There is a piece of Beatles history you've likely never heard before because, according to two filmmakers behind a new documentary, it doesn’t fit within the official story of The Beatles™ as sanctioned by Apple Records.
Tony Guma and John Rose are the team behind The Sixth Beatle, a film that attempts to shed light on what they’re claiming is the last untold story of the Beatles, and which received its Canadian debut at the Toronto International Film Festival this month. Their subject is Sam Leach, one of the Fab Four’s early managers during their days when they were one of Liverpool’s most popular local bands, but a man whose role in the band’s rise has been cleaned from the history books, relegated to nothing more than a footnote. Even that footnote is something he’d probably rather forget, as the only mention you will find of Sam Leach in the sprawling amount of Beatles’ information on Wikipedia refers to what is known by fans as the “Aldershot disaster.” Leach had booked the band at a hall in Aldershot, just outside of London. It was to be the Beatles' big London breakout concert, their very first time playing the south, but after the local paper failed to run Leach’s advertisement, only 18 people showed up to watch “Liverpool’s No. 1 rock outfit,” as they were billed on the poster.
Shortly after that gig, Leach was fired, replaced by Brian Epstein, while drummer Pete Best was replaced by Ringo Starr. Then the Beatles became nothing less than the biggest band in the history of popular music. While a new Ron Howard doc, Eights Days a Week, focuses on the touring years (1962-66) of the group, the Sixth Beatle attempts to fill in the holes of the pre-fame Beatles, and shine a spotlight on the people who made it possible for the band to thrive in what was then known as Liverpool’s Merseybeat scene.
“Sam was the pulse of the Merseybeat, everything he did, others copied,” John Lennon once said, as reported in the biography When They Were Boys, which chalks up Leach’s absence from the Beatles history as an “incredulous historical revision.”
In the '80s, Guma and Rose were in a band called the Kids, which was managed by Leach, who had moved on out of necessity but could never let go of the fact that he was denied his place in history.
“He told us all these wild stories about managing the Beatles, and Jon [Rose] bought into it right away, but I always thought more like, right, maybe this guy is out of his mind a little and just saw them once on the street,” says Guma.
When Guma and Rose teamed up to start making films 10 years ago, they decided to pursue the Leach story, travelling to Liverpool to interview as many people as they could that were close to the Beatles during that time, from other bands to agents to ex-drummer Pete Best and his mom and manager, Mona, who gave the Beatles one of their first opportunities to play live.
“We found out that Sam was even more happening than he said,” says Guma.
The film deals with Leach’s role in getting the Beatles to the place where they became Liverpool’s biggest band. That includes organizing Operation Big Beat, a concert at the Tower Ballroom headlined by the Beatles, their biggest crowd at the time and a pivotal moment in launching them to bigger things.
In the film, Leach is seen walking by the site of the now demolished Ballroom, noting that the plaque commemorating the Beatles concert there doesn’t mention the man who booked it. “They can’t even put my name on the f--king plaque,” he says.
As the film suggests — and this is the point where the schism with the Beatles camp begins — Leach’s absence was an intentional slight by Brian Epstein, an upper class businessman and record store owner from Liverpool who, as the official story goes, “discovered” the Beatles playing the Cavern Club and recognized their potential for greater things. A shrewd businessman and a bit of an outsider in working-class Liverpool (not only was he wealthy and well dressed, but he was also Jewish and gay), the film claims that Epstein used backhanded maneuvers to oust key people from the Beatles’ life, whether it was Leach, Allan Williams (an agent who first got the Beatles booked in Hamburg), or Mona Best, whose son, Pete, Epstein fired from the band.
In fact, as much as The Sixth Beatle is about Leach, it’s also about all of the above people who helped make the Beatles what they became.
“It’s a metaphor,” says Guma. “Any one of them could fit that. It's a jigsaw puzzle, there is no one person responsible for the Beatles' rise throughout Liverpool and globally.”
Adds co-filmmaker Rose: “Our official take is that Sam is the sixth Beatle, but there are others.”
It’s a contentious enough issue that Mark Lewisohn, one of the foremost Beatles historians, asked to be removed from the film after seeing the final cut (presumably because of how negatively it portrays Epstein). It screened at TIFF with him included, and Guma and Rose's hope is that they can come to an understanding.
“He never gave specific notes or ideas, he just came back and said I don’t believe the guys that were there, I believe my research more than I believe these old talking heads,” says Rose. “He says in the film that Liverpool is full of 'wonderful storytellers and extraordinary liars.' We're letting people know. They are on notice.”
Leach also reached out to Paul McCartney to be included in the film, but the request didn’t receive a reply. In fact, McCartney has never, on record, addressed Leach’s role, nor his claim that Epstein sought to erase Leach's role from history. Macca has, however, kept in touch with Leach, even sending him tickets to his show whenever he plays Liverpool.
“It’s not easy to bring new information about the Beatles and challenge a 50-year story,” says Guma, who clarifies that they don’t want to diminish Epstein’s pivotal role in the group’s success, even if several of the talking heads in their documentary try to do just that. “Sam couldn’t have even done what Brian did, and he says that himself. He was happy to be a stepping stone on the Beatles' path to glory. But they weren’t discovered by Epstein, they were already well on their way. They were that good. Whether it was Epstein, Sam, Allan Williams, Mona Best or the milkman managing them, they were going to become famous.”
Leach, now in his 80s, just wants the credit he’s due, which is the main thing this film seeks to give.
“I wanted him to sit back before his times comes and say, you know what, maybe some people do know what I did,” says Guma. “I think he's finally getting that satisfaction. He'll know his legacy is floating out there.”
Follow Jesse Kinos-Goodin on Twitter: @JesseKG