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Brian Epstein, the man who discovered the Beatles and shaped them into the biggest music sensation of the 20th century, died 40 years ago at age 32. The pivotal role the enigmatic and charming Epstein played made him the world’s most admired band manager. But outside of music circles, his name is fast being forgotten.
During his lunch break on November 9, 1961, Brian Epstein—the 27-year-old Jewish proprietor of Liverpool’s popular North End Music Store—walked the 250 steps from his shop, through an alley and down the 18 stone stairs to a local cellar club appropriately called the Cavern.
Passionate about classical and Broadway music, Epstein had paid little attention to the city’s burgeoning teenage beat scene until, as legend has it, October 28th. A customer named Raymond Jones had come into his shop asking for the single “My Bonnie,” by a band called the Beatles. A few days later, a gaggle of girls had made the same request. Epstein was puzzled: There was no such record available from any British label. After some digging, he’d found that the record had been issued in Germany. The band was not credited anywhere on the disc but it was available as an import. He’d been surprised to discover that the group was from Liverpool and was, coincidentally, playing at a nearby club on Mathew Street.
When Epstein and his assistant Alistair Taylor arrived at the Cavern that day, they were the oldest guests and certainly the only ones in suits.The lunchtime show had drawn in a flood of scruffy teenagers. As Epstein wrote in his 1964 autobiography, A Cellarful of Noise, the atmosphere was not at all to his liking. “Inside the club it was black and deep as a grave and I regretted my decision to come.”
The band—John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and then drummer Pete Best—were wearing black leather jackets, their hair wild and unkempt. Epstein was intrigued by what he heard but, trained in theater and fastidious in his own appearance, he was put off by the band’s primitive stage habits. “They smoked as they played, and they ate, and pretended to hit each other…. But they gave a captivating and honest show and they had very considerable magnetism. I loved their ad libs and was fascinated by this, to me, new music with its pounding bass beat and vast engulfing sound.”
During a break, Epstein poked his head into the tiny room next to the stage, introduced himself and Taylor, and complimented the band. Harrison looked up and smiled. “Hello there,” he said dryly. “What brings Mr. Epstein here?” Harrison called over his band mates, all of whom were delighted that Epstein had enjoyed the music. They recognized him from the record shop, where they liked to hang out between gigs.
Epstein invited the band members to his shop on Whitechapel Street for a “chat” on December 3rd. In the intervening weeks, he sold over 100 copies of “My Bonnie.” When the Beatles arrived, he announced in his soft-spoken way: “Quite simply, you need a manager. Would you like me to do it?”