• K.E. Berringer

Stuart Sutcliffe

A Silver Beetles Lonely Hearts Club Band

Stuart Sutcliffe was a painter, who also served as a bassist, best known for his work with the Beatles. While he did not end up staying with the group, he would go on to have a short but successful career.

Stuart Sutcliffe in 1961.
Sutcliffe as a child, with his two sisters and mother Millie.

Early Life

On June 23, 1940, Stuart Fergusson Victor Sutcliffe was born in Edinburgh, Scotland. From his father's previous marriage, he had a half-sister and three half-brothers, as well as two younger full sisters named Pauline and Joyce. Millie, his mother was a school teacher and his father Charles was an engineer officer in the merchant navy, meaning he was often away during his son's early years.

Sutcliffe's father was a divorced Protestant and his mother was Catholic, meaning his maternal grandparents never approved of the relationship. They were also never afraid to voice their opinions. They were not alone, and in order to get away from the criticism, the family left Scotland entirely. In 1943, they relocated to Liverpool, England.

Sutcliffe with his class at the Prescott Grammar School. He stands in the front row, second from the right.

As a child, Sutcliffe attended Parkview Primary School and Prescott Grammar School. He took piano lessons and learned the basics of the guitar using a Spanish guitar that was gifted to him by his father. However, where Sutcliffe always seemed to excel was in his art classes. Even at a young age, Sutcliffe seemed to be gifted in his artistic talents. He was always encouraged to pursue these talents, especially by his parents. His mother would even let him hang his drawings in her classroom, so that everyone would be able to see how good he was becoming.

College and Early Time in the Band

At 16, Sutcliffe was accepted into the Liverpool Regional College of Art. Since his parents could not afford the school, he had to work as a garbageman in order to pay his way. But, at school, he always earned praise from his teachers. Not only was he one of the best students, but he was also one of the best artists. Eventually, he earned enough that he was able to move into his own apartment with his friend Rod Murray in 1956. Although, it proved to be too expensive and he moved back home in the summer of 1957.

One of Sutcliffe's self-portraits, circa 1960. Many of his early works were figurative.

While in college, a mutual friend introduced him to an artist and struggling musician by the name of John Lennon. The two quickly became good friends, and Lennon introduced Sutcliffe to his Quarrymen bandmates, Paul McCartney and George Harrison.

After Sutcliffe sold a painting to Liverpool's Walker Gallery for £65 (roughly between £1260 and £1535 in today's money), Lennon, McCartney and Harrison encouraged him to buy either a bass or drums. The Quarrymen had Lennon and Harrison on guitar and McCartney on keyboard, but they had no drummer or bassist. They offered a spot for Sutcliffe in the band if he agreed, and Sutcliffe ended up buying a bass. Unfortunately, he did not exactly know how to play it. McCartney would later say, "He gave in and bought this big Hofner bass that dwarfed him. The trouble was he couldn't play it very well. This was a bit of a drawback, but it looked good, so it wasn't too much of a problem."

Sutcliffe began by watching the band at their gigs before he began to help them in booking. Soon enough though, he joined them onstage, having picked up the basics of the bass. At least, enough to fake it.

However, between McCartney, Harrison and Sutcliffe, there was already trouble brewing. Harrison and McCartney were younger than the other members of the band, and feelings of jealousy arose over Lennon's friendship with Sutcliffe. McCartney once said of this jealousy, "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."

From Sutcliffe's sketchbook, this depicts the members of the band. Lennon is the figure on the right, playing the washboard.

Though there was tension, that did not mean that the group were not friends. For the most part, they all got along. Harrison even said, "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."

Sutcliffe moved into a new flat in Gambier Terrace, Liverpool, again with his friend Rod Murray. Lennon would briefly move in with the two, and Lennon and Sutcliffe would paint the walls of the flat yellow and black. Sometimes, the band would even meet at the flat to practice.

The Silver Beatles (as they were then known) playing a gig in Liverpool. From left to right, Sutcliffe, Lennon, McCartney, drummer Johnny Hutch, and Harrison.

Although, the band was having trouble taking off in Liverpool. Their gigs were small, but this suited Sutcliffe just fine. Since he was not as practiced as the others, he liked to stay at the back of the stage with his back to the audience. That way, people would not be able to tell if he was not playing properly. The only time Sutcliffe would move to the front of the stage was when he sang. There were a few different songs he would sing, but his signature song was Love Me Tender. Whenever Sutcliffe sang it, he apparently would receive the most cheers of the night. Not to mention, it made him popular with the girls, who swooned over his quaffed blond hair and dark sunglasses; the essential James Dean look.

No matter the difficulties in the group, the four members had seemingly become inseparable, especially Sutcliffe and Lennon. It was an April night when the two came up with a new name for the band. McCartney later recalled the moment; "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 did not initially stick. Once they changed from the Quarrymen to The Beatles, they changed it again to the Silver Beatles, then to the Silver Beats, then to the Silver Beetles, before changing the spelling back to the Silver Beatles again, before finally settling on just the Beatles in August of 1960.

Lennon would later claim that the name was completely his idea, but Harrison and McCartney always gave partial credit to Sutcliffe. It has been suggested that they came up with the name after watching the movie The Wild One, but considering that the movie was banned in Britain until the late 1960s, it seems as though the name was the creation of Sutcliffe and Lennon. The name was probably a nod to Buddy Holly and the Crickets, who both Lennon and Sutcliffe were fans of.

Harrison, Sutcliffe, and Lennon in Hamburg in 1961.

While they were still the Silver Beatles, Allan Williams, the band's manager, arranged for them to accompany Liverpudlian singer, Johnny Gentle, as his backing band on a tour of Scotland. For some reason, during the tour, each member of the band took on a nom de plume. Sutcliffe became Stuart de Staël, after one of his favourite painters, Nicolas de Staël.

This trip could not have been an easy one for Sutcliffe. It was as if the band had turned against him. Even Lennon, who he had thought to be his best friend, suddenly seemed to hate him. Lennon said later about the tour, "We were terrible. We'd tell Stu he couldn't sit with us, or eat with us. We'd tell him to go away, and he did. That was how he learnt to be with us. It was all stupid, but that was what we were like." He would also say, "We were awful to him sometimes. Especially Paul, always picking on him. I used to explain afterwards that we didn't dislike him, really."

The Beatles in Hamburg

The band returned to Liverpool after the tour, but it was not for very long; they were already set to go on their own tour in August of 1960. They changed their name one last time, and picked up a new drummer, Pete Best. That summer, they travelled to Hamburg, in what was then West Germany. At the time, many young and unknown musicians from the United Kingdom would travel to Hamburg with hopes that the Reeperbahn would bring them success. The clubs the Beatles were to play at were the Kaiserkeller Club and the Top Ten Club, both of which were only recently opened.

The Beatles at a club in Hamburg. From left to right, Lennon, Harrison, Best, McCartney and Sutcliffe.

Sutcliffe seemed to come into his own in Hamburg. He went through a change and gained more confidence than he had had in Liverpool. Paul McCartney said of Sutcliffe's time in Germany, "He had never been number one in our pecking order. Pimply and small [in Liverpool], but onstage in Hamburg his stature grew. He wore his James Dean glasses, a nice pair of RayBans, and he looked groovy with his tight jeans and his big bass. Suddenly there was this transformation, and with his shades and haircut, Stu became a complete dude. It was great."

In Hamburg, Sutcliffe met many people within the local art scene. He even ran into (and bought pancakes for) a drummer who would later be known as Ringo Starr. One night, while the group was playing in the Kaiserkeller, a man named Klaus Voormann, who was also an artist and musician, went to their show. He liked them so much that he came back the next night, this time with his girlfriend, Astrid Kirchherr, another art school student and photographer. Voormann and Kirchherr met the band after the show, and they bonded with Sutcliffe over their mutual love of art. Things between Voormann and Kirchherr eventually ended and Sutcliffe began dating Kirchherr. After two months of dating, in November of 1960, they were engaged.

Sutcliffe and Kirchherr posed for a photograph.

Sutcliffe would often borrow the clothes of Kirchherr, and while the others often made fun of him, they were styles that they would later adopt. But the style that influence Sutcliffe the most came from the students at Kirchherr's art school, where many of her classmates had a shaggy haircut. Sutcliffe, who had become fascinated with the German art scene, really liked the haircut and asked Kirchherr if she would cut his hair in the same style. She did, and when the rest of the band saw him, they apparently laughed at the look. Harrison would end up asking Kirchherr for the same haircut and soon enough, the rest of the band, except for Best, would have the same cut. Of course, this would become the haircut associated and popularized by the Beatles.

But things were getting especially tense between the band. Between Sutcliffe and McCartney, it had become particularly bad. One night, it all came to a head when the two got into a fight on stage in the middle of a show. Paul said of the incident, "I thought I'd beat him hands down because he was littler than me. But he was strong and we got locked in a sort of death-grip, on stage during the set. It was terrible. We must have called each other something one too many times: 'Oh, you...' – 'You calling me that?' Then we were locked and neither of us wanted to go any further and all the others were shouting, 'Stop it, you two!' – 'I'll stop it if he will.'"

Though the cause of the fight was allegedly over no more than petty insults, Lennon claimed that McCartney had insulted Kirchherr and it had pushed Sutcliffe over the edge, "Paul was saying something about Stu's girl – he was jealous because she was a great girl, and Stu hit him, on stage. And Stu wasn't a violent guy at all."

Sutcliffe and Harrison during a gig.

No matter what the fight was over, the band seemed to be falling apart. Sutcliffe had always bore the brunt of the other's anger, and he was finally tired of it. McCartney had also gotten tired of Sutcliffe's presence in the band and while he would later deny it, it is believed that he thought Sutcliffe to be the one holding them back. After all, McCartney wanted the band to succeed, and Sutcliffe was the most inexperienced.

Sutcliffe had decided that he just could not stay in the band anymore. This was not the first time he had considered it, but the sudden discourse pushed him to go through with it. Music had never been his priority to begin with and now he was engaged and preferred Germany, anyways. So, he decided that when the others returned to Liverpool, he would stay.

By the time Sutcliffe decided to leave, McCartney had picked up the bass. Since he could not afford a new, smaller bass, Sutcliffe gave him his. Sutcliffe asked McCartney not to change the strings around, and McCartney agreed. But since McCartney was left-handed and Sutcliffe was right-handed, McCartney had to play it upside-down.

However, the band's time in Hamburg was abruptly cut short. Harrison was underage and thus was not meant to be working in Hamburg. McCartney and Best would be arrested for attempted arson and Lennon had no work permit. So, all of them were to be deported, Sutcliffe included. In order to hide out from the police, Kirchherr let Lennon and Sutcliffe stay with her at her apartment.

Having space away from the rest of the band would prove to be good for Lennon and Sutcliffe's friendship. While Lennon had never been as bad as McCartney was to Sutcliffe, he had still picked on him. Time away from the band to reconnect made their relationship better, and the two once again became thick as thieves.

The two eventually put together enough money to secure train tickets out of the country and plane tickets home to Liverpool. Sutcliffe, however, caught a cold before they could leave and was forced to stay behind while Lennon returned home. A few months later, he borrowed money from Kirchherr and finally went back to Liverpool in February of 1961.

While Sutcliffe had been stuck in Hamburg, the band had secured a regular spot at the Top Ten Club back in Hamburg. After arriving back home, the rest of the band persuaded Sutcliffe to write to their manager, explaining that the 10% commission he had been receiving should be withheld. Sutcliffe was now, officially, out of the band.

One of Sutcliffe's most famous paintings, 'Hamburg Painting No. 2'. It now hangs in the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool.

After the Beatles

The band, along with Sutcliffe, returned to Hamburg in April of 1961. Kirchherr was there at the airport to greet them when they arrived. While Sutcliffe had left art school in Liverpool when the band went on tour, he decided to enroll in the Hamburg Art School. For his effort, he was even granted a scholarship. Since his time in Liverpool, his style had shifted as he became more interested in abstract art, which made him even more excited to attend the Hamburg school, as he would be studying under abstract painter, Eduardo Paolozzi.

Just like in Liverpool, Sutcliffe quickly became one of the school's top students. Paolozzi even said Sutcliffe was one of his best students. Sutcliffe had been greatly influenced by other British abstract artists and drew influence and techniques from his studies of figurative painting in Liverpool.

Though Sutcliffe and the band had parted ways, he still remained close with them, especially Lennon. Whenever Lennon returned to Liverpool, the two often wrote each other lengthy letters. They would end up sending each other dozens of letters, possibly even hundreds. Along with the letters were cartoons, poems and inside jokes. Sutcliffe even mentioned to Lennon the terrible headaches he had begun to suffer from.

Sutcliffe posed with some of his paintings.

In December 1961, just before the school was about to break for Christmas, Sutcliffe collapsed during one of his classes. Initially, he thought he had simply overworked himself and took some time off to rest. However, as time went on, his headaches only got worse and he began to frequently blackout. Still, he believed it was from exhaustion and was not concerned enough to see a doctor.

But in February, he again collapsed in class. He was forced to leave school, much to his dismay. Kirchherr and her family, though, were concerned and were worried enough that they arranged a meeting with a doctor. X-rays were even done, but nothing could be found after either of these. He went to see another doctor, but again, nothing was found.

By March, Sutcliffe had become reclusive and rarely left the apartment he was sharing with Kirchherr. His health only got worse, and his days were spent inside, writing letters to Lennon and family members and painting. He experienced debilitating pain and had frequent blackouts, he even suffered from spells of temporary blindness. It became so bad that Either Kirchherr or her mother had to be with Sutcliffe at all times.

His headaches even began to cause intense mood swings. One moment, he would be fine, then the next he would be suicidal, and the next he would be alternating between sobs and laughter. Accompanying that were violent fits so bad that Kirchherr could barely handle him. During this time, he continued to receive medical treatment, but nothing helped.

By the end of March 1962, Sutcliffe was essentially bedridden. On April 10, 1962, Sutcliffe once again collapsed in his apartment and Kirchherr's mother called for an ambulance. Kirchherr rushed home from her photography studio and once she arrived, she saw an unconscious Sutcliffe was unconscious being loaded into an ambulance. Kirchherr went with him, but Sutcliffe never reached the hospital. He died in the ambulance, in Kirchherr's arms, just a few months before his 22nd birthday.

At the time, Sutcliffe's cause of death was listed as cerebral paralysis caused by bleeding in the right side of the brain. It is unclear though and some have theorized that it was actually an aneurysm in the brain.

Normally, bleeding in the brain is caused by some sort of head injury or another outside factor, like high blood pressure. What could have caused the bleeding is unclear. One theory states that it was caused by a fight with Lennon after a show during their first trip to Hamburg. Though this theory has been suggested multiple times, there is no evidence to suggest there had ever been a physical fight between the two. We do know that Sutcliffe did, however, get into a fight after a show in January of 1961. However, it was with a stranger and Lennon and Best had come to his aid during the fight.

As a result of this fight though, Sutcliffe walked away with a skull fracture, which he refused to seek treatment for. This fracture was found in an x-ray, but it was dismissed by doctors. Considering Sutcliffe had a preexisting injury, and that was combined with stress, exhaustion and his own tendencies to overwork himself, it is possible that all of this in combination caused Sutcliffe's headaches and a possible hemorrhage.

Since aneurysms can come on rather suddenly and without clear reason, this is what leads many to speculate that this was his actual cause of death. Sutcliffe's symptoms align with those of an aneurysm, and warning signs can appear long before death. Aneurysms often will show up in x-rays, but not always. Again, since Sutcliffe decided not to seek early treatment, this meant that it could not be diagnosed. Not only that, but it could not be treated.

Harrison would later say of Sutcliffe's final visit to Liverpool, "Not long before he died, he showed up in Liverpool and he went around and hung out with us – almost as if he'd had a premonition that he wasn't going to see us again. He came to visit me at my house quite apart from when I saw him with the others and it was a very good feeling I got from him. I didn't know Stuart was ill, but he was trying to give up smoking. [...] There was something really warm about his return, and in retrospect, I believe he was finishing something."

Life Without Stuart

After Sutcliffe's death, Kirchherr was the one who had to break the news to the rest of the Beatles. When they arrived back in Hamburg just days after Sutcliffe's death, she met them at the airport, where she broke the news. The whole band was shocked. McCartney recalled feelings of guilt. But when Lennon heard the news, he apparently started laughing. This was the same way he had reacted when his uncle died. But once the news finally registered, he was devastated. He withdrew from everything, dedicating himself to his music.

After a period of initial shock, Lennon began to spend his time comforting Kirchherr. She would write to her mother about Lennon, saying; "He is in a terrible mood now, he just can't believe that darling Stuart never comes back. He is just crying his eyes out... John is marvellous to me, he says that he knows Stuart so much and he loved him so much that he can understand me." She said later in a biography on the band, "I knew that he and Stuart genuinely loved each other [...] How John got over this period I'll never know."

Lennon would later say of his friend, "I looked up to Stu. I depended on him to tell me the truth. Stu would tell me if something was good and I'd believe him."

After Sutcliffe's funeral, he was buried in an Anglican graveyard in Liverpool. His father was later buried alongside his son and while his mother wished to be buried with her family, she was not able to. Instead, she would be buried in a Catholic graveyard. Though his sisters later spread her ashes over Sutcliffe's grave when she died.

The 'Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band' album cover. Sutcliffe is on the far left, circled on the second row.

Years after Sutcliffe's death, in 1967, the Beatles made a small tribute to Sutcliffe. That year, they released the album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, which features a very small, nearly hidden picture of Sutcliffe on the cover.

In 1995, the Beatles album Anthology 1 was released. It featured three songs with Sutcliffe on bass: You'll be Mine, Cayenne and Hallelujah, I Love Her So.

Later, in the 2000s, a copy of Sutcliffe's signature song, Love Me Tender, apparently sang by Sutcliffe himself surfaced. According to Pauline, a tape had been given to her with a fuzzy version of the song. She had it cleaned up, with instruments added in to fix what could not be heard, and the song was released. Pauline believes that the song was recorded in Hamburg in 1961 and that it is truly Sutcliffe singing. But, aside from her word, this cannot be proven. In recent years, the song has been attributed to the Boston Show Band. It seems that that is far more likely and it is, unfortunately, not Sutcliffe.

Kirchherr would later have a successful career as a photographer, with her photos of the Beatles in their early days becoming rather famous. She would later marry Gibson Kemp, the drummer who had replaced Ringo Starr in the band Rory Storm and the Hurricanes. Their marriage would only last a few years, and she would marry a German businessman afterwards. They would have no children, and in her old age, she would live alone. Though, she assured everyone that she was perfectly happy. In early 2020, she became ill and later died on May 12, at the age of 81.

Conclusion

After Sutcliffe's death, Lennon apparently told Kirchherr, "Come on, make up your mind, live or die. Stop sitting at home - it won't bring Stu back."

Sutcliffe's time in the Beatles was short-lived, but the effect he had on the band was anything but. His kind nature, gentle attitude and creative soul greatly impacted his fellow bandmembers. And it still lives on in each painting he left behind.

Sutcliffe's future was bright, and the life he lived represents that. He was a talented painter whose work had already been displayed in galleries and the band he had influenced was just about to make it big. But his life was cut tragically short before he could ever accomplish his greatest masterpiece.


Notes:

  • A full archive of Sutcliffe's art can be found here.

  • A playlist of Sutcliffe's three songs from Anthology 1 and his cover of Love Me Tender can be found here.

Further Resources

  • Backbeat, a film from 1994, is about the Beatles' early career and focuses on Sutcliffe's time in the band. Kirchherr was consulted on the movie and was incredibly impressed with the portrayal of Sutcliffe.

  • The Beatles Anthology documentary and corresponding book fully covers Sutcliffe's time in the band and includes details from the Beatles themselves. Though the documentary is not as extensive with Sutcliffe's life, the book is.

  • The Birth of the Beatles is another movie about the Beatles early career. The full movie can be found here.

  • Stuart Sutcliffe: The Lost Beatle is a documentary on Sutcliffe's life, art and music career.

  • Backbeat: Stuart Sutcliffe: The Lost Beatle is the basis for both the movie Backbeat and the documentary Stuart Sutcliffe: The Lost Beatle. It was co-written by Pauline Sutcliffe.

  • Stuart, The Life and Art of Stuart Sutcliffe is another book on Sutcliffes life. It was also co-written by Pauline Sutcliffe.

  • The Beatles Shadow, Stuart Sutcliffe, & His Lonely Hearts Club is another book on Sutcliffe's life, again co-written by Pauline Sutcliffe. However, it should be noted that this book claims that there was a romantic relationship between Sutcliffe and Lennon. Since it was written in 2001, we have no idea as to how the two would have reacted to these claims. There is little evidence to suggest these claims, although Pauline claimed that all the evidence is in Sutcliffe's and Lennon's letters. She owned the majority of these existing letters but never made them public before her death. In April of 2021, they were auctioned off. Though the relationship is unproven speculation, that does not mean the book should be disregarded as a whole, but it must be taken with a grain of salt.

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