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"They were just kids, starved rats, always hungry and puffing on the bedraggled remains of their ciggies," remembered Allan Williams, a local club owner, in his memoir. Williams, despite his doubts, did the lads one enormous favor. In early 1960, he dispatched them to Hamburg, to a club gig where they spent months refining their performing skills. They came home in November 1960 with tight leather outfits, an even tighter sound and a new sense of showmanship.
While most of the bands had a front man and a single, narrow focus, the Beatles featured soaring harmonies, two fledgling songwriters and one superb all-around performer -- Paul. They could shift from "Long Tall Sally" to "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" in a heartbeat. By the fall of 1961, they were nearing the top of the pack but had no place to go.
Big-time agents, managers and record labels in London saw Liverpool as a backwater. They had no interest in the scene. The Beatles could feel themselves stagnating. Stuart dropped out to pursue his art career in Hamburg. John talked about working on an ocean liner as his dad, Freddy, had done; Paul's family wanted him to become a teacher. George visited his older sister Louise in the United States and considered emigrating.
Among locals, the debate never ends over when and how Brian first heard of the Beatles. Harry insists he first told Brian about the band and that Brian would have had to have been blind not to have read about them in Mersey Beat. But Brian, in A Cellarful of Noise, says he hadn't heard of them until a teenager named Raymond Jones came into the Whitechapel shop in late October 1961 asking for "My Bonnie," a 45 that Polydor had recorded and released in Germany with the "Beat Brothers" backing British singer Tony Sheridan. What's not in dispute is that in early November, Brian and his chief assistant, Alastair Taylor, made their way to the Cavern to check out the group.
"Inside the club, it was as black as a deep grave, dank and smelly," according to A Cellarful of Noise. The two men, dressed in business suits, sat near the back. They were hot, sweaty and uncomfortable. Taylor said he couldn't wait to get out of there. Brian, on the other hand, couldn't get enough of the four sexy young men in tight leather jackets and pants, sweat pouring down their faces as they gyrated around the tiny stage. "They gave a captivating and honest show, and they had very considerable magnetism," his book recalled.
After Taylor finally extracted his boss from the club, the men went for lunch at the Peacock, one of Brian's favorite eateries. He sat down, ordered and looked Taylor in the eye. "What do you think about me managing them?"
BRIAN SET OUT ON A PREMEDITATED SEDUCTION. First, he spoke to those who best knew the group: Cavern emcee Bob Wooler, Allan Williams and Sam Leach, a local promoter who was an ardent fan. He paid a visit to the Blue Angel, Williams's club, told Williams he was planning to manage the Beatles and asked if he had any advice. "I said, 'Yes, don't touch them with a [expletive] barge pole. They'll let you down.'"
Nonetheless, Brian invited the Beatles over to NEMS one evening in early December. He told them he could double their fee for performances, extricate them from their recording contract with Polydor and get them a record deal with a London company. The Beatles needed little persuading.
"We all looked up to him," recalled Cynthia Lennon. "He was pinstriped suits; he was a businessman; and we were all students and scruffy. But there was something very magnetic about Brian. And he was a true gentleman."
John, the putative leader, was quick to seal the deal. "Right then, Brian, manage us now," he declared. "Where's the contract? I'll sign it." In need of a lawyer, Brian turned to David Harris. "One day, out of the blue, I got this phone call," Harris says. " 'David, it's Brian. I'm interested in managing a pop group called the Beatles.' He needed a contract. Oh, yes, I don't think I laughed. But, I felt, this is a Brian thing."
When Paul's father, Jim, expressed doubts about signing up with a Jewish record shop owner with no real show business experience, Brian paid visits to each family. He charmed Jim, John's starchy Aunt Mimi and Pete's mother, Mona, who had been their de facto manager. One of his first acts was to persuade Ray McFall, owner of the Cavern, to double their pay to 15 pounds per show, and he got them an extra 10 pounds a week for their next gig in Hamburg. He also paid off their debt of 200 pounds at Hessy's music store for their instruments. Then the grooming began. First, he persuaded the boys to scrap the tight leather suits and took them to a men's shop across the River Mersey for gray mohair suits. He had their hair styled at Horne Brothers, his personal barbers. He also imposed a set of rules for performances: No more eating and smoking on stage; no taking requests; and no swearing. Some of the Beatles' contemporaries despised the result. Ted Taylor, a former butcher's apprentice who fronted his own hard-driving band, Kingsize Taylor & the Dominoes, felt Brian effectively neutered the Beatles, sapping the raw energy that had made them exciting.
"As far as I'm concerned, Brian Epstein was the man who destroyed Mersey Beat," he says. "He made London groups out of Liverpool bands. When you see the Beatles, their first TV appearance, all dressed up like tailors, well that wasn't Liverpool." Others were more sympathetic. "The whole of British popular culture at the time was controlled by people more than a generation older than us," says Bill Harry. "And, quite frankly, the Beatles as they were, the black leather and rough look, would never have made it in Britain. What he was doing was processing them and making them conform to the establishment." John, the self-styled rebel, performed with the top button of his dress shirt unfastened and his tie loosened as a protest.