The Beatles are arguable the most important group in the history of 20th century music. The story of John, Paul, George and Ringo have become a mythology of sorts in the world of rock music. Even so, their mythology expands beyond the 13 core albums and eight year history between Please Please Me
and Let It Be
, with myth and fact often getting confused. This is one of those stories.
Part I: The Bass Player Before Paul
Despite being best known for his bass work, Paul McCartney was not the original bassist for the Beatles; rather, he was a guitarist alongside John Lennon and George Harrison. The role of bassist was delegated to Stuart Sutcliffe, a friend of Lennon’s from art school. After winning some prize money in an art contest, Sutcliffe was convinced by Lennon and McCartney to buy a Hofner President 500/5 bass and join the Beatles (then called the Silver Beatles) for a tour of nightclubs in the German city of Hamburg. During this time Sutcliffe also booked the band’s gig back home (until the arrival of manager Allan Williams) and - along with Lennon and Lennon’s girlfriend Cynthia - came up with the name “Beatles”.
Sutcliffe stayed with the band for about a year before leaving in 1961 to focus on his art career in Hamburg, where he lived with his fiancée Astrid Kirchherr until his sudden death by a brain hemorrhage a year later, a death that had a major impact on Lennon’s life. The other three guitarists then discussed who would take over, leading to the bass duties falling on Paul. The rest, as they say, is history...
By all regards Sutcliffe was not a spectacular bass player, sticking to root notes and chords. Some recordings of him playing appear on the first Anthology
; however, none of these involved any vocals from Sutcliffe - something that made him one of the more popular Beatles during his short stint.
After death, however, Sutcliffe became a part of the Beatles lore, appearing on the cover of Sgt. Pepper
and all three parts of Anthology
as well as John’s solo album Rock and Roll
. Yoko Ono said that she “felt I knew Stuart because hardly a day went by that John did not speak about him.”
Part II: Love Me Tender
In 2011, the Stuart Sutcliffe estate announced that they had come in possession of a recording of Stuart singing
. This was somewhat of a big deal in the Beatles fanworld, as (like mentioned before) no audio clips of Stuart singing had come forward.
This recording was a cover of the Elvis Presley track “Love Me Tender”
. This is a key part of the drama, which we’ll get to later.
The post from the estate explained that they had acquired the recording from a private anonymous collector sometime in 2009, but had known of it as early as the 1990s.
While the song was confirmed to be Stuart by his sister Pauline, that didn’t stop it from being approached with skepticism from the Beatles community. ”Here's a guy who was cajoled into playing in a band. A visual artist, not a musician who, by all accounts, was so uncertain of his abilities that he performed with his back to the audience. Now a recording surfaces that nobody has heard before, with Sutcliffe fronting an unknown band, singing a song with confidence? They might believe it's him. Maybe they found an unlabeled tape in his possessions but, nah.... I don't buy it.” writes BeatMichael of the Steve Hoffman forums, a board focused on music production and mastering
. “Complete bull. Listen to those early, early Beatle recordings. Ramshackle, beat all over the place, sound like they are beamed from Mars. This is some 80s tascam-4-track cassette job. Saturday morning in a pub somewhere...”
adds user William Shears.
Reddit user u/mayor-of-awesometown
added in a later comment on a post regarding Sutcliffe that ”"Love Me Tender" probably isn't a Stu recording. There's no documentation or contemporary evidence of the session, nobody who would have been there remembers it and there's a drum machine on the recording.”
In response, the Sutcliffe estate released pieces by two Beatles historians covering the authenticity. They can be found here
Next, we’ll cover the reasons for and against the recording’s authenticity.
Part III: The Magical Mystery Tour
Let’s first talk about what this recording has going for it.
First and foremost, we have Pauline Sutcliffe saying that it is Stu’s voice. Letters from the time of the purported recording date (estimated to be in 1961, but after Stu left the Beatles) confirm he was working on a musical project
, and it is known that he played with a band known as the Bats for a brief period.
Second, it is not unlikely that Stu would record himself singing this cover, as “Love Me Tender” was generally considered his number and a highlight of the Beatles’ Hamburg gigs, as noted by Beatles biographer Bob Spitz. These are also backed up by the films Backbeat
(which had its accuracy praised by Pauline herself as well as Paul McCartney and friends of Stu) and Birth of the Beatles
(which featured former drummer Pete Best as a consultant), but the versions in these films are somewhat different than the recording.
Pauline’s reasoning on why it was Stuart was, according to an interview with the Examiner
was pretty much the same as what was said in the official post from the estate.
Now, let’s cover what arguments there are against this recording.
Arguably the most damning piece against the recording is a cover of “Love Me Tender” by the Boston Show Band
, which sounds identical. It’s a few beats slower and more full-sounding, but it clearly sounds exactly like the Sutcliffe recording.
Others, particularly the Steve Hoffman forum, have noted similarities to a later version of the song by Percy Sledge
, most notably in the melody.
Aside from this, a big problem with verifying the recording is that most people who knew Stuart are no longer with us. For a run-down:
- John Lennon was killed in 1980.
- Astrid Kirchherr refused to talk about it until her death earlier this year.
- George Harrison passed away from cancer in 2001.
- Allan Williams, the Beatles original manager, died in 2016.
- Cynthia Powell Lennon died in 2015.
There are only a handful of people remaining who can verify or deny this recording’s authenticity. Here’s who:
- Paul McCartney, who hasn’t said a word.
- Pete Best, former Beatles drummer, who hasn’t said a word.
- Bill Harry, founder of Mersey Beat magazine, said he wasn’t sure.
- Klaus Voorman, a friend of Stuart and the Beatles (as well as the cover artist for Revolver), said he didn’t think that was him.
- Any surviving members of The Bats. Their whereabouts are unknown.
To this day, the recording is up to debate (albeit not as much as when it came out), and for what it’s worth it may never be known whether or not it is actually Stuart. TLDR: A rare recording of a Beatles member may not be him. No one can truly confirm it and fans argued about it for quite some time.