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55 Years Ago: Paul McCartney Plays Bass With the Beatles for the First Time

Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Every journey begins with a single step, and Paul McCartney‘s first step toward becoming one of the most influential and widely admired bassists in rock ‘n’ roll started with him being browbeaten into taking the job.

The switch happened for the first time on Jan. 5, 1961, after the Beatles got back from an ill-fated few months in Germany that ended with three band members being deported back to the U.K. while bassist Stu Sutcliffe stayed behind to be with his girlfriend, artist Astrid Kirchherr. Although they’d found a fill-in for their previous gig, enlisting bassist Chas Newby, he declined their offer to stay on, leaving the band again in search of a replacement.

As McCartney explained in a 1995 interview with Bass Player, it wasn’t exactly considered a glamorous gig. “None of us wanted to be the bass player,” he admitted. “It wasn’t the number-one job, we wanted to be up front. In our minds, it was the fat guy in the group who nearly always played the bass, and he stood at the back. None of us wanted that; we wanted to be up front singing, looking good, to pull the birds.”

Rather than campaigning for the role, as at least one Beatles biographer later claimed, McCartney fell into it by virtue of bad fortune. Initially coming into the group as lead guitarist, he was bumped back to rhythm after he had problems playing solos onstage — and when the guitar he’d been using in Germany fell apart, he moved to piano. Stuck for a bassist, the other Beatles came to the only natural conclusion.

“It was like, Uh-oh, we haven’t got a bass player. And everyone sort of turned ’round and looked at me. I was a bit lumbered with it, really,” said McCartney. “It was like, ‘Well … it’d better be you then.’ I don’t think you would have caught John doing it; he would have said, ‘No, you’re kidding. I’ve got a nice new Rickenbacker!’ I was playing piano and didn’t even have a guitar at the time, so I couldn’t really say that I wanted to be a guitarist.”

Though Sutcliffe would shortly resume his place in the lineup, his return was temporary. Engaged to Kircherr and drawn to the visual arts, he quit the Beatles and enrolled at the Hamburg College of Art, leaving McCartney to move back to the bass. And although he initially had to be pushed into making the move, he quickly took to his new instrument, particularly after absorbing the more melodically adventurous techniques being explored by Motown legend James Jamerson and Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys.

“I started to realize the power the bass player had within the band. Not vengeful power — it was just that you could actually control it,” he explained. “I then started to identify with other bass players and talk bass with the guys in the bands. When we met Elvis, he was trying to learn bass, so I was like, ‘You’re trying to learn bass, are you son? Sit down, let me show you a few things.’ So I was very proud of being the bass player.”

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