Neil Aspinall, the 'fifth Beatle', dies aged 66

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The Independent Culture

He managed Apple records, sang in the chorus of "Yellow Submarine" and was known affectionately within the music industry as the "real fifth Beatle". Few people had such an intimate knowledge of the world's most famous band as Neil Aspinall, who died yesterday in a New York hospital after a short illness.

Aspinall, 66, was joined in his final moments by his long-standing friend Sir Paul McCartney, who flew from Britain on Sunday to be at his bedside. In a statement released by Apple Corps, McCartney and Ringo Starr described him as a great man. "As a loyal friend, confidant and chief executive, Neil's trusting stewardship and guidance has left a far-reaching legacy for generations to come," said the statement, which was also issued on behalf of Yoko Ono. "All his friends and loved ones will greatly miss him but will always retain the fondest memories of a great man."

Aspinall, who is survived by his wife Suzy and five children, went to school with McCartney and George Harrison at the Liverpool Institute for Boys. He abandoned his plans to study to be an accountant when the Beatles were formed, agreeing to become the band's road manager and assistant, and often driving the quartet to their gigs in his battered blue Commer van.

Although he had no formal music training, Aspinall played a variety of percussion instruments on the Beatles' Magical Mystery Tour album, and sang the chorus of "Yellow Submarine".

An undoubtedly talented businessman – the Beatles' combined fortune is unlikely to have reached its estimated £2bn without him – Aspinall also had a reputation as a bit of a joker. John Lennon claimed that the pair smoked marijuana in the lavatories of Buckingham Palace in 1965, where they had been invited to collect their MBEs.

After overseeing the Fab Four's rise to fame, he accepted a management role at Apple, the Beatles' record label. Despite saying he would remain in the job only "until they found someone else", Aspinall held the post for almost 40 years, becoming chief executive of Apple Corps – the guardian of the Beatles' commercial interests – before finally standing down last April.

His real accomplishments did not come until after the band broke up, when he worked at ensuring the continuing success of the Beatles brand. Acquiring the rights to photo and video material featuring the band, much of which would subsequently be used in books and television documentaries, was perhaps his canniest deal of all.

As head of the company, he presided over the release of the three successful anthology albums, and the greatest hits collection, One. He also supervised the worldwide marketing of official Beatles merchandise.

A reputedly hard-nosed businessman who remained fiercely loyal to the Fab Four, Aspinall was at the centre of an argument over image infringement rights between Apple Corps and the similarly-named computer company Apple Inc. The Beatles were awarded more than £13.5m before the case was eventually settled. He also supervised a dispute over royalties between the band and the music company EMI.