LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Infamous record label owner Allen Klein, who played a key role in the demise of the Beatles and also nabbed control of some of the Rolling Stones' best-known songs, died in New York on Saturday after a battle with Alzheimer's disease, a spokesman said. He was 77.
During a career spanning more than 50 years, the New Jersey-born accountant enjoyed a reputation as a savvy gangster-like figure. His ruthless business practices were reviled by many, but he also earned grudging respect for bullying labels into giving rich deals to his clients.
"Don't talk to me about ethics," he told Playboy magazine in 1971. "Every man makes his own. It's like a war. You choose your side early and from then on, you're being shot at. The man you beat is likely to call you unethical. So what?"
It did not hurt his reputation when he was sentenced to two months in prison in 1979 for tax evasion.
He once said John Lennon hired him to protect his interest in the Beatles because he and wife Yoko Ono wanted "a real shark -- someone to keep the other sharks away."
His company, ABKCO Music & Records, is one of the biggest independent labels in an industry controlled by multinational corporations. The spokesman said it would remain family-controlled. Two of Klein's three adult children work at the company, including son Jody who runs ABKCO. (The acronym stands for Allen and Betty Klein Co., Betty being his wife.)
Its assets include recordings by the Rolling Stones, the Animals, Herman's Hermits, Bobby Womack, the Kinks, Chubby Checker, Bobby Rydell and many others.
The publishing arm boasts more than 2,000 copyrights including compositions by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones, Cooke, Womack, Ray Davies of the Kinks and Pete Townshend of the Who.
Klein broke into the music business by auditing record labels on behalf of clients including Bobby Darin and Connie Francis. When he found they were owed royalties, he took half of the difference as a fee.
His first big management client was Sam Cooke, for whom he negotiated a lucrative recording deal in 1963 that gave the soul star unprecedented control over his own catalog.
Klein, who was already representing "British Invasion" artists such as the Animals, Dave Clark Five and Herman's Hermits, set his sights on the Rolling Stones, who were laboring under an onerous deal.
He renegotiated their pact in 1965, and ended up managing the group for about five years -- taking a 20 percent fee.
The Stones eventually tired of Klein. But the only way to break free of him was to give up the rights to their master recordings and rights to such timeless tunes as "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" and "Jumpin' Jack Flash."
"In some ways Allen Klein was very much ahead of his time," Jagger said in the 1989 Stones documentary "25x5." "We lasted about three or four years with him, really, though the ramifications of that still continue to this day."
Richards was more philosophical, describing their experience with Klein as "the price of an education."
By then, Klein was focused on the ultimate prize, the Beatles. He offered his help to Lennon in early 1969, when the Fab Four's idealistic Apple Corps. label was fast draining the fractured group's coffers.
George Harrison and Ringo Starr also warmed to his pitch, but Paul McCartney was fiercely opposed. He preferred the expertise of his father-in-law, high-powered New York attorney Lee Eastman.
Amid a series of complex maneuverings that also have consequences to this day, Klein unsuccessfully tried to secure control of the Beatles' copyrights on behalf of the group. Michael Jackson ended up with the rights 16 years later.
Klein did score a rich recording deal for the Beatles, but relations within the group were past frayed, and it dissolved in 1970.
That year, Harrison "honored" Klein in a rough version of his song "Beware of Darkness" with the line "beware of ABKCO." "It might have ended up being prophetic. But at the time it was just a little joke," Harrison told Reuters in 2000.
Indeed, Harrison and Klein reunited in 1971 to put on the all-star Concert for Bangladesh shows at Madison Square Garden in New York. It took a decade for the funds to reach the refugees because of complex tax problems.
In addition to his children and wife, Klein is survived by his longtime girlfriend Iris Keitel, an ABKCO executive. His funeral will take place in New York on Tuesday.
Reporting by Dean Goodman; editing by Bill Trott and Todd Eastham