by Marshall Terrill
(all photos courtesy Ken Mansfield)
Ken Mansfield has worked with some of the biggest giants in the rock ‘n’ roll and country music industries. As the former U.S. Manager of Apple Records, he was invited by his bosses, The Beatles, to run their record label. He was a loyal employee and companion to John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr both during the band years and well after their 1970 breakup. As a record label executive and Grammy Award-winning producer, he also worked on the marketing, promotion and production of dozens of albums by top-selling artists, such as the Beach Boys, Glen Campbell, and The Band, and was a major player in the 1970s as producer of the groundbreaking Outlaw movement in country music, whose impact is still felt in the genre to this very day.
In his new book Stumbling On Open Ground: Love, God, Cancer and Rock ‘n’ Roll (Thomas Nelson), Mansfield reveals ongoing trials with two bouts of cancer and thoughtfully frames his spiritual struggle and physical pain in the light of ultimate healing and triumph. Today he is an ordained minister and sought-after speaker. He appears at churches, special events and colleges across the nation and has authored The Beatles, The Bible and Bodega Bay (B & H, 2000); The White Book: The Beatles, the Bands, the Biz (Thomas Nelson, 2007); and Between Wyomings (Thomas Nelson, 2009).
Mansfield kindly gave Daytrippin’ his memories of The Beatles as a true member of the group’s inner sanctum.
Q: Let’s start at the beginning with your association with The Beatles. When did you meet them and how did that grow into becoming the U.S. Manager of Apple Records?
KM: Mainly I was in the right place at the right time. I was in charge of promotion and artist relations for the western states at Capitol Records when they came to California on their 1965 tour so it was my official job to work with them – press conferences, etc. I was in my twenties and the resident hip young guy on the label and we simply hit it off. Because of their exaggerated fame, their relationships with record company executives was at the highest levels, you know –a “Lord” of EMI, a “Chairman of the Board” of Capitol Industries, all older “suits”. We worked together one day and the next day they had the day off and invited me up to their house to hang out. I was the tan California guy and we were equally fascinated with each other’s cultures. I worked with them the following year when they came to America and when they decided to set up Apple, I was their man in America so they sent for me to set up the US launch and to run the label in the world’s most important market.
Q: Give a brief thumbnail sketch of each Beatle as you perceived him.
KM: Paul was the energetic one, the one that seemed like the popular kid in high school. He was the one whom you would cruise main street with your arms hanging over the car door edge, pressing tight to make your muscles look bigger. He would be the guy who would wave at the girls and slow down so they could jump in the back. I never felt a strong personal agenda coming from Paul, and by that I mean that it didn’t feel like you had to figure out who he was or where he was coming from. He was always presenting the next project or place to go. It was the sheer impetus of purpose that put things in motion so what you saw was an idea and a goal, and none of it needed complicated examination. “Here’s what we are about to do and that was exactly what we were about to do.”
To me, Paul was the unabashed leader of the group, the hard-charging one with the ideas and the one that on the surface seemed to be less troubled about things in general. I’ve said it before that he was like a hyper-kinetic kid that never slowed down – the difference being that he was able to harness this energy into his God-given musical talent and just let ‘er rip. In all honesty, he wore me out. It was fun, the times I got to hang with him or work with him, but his tempo was maddening and his energy pool bottomless. I did have an underlying pressure as the US manager of their company so that I couldn’t just totally go with the flow and hang out and party. My responsibilities were always looming in the back of my mind. If we had been high school buddies and there had been no fame, I think Paul would be the kind of person who would be great to hook up with again at class reunions. It would always be good to see him again. He, like the other Beatles, had an admirable sense of loyalty to their old mates. I was with Paul when he brought Ivan Vaughn, an old friend from his Liverpool school days to LA with him to just hang out. Ivan was certainly no one famous or even in the business – just an old friend hanging out with a mate who just happened to be the “cute Beatle.”
George was the one you would have seen in the cafeteria keeping to himself. But he would also be the one to move things aside in order to make room for you when you sat down in the seat next to him. He would welcome the company and share in the moment in an easy manner. He was the kind of guy that a slow, easy friendship would develop with over time and without the fame an everyday George would have probably been the perfect neighbor. He was so gentle and easy to be with. There was thoughtfulness in his responses to things as they were happening whether it was the conversation or the next move. He was the model of a man at peace with what was going on inside and his serenity spilled out into his surroundings. I could talk with him about simple things and was able to forget the Apple stuff because I could tell that the world didn’t begin and end with that for him. He would be more concerned about how I was doing rather than what I was doing. We shared some very personal times together because we were young, happening dudes with new wives who liked each other. I got to be the LA guy with him during his frequent and extended stays. Just because we were in Hollywood didn’t mean we had to be crazy. It was simple and easy being with George – we would go buy jeans together or sit around the house late at night and not say much.
John was the different one. He was the kid who also might be eating his lunch alone but would probably be standing up, leaning against the soda machine looking out across the lunchroom like it was another planet. There was always this sense that he was a bit unapproachable and he would be the one to do the approaching if anything was going to come down on a personal level. I spent less time with him than the others with the main difference being that I never had that alone time away from the band or Yoko – except for the day over at Ringo’s LA home in 1976. That particular event was an accidental encounter and definitely not a bonding moment.
I have written a lot about John over the years and it surprised me how many pages I spent on him after having had so little contact. I believe it was because of the complexity of his nature that it took more words to describe him. He was a brooder. There seemed a distance in place that made me always wonder how our exchanges were being digested and assimilated. I found in time this had more to do with my insecurities than his inaccessibility. He was very focused and intent at times and didn’t have time for niceties. When I finally understood him better I found this to be because he was very straight ahead and honest when it was one on one time. John cared about issues of importance and would get very frustrated when he couldn’t make matters better. He was like many of the great artists I worked with who had the odd ability to be in the extreme corners of life, jumping back and forth from altruism to self-centered madness without ever spending much time in the middle. Gee, I wonder why he was the one everyone was so fascinated with?
Ringo was the long-term guy. He’s the one you would meet the first day at school and just because you ended up in the cloak room at the same time going for the same coat hook, you became friends for the rest of your school years and never really thought much about why. He was the most natural, most accessible and the most down to earth. I remember when I was in London it was his house that I was invited out to for a holiday feast. When we were in LA it was gatherings at our homes that were of the norm. We shared a lot of our lives over the years and it was usually the simple things that stand out when I think back. He was the one I got to know best and the easiest to describe. I never liked the fact that he was relegated to the fourth man down on their totem pole when it came to the band’s pecking order. Besides being the best absolute drummer they could have chosen, he is an exceptional actor in my opinion. It is hard to find someone sharper or funnier in head-to-head dialogue. He brought “Starr” power to the band.
Q: I’ve always seen Apple as a multi-media company that was 30 years ahead of its time. Great concept, but somewhere the execution went awry. What, in your opinion, went wrong?
KM: I understood Apple to be based on a “conglomerate” approach. There were five divisions I believe. To my mind Ron Kass (Apple’s chief executive) was the consummate class executive and knew how to think corporate. I remember sitting in meetings with him when he would be negotiating major deals for the Beatles and Apple and I felt like a child watching a master. As I have said before the two men I respected the most and learned the most from in the entertainment business were he and Stanley Gortikov who was president of Capitol during my time there. The working structure felt more like Apple was a record company with four subsidiaries because the record division is where the energy and emphasis seemed to be.
You are right that the concept was very innovative but there was one big problem (among many others) and that was within the multi media concept there were multiple bosses – four to be exact. Each one had a position of legitimate and complete authority and the four horses would not always pull the Apple cart in the same direction. It was very hard for the day-to-day underlings at the label to stay focused. Another problem was in the altruistic approach to the world, musical youth and the fact that Apple was to have an open door policy for aspiring artists. It became very hard separating the legitimate artists from the loonies due to the masses that descended on 3 Savile Row almost around the clock. As I mentioned before there were five divisions so that means four (Beatles) times five (divisions) equals twenty possible complications — right?
Q: I imagine there was great pressure on The Beatles to make a spectacular debut regarding the launch of Apple. Did you feel the pressure and did you know you had the goods with “Hey Jude” and “Revolution” and later, with The White Album?
KM: At the time of the Apple launch we felt that one of the single most critical decisions we would be making was selecting the Beatles first single on the new label. “Hey Jude” was an obvious masterpiece but there was great concern, especially from McCartney that it could be rejected because of its length. Those were the days (!) of tight play lists and extreme competition between the top 40 (rock) stations – the way to gain listeners was to play the most hits in an hour. This created the two-and-a-half minute standard for single record lengths. The stations would then take it one step further and in many cases would actually speed the records up very slightly in order to squeeze one more record in during the hour and then the station could make the claim that their station was the one to listen to because they played the most hits. We sat on the floor of the Apple building for what seemed like hours listening to “Hey Jude” and “Revolution” over and over again trying to decide which one should be the “A” side. It felt like Paul was the head of A&R in this matter so I suggested that the Beatles trust me with an advanced copy of the record and I would fly back to the US from London and hopscotch my way across the country back to LA, stopping off along the way at major radio stations where I would get the opinions of major music directors across the nation. It was unanimous that “Hey Jude” was the hit no matter what its length. I called Paul when I got back to LA to let him know what I had found out and the rest is history.
Q: Brian Epstein, The Beatles’ manager, died as Apple was being set up. If Brian had lived, what role do you think he would have taken at Apple, if any?
KM: I have no idea. This is an area that I have very little insight into because I only worked with Brian once and that was briefly during the 1965 tour. If I had to guess I believe he would have had less influence over their careers but at the same time I felt they were fiercely loyal to him and he would definitely have retained his title as manager. Hard to project how that would have played out in the long run.
Q: You have described Apple in the past as a place teeming with excitement on a daily basis. What made it such a great place to work?
KM: Gee – how about there was never a dull moment and you never knew what the next moment was going to bring. The building vibrated and the level of vibration was relative to how many Beatles were in there at one time and the nature of the world outside. You had the most famous and infamous people that were haunting the halls on any particular day. Hells Angels, Hare Krishnas, famous movie stars – you name it – you never knew. There was also this incredible buzz coming up out of the basement recording studio with little records like “Let It Be” being made.
Q: You were also in charge of Zapple Records, the experimental arm of the record division. What was the expectation of this subsidiary?
KM: This was John’s baby and I felt honored to be included in his dream. If I had to guess, I don’t think he cared if the projects he was bringing on board this label sold 10 copies or 10 million. He mainly wanted them to be made because he saw great intellectual and literary value in them and felt they needed to be immortalized via recordings. I mean a Richard Brautigan recital is not actually a Shea Stadium concert event.
Q: One recording that didn’t get distributed by Zapple was John & Yoko’s Two Virgins. Can you please tell the story of how he approached you for this project?
KM: I cover this in detail in The White Book – the incident that took place concerning me and that album cover was one of my most confusing and scary moments in the music business. The four Beatles, myself, Stan Gortikov, Mal Evans, Neil Aspinall, Larry Delaney (Capitol’s head of press and relations ) and Peter Asher were in all-day meetings in a hotel suite on Hyde Park in London. We took a small break and Mal had taken a room next to our suite and suggested I join him and Neil there. I hadn’t done much in the way of drugs in those days and Mal handed me a filtered English cigarette that had the tobacco dumped out and then mixed with some hash and returned to the cigarette. I took a couple of hits because I wanted them to think I was cool and we kicked back for a while which made me late in returning to our meeting. I went back to the suite and sat down on the couch with John and Yoko. The minute I sat down I realized how stoned I was and I became very paranoid because across the room was the president of the company I worked for staring at me. Here’s where things got real squirrelly – John leaned over, pulled a bunch of pictures out of a manila envelope and began slowly laying them on my lap one by one. They were nude pictures of he and Yoko. I thought he was suggesting something that I was very unprepared to consider and my head started spinning and I started sweating. After what seemed an eternity I looked up and saw Paul laughing at me. While I was out of the room John had presented his cover idea for the Two Virgins album to everyone, in my absence, and when I returned to the meeting he was simply bringing me up to speed. He neglected to give me the reason for the pictures though! Paul realized what was happening and decided to let me squirm for a while. When he felt I was nearing panic stage he kindly explained what the pictures were about.
Q: When the Beatles played the legendary rooftop concert on top of Apple headquarters at 3 Saville Row, you were one of the few people to watch it in person. What are your recollections of that day?
KM: The John Lennon/Two Virgins incident was my most uncomfortable event in my recording industry career and the day on the roof watching the Beatles play together in concert for the last time is by far my most exciting – I like it that both had to do with the Fab Four. The feeling the few of us up there that cold January day experienced was something magical. We all knew something special was going down but it couldn’t be defined at that time. I saw the Beatles from a few feet away being the band they started out to be – ironic that it was also the beginning of the end.
Q: You still retained a relationship with all four Beatles when Apple went south. Tell me about your last encounters with John, Paul, George and Ringo.
KM: PAUL: We chatted outside in the parking lot after a Grammy awards show on March 1, 1975 and made plans to get together the next day while he was in LA. He gave me a private number and told me when to call. My call was intercepted by a young assistant who decided I was another bothersome fan and would neither put me through or take a message for Paul. (He passed a hello on to me a couple years ago during a book signing when the person getting the autograph told him they knew me but that was it).
GEORGE: We spent a lot of time together after Apple – our wives had also become friends and he and Pattie were spending a lot of time in LA. But the last time I talked to him was after he and Olivia were together and we ran into each other in a narrow alley that separates Dan Tana’s restaurant and the Troubador nightclub in Hollywood. We hadn’t seen each other in a while and we had a mini-reunion in a dark alley. It was very pleasant and normal, just like running into an old high school classmate. (Ken is pictured below with George in 1973)
RINGO: Our relationship continued on for many years as he lived a great deal of the time in LA and there was a small group of us old friends who hung out together. I even represented him in his record deal with Private Music/BMG in the early ’90s. The last time we saw each other was in Santa Rosa, California, when he was on tour with his All Starr Band. It had been a while since we had seen each other or hung out and it was oddly strange when we got together after such a long break. We had gone in different directions with our lives and it was honestly a bit awkward. Not that we weren’t friends but it was simply hard keeping a relevant conversation going. We had our history together but after the hellos and “How’s Barbara?” etc. were done, we struggled to find things to talk about.
JOHN: It was an unusual last meeting with John. It was during the crazy years when he and Harry Nilsson were hanging out when Yoko had sent him off on his own for a while. I was producing Waylon Jennings at the time and Ringo had asked me to come over and play the finished master on the Are You Ready for the Country? album I had just finished for RCA Records. When I walked into the living room at Ringo’s house John was sitting on the couch and he was in an obvious bad mood. He had just shown up out of the blue and wanted to be alone with Ringo. Ringo asked me to put the tape on anyway – John became more anxious as the music played on wishing the album would end and I sensed for me to go away. The day had an interesting ending but I wish it could have been a more pleasant last time with John Lennon.
Q: According to you, Apple was going to reform again in 1986 with Ron Kass at the helm and all the original players coming back to their original positions. What happened?
KM: In the summer of 1986 very unexpectedly, I received a call from Ron Kass. I was in my Main Mansfield Associates office on Nashville’s Music Row. It was so good to hear from Ron as it had been a while. I knew he was in LA producing films as well as other music industry ventures but when I moved to Nashville we had drifted apart. After catching up on old times he told me why he was calling. He had just returned from London and had had some preliminary meetings with a couple of the Beatles and Neil Aspinall. The discussions concerned starting up Apple again. There were two caveats: a) the Beatles would not be putting up the money this time so it would have to be funded by someone else and b) it would not be the typical restart of an old company because the feeling was that the company was more than a name — that it was most of all a special group of people – therefore the only way it would be done is if it was staffed by the original gang. He wanted to know if I was in – would I return as the US Manager of the company? I said yes of course and it took us about ten minutes to get a $10 million dollar start up backing commitment from one person. We flew to London within weeks and began having meetings with Neil Aspinall, Tony Bramwell, myself and the investor. The first day we took it easy, walked familiar streets and stood outside 3 Savile Row on the sidewalk talking for about an hour and imagining ourselves back inside those windows again. Kass was acting strangely on this trip. He was constantly excusing himself from our activities and also leaving the table at restaurants for long periods during the whole time we were in London. His demeanor was different from what I remembered, and there was a moodiness that I had never witnessed. He was also moving funny. (Ken pictured with Ron Kass (on left))
The meetings went well as this was a mere fact-finding mission, and everyone left with things to think about and assignments to fulfill before we could proceed further. I couldn’t reach Kass after we returned to the States. He wasn’t answering or returning his phone calls. Even his partner at his movie company couldn’t find him. I had his sister’s phone number and had conversed with her over the years, and she couldn’t help me either. Time was running out on the assignment of our due dates as part of the preparation needed for the next meeting. Kass had dropped out of sight. As Kass was the starting point of our efforts, this made zero sense until one day his sister called and gave me the phone number where he was staying in Arizona with his fiancée, Anne. I called the number, and Ron answered the phone. He spoke in a soft, level tone as he quietly explained what had transpired since we hugged goodbye in London. Upon returning to L.A., Ron went to see a doctor because he hadn’t felt well during the London trip and was uncomfortable the whole time. They discovered a cancerous tumor in his gut the size of a grapefruit. Ron was given six months to live.
He died October 17, 1986 – eight months after London. I didn’t go to the funeral. I couldn’t think of him that way.
Q: Ron Kass was the first of many people at Apple and the Beatles inner circle who died young. In fact, one of the chapters in Stumbling On Open Ground, you provide a list of casualties. What moved you to do this?
KM: When I was in the throes of going through a heavy cancer battle myself, I began thinking back on those days when we were all vital and I found myself understanding their pain better and in a way escaping mine by going back and reliving the incredible time we all knew and worked with each other. You know I can go back on top of that five-story building in London’s downtown business district and still visualize that historical day. Of course, we all know that John and George are now gone. I also remembered sitting by the chimney stack with Maureen Starkey, Ringo’s first wife, and she is gone. Ron Kass, Neil Aspinall, Mal Evans, and Derek Taylor, who ran things for the Beatles and were the innermost of the inner circle back then, were all there that day, are all gone. Billy Preston, who sat quietly behind the band at his keyboards that day, is also gone. There was enough energy and enough exciting people on that freezing roof that day to light London nights for months. Now those of us who are left have a hard time getting the coffee pot running in the mornings.
Using the Beatles as a base point in all this led me to discover that there are probably less than half of us alive today. The Apple Corps are just like the picture on the record label—only half an apple.
Q: Where were you when John Lennon and George Harrison passed away and what are your reflections of them today?
KM: I was sitting on the floor of my new Hometown Productions Inc. offices in Hollywood deciding which pictures of my Beatle/Apple days I was going to put on the walls when I got a call from rocker Nick Gilder (“Hot Child in the City”), who I was producing at the time for Casablanca Records, telling me that John had just been shot. I hung up the phone and looked at a picture of John in my hand staring up at me. He had written me a note that accompanied the picture. I wept. That picture and note are in The White Book.
Ironically, the morning I found out George had just died of cancer I was in the doctor’s (oncologist) office being given bad news about the status of my own incurable cancer. Fox News was calling every five minutes trying to get me to drive to San Francisco for a live feed interview with different anchors to talk about George. Out of respect for our long friendship I finally agreed to set my emotions aside and allowed them to send a car for me. I spent the day appearing on three or four different Fox shows and completed the day with a CBS interview reflecting on my impressions of the ‘Quiet Beatle.’ It did take my mind off my situation and I felt as if I had helped him say goodbye.
In Kass’s case, because I was so young and had no experience with cancer I could only imagine what he was going through. So my real reaction was patterned more after what a person is supposed to feel because I couldn’t comprehend what it is actually like. Also in those days I still had my invincibility wrapped around me. In John’s situation it was so off the wall, so unexplainable, so appalling that to this day I can’t find a logic slot to put it or my emotions into concerning that horrible tragedy. As I have written before, I was surprised that I felt no right to feel a personal sadness even though I knew him and worked for him – instead I immediately dropped back into the universal fabric of shared sadness.
In George’s situation my feelings went so much deeper because I understood the emotional and physical process that led up to the day the cancer finally had its final say. It was easy for me because I was going through the same process at the time. I am sure if he were here to describe the overall experience to us he would really talk about the grinding battle, the loneliness, the pain, the degradation, and a certain hopelessness that cannot be denied no matter how pretty of a spiritual face you paint on it. I will further guess that the letting go and leaving all the struggles behind was probably the easy part for him. George was a quiet man and I think that is the place he went to when dealing with it. I spend so much time in Stumbling On Open Ground with that very aspect of the battle and I can almost see George nodding his head and hear him saying in that soft voice I had heard so many times, “yeah that’s it” as he reads my descriptions.
Q: What’s the main thing you want to convey about your life with The Beatles?
KM: There were only a few people who were actually there during certain times when the Beatle phenomenon was happening and I had a special place because I was the guy who may have come the furthest to join in the fray. They treated me special and I became a part of the musical bridge that eventually connected the UK and the US. It was a special time in the music industry – a time that will never be repeated.
Note: Watch the official video for Ken’s latest book, Stumbling On Open Ground here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EPgeoiFfEKI
Visit the official website for Stumbling On Open Ground: Love, God, Cancer and Rock ‘n’ Roll at http://stumblingonopenground.com/ or friend Ken on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/ken.mansfield.35
Marshall Terrill is the author of 15 books. His next literary endeavor will be a photo/passage book with guitarist Laurence Juber called “Fifty Years on Six Strings.” It will be published in November 2013 by Dalton Watson Fine Books.