By Lee Zimmerman
The late Sir George Martin, who died this past Tuesday, March 8 at age 90, is best known for steering The Beatles’ music throughout the entire course of the group’s unceasingly prolific recording career. If that had been all he accomplished in his more than 60 years of active involvement in the music industry, it would have been more than enough to ensure his legendary stature. He was, after all, the man who helped navigate their signing to EMI, insisted that they should replace original drummer Pete Best with Ringo Starr, and helped the band realize the ambitious and oftentimes eccentric ideas that were conceived by the members’ imaginations, but limited by their abilities to put them into practice. An elegant and urbane individual whose dashing image seemed at odds with the reckless, rebellious nature of the music-making hipsters that inhabited London in the mid and late-‘60s, he added the sophistication and polish that elevated The Beatles’ music and ensured the crowning graces that it inevitably achieved.
Unlike other notable producers of that era — Phil Spector specifically comes to mind — Sir George was not a wild personality in his own right. However, he did have an authority that asserted itself in every sense. Paul McCartney was recently quoted as saying he thought of Martin, over 15 years his senior, as a second father. Martin himself idolized Nelson Riddle, the arranger behind the Frank Sinatra classics of his most gilded age, and so it was little wonder that having Sir George behind the boards for your album meant more than simply emulating The Beatles brand. Martin was, in his own right, a humble genius. Notably, he’s one of only a handful of producers who could claim No. 1 records in three or more consecutive decades (‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s).
Here then, is a list of some of Sir George’s most memorable recordings…
“Bridge on the River Wye” – The Goons: Early on in his career, Martin was known chiefly for recording classical music, stage musicals and traditional tunes gathered from around the British Isles. However, he made his mark early on by recording comedy records with such bright lights of the day as Peter Ustinov, Peter Sellers and Peter Cook. His work with The Goon Show, a comedy troupe that prefigured Month Python and became heroes to the early individual Beatles, made him something of a star. The album Bridge on the River Wye was intended as a spoof of the then-hugely successful “The Bridge on the River Kwai,” and indeed, at first it bore the same name. When the film producers threatened legal action, Martin had to go back through the recording and edit out every ‘K’ in Kwai whenever the word was spoken.
“Ferry Cross The Mersey” and “Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying” – Gerry and the Pacemakers: Given his success with The Beatles, manager Brian Epstein was all too anxious to let Martin tend to other artists on his roster as well, Cilla Black, Billy J. Kramer and Gerry and the Pacemakers, among them. The latter most closely resembled The Beatles in their early intents — a sound that was safe, sanitized and prone to lush sentimental suggestion. These two songs were among the best tunes in the group’s repertoire and the most enduring, with crowning string arrangements by master Martin himself. They’re stirring to say the least.
“Yesterday” – The Beatles: One of the first rock songs to feature orchestration of any sort, Martin had to convince a doubting Paul McCartney that using a string quartet was the ideal way to enforce the song’s sad sentiments. It not only elevated the song’s standing as actual artists, but also helped establish it as Macca’s first real solo success, albeit one credited to the band as a whole.
“Eleanor Rigby” – The Beatles: Martin took the same tack on this later effort, considered one of The Beatles’ greatest audio achievements. Notably, Martin’s contributions weren’t limited to his role in the control room. In addition to writing the trumpet arrangement on “Penny Lane,” the flute arrangement on “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away,” the charts for the French horn on “For No One,” and the tabla arrangements on “Love You To, he oversaw the haunting orchestral crescendo on “A Day in the Life,” played piano on “In My Life” and “Getting Better,” added the harmonium on “Word” and performed the organ part on “Got To Get You Into My Life.”
“Strawberry Fields Forever” – Beatles: While Sir George might have appeared straight and staid as far as his outward persona was concerned, he clearly had the instincts of an innovator. The psychedelic effects that accompanied this song and other latter day classics like “Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite!,” “I’m Only Sleeping” and “Tomorrow Never Knows” were the product of his vivid musical imagination and literally helped define The Beatles as progressive superstars of the highest order.
“Live and Let Die” – Paul McCartney and Wings: Just because The Beatles broke up wasn’t any reason for Sir Paul to desert his former mentor. Indeed, Martin had a hand in several of Macca’s solo efforts, among them such songs as “Ebony and Ivory,” “Say Say Say” and “No More Lonely Nights.” as well as the albums “Tug of War,” “Pipes of Peace” and “Give My Regards to Broad Street.” Notably, too, he returned to his old role as overseer and advisor when it came time to assemble the Beatles Anthology albums in the early ‘90s and later, the Cirque du Soleil production Lovein the mid-2000s.
“Candle in the Wind, 1997” – Elton John: Elton John’s reworked take on his earlier “Candle in the Wind” took on special meaning after the tragic death of the much-beloved Princess Diana. With Sir George’s assistance, a grieving Elton was able to convey the sense of tragedy and despair the world felt at her passing.
“All Shook Up” – Cheap Trick: Unabashed Beatles devotees, Cheap Trick jumped at the chance to enlist Sir George when the opportunity arose. (Notably, Cheap Trick band members backed up John Lennon on the initial sessions for his final album, “Double Fantasy.”) While “All Shook Up” had a negligible effect on Cheap Trick’s continuing legacy, it is an album of sturdy, unimpeded rock ‘n’ roll, honed with a certain savvy and sophistication that only Sir George could bring to the table.
“The Man in the Bowler Hat” – Stackridge: Stackridge were one of the more quirky but creative British bands to make their mark in the mid-‘70s, so it was little surprise that they recruited George Martin as their producer for this particular project. Although their fame didn’t extend to the U.S., this album still stands as a high mark in their career.
“Tin Man,”“Lonely People,” “Sister Golden Hair,” and “Daisy Jane” – America: Never mind the fact that these songs are among the band America’s most loved and admired, but they also brought the group a new level of sophistication that their early CSN-influenced efforts might otherwise have stifled. The tracks are variously culled from two Martin-produced albums, “Holiday” and “Hearts,” arguably the best of their entire career.
George Martin’s efforts didn’t stop there, of course. He took on a remarkably varied tableau, including projects with Jeff Beck, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Little River and Kenny Rogers. While he might be best known for his work with The Beatles — and justifiably so — it’s also important to remember that the scope of his efforts was exceeded only by his creativity and counsel.