Legendary Beatles photographer and muse, Astrid Kirchherr — the fiancee of bassist Stuart Sutcliffe — died of cancer on May 12th, only days before her 82nd birthday, according to NME. Kirchherr, along with then- boyfriend and future solo Beatles sideman, Klaus Voormann, first discovered the Beatles in October 1960 when they were playing their first residency in Hamburg, Germany at the Kaiserkeller in the seedy red light district of the city's infamous Reeperbahn. She, Voormann, and a third friend, photographer Jurgen Vollmer, became the band's first true believers. It was Kirchherr's early photographs that have defined the band's pre-fame, leather-clad days.
Astrid Kirchherr was responsible for inspiring the change from greased pompadours into the “mop top” — as well as embracing suede and collarless jackets. Her life with the Beatles was spotlighted in the 1994 movie, Backbeat.
She and Stuart Sutcliffe, the Beatles' first bassist, were engaged until his death of a cerebral hemorrhage in April 1962. He had left the band to study art and lived with Astrid and her mother at the time of his death. She remained very close with the other Beatles — vacationing with Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr in 1963; spending time with them on the set of A Hard Days Night in 1964; and again when the band returned to the Hamburg in 1966. Although she never photographed them for an album cover, photographer Robert Freeman aped Kirchherr's signature half-shadowed faces for both 1963's With The Beatles and 1964's A Hard Days Night. Kirchherr went on to provide the back portrait of George Harrison for his 1968 solo debut, Wonderwall Music.
Between 1967 and 1974 was married to British drummer Gibson Kemp, who was in the Brian Epstein-managed group, Paddy, Klaus & Gibson. Kirchherr was married once more, with that union also ending in divorce, and according to several sources has no living relatives.
After years of seeing her iconic works being used without permission, she began publishing high-end books of her photos — including 1994's Liverpool Days, 1996's Golden Dreams, 1999's Hamburg Days with Klaus Voormann, 2007's When We Was Fab, 2008's Yesterday: The Beatles Once Upon A Time, and 2010's Astrid Kirchherr: A Retrospective. In 2011, Kirchherr sold the rights to her collection to a private collector and retired.
The Beatles extended family passed along online tributes to Kirchherr:
Pete Best: “Absolutely stunned to hear the news of Astrid passing. God bless you love. We shared some wonderful memories and the most amazing fun times. Condolences to family and friends, Pete (Petey)”
Ringo Starr: “God bless Astrid a beautiful human being And she took great photos peace and love”
Pattie Boyd: “We lose another piece of the story with Astrid's passing. Her images are truly iconic and she was a great friend to the boys. George, in particular, was very fond of her. RIP Astrid. p”
Julian Lennon: “Rest In Peace Astrid”
Olivia Harrison: “Astrid is and was the sweetest woman, so thoughtful and kind and talented, with an eye to capture a soul. Our family loved her and none more than George. I am truly saddened but honoured to have known her. Olivia”
Dhani Harrison: “Dearest Astrid, I really wish I could have spent more time with you in this life. You were always so kind and loving towards me. May God bless you always.”
During a recent chat with NPR, Astrid Kirchherr recalled first laying eyes on the Beatles in October 1960 in Hamburg, Germany: “The Reeperbahn is not a place where young ladies in the 1950's or '60s were to go there. It was not a nice place to go. But one night, I said, 'Alright, I come with you.' So, we went there, and when I went down the stairs and looked at the stage, I was just amazed at how beautiful these boys looked. And being a photographer then, it was a photographer's dream; in fact it was my dream, because I always thought to take pictures of young boys who looked like them. And then, when I heard the music, it was even more fantastic for me. So, ever (since) that first night, I went nearly every night to see them, and that's how it started.”
George Harrison's first wife, Pattie Boyd, shed light on the importance of Astrid Kirchherr and Klaus Voormann on the pre-fame “Fab Four”: “Very talented, Klaus. He had a girlfriend many years ago, called Astrid Kirchherr and they lived in Hamburg. And they were the first to recognize the Beatles' creative potential. Astrid took a lot of photographs of them, and together recognized that the Beatles were unique. And I think they were really — beside Brian Epstein — they are the two people that are major contributors to their — not really creativity, but just, y'know, helped to their look.”
George Harrison recalled the thrill of hitting Hamburg in 1960 as a working musician and being let off the leash for the first time in his life: “Everything else was such a buzz, y'know, being right in the middle of the naughtiest city in the world at 17-years-old. It was kind of exciting, and learning about, y'know, there's all the gangsters, there's the transvestites, and there's the hookers. . . ”
Howie Edelson the co-host of the cutting edge hit Beatles podcast Fabcast, recently devoted an entire episode to the band's Hamburg era. In the show, titled “Leather,” which delves deep into the Beatles' pre-fame period that included Astrid. He explained how the group's pre-fame Hamburg recordings were shaped by the band's live work in Germany: “Y'know, they're so tight. Even with a lousy drummer, they're still so tight, and their harmonies — that's the thing also; they knew how to work a mic. The way they moved their bodies around a mic. They knew how to do this thing from hours and hours and hours on stage. Work — standing up — work! They're 19-years-old, 20-years-old; no nights off — 'we're on tonight, this is what we're doing with our lives' — everybody else was working in a factory and then going to a bar.”
AUDIO: FABCAST HOWIE EDELSON ON THE BEATLES LEARNING THEIR CRAFT
AUDIO: GEORGE HARRISON ON THE HAMBURG EXPERIENCE
AUDIO: PATTIE BOYD ON ASTRID KIRRCHERR AND KLAUS VOORMANN
AUDIO: NPR ASTRID KIRCHHERR ON FIRST SEEING THE BEATLES