07/16/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

A 40th Bite of the Apple

This year, on August 26th, hopefully, we all will be invited to Apple Corps' 40th Anniversary gala, celebrating the release of its first single. Can you believe it was 40 years ago? It's an impressive achievement, this label's character lines etched by some very interesting life adventures involving the most important band of all time along with a dozen or so of its closest signings.

Here's the two-minute catch-up: Apple's earliest business incarnation was The Beatles Ltd., an entity that the Fab Four established back in 1963. After the group phased-in another business set-up called Beatles and Co., in '67, The Beatles Ltd. morphed into Apple Music Ltd. -- the company's managing director, the late Neil Aspinall, having credited Paul McCartney for the name, inspired by René Magritte's green apple paintings. A year later, the company's moniker landed on its final incarnation, Apple Corps Ltd., the entity created to shelter the band from heavy taxation and to conduct business post-Brian Epsetin's death in August of '67. It also was meant to be a haven for artists so, according to John Lennon in a conversation with Joe Garagiola in '68 on The Tonight Show, they "[...] don't have to go on their knees in an office, you know, begging for a break." Appearing with John on the same broadcast, McCartney added, "Big companies are so big that if you're little and good, it takes you like 60 years to make it. And so people miss out on these little good people."

There were many terrific little good people that would appear on Apple Records' roster, some growing into superstar status, others fading into obscurity. A few of the label's many artists included James Taylor, Billy Preston, Mary Hopkin, Jackie Lomax, Modern Jazz Quartet, Yoko Ono, Elephant's Memory, Ronnie Spector, Ravi Shankar, Doris Troy, John Tavener, Lon & Derek Van Eaton, and the label's biggest selling non-Beatlescentric act, Badfinger. Speaking to the durability of that group's hits "No Matter What," "Day After Day" and especially "Come And Get It," the latter two recently were converted into successful marketing campaigns, the commercials as catchy now as the singles were in the early '70s.

Many don't remember Apple's original, expansive reach beyond their "boutique label" status. It embraced a mutli-faceted, ambitious agenda, committing to other business ventures such as films, the first being Magical Mystery Tour that was broadcast on the BBC (accidentally in black and white) the day after Christmas in '67. Apple Music Publishing signed songwriters such as the aforementioned Jackie Lomax who eventually would record for the label, his first single being the George Harrison-written and produced "Sour Milk Sea." The Beatles also enabled pseudo-inventor Alex Madras (Magic Alex) and his many dubious contraptions by funding Fiftyshapes Ltd. which later became Apple Electronics -- a misguided venture resulting in eight patents with nothing ever produced. Another expansion, Apple Retail, operated out of the group's early Baker Street address beginning December of '67, and featured a clothing line designed by Simon Posthuma, Marijke Koger and Josje Leeger. The three became the company's visual art gurus as well as the rock group The Fool, one of The Beatles' strangest and most expensive musical investments.

But, of course, what we all remember most is the music, be it by The Beatles, solo projects by John, Paul, George and Ringo or the stable of hits and legacies the record label offered to the world. Though the logo had appeared previously as a branding exercise, Apple Records' journey began in 1968 with The Beatles' double-sided hit single, "Hey Jude"/"Revolution." But Apple had more than just Beatles-related hits. That same year, songwriter Gene Raskin's lyrics "Once upon a time, there was a tavern..." worked their way into the American vernacular with Mary Hopkin's #2 hit on reminiscence, the Paul McCarnteny-produced single "Those Were The Days." McCartney's introduction to Hopkins' music came via famed '60s model Twiggy who enjoyed the Welsh folk singer's appearance on the UK amateur show Opportunity Knocks. Mary Hopkin's single was launched in the label's initial batch of four that included The Beatles' "Hey Jude"/"Revolution," Black Dyke Mills Band's "Thingumybob" (b/w their version of "Yellow Submarine"), and Jackie Lomax's "Sour Milk Sea." Ironically, in the States, "Those Were The Days" stalled at #2 because it was stuck behind another Apple hit, The Beatles' "Hey Jude," though that didn't stop the song from becoming a genuine US pop standard that seemingly was covered by every adult contemporary recording artist of the era.

Becoming superstars after their Apple run, Billy Preston and James Taylor are a couple of the label's biggest success stories. On label, Preston's single "That's The Way God Planned It" from the album of the same name never was a big pop hit (peaking at a respectable #62 in '69), but it has since become an R&B standard. His version of George Harrison's "My Sweet Lord" from early 1971 stalled at #90 on the pop charts but became the artist's first R&B hit, reaching #23. One year later, Preston became an international phenomenon with his string of hits on A&M Records that included "Outa-Space," "Will It Go 'Round In Circles," "Space Race" and "Nothing From Nothing."

James Taylor's mutli-platinum success story doesn't need to be reviewed here since everyone who breathes oxygen has heard his hits -- many, many times -- maybe even in the last hour. But his eponymous 1969 Apple album featured the future standards "Something In The Way She Moves," "Carolina In My Mind," "Rainy Day Man" and "Night Owl" which was elevated to classic status after being recorded by future wife, Carly Simon, for her No Secrets album.

Apple's impressive, landmark releases included The Beatles double "white" album through the "red' and "blue" collections; Paul McCartney's solo outings as well as his various collaborations with his wife Linda and their group Wings up through Band On The Run; John Lennon's solo material up through Rock 'N' Roll; George Harrison's records ending with Extra Texture; Ringo's singles and four early albums including Goodnight Vienna and Ringo that featured contributions from the remaining Beatles; Yoko Ono's experimental and highly-influential body of work; the "underground" albums The Pope Smokes Dope by David Peel and the soundtrack to El Topo; Ravi Shankar's LP In Concert 1972; and albums by Badfinger, Modern Jazz Quartet, and Elephant's Memory. Over the last few years, a revitalized Apple has released Beatles 1, Love (a collection of 26 reworked Beatles songs by George and his son Giles Martin), and three anthologies of mostly rare material.

So, you're probably wondering why this piece was written in early July when the supposed international hoopla is more than a month away. Well, it's because I fear the anniversary might pass unnoticed in the US without some early and needed consciousness-raising and prep on a number of fronts. Regardless of Apple's legendary status and essential recordings, it has suffered the same fate that many other unattended great catalogs have experienced due to inactivity, a lack of marketing dollars, a declining awareness in the population and fewer stores in which to sell its products. Plus, given that the label's non-Beatles assets almost ended up at Warners recently, a fan of any interest level has to wonder what the heck's going on, especially in light of Stax Records' recent successful celebration. With the exception of Motown and Atlantic, there is no other catalog with as high a profile or cultural and historical significance as The Beatles' label, so it would seem that with proper marketing and publicity, there might be yet another, well, bite of the Apple.

But in case there is no hoopla on August 26th, it wouldn't hurt to mark that day in your calendar to at least break out your favorite Apple recording since "...those were the days, oh yes, those were the days." And for an extreme celebration, check out Bruce Spizer's books The Beatles on Apple Records and The Beatles Solo on Apple Records for a more complete story.