SUSAN STAMBERG, host:
Neil Aspinall was sometimes called the fifth Beatle. Who? Neil Aspinall, a close friend and business associate of the Fab Four from their Liverpool days onward. At first, he drove the guys from show to show. He became their road manager, accounting, and consigliere. He ended up running their vast business empire Apple Corps. Neil Aspinall died of lung cancer this week in New York City. He was 66.
As a Beatles scholar, Martin Lewis has been studying John, Paul, George, and Ringo, and Neil for 40 years. He's in our New York Bureau.
So, so many Beatles fans have never heard of Neil Aspinall. How is that?
Mr. MARTIN LEWIS (Beatles Scholar): Neil Aspinall was possibly that rarest of breeds in the entertainment industry, somebody who sought no glory what-so-ever for himself. He was a faithful servant to the Beatles from 1961 onwards, but he really never sought the lime-light.
The diehard fans heard of him and knew his name because the Beatles would refer to Neil and his other cohorts as a road manager in the early days. They'd refer to him in interviews, so the diehard Beatle fans know the name. And those who are business junkies, I suppose, who have followed the fortunes of the Beatles' Apple empire over the last 30 years, also know the name. But the vast majority of people who love the Beatles probably have never heard the name.
STAMBERG: Mm-hmm. Well, what can you tell us about what his personal relationships were like with the band?
Mr. LEWIS: Neil Aspinall was training to be an accountant. And in 1961, that was probably a more lucrative field of employment than being the road manager to a pop group.
Mr. LEWIS: The average shelf-life might have been about two and a half years. But he was struck by the Beatles. He felt there was something there and he enjoyed their company and he gave up his accountancy studies, which was unheard of. You weren't supposed to do that in those days, and not for something as peripheral and frivolous as pop music.
But he was dedicated to them and he started, as you mentioned, as their road manager. The term roadie had not even been coined. And he soon became much more of a traditional road manager. He was a confidante and crucially, he kept their confidences. He never gave up, not in those early days in the '60s, nor any time since, never told you anything about them, unless he thought it was appropriate.
STAMBERG: That's interesting. Never wrote a memoir after the band broke up, eh?
Mr. LEWIS: There were people who have - you'd meet people and five minutes later they've written a memoir.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. LEWIS: Neil Aspinall stayed in their employ and after the Beatles broke up in late 1969, early 1970, he was running, in a nominal sense, their Apple company.
He was in a sense a caretaker, and he said at the time, I'll run this until you find somebody who knows how to do it. But he had something that was really important. He had loyalty that he proved over the proceeding eight or nine years and he was trusted by all four members. Now, at the time, if you remember when the Beatles broke up, there was some acrimony amongst them.
Mr. LEWIS: And he was about the only thing they all four could agree on. They all knew one thing - that Neil Aspinall would never let them down, he'd never rip them off, he'd never betray them. And that made him more important than anybody with an MBA. For most people, being involved, looking after the Beatles' affairs would be a stepping stone. For Neil Aspinall, the Beatles were the stone.
Mr. LEWIS: There was no stepping stone to anything else. He simply was there in service to them.
STAMBERG: And what had he accomplished when he was head of Apple?
Mr. LEWIS: The first few years after the breakup of the Beatles were much more the role of the sentinel, custodian, tidying up the loose ends, and there were at least five or six years of legal ranglings. He was trying to sort out various complications in their recording and film agreements, and he acted really like a curator.
But as time went by, he had other thoughts in his mind and that was how the legacy should and could be extended and honored. But that curating work and gathering together of materials was to pay dividends. In the mid-'80s he settled, finally, some long-standing battles that had been going on with the Beatles' record company, EMI, Capitol Records in America. He settled those differences and made it possible for the Beatles' catalog to come out on CD. The Beatles were actually among the last of the major artists to have their catalog released on CD, but that was because Neil Aspinall was determined to use the opportunity as leverage to get secure - to secure better rights for the Beatles on their recordings, which is what he did.
And something very crucial happened. The Beatles discovered that they had a young audience again. It wasn't just aging baby boomers like myself that was enjoying the Beatles' recordings and films, it was a whole, new generation.
STAMBERG: Is there an appropriate Beatles' song, Mr. Lewis, that might commemorate that relationship Neil Aspinall had with the Beatles?
Mr. LEWIS: In 1965, proving that he was a very old soul at a young age, John Lennon wrote a song called "In My Life," which was a reflection and recollection of friends including those who had recently passed. And I think given his friendship and the depth of his relationship with the Beatles, I think that would be a very appropriate song.
STAMBERG: Martin Lewis. This weekend, he is in New York City hosting the annual Beatlefest Convention. Thank you, Mr. Lewis.
Mr. LEWIS: My pleasure.
(Soundbite of song, "In My Life")
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.