the time police found him in the bedroom of his home on London’s Chapel Street, he was dead. His death was later ruled as accidental. 

Epstein was buried at the Long Lane Jewish Cemetery in Liverpool at a funeral that the Beatles (who were in India at the time of his death) did not attend, so as not to upstage the proceedings. The rabbi at the funeral, Norman Solomon, who did not know deceased, referred to him as "a symbol of the malaise of our generation." (Today, on his website, Rabbi Solomon acknowledges that “I seriously underestimated the significance of his achievement.”) Later, on October 17, 1967, a memorial service was held at the New London Synagogue. Rabbi Louis Jacobs officiated at the service, at which the Beatles were present.  

The following is the program from the memorial service for Epstein:

The Beatles' manager helped the band craft the Fab Four's hip image.Credit: Reuters

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