By Gillian G. Gaar
Brian Epstein's name will always be most associated with The Beatles. But his NEMS Enterprises Ltd. management organization looked after a number of other artists, as well. Some are still active today — although none of Epstein’s acts have ever rivaled the success he achieved with The Beatles.
Epstein had frustrated artistic ambitions of his own. As a teenager, he’d announced that he wanted to pursue a career as a dress designer, an idea that his father, who owned a number of furniture stores in Liverpool, firmly quashed. Epstein then took up acting, studying at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, although he eventually dropped out and returned to Liverpool.
His artistic leanings finally found an outlet when he took over the record department in one of the family stores, called NEMS, short for North End Music Stores. He was later given his own store to run in the city center, 12-14 Whitechapel, just around the corner from where a musical explosion was building in a club called The Cavern. Though his own tastes ran to the classics, musicals and light pop, like Peggy Lee, Epstein, like any good business owner, gradually became aware of — and began catering to — Liverpool’s growing beat music scene. Bill Harry, a former student of the Liverpool College of Art, began publishing a music paper called “Mersey Beat” in July 1961; Epstein carried the paper in his shop from the first issue, and later wrote his own record review column.
It was three months after “Mersey Beat’s” debut that Beatles fan Raymond Jones (previously interviewed by Goldmine) came into NEMS looking for the single “My Bonnie,” on which The Beatles (credited as “The Beat Brothers”) had backed Tony Sheridan. Seeing how quickly the records sold, Epstein decided to visit The Cavern on Nov. 9, when The Beatles were playing a lunchtime session. In short order, he became the group’s manager, and by June 1962 had secured them a record deal with Parlophone, a subsidiary of EMI.
Convinced there was more talent in Liverpool, Epstein next began looking for other groups with whom to work. The next act he approached was Gerry and the Pacemakers, led by Gerry Marsden. The group was a friendly rival to The Beatles and played the same club circuit. When Epstein told Marsden he wanted to manage his band, Marsden couldn’t have been more pleased.
“He’d just told me he’d got a record deal for The Beatles, and I thought, ‘If Brian can get us a few more quid and maybe a record deal, well, that would be the big time for us,’” Marsden later recalled.
Epstein gave The Pacemakers the same buff and shine he’d given to The Beatles, putting them in identical suits and smartening up their stage presentation. And when The Beatles passed on recording “How Do You Do It” as their second single, it was given to The Pacemakers, who promptly scored the group’s first No. 1 when it was released in 1963. It was replaced at No. 1 by The Beatles’ “From Me To You,” which was then replaced by the Pacemakers’ “I Like It” — a run of 14 straight weeks of acts managed by Epstein. The Merseybeat boom was under way.
The Pacemakers had one more No. 1 in 1963, “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” The soaring song, from the musical “Carousel,” became the anthem for the Liverpool Football Club.
By then, Epstein had added more acts to his stable. He’d seen another Liverpudlian band — Billy Kramer and The Coasters — open for The Beatles, and Epstein offered to be the group’s manager. Kramer was immediately interested.
“To be approached by somebody who was managing The Beatles was a big deal to me,” Kramer said.
But Kramer’s band was not interested in becoming professional musicians, so Epstein paired him up with a Manchester act named The Dakotas and added the middle initial “J” to Kramer’s name (a letter chosen because it was the first letter in the name of John Lennon’s son, Julian). By May 1963, Billy J. Kramer and The Dakotas hit the U.K. charts with “Do You Want to Know A Secret” The first of three John Lennon and Paul McCartney compositions that would propel Kramer and The Dakotas up the U.K. Top 20 charts, “Do You Want to Know A Secret” peaked at No. 2. The group’s follow up, “Bad To Me,” peaked at No. 3 on the U.K Top 20 in September 1963 (it achieved No. 1 status on other charts), and its third single, “I’ll Keep You Satisfied,” went to No. 11 on the U.K. Top 20 charts in November 1963.
Epstein had gone through the usual routine with Kramer, putting him in a nice suit and steering him toward pop, rather than the rock Kramer preferred. Epstein persisted in this kind of image makeover for all his acts, a cookie-cutter approach that sometimes buried a performer’s true talents in favor of repeating what Epstein saw as a successful formula.
The Big Three was a Liverpool group whose members frequently butted heads with Epstein over this issue, starting with their refusal to wear the tailored suits they’d been given. The group members also were unhappy when a rough version of “Some Other Guy” was released as the band’s first single in 1963 (it cracked the Top 40), as they felt they could have recorded it better. Nor did The Big Three like any of the songs Epstein suggested for subsequent records. The band soon split from Epstein, having reached no higher in the charts than No. 22 with “By The Way,” also released in 1963.
The following year was The Beatles’ breakthrough in America. It was also the breakthrough year for another Epstein act, Cilla Black. Black was a secretary and music fan who worked at The Cavern and occasionally joined the bands on stage to sing. After being recommended by John Lennon, she auditioned for Epstein and failed. Nine months later, when Epstein saw her singing “Bye Bye Blackbird” at a club, he promptly signed her. Her first single, released in 1963, was Lennon-McCartney’s “Love of the Loved,” which reached No. 35. Then, in 1964, she topped the charts with “Anyone Who Had a Heart” and “You’re My World.”
“Brian had the sense to see in Cilla something that I originally hadn’t seen,” her producer, George Martin, told Ray Coleman. “I thought she was this dolly rocker from Liverpool, good and different, but not in any way a ballad singer … He opened my eyes to Cilla’s dramatic potential. He had a great sense of vision in the artists he handled.”
Gerry and the Pacemakers and Billy J. Kramer continued their run of success in 1964, as well. The Pacemakers had Top 10 hits with “I’m The One,” and “Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying,” while Kramer had hits with “Little Children” and Lennon-McCartney’s “From a Window.”
There was stateside success for both acts, too, with “Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying,” “How Do You Do It,” “Little Children,” and “Bad To Me” all reaching the Top 20.
Epstein’s management empire hit its peak in 1964. But as his roster continued to expand, success became increasingly elusive. Too many acts were being signed expecting the Esptein touch. He focused on The Beatles and often was unavailable to work with other groups, to their disappointment.
The Fourmost, whom Epstein saw perform at The Cavern, had some hits in 1963 with Lennon-McCartney’s “Hello Little Girl” and “I’m In Love,” but the group’s career stalled after their last Top 20 hit in 1964, “A Little Loving.”
Epstein invested a lot of effort into trying to make Tommy Quickly (formerly Tommy Quigley) a success, starting him off with the customary Lennon-McCartney song (“Tip of My Tongue”), but his sole hit was “Wild Side of Life.” Quickly was backed by another Liverpool group, The Remo Four, who failed to find any chart success on their own, though the group did go on to back Billy J. Kramer and, later, George Harrison on his soundtrack for the film “Wonderwall.”
Michael Haslam, whom Epstein first saw singing at the White Hart pub in Bolton, Lancashire, was another solo artist Epstein tried to launch. Haslam was dropped after two unsuccessful singles.
“He hadn’t got a ballad singer and saw me as a straight leading man opposite Cilla,” Haslam said. “And I went along with.”
The Rustiks were signed after the group won a talent contest Epstein was judging, but the group failed to get off the ground. The Paramounts had a single hit, “Poison Ivy,” in 1964, then split up (the band’s keyboard player, Gary Brooker, resurfaced in Procol Harum). Tony Rivers and The Castaways also failed to find any success while signed to NEMS.
“The standard of people he brought in deteriorated,” said George Martin. “When he got to the stage of people like Tommy Quickly and Michael Haslam, we were going fairly well downhill. [Brian] took on too many. He wasn’t very careful about what he did, thinking the formula would work every time. And it didn’t.”
And while The Beatles continued to ride high, even Epstein’s mainstay acts began to decline in popularity. The Pacemakers last U.K. hit came in 1965, the year the group also starred in the film “Ferry Cross the Mersey.” The film was The Pacemakers’ chance to do “A Hard Day’s Night,” and was shot on location in Liverpool. The title track cracked the U.K. Top 20; unfortunately, due to copyright issues, the film was never released on video or DVD. The group split up in 1966, though Gerry Marsden continued working in television, on stage and as a solo act.
Kramer had a falling out with Epstein when he’d insisted on recording “Little Children” instead of the Lennon-McCartney numbers Epstein had suggested. As Kramer’s singles began charting lower, he split from The Dakotas and began working as a solo act. Cilla Black increasingly moved into theater and television. She still had the occasional Top 40 hit in the U.K., but she never broke through to the U.S. in a big way.
Nonetheless, Epstein continued signing new acts, hoping something would break. He’d signed Cliff Bennett and The Rebel Rousers in 1964; the group’s seventh single, “One Way Love,” reached the U.K. Top 20 in 1964, and they had another chart hit in 1966 with a cover of “Got to Get You Into My Life,” which McCartney produced. Folk group The Silkie also had a hit with a Lennon-McCartney cover, “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away,” produced by Lennon, which actually did better in the U.S. than the U.K. But the group was unable to capitalize on its success; members failed to secure work permits to appear on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” and The Silkie broke up soon after.
The instrumental combo Sounds Incorporated signed with NEMS, opened for The Beatles on tour, and also backed Cilla Black, but it had only moderate chart success on its own. (Though the group’s version of the “William Tell Overture” did crack the charts in Australia).
Paddy, Klaus and Gibson was a group with an interesting pedigree: Paddy Chambers and Gibson Kemp were in Liverpool bands (Chambers in Faron’s Flamingos and The Big Three, Kemp in King Size Taylor and the Dominos), while Klaus Voorman had met The Beatles in Hamburg, where he was an art student (he also designed the “Revolver” album cover). But the group went nowhere.
“I basically don’t think he gave the band anything in management,” said Chambers of Epstein. “I don’t think he had a clue.”
The Cyrkle, a four-piece band from Easton, Pa., (who were named by Lennon) was one of the last acts Epstein signed. The group played on The Beatles’ final U.S. tour and had a Top 20 hit with “Red Rubber Ball” and a Top 40 hit with “Turn-Down Day.”
The Moody Blues might be considered the act that got away. While most acts that were dropped by NEMS (or left on their own accord) failed to go on to bigger things, The Moody Blues enjoyed great success in the late ’60s and early ’70s with classic albums including “Days of Future Passed” and “Every Good Boy Deserves Favour.” But during the group’s time with NEMS, The Moody Blues achieved only moderate hits.
When 1967 began, NEMS’ biggest acts remained The Beatles and Cilla Black. Epstein had taken on a new business partner, Robert Stigwood — a decision he quickly regretted. Stigwood’s tenure with NEMS was brief.
Epstein had purchased The Saville Theater in London’s West End. It soon became a drain on the company’s resources.
Though he negotiated a new contract for The Beatles with their record label, EMI, he worried whether the group would resign its management contract with him, given that the band had decided to stop touring. A dependence on drugs and alcohol also played havoc with his personal life.
But there were positive developments during the year, as well. The Beatles’ newest album, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” released in June, was hailed as a masterpiece. Cilla Black had been offered her own TV series (which featured a Lennon-McCartney theme song, “Step Inside Love”). And Brian himself was offered to opportunity to host a Canadian television show, an engagement he was very much looking forward to.
So his unexpected death on Aug. 27, 1967, came as a profound shock. The cause was an accidental overdose of sleeping pills. For all the subsequent criticisms of the poor business deals Epstein made for his artists (his mishandling of The Beatles’ merchandising in America cost the group huge sums of money), it’s no coincidence that The Beatles began to come apart after Epstein’s death. As Lennon bluntly put it, “I knew that we were in trouble then. I didn’t really have any misconceptions about our ability to do anything other than play music. And I was scared. I thought, ‘We’ve f**kin’ had it.’”
Brian Epstein brought a sense of professionalism to the Liverpool music scene that had previously been lacking. Musicians who never thought it was possible to have a career in music now had someone dedicated to helping them. Although acts didn’t always achieve the success they desired, they were all given a chance they wouldn’t have had otherwise.
And some of the acts signed by Epstein continue to perform today, though sometimes in configurations different from the originals. They include Gerry and the Pacemakers, Billy J. Kramer and The Dakotas, Cilla Black, and The Fourmost. Others continued to work in music. Tom Dawes of The Cyrkle went on to write commercial jingles (most famously Alka Seltzer’s “Plop, plop, fizz, fizz” jingle) and later produced Foghat.
It was Brian Epstein who introduced these acts to the world and helped to make Liverpool, England, the center of the rock universe for a few glorious years in the 1960s.