NEW YORK (Reuters) - Neil Aspinall, a close friend and former road manager of The Beatles who was sometimes referred to as the fifth member of the band, died in New York of lung cancer, former band members said on Monday. He was 66.
Aspinall became road manager and personal assistant for the Fab Four after going to school in Liverpool with Paul McCartney and George Harrison. He was a longtime friend, confidant and overseer of The Beatles' business empire, Apple Corps Ltd., for 40 years.
"All his friends and loved ones will greatly miss him, but will always retain the fondest memories of a great man," McCartney, Ringo Starr and the widows of John Lennon and Harrison said in a statement released by Aspinall's family.
Aspinall was one of several men referred to as the "fifth Beatle" -- a title also granted to others closely associated with the group, such as the band's manager Brian Epstein and the original bassist, Stuart Sutcliffe.
Harrison, who died in 2001, called Aspinall one of only two possible "fifth Beatles" at the group's 1988 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Aspinall had lived in Twickenham, England, and died on Sunday night at the Sloan-Kettering hospital in New York City, a family spokesman said.
Aspinall fell ill to lung cancer two months ago and McCartney was reported by British media to have flown to New York to visit him on his deathbed.
He is survived by his wife Suzy and five children.
"I've known Neil many years and he was a good friend. We were blessed to have him in our lives and he will be missed," Starr said in a separate statement.
Last year Aspinall stepped down as chief executive of Apple Corps Ltd, which he had headed since 1968 after it was formed to cover The Beatles' financial and business affairs.
Aspinall's close association with the group is not disputed. He became friends with McCartney and Harrison at school. They formed the "mad lad" gang and he once joked that his first encounter with Harrison came when they shared one of their first cigarettes behind the school's air-raid shelters.
As road manager, Aspinall drove the band members to shows in their old Commer van.
He sang back up vocals as part of the chorus on the 1966 hit "Yellow Submarine" and met his wife Suzy Ornstein during the making of the The Beatles movie "A Hard Day's Night."
In his role as head of Apple Corps, he was credited with being the architect of the continuing popularity of Beatles merchandise and album sales. He was executive producer on the 1995-96 Beatles Anthology project.
Editing by Chris Wilson