Beatles’ friend and first road manager

Times Staff Writer

Neil Aspinall, a lifelong pal of the Beatles from their scuffling days in Liverpool who became their road manager and then spent nearly 40 years as the chief protector of the group’s recorded legacy as head of Apple Corps, has died. He was 66.

Aspinall died Sunday night of lung cancer at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, where he’d been treated since being diagnosed with the disease two months ago. He had stepped down last year after almost four decades running Apple Corps, where he led the company’s ultimately unsuccessful trademark infringement lawsuit against Steve Jobs’ Apple Inc.

“Neil’s trusting stewardship and guidance has left a far-reaching legacy for generations to come,” said a statement released Monday by Apple Corps on behalf of Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr and the widows of John Lennon and George Harrison, Yoko Ono and Olivia Harrison. “All his friends and loved ones will greatly miss him but will always retain the fondest memories of a great man.”

Aspinall, whose early role for the Beatles was driving them from gig to gig in a cramped van, conceived the “Anthology” project that ignited a new wave of Beatlemania in the 1990s and sold nearly 8 million copies of the three double-CD sets that accompanied the TV series.


He helped realize George Harrison’s dying wish for a final collaboration among the surviving Beatles, facilitating the participation of longtime Beatles producer George Martin and his son, Giles, to oversee the musical mash-up soundtrack for Cirque du Soleil’s show “Love” in Las Vegas.

He also was executive producer of the “1" hits collection, which jolted many in the music industry when it debuted at No. 1 on the national sales chart in 2000 and went on to spend eight weeks at the top of the chart. The “1" album has sold more than 11 million copies in the U.S., according to Nielsen SoundScan, and in excess of 30 million worldwide.

Much of the credit for the resounding commercial success of “1" belonged to Jeff Ayeroff, the veteran music executive who oversaw the album’s marketing campaign, pointing up the characterization of Aspinall’s career having more to do with his undying loyalty to the Beatles than with his business or marketing acumen.

Yet while those projects introduced the Fab Four’s music to new generations of fans, Aspinall staunchly resisted licensing their recordings for downloading over the Internet, downplaying fan and retailer requests for sonically upgraded CDs and even squelching attempts for a “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” box set in conjunction with last year’s 40th anniversary of the landmark album’s release.

“While fans complained that Apple was slow to move into the digital age and that the core Beatles catalog went more than 20 years without being updated and remastered, Neil was responsible for bringing Apple back to life in the ‘90s with several key releases,” Beatles historian and author Bruce Spizer said Monday. “ ‘Live at the BBC’ contains several Beatles recordings of songs not on their EMI/Capitol albums. The ‘Anthology’ video and albums, which evolved from a film project started by Neil in late 1969 or early 1970, have numerous [previously] unreleased live and studio recordings.”

Whether or not they agreed with all his business decisions, those who knew Aspinall marveled at the enormousness -- some said the impossibility -- of his appointed task of reaching consensus on any project among four parties who were at odds for most of the last 40 years.

Neil Stanley Aspinall was born Oct. 10, 1941, in Prestatyn, Wales. He met future Beatles McCartney and Harrison while they were students at the Liverpool Institute for Boys. There they formed the Mad Lad gang, boys who would sneak smokes behind the institute’s sheds. After McCartney met Lennon and joined his band the Quarrymen, they made Lennon a Mad Lad as well.

Aspinall also went down in Beatles history as the man who stayed with the group even after manager Brian Epstein fired Aspinall’s closest friend, drummer Pete Best, when Lennon, McCartney and Harrison decided they wanted crosstown rival Ringo Starr on the drums. It was a particularly trying time for Aspinall because he was renting a room at Best’s house and had become romantically involved with Best’s mother, Mona, who was 17 years older than Aspinall. Their long-term affair produced a child, Vincent Roag Best, who was about 3 weeks old when Pete Best was booted from the group.

After siding with the band in replacing Best, Aspinall stayed on as road manager during the height of worldwide Beatlemania, and after Epstein died in 1967, the bandmates turned to Aspinall to take the reins of their business affairs.

“Neil managed to stay with Apple for so many years because he was someone the Beatles and their wives trusted,” Spizer said.

When Steve Jobs decided in the 1970s to call his then-new computer company “Apple,” Aspinall led the trademark fight, arguing that the firm had usurped the Beatles’ well-known company name and fresh-fruit logo.

A 1981 court ruling ceded the Beatles the rights to the logo for music and performances but allowed Jobs’ firm to use it for computers and software. The issue resurfaced in recent years after new technology made it possible to create, store and distribute music with computers over the Internet.

That suit was settled last year, with Jobs’ company winning the right to use both the name and the logo in connection with music distribution. About two months after the settlement was announced, Apple Corps announced that Aspinall would step down and be replaced by Sony BMG executive Jeff Jones.

“He vigorously fought to protect the Beatles franchise,” historian Spizer said Monday, “often giving the impression he was more concerned with litigation and licensing than with the musical legacy of the group. . . . Although fans wished Neil had authorized more music and video projects while at Apple, one must be impressed with the high quality of what was issued under his direction.”

He is survived by his wife of 40 years, Suzy, their four children, and Roag Best. No plans for services have been announced.