Former Apple Records Exec Ken Mansfield Reflects on His Front Row Seat to the Beatles' Final Years

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George Harrison, John Lennon, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr of The Beatles photographed in 1970.  

The first time Ken Mansfield heard "Hey Jude," it was in an empty space at Apple Music's London headquarters alongside Paul McCartney, John Lennon, George Harrison and Ringo Starr. "They brought in a big soundsystem into one of the meeting rooms. We didn't have furniture yet, so we were on the floor on a brand new green carpet." At the time, Mansfield served as the United States director for the Beatles' Apple label, then in its infancy. "They were trying to figure out whether to release 'Revolution' or 'Hey Jude' as their first single under Apple. Paul was a businessman and he was worried stations wouldn't play it because it was too long." At the time, radio hits were only about 2-and-half minutes, compared to the massive seven-minute runtime of "Hey Jude."

To alleviate McCartney's concerns, Mansfield had an idea. "I said I would take it to America on my way back home to Los Angeles and stop in cities like Philadelphia, Miami and St. Louis to meet the program directors at radio stations and get their opinion if we should break the rules if it's strong enough." The answer was obvious. "These are people who really knew what hits were made of and they all fell on the floor when they heard it," Mansfield recalls. "I called Paul and said, 'We have to go with this.'" "Hey Jude" later became lodged at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 for nine weeks, the longest such stretch for a Beatles record, continuing their unflappable musical dominance.

How exactly Mansfield wound up in the middle of the Beatles historic musical whirlwind is a confluence of events where he says found himself "at the right place at the right time." In the mid-60s, Mansfield was the West Coast district promotion manager for Capitol Records, a position he found himself in shortly after attending San Diego State University armed with a marketing degree. With an interest in music (he was a member of local groups and had managing experience), Mansfield applied and was promptly hired, making him one of the youngest at the company. "My job was that when bands came to Hollywood I'd work with them," he says, with the fresh-faced college grad working closely with Capitol's iconic roster, then made up of the likes of the Beach Boys, The Band and Lou Rawls. When the Fab Four ventured stateside for their 1965 U.S. tour (a year after their earth-shattering debut on The Ed Sullivan Show the previous February), Mansfield was there to guide them. "I was a young twentysomething with a suntan, long hair, convertible and a home in the hills," he says. "I think I was everything they thought California was when they were growing up in England, so they were as fascinated with me as I was with them." Mansfield hit it off with the group and quickly began hanging out after hours.

Thanks to being close in age and boosted by an easy rapport, it stands to reason when the Beatles were looking to launch a company of their own two years later, they knew who to call. "They needed someone to run the American side of Apple and they asked for me because I knew America and they knew me," he explains. "America was 50 percent of all record sales in the world, so you'd try to break a song here first. I was the guy who did that. They also were very much about friendship and loyalty. It was part of their British upbringing." From there, Mansfield played an instrumental part of the act's final two years, having a front row seat to the recording and release of future classics ranging from The White Album to Abbey Road and Let It Be. It was during the sessions for Let It Be (recorded prior to Abbey Road but released after it) when Mansfield was literally plopped on the studio floor during its creation; a fly on the wall to music immortality. "I was invited into the room and was sitting in the studio next to Billy Preston's keyboard," he remembers of being one of the only outsiders in the studio, alongside Lennon's wife Yoko Ono. "They were running down their tracks and I was so caught up in the moment noticing their musicianship."

Mansfield was also there during what would become the group's final live performance. By 1969, the Beatles were splintering as they were looking for a unique live space to play tracks from Let It Be to include in a documentary of the same name. Ideas for locations were spitballed, including an orphanage and a flour mill. Ono even suggested they perform on stage in a stadium full of 20,000 empty seats. "They always did things in a unique or different way, but none of the places we had in mind were striking a chord and time was running out to decide," says Mansfield. As a result, on Jan. 30 1969, the Beatles went upstairs and converged to perform a surprise set on the roof of Apple Music in London. "No one knew at the time that was going to be their last performance," says Mansfield, one of a few onlookers on the small roof five stories above the streets of the damp and chilly city. (He can be seen in footage wearing a large white coat and would widely become known as 'The man in the white coat.') "It turned out to be the most unique, fascinating thing they could have done and all they had to do was walk up a few flights of stairs. It was very raw, real and simple." Days after that 40 minute performance, he flew back home to Los Angeles. Mansfield never saw all four Beatles together again.

After the break-up heard 'round the world and the inevitable gossip that followed, Mansfield shifted his attention to other projects and took jobs at MGM and CBS Records, later becoming a prolific producer for acts ranging from Waylon Jennings to Willie Nelson. In his post-Beatles career, he was astute enough to know he was a part of something wildly unique and virtually unrepeatable. "They were different than any other artist, so it was an experience I never tried to recreate. I figured that was that and nothing else will ever be like it again." In the intervening years, Mansfield kept in touch with all four members, whether working on an album deal with Starr or hobnobbing with Harrison when he was in Los Angeles. The last time Mansfield saw Lennon was at Starr's house. "I was producing Waylon Jennings at the time and Ringo was a big country fan, so he called me and said he heard I just got back from working on Waylon's new album in Nashville and wanted to know if he could listen to the tapes." Mansfield happily obliged. "I show up to Ringo's house and John's sitting there on the couch. This was during his lost years. It was a strange day. John had dropped by to talk to Ringo about something personal and he couldn't wait for us to get done with our stuff so they could talk."

Despite his close association with one of the most important acts in the history of modern music, Mansfield rarely spoke about his time with the lads from Liverpool until relatively recently. Throughout the past 15 years, he's collected his thoughts in three books about the group, the latest being The Roof: The Beatles' Final Concert (out Nov. 13 from Post Hill Press). It documents the group's final years and that fateful afternoon on the roof. "A lot of us who were there never talked about the Beatles much until decades later," he notes. "They never said to us to keep the things we saw to ourselves. But the thing about all of us is that it was such a privilege to have been there that we had to honor them by keeping things to ourselves and not talking about everything." Underlying his experience was a mutual respect. "There was something about them that the minute you were in their inner circle they treated you like a friend. I never got the impression of, 'I'm a Beatle and you aren't.' You were part of the team and every day something phenomenal happened."

It was a monumental chunk of an impressive career Mansfield didn't fully grasp the weight of until decades later. "I didn't realize the importance of it until after about 20 years," he says. "Before then, it was part of my life and job. Then it sunk in that I got to experience that and live with it. I was a part of something I'll treasure forever."