The history of pop music is littered with nearly men, those figures who parted company with a band just moments before they hit the big time. But Pete Best is undoubtedly the most high-profile. That’s because, until Ringo Starr came along, the gifted drummer was bandmates with John, Paul and George in The Beatles.
Yes, from 1960 until 1962, Best was a valuable member of the Fab Four. But sadly for the Liverpool native, he was deemed surplus to requirements shortly after the group’s debut session in the legendary Abbey Road Studios. So why exactly did The Beatles give him the push?
Well, as you’d expect from a band with such a vast mythology, there are several conflicting reports. But whatever the real reason, Best will, of course, always be remembered as the man who missed out on fame and riches beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. Here’s a look at the fascinating story of the unofficial Fifth Beatle.
Pete Best’s journey to rock and roll near-fame was a rather unconventional one, in fact. Born in the Indian state of Madras in 1941, he spent his early years living in Bombay before moving to Liverpool at the age of four. Tragically, though, he never had the chance to meet his father. That’s because engineer Donald Best lost his life during the Second World War.
Best took up both the guitar and drums at a young age. And after his mother Mona set up a coffee shop in her family’s basement in the late 1950s, the teen was given a golden opportunity to showcase his talents. Best became a regular performer at the Casbah Coffee Club as a member of The Black Jacks.
Best initially intended to pursue a career as a teacher. But that all changed when the group that The Black Jacks had replaced at his mother’s coffee shop returned with a proposition. The band formerly known as The Quarrymen had changed their name to The Silver Beatles, and they now invited Best to play with them at a string of concerts they’d landed in Hamburg, Germany.
Unsurprisingly, Best grabbed the opportunity with both hands. “We were only meant to be away for a month, but that turned into four months, so teaching went out the window,” Best told the Irish Independent in 2018. “I really liked being in the band, and although it was two years of hard graft, we achieved so much.”
Best wasn’t wrong. Within a year the group, who’d now renamed themselves The Beatles, had bagged a record deal with Polydor in Germany, which was considered quite a coup. “Every day was an adventure, and it was a great period of time,” Best recalled.
The Beatles weren’t exactly living a life of luxury at the time, though. In a 2018 interview with The Daily Telegraph, Best revealed that the group stayed in a grotty cinema while in Hamburg and that he was given the worst sleeping quarters. “No lights, no doors, they looked like converted coal bunkers with beds,” he said. “There was a hole knocked out in the middle of the wall so that Paul [McCartney] and I could talk to each other.”
Best has always been keen to credit his mother Mona for the significant part she played in The Beatles’ early success. Speaking about the band’s incredible total of 76 appearances at the Casbah, the drummer recalled, “We ran riot here. The foresight my mum had for the Liverpool music scene was incredible.”
In fact, Mona Best was also instrumental in earning The Beatles a spot at their most famous live haunt: The Cavern. The famous Liverpool venue was, of course, where Brian Epstein regularly turned up to watch the group in full flow. And in 1961 he offered them a contract that would take their career to stratospheric heights.
This early incarnation of The Beatles also featured bassist Stuart Sutcliffe alongside more familiar members George Harrison, Paul McCartney and John Lennon. However, Sutcliffe left the group in 1961 to chase his artistic dreams. Sadly, though, the musician passed away just a year later.
Two months after the death of their former bassist, The Beatles headed into the studio with producer George Martin for their first single, “Love Me Do.” By this point, the band had also signed a deal with EMI Records. But although things appeared to be going smoothly on the surface, behind the scenes it was a different story.
In fact, shortly prior to “Love Me Do” hitting the shelves and launching The Beatles into the public consciousness, Best received some devastating news. The rest of the band had decided that he was out and another drummer, Ringo Starr, was in. However, in a somewhat cowardly move, John, Paul and George left it up to manager Brian Epstein to deliver the message.
“Pete, I don’t know how to tell you this. The boys want you out and it’s already been arranged.” That’s how Epstein delivered the crushing blow to a bewildered Best. However, the manager himself didn’t feel like it was the right decision at the time. In his memoir, A Cellarful of Noise, Epstein revealed he “was not anxious to change the membership of The Beatles at a time when they were developing as personalities.”
Just a few months later, The Beatles scored their first ever U.K. hit with “Love Me Do.” Of course, this was the same song that Best had performed drums on shortly before his surprise sacking. However, for the officially released track, his contribution had been replaced by Ringo Starr’s.
And from then on, The Beatles never looked back. They went on to record a string of seminal albums including Rubber Soul, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Abbey Road. They topped the US Hot 100 a record-breaking 20 times. scored more chart-topping long-players in the U.K. than any other act and picked up seven Grammys before splitting in 1970. Their worldwide album sales total stands at an astonishing 800 million.
So what happened to Pete Best once he got the boot from the band that would go on to define the pop landscape of the 20th century and beyond? Well, undeterred, he continued to record and perform with his own group for more than half a decade, enjoying some success along the way. But he also struggled to deal with his own personal demons, and at the height of the Fab Four’s world domination he tried to take his own life.
Thankfully, Best’s brother Rory and mother Mona managed to save him just in time. The drummer later admitted that his whole view of life changed once the pair had given him “the most sensible talking-to I’ve ever had in my life.” As a result, in 1968 Best decided to give up his musical ambitions and concentrate on his family life with wife Kathy and daughters Bonita and Beba.
Best’s reinvention continued when he subsequently landed a job in the civil service as a training manager. “I think people thought, ‘This guy is human and he’s one of us,’” the one-time Beatle told the Irish Independent. “It was gratifying because I could apply my knowledge and experience to helping them, and show them that there’s light at the end of the tunnel.”
More than two decades passed before Best got up on the stage again. But in 1988 he decided to pick up the sticks once more and perform in a band with his younger sibling Roag for a nostalgic gig in a Liverpool hotel. Although it was only intended as a one-night stand, the group received such a rapturous response that Best decided to resume his musical career full-time.
Best has been a fixture on the music circuit ever since, although his touring schedule inevitably slowed down as he entered his 70s. He’s also kept things in the family by hiring brother Roag as his manager. And then in the mid-1990s he received a major boost when his early songs with The Beatles appeared on the Anthology 1 album.
Best told YM Liverpool in 2018 that he was left completely blindsided by his early Beatles contributions finally being recognized. “It came completely out of the blue,” he said. “I knew Anthology was coming out, but I didn’t pay too much attention to it because I never figured that they would include me on it. But then I got the offer from Apple and, lo and behold, I ended up on ten tracks, which was great.”
“After all these years, it was a bit like, ‘I must have been fairly important to get ten tracks out of 60,’” Best continued. “The bulk of the royalties came through when it was released and it was the icing on the cake after so many years. They keep drib-drabbing in, but you move onto another project.”
Best has also been immortalized on the big screen on several occasions. In 1979 Ryan Michael portrayed the drummer in Birth of the Beatles, a biopic that Best served as an adviser on. Liverpool-born Scot Williams has played Best on two occasions, first in 1994’s Backbeat and then again six years later in In His Life: The John Lennon Story. And in 2008 Best himself made a brief appearance in Rainn Wilson comedy The Rocker.
But the question still remains: why did Paul, John and George feel like they had to make such a drastic change? Well, they may have been persuaded by their producers’ and engineers’ concerns during the band’s early recording sessions. Indeed, George Martin was particularly keen to use a more experienced drummer the next time the group hit the studio.
Best was understandably disappointed about the development. But it was the manner in which he was told that stung the most. The drummer was particularly upset that none of his bandmates had plucked up the courage to fire him in person and had instead left it to their manager to do their dirty work. John Lennon acknowledged years later that the group had been gutless in their approach.
Lennon may have expressed some remorse about the way in which Best was sacked, but he nonetheless always agreed with the decision. “By then we were pretty sick of Pete Best, too, because he was a lousy drummer, you know. He never improved,” the musical icon once said. “There was always this myth being built up over the years that he was great and Paul was jealous of him because he was pretty and all that cr*p.”
Lennon continued to stick the knife in, adding, “And we were always going to dump him when we could find a decent drummer. But the time we all got back from Germany, we’d trained him to keep a stick going up and down four in the bar. He couldn’t do much else, [but] he looked nice and girls liked him, so that was alright.”
George Martin was a little more diplomatic when it came to discussing his involvement in Best’s firing. In an episode of the The Beatles Anthology, the producer said, “They needed a good solid beat, and I said to Brian, ‘Look, it doesn’t matter what you do with the boys, but on record, nobody need know. I’m gonna use a hot drummer.’ Brian [Epstein] said, ‘Okay, fine.’ I felt guilty, because I felt maybe I was the catalyst that had changed his [Best’s] life.”
However, in 2001 Paul McCartney claimed that Best’s drumming wasn’t the reason for him being fired. In the documentary Wingspan, McCartney said that Best was a “really good drummer” but that his personality didn’t really fit in. “He wasn’t quite like the rest of us,” McCartney added. “We had like a sense of humor in common, and he was nearly in with it all, but it’s a fine line.”
Over the years, various other rumors have surfaced about Best’s dismissal. Some fans believe he was ousted due to jealousy over his handsomeness and individuality, for example. Indeed, while Paul, George and John all shared the same hairstyle, Best continued to sport his Tony Curtis-inspired cut. Others argue that Best’s refusal to embrace drug culture also played a part.
Six decades on, though, it seems that Best is still none the wiser about his departure. In 2018, he told YM Liverpool, “To this day, hand on heart, I don’t know the actual reason why. There are plenty of people out there today who are more concerned with why or how I left The Beatles than I am. It happened nearly 60 years ago, and my life has progressed the way that it has done in show business, and I’m happy.”
Nonetheless, Best doesn’t appear to harbor any ill feelings towards the surviving Beatles. In 2018 he told The Daily Telegraph that he’s still open to talking to McCartney for what would be the first time in over 50 years. “Paul has always hinted that he’d like to meet up,” Best said. “The door’s always been wide open. I’m not the guilty person, you know? Whether he wants to do it on a public basis or a private one, it’s his call.”
When asked what he would say to his former bandmate, Best claimed that he wouldn’t be interested in reopening old wounds. “We’re senior statesmen now,” Best explained. “How many years we’ve got left on the planet is really predictable. Let’s talk about things in general. Stick a bottle of Scotch on the table and let’s have a good old bash.”
Indeed, Best has refused to let the disappointment of his dismissal define his life. “A lot of people have said, ‘Oh you must be very bitter about it.’ But no, bitter is too strong a pill,” he told the Irish Independent in 2018. “I am hurt because of how it happened, though, and the fact that I’d been loyal to them for two years and we’d done so much together.”
“There comes a moment in your life where you realize that it’s no good reflecting on what has happened all of the time, though,” Best added. “I think that if you do that, you will end up being bitter and twisted. So you have to forget about it and move on.”
In fact, Best claims that the setback of missing out on the Fab Four’s success has proved to be an inspiration. Asked about witnessing The Beatles’ rise to fame, he replied, “People ask if it kills me seeing that, and there was a bit of heartbreak because of what could have been. But for me it was more of an incentive to prove to them and other people that I’m not broken and I can achieve success, too.”
And as a father of two and grandfather of four, Best acknowledges that he’s been very fortunate when it comes to his private life. “I relish being a family man,” he told the Irish Independent. “No matter where I’ve been or what I’m doing, it’s nice to come back and see the wife and daughters again and grab hold of the grandkids.”
As well as performing Fab Four classics in his eponymous band, Best has also embraced his Beatles past in a stage production. In 2018 he played himself in a comedy staged at a theatre named after his former manager Brian Epstein. Lennon’s Banjo depicts the quest to find the eponymous instrument that John Lennon was once taught how to master.