A Jew living in an anti-Semitic English culture, openly gay at a time when traditional mores still held wide sway, addicted to various drugs – some speculate he was a manic-depressive before a clinical diagnosis for such affliction existed – Brian Samuel Epstein (1934 – 1967) was an extremely complicated and troubled yet enormously gifted man.
A little more than a year after he met the Beatles, Epstein turned them into the most successful musical act of all time. Without his charm and elegance, creativity and innovation, drive and foresight, enthusiasm and emotion, few people would ever have heard of the Beatles; tellingly, when they received their MBEs (Members of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire) from Queen Elizabeth in 1965, Beatle George Harrison quipped that the letters stood for “Mr. Brian Epstein.”
Epstein, who was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2014, was the eldest son of devout Jews. He was the descendant of the union of two wealthy Jewish families whose fortune was established by his Lithuanian immigrant grandfather Isaac, who opened a furniture store in Liverpool in the early 1900s.
Brian regularly attended the Greenbank Drive Synagogue in Liverpool, where he attended Sunday cheder and marked his bar mitzvah; when he discovered that his school had taught him the wrong parshah for his Torah reading, he impressed the congregation by quickly preparing the correct portion.
Brian’s father, who functioned as shul president and called congregants up to the Torah, had tremendous respect for rabbis, an attitude he passed on to his son.
Though Epstein became much less religiously observant as the Beatles’ fame grew, he remained loyal to Jewish tradition. He joined a synagogue when he moved to London with the Beatles and, in the middle of the band’s first American tour (September 1964), he asked a Jewish newspaper correspondent covering the Beatles for a ticket to attend Yom Kippur services at a local New Orleans synagogue.
Noting that he was born on Yom Kippur, he explained that, although he was no longer very religious, he knew that attending shul on Yom Kippur would please and honor his parents back home in England.
In his pre-Beatles life, Epstein was a manager in his family’s business, the North End Music Stores, which, through his efforts, became one of the biggest music outlets in northern England. He sold primarily classical music, but when customers began asking for rock and roll records, including those by a group called the Beatles, he decided to attend a performance by the band at the nearby and now-famous Cavern Club.
The club’s manager, Alan Sytner, was a member of the Greenbank Drive Synagogue and because many of his Jewish customers kept kosher, he permitted them to frequent his club without requiring them to purchase full meals. Few know that in their earliest days the Beatles performed at a Jewish-owned club and at Jewish community events and generated notice in England’s religious Jewish community. For example, they played at a Mersey River boat ride held by the Liverpool community in 1962 and Epstein’s good friend, Alan Swerdlow, who ran the Greenbank Drive Synagogue’s Saturday night youth dances, believes the Beatles appeared and performed at the synagogue.
Epstein met the Beatles in his small office in Liverpool in 1961 and signed them to a five-year management deal. Though he lacked any training in business and law and was essentially an unknown novice, the Beatles were similarly unknown outside Liverpool and Hamburg, Germany (where they often performed). At that point in their careers they were flattered that anyone would take any interest in them.
On an interesting note, in September 2015 that contract sold at auction for over $550,000. (The signers included not only each of the four Beatles, but also the fathers of George Harrison, Paul McCartney, and Pete Best – the Beatles’ first drummer before Ringo Starr – on behalf of their respective sons, who were all still minors. Paul’s father, Jim, was upset that his son had chosen to associate with a “Jewboy” (John Lennon’s aunt was similarly displeased) until Epstein ultimately won him over.
After signing the management contract, Epstein spent many months trying to land a record deal but was rejected by nearly every major label in London. (Can you imagine being an executive who decided to pass on the Beatles?) Finally, exploiting his relationships with power brokers at various English record companies – his family’s stores were valued clients – he secured a contract for the Beatles with George Martin and EMI (Parlophone Records), which gave the Beatles a whopping penny for each record sold.
While the rest may be history, it is a history that Epstein created. During the very early 1960s, when the Beatles were no more than a crude band performing in seedy nightclubs, he transformed them into a professional show business act and created a new image for them – including the matching suits, the synchronized bows, bringing in Ringo as the band’s drummer, and, of course, the “Beatles haircut” – and, after much rejection, he sold that image to the entire world.
In the process, Epstein created contemporary rock and roll management and promotion, including his hands-on control of the quality of Beatles products, which proved to be a masterstroke. He recognized the importance of successfully managing the media; that packaging, presentation, and stagecraft were supremely important to effective promotion; and that public exposure for the band was more important than generating revenue. Thus, the incredible success of the Beatles was ultimately as much a triumph of Epstein’s business skills as of the group’s indisputable musical brilliance.
After his untimely death from an overdose of sleeping pills at age 32 – mere weeks after his father had passed away – Epstein received an Orthodox Jewish burial and a Hebrew gravestone (August 29, 1967). The family, which planned a discreet Orthodox funeral service at the Greenbank Drive Synagogue, justifiably feared the private family event would turn into a distasteful media circus and asked the Beatles not to attend. In defiance of the rule forbidding flowers at Jewish funerals, George Harrison arranged for a final farewell from the Beatles to be tossed atop the coffin: concealed in a newspaper was a solitary white chrysanthemum.
Interestingly, Epstein had declared in a l956 will that he did not want anyone to say Kaddish for him; that his shiva should not last for more than a week (a strange request since, under Jewish practice, shiva – the word itself means “seven” – lasts a maximum of seven days); and that “all my clothes be sent directly and immediately to the state of Israel.” Following local Jewish custom, his body was accompanied only by men to the Kirkdale Jewish Cemetery on Long Lane in Liverpool, where he was buried near his father.
Six weeks later, on October 17, 1967, all four Beatles attended a memorial service at the New London Synagogue at 33 Abbey Road.
Shown here is an incredibly rare and historic document, the Order of Service program for “Shmuel ben Zvi.” All four Beatles wore black paper yarmulkes. (I have tried but failed to find a photograph of the Beatles wearing their kippot.)
At his burial weeks earlier, the officiating rabbi – who did not know him – had shocked the grieving family by declaring that Epstein’s death was symptomatic of the worst aspects of the ‘60s youth revolution and that Brian Epstein was “a symbol of the malaise of his generation.” At the memorial service attended by the Beatles, however, Rabbi Louis Jacobs applauded Epstein: “He encouraged young people to sing of love and peace rather than war and hatred.”
It was only after Epstein’s death that the Beatles came to realize the full breadth of his contribution to their success, as they were forced to handle business details and, more importantly, deal with internal squabbles without their respected manager/mediator/mentor/father figure.
Less than three years later, the rudderless Beatles disbanded; as John Lennon said in a 1971 Rolling Stone interview, “after Brian died, we collapsed.” Many Beatles authorities believe the breakup of the world’s greatest band was the direct result of Epstein’s sudden passing.
“If anyone was the fifth Beatle,” Paul McCartney said in a 1997 BBC interview, “it was Brian.”