April 10, 2007 / 2:07 PM / 12 years ago

"Fifth Beatle" Aspinall quits top job

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - The reclusive, hard-nosed businessman who oversaw the Beatles’ complex financial interests has left their organisation after more than 40 years, the group said on Tuesday.

In this file photo a pedestrian passes a large advertising display in west London for a recently released Beatles music compilation album "Love", December 29, 2006. The Beatles' Apple Corps said on Tuesday it chose music executive Jeff Jones to become chief executive officer and said longtime manager Neil Aspinall was leaving the company. REUTERS/Toby Melville

Neil Aspinall, 64, a Liverpool native who started out as the band’s driver, will be replaced as head of Apple Corps. Ltd. by Jeff Jones, an American music industry executive who specialises in deluxe reissues of classic albums.

Jones, who will take the title of CEO — Aspinall disdained formal titles — will relocate to London, where Apple runs a small headquarters.

Aspinall was so closely identified with the Fab Four that he was often called “the fifth Beatle” — an accolade also given to the likes of manager Brian Epstein, session musician Billy Preston and producer Sir George Martin.

“He was there since the inception of the band in Liverpool and has meant so much to the Beatles’ family for all these years and still does,” said a statement released by Apple in London. “However, he has decided to move on. “

Aspinall’s departure surprised Beatle fans, but people with knowledge of the handover said it had been in the works for a while, and that it was amicable.

Jones, 51, the executive vice president of Sony BMG Music Entertainment’s Legacy Recordings division, said in a statement that the job was a “dream come true ... The multiple opportunities to reach music lovers, both new and old, with the Beatles’ spectacular body of work makes this position incredibly challenging and exciting.”

A combative, media-shy executive fiercely protective of the Beatles’ legacy and Apple Corps Ltd., Aspinall kept busy in recent years waging a legal battle against computer company Apple Inc. over their similar logos.

A bigger issue was the Beatles’ noted refusal to license tunes to online retailers, such as the technology firm’s iTunes store.

KEEPING THE PEACE

With a settlement announced in February — Apple Inc. gets all the trademarks related to Apple but licenses certain trademarks back to the band — hopes were raised that the Beatles would enter cyberspace. But no announcements have been forthcoming, and Aspinall’s departure was unlikely to speed things along, said people close to the situation.

Indeed, Aspinall’s job over the years was to second-guess and keep the peace among his four bosses: Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, John Lennon’s widow Yoko Ono and George Harrison’s widow Olivia Harrison.

His slow-and-sensible approach to the band’s affairs paid off in the 1980s when compact discs were introduced. He refused to join the rush, and held out for a higher royalty rate. The band’s crowning moment, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band,” finally came out on CD in 1987, amid a worldwide publicity blitz marking the album’s 20th anniversary.

Aspinall was also the main reason why Beatles tracks are not heard on multi-artist compilation CDs, because he said they cheapened the band’s image.

He spent his entire adult life in the service of the Fab Four. A trainee accountant, he became the band’s driver and first road manager in 1961 at the behest of his friend Pete Best, the band’s original drummer. He wisely stayed with the Beatles after Best was replaced by Ringo Starr.

When the Beatles launched Apple Corps. in 1968, Aspinall was put in charge. He managed to survive the company’s chaotic beginnings, when millions of dollars of waste almost drove the group to bankruptcy.

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