When Klein first looked at the Beatles’ books, he was appalled. EMI, their record company, had signed them to a 10-year contract that he considered grossly inadequate; their management company, NEMS, was skimming 25 per cent off all their royalties, and the band had been sold short on lucrative merchandising deals. In essence, Klein concluded, the Beatles had been “f----- around by everybody”.
Drawing on his working-class brashness, short-fuse temper and terrier-like tenacity, he set about ruthlessly renegotiating the Beatles’ finances in a characteristically fast-talking, foul-mouthed manner that brooked no argument.
Overweight and invariably sloppily clad in a crumpled sweater and jeans, Klein’s street-fighter style was not universally endearing. “Short, fat, beady-eyed and greasily pompadoured,” was one unflattering estimation; “a nasty little gangster” was another.
Certainly he conducted business on his own unvarnished terms, deploying an almost comic machine-gun rattle of Brooklynese argot, liberally sauced with ripe invective. Casting himself as the Robin Hood of Tin Pan Alley, taking on the mighty robber barons of the music business, Klein thought he was “someone who knows how to give these guys some of their own shit back.”
He was convinced he could land the biggest pop act in the world, and had been eyeing up the Beatles since they conquered America in 1964. During their first US tour he had managed to wangle a meeting with their manager, the fastidious Brian Epstein, who disliked Klein on sight and curtly dismissed his offer to renegotiate the group’s recording contracts in return for 20 per cent of the higher royalties he expected them to earn.
Instead, Klein turned to the other British supergroup of the day, the Rolling Stones. In 1965 he negotiated a deal with their manager, Andrew Loog Oldham, to handle the band’s business affairs. “Andrew sold him to us as a gangster figure, someone outside the establishment,” Mick Jagger recalled. “We found that rather attractive.”
Having initially been rebuffed by the Beatles, Klein eventually won the approval of John Lennon, whom he secretly met at the Dorchester in London in January 1969, having carefully boned up on the singer’s career and beliefs.
Lennon was flattered: “He not only knew my work, and the lyrics that I had written, but he also understood them, and from way back. That was it,” he recalled.
But the decision proved fatal to the band, which had been drifting apart since Epstein’s death in 1967 and as Lennon’s obsession with Yoko Ono continued. Paul McCartney detested Klein. In February 1971, a year after Lennon had hired Klein to run the Beatles’ business affairs, the group broke up for good.
Klein was taken on to sort out the administrative chaos at Apple, the Beatles’ recording, publishing and retail company, which was being systematically plundered by fraudsters and freeloaders. By then he had grown rich, managing not only the Stones but also other British groups such as the Dave Clark Five, the Animals and Herman’s Hermits, as well as American stars including Sam Cooke and Bobby Darin.
Although John Lennon, George Harrison and Ringo Starr supported Klein’s appointment as Apple’s chief executive, Paul McCartney favoured the more sober advice of his new brother- and father-in-law, John and Lee Eastman (he had married Linda Eastman in March 1969). McCartney particularly disliked the way Klein interfered in creative matters, such as calling in the eccentric producer Phil Spector to remix the Beatles’ last album Let It Be and adding strings and choir to The Long and Winding Road. According to the Beatles’ publicist Derek Taylor, McCartney described the release as “the shittiest thing anyone had ever done to him, and that was saying something”.
Klein summarily fired most of the staff at Apple and put an end to the worst excesses there before turning his attention to his own hugely lucrative contract. But while 18 lines detailed his commission, not one listed any obligation on Klein’s part.
His relationship with the Beatles was bitter and short-lived. On New Year’s Eve 1970 McCartney sued Klein and the three other Beatles in an effort to break Klein’s grip on the group. Two years later, McCartney succeeded in getting a receiver appointed to handle the band’s affairs.
At the end of a seven-year legal battle, Klein (who had issued writs claiming he was owed more than $50m in commission) settled for $4.2m. Two years later he was sentenced to two months in jail for tax fraud relating to the illegal sale of Beatles promotional records.
Animosity between Klein and his British acts continued for decades, and led to a bewildering series of bitter lawsuits over rights and royalties. In 1984, when the Rolling Stones sued him for the return of their recording and publishing rights, Mick Jagger testified in a federal court in New York that Klein “wanted a hold on us, on our futures” – and that a discussion about money in London in 1974 had ended with Jagger shouting at Klein and chasing him down a corridor at the Savoy Hotel.
Allen Klein was born in Newark, New Jersey, on December 18 1931, the son of a kosher butcher who had immigrated from Hungary. After his mother’s death when he was nine months old, he spent several years in a Jewish orphanage, and was later brought up by a grandmother and (like John Lennon) an aunt.
After high school, where he discovered a remarkable talent for mental arithmetic, Klein attended night classes at Upsala College before graduating with an accounting degree.
He served in the US Army before joining a Manhattan accounting firm in 1956. From some minor recording stars on the company’s books, Klein learned that record labels and music publishers routinely defrauded their artists, a revelation that prompted him to cast his lot with “the little guy... because that’s who I identify with”.
He started his own firm, which later became Abkco, in the late 1950s. Soon just the threat of an audit by Klein was enough to persuade a record company to renegotiate the terms of one of his clients' contract. He reputedly introduced himself to his first big star, the teen idol Bobby Darin, by presenting him with a cheque for $100,000 and announcing: “I can find you money you never knew you had” – a promise that became something of a trademark mantra.
In time Klein became what The New York Times described as “the toughest wheeler-dealer in the pop jungle.”
During his short-lived tenure as the Beatles’ manager, Klein incurred the displeasure of Dick James, head of Northern Songs, which owned the copyright to the entire Lennon-McCartney catalogue. For James, Klein’s involvement in the band’s affairs was the last straw and he sold his shares to Sir Lew Grade’s ATV company, prompting a battle for control of Northern Songs.
Klein cut short a holiday and flew to London to make a counter-offer, but ATV eventually won out, the rift between Lennon and McCartney having cost the pair, in the view of one Beatles biographer, “the single most lucrative music publishing asset in the era of rock’n’roll”. (Later Klein sold the pair’s 31 per cent interest in Northern Songs to ATV for £3.5 million. In 1985, when ATV Music was sold, the singer Michael Jackson outbid McCartney and paid a reported $47 million for the songs.)
Meanwhile Klein presented the group with a three-year management contract giving him 20 per cent of everything they earned. McCartney refused to sign his copy, provoking a bitter row with the other Beatles; he arrived at the recording studio the following day with a new song which began: “You never give me your money/You only give me your funny papers...”
Eventually the other Beatles also lost faith in Klein and sued him in the mid-1970s. Lennon sent him up in song in Steel and Glass, which describes how “your mouthpiece squawks as he spreads your lies”.
Besides managing music, in 1971 Klein co-produced “The Concert for Bangladesh,” a forerunner of modern charity concerts, and films including The Greek Tycoon (1978) starring Anthony Quinn and Jacqueline Bisset.
A rare glimpse of Klein’s family life came from the Kinks lead singer, Ray Davies, who was invited to a wedding anniversary party at Klein’s home. After a toast in Californian champagne, a piano struck up, the lights dimmed, and the crooner Bobby Vinton (another Klein client) strolled in singing his hit Blue Velvet.
“Klein grabbed his wife around the waist,” Davies reported, “and they started to do a slow foxtrot. The assorted guests applauded as the Kleins took centre-stage. It was a moment of true Americana, teetering between sentimentality and heartfelt emotion. It was also tacky as hell. Whatever. It meant a lot to the Kleins.”
Allen Klein was estranged from his wife, Betty, who survives him with their three children. He is also survived by his long-term companion, Iris Keitel.