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Allen Klein dies at 77; powerful figure in music world

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Allen Klein, the brash music mogul whose five-decade career included stints as the business manager for the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, died Saturday in New York. He was 77.

Klein died after a lengthy battle with Alzheimer's disease, according to Bob Merlis, a spokesman for Klein's ABKCO Music & Records. The independent label owns or controls the rights to music by the Rolling Stones, Sam Cooke, the Animals, the Kinks, Chubby Checker and Bobby Womack, among others.

Klein was a firebrand figure who worked with some of the biggest names in music but also made enemies out of many of them. He is known best, perhaps, for his role as manager of the Beatles late in their career, and his hiring was a major subplot in the band's sour breakup, with Paul McCartney objecting to his presence and style.

Klein reveled in his bare-knuckle reputation. He even perched a small sign on his desk: "Though I walk in the valley of the shadow of evil, I have no fear, as I am the biggest bastard in the valley."

The former New Jersey accountant became an archetype of sorts in the music industry. John Belushi, for instance, spoofed Klein by playing Ron Decline in the 1978 Rutles television movie "All You Need Is Cash." It was more personal when John Lennon -- who had been Klein's champion in the Beatles days -- aimed the harsh lyrics of "Steel and Glass" at Klein in 1974:

There you stand with your L.A. tan

And your New York walk and your New York talk.

Your mother left you when you were small

But you're gonna wish you wasn't born at all.

Klein, the youngest of four children of Hungarian immigrants, was born in Newark, N.J., on Dec. 18, 1931. His mother died before his first birthday, and three years later his father, a butcher, placed the boy and two siblings in an orphanage. At 9, he was back in the care of family as his grandmother and aunt tended to him.

Klein studied accounting at Upsala College in East Orange, N.J., and served a stint in the Army before landing a clerking job at the firm of Prager & Fenton in Manhattan.

Klein entered the music industry in the 1950s and founded the company that would become ABKCO late in that decade. His reputation, though, was shaped in the early 1960s by a chance meeting with Bobby Darin at a wedding and his promise to the singer that he could produce $100,000 for him merely by audits of unpaid royalties. Whether he made full delivery on that promise is disputed, but the audacity of it began the Klein success story.

"It was really happenstance that I got into the music business," Klein told the Star-Ledger of Newark in 2002. "I never wanted to be a manager. It was going over the books that I loved. And I was good at it."

Klein began working with Cooke in 1963 and in later years would proudly point to his role in the singer's deal with RCA Records that gave Cooke the ownership of his master recordings, an industry rarity, through the company called Tracey Records. After Cooke's death, however, Klein would eventually end up in control of the company.

Klein was also co-manager of the Rolling Stones for the second half of the 1960s and wrangled them a better deal with Decca Records. Recounting the negotiations for the Star-Ledger, Klein said he advised his clients to glower: "I told them to follow me into the room, but not say a word. Just look angry, and I'll do all the talking. They listened. And it worked."

That relationship took a turn for the worse, though, even though Stones star Mick Jagger had recommended Klein to the Beatles. Klein, ever the deft businessman, walked away from his three-year Stones tenure owning the rights to the band's recordings and copyrights from the 1960s. He had acquired them for $1.25 million from the Stones' previous management without the knowledge of the band members.

Years of legal battles would follow. Jagger, testifying in court in Manhattan in 1984, said he learned what it was like to be across the negotiating table from Klein: "What did he want from us? Apart from the moon, I don't know. He wanted everything. He wanted a hold on us, on our futures."

Robert Hilburn, former pop music critic for The Times, said Klein had a passion for the music of stars he worked with, especially Cooke and iconic producer Phil Spector, and that he could be "seductive and sweet as a tough guy, not unlike Bill Graham," another memorable figure in the music business of the 1960s and '70s.

Klein "touched on so many of the huge, important figures of the era, the Beatles, Stones, Spector and Cooke," Hilburn said, adding that it is "troubling to consider" that so many of the relationships ended in acrimony.

Klein's most notorious business relationship was tense from Day One. The Beatles in 1969 were in bad need of a steadying business mind; their previous manager, Brian Epstein, had died in 1967, and the handling of their interests and ventures had become a ragged committee affair.

The band members by that point were increasingly possessed by maverick interests, however, and the decision on whom to bring in as manager led to a major feud. McCartney wanted his father-in-law, Lee Eastman, while Lennon was smitten with the streetwise Klein. Lennon won over George Harrison and Ringo Starr, and Klein was hired. It was, in the eyes of McCartney and many Fab Four historians, a moment of rupture for the group, which would break up publicly in 1970.

A year later Klein worked with Harrison to stage the Concert for Bangladesh show, a key moment in the history of rock altruism even though convoluted tax issues held up the much-needed money for years. Later in the decade, Klein had his own tax issues, which led to a tax evasion conviction in 1979.

Klein is survived by his wife, Betty, and their three children, Robin, Jody and Beth, as well four grandchildren and his sister, Naomi. He is also survived by his longtime companion, Iris Keitel.

Services are Tuesday at Riverside Memorial Chapel in New York. Instead of flowers, the family has asked for donations to the Alzheimer's Assn. of New York or the Juvenile Diabetes Assn.

geoff.boucher@latimes.com

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