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Why famed producer George Martin is bigger than The Beatles

Perhaps best known for his work with The Fab Four, legendary producer Sir George Martin made the most of his career — with a little help from his friends. But his impact on popular music stretches far beyond Abbey Road.

By Gillian G. Gaar

George Martin had two pieces of good luck that not only changed the course of his life, they changed the course of popular music forever.

The first happened in 1950, when Martin’s mentor, Sidney Harrison, knew that Oscar Preuss, head of Parlophone Records, was looking for an assistant. Harrison recommended Martin be contacted for the job. Martin had no idea Harrison was working on his behalf, and he was surprised when a letter arrived “out of the blue,” as he later recalled, asking him to interview for the position. Martin soon landed the job.

Martin’s second break came in February 1962, when he received a call from Sid Colman, a music publisher, who had just met a young man named Brian Epstein, who was seeking a record contract for a group he managed, The Beatles. Martin agreed to meet with Epstein on Feb. 13, 1962 — the first in a chain of events that led to Martin signing the band.

And, it’s The Beatles that George Martin — today Sir George Martin, Commander of the British Empire — will always be most associated with.

George Martin John Lennon Beatles studio

In his book “All You Need Is Ears” (St. Martin’s Press), George Martin shared this photo, captured in the studio with John Lennon.

Martin himself says that The Beatles would likely have found success whatever producer they ended up working with, and that may be. But Martin was uniquely suited to be the band’s producer and was so much a part of The Beatles’ success that he’s certainly a worthy candidate for the often-assigned and much-coveted title of the “Fifth Beatle.”

George Henry Martin was born on Jan. 3, 1926, in London. He began playing the family piano at age 6, later taking what he called “a handful of lessons,” but primarily teaching himself. Following his service in the Fleet Air Arm of the Royal Navy during World War II, his veteran’s grant enabled him to study at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London.

Upon graduating in 1950, Martin worked briefly for the BBC in its music library before being hired by Parlophone. In 1955, Oscar Preuss retired, and Martin became the head of Parlophone — one of the youngest heads of a record company in the country. Martin spent the reset of the decade looking for some way to make the label stand out. He found the answer in producing comedy records, working with British talents like Spike Milligan, Peter Sellers and the Beyond the Fringe comedy troupe. Comedy records utilized greater experimentation, in trying to conjure up visual imagery for the listener, something would serve Martin in good stead in the years ahead.

But comedy wasn’t Martin’s only beat; in that pre-rock era, he produced a great variety of artists, including Australian Rolf Harris (“Sun Arise,” “Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport”); Mandy Miller’s children’s record, “Nellie the Elephant;” Dick James’ hit version of the theme song to the UK TV series “The Adventures of Robin Hood” (James would become The Beatles’ song publisher); and the jazz band the Temperance Seven. Martin also made a record himself during this period, an instrumental called “Time Beat,” released under the pseudonym “Ray Cathode.”

By the early ’60s, Martin was increasingly interested in finding a rock act to work with, one reason he’d agreed to meet with Epstein. Epstein played Martin the demo The Beatles had recorded for Decca the previous January. Martin wasn’t too impressed, but Epstein seemed so dejected by his response he agreed to keep The Beatles under consideration. On May 9, the two met again, and Martin agreed to prepare a contract and have the group record at EMI’s studio in Abbey Road on June 6. If Martin liked what he heard, he’d sign The Beatles to Parlophone.

The June 6 session went well, and the group was signed — the contract backdated to June 4. During the session, The Beatles recorded four songs, “Besame Mucho, “Love Me Do,” “PS I Love You,” and “Ask Me Why.” Martin joined the session when the group was working on “Love Me Do.”

Afterward, Martin invited the band into the control room to listen to their work, adding they could let him know if there was something they didn’t like.

“Well, for a start, I don’t like your tie,” George Harrison famously responded, which helped break the ice, and Martin discovered he liked the good-humored, cheeky musicians.
“I found them very attractive people,” Martin later recalled.

Unbeknownst to The Beatles, Martin had considered which of them should be promoted as the lead singer. But he later realized to do so would change the character of the group — although that didn’t stop him from saying he wanted to use a studio drummer for recording sessions, leading the band to fire then-drummer Pete Best and replace him with Ringo Starr.

More unusually, Martin agreed to let the group record its own material from the beginning. He also helped The Beatles achieve the band’s first chart success by suggesting they boost the tempo of the song “Please Please Me.” The band took Martin’s advice, and after recording the track, Martin made a bold prediction: “Gentlemen, you have just recorded your first No. 1.”

“Please Please Me” would top some U.K. record charts on its release in 1963, though not the “Record Retailer” chart, the source now used to determine official U.K. chart placements. Nonetheless, “Please Please Me” was The Beatles’ breakthrough — and Martin’s breakthrough, as well. In 1963, records he produced by The Beatles, Gerry & the Pacemakers and Billy J. Kramer topped the charts for an impressive 40 weeks. And though Martin continued working with other artists during the decade, The Beatles were his priority act.

As the group developed as musicians and songwriters, Martin actively worked to enhance the members’ individual creativity. Key to The Beatles’ inventiveness was an interest in trying new things, and Martin’s willingness to go along with it. He was open to experimenting with feedback, tape loops and varying tape speeds — elements that added a distinctive character to The Beatles’ music. His arrangements were invariably clean and classic. When he suggested a string quintet be used on “Yesterday,” McCartney stressed that he didn’t want “any of that Mantovani rubbish.” Martin concurred and delivered a tasteful score for what would become the most recorded song in history. He also served as something of an intermediary between the band and studio musicians used to working with a proper score, such as when he had McCartney sing the melody he wanted to use for a trumpet solo in “Penny Lane,” then wrote the notation down for the musician to play. He also worked on the instrumental scores for The Beatles’ films and released his own albums of instrumentals: “Off the Beatle Track” and “George Martin Instrumentally Salutes The Beatle Girls.”

Sir George Martin record producer Kenny Rogers

Although Sir George Martin is best known for his work with The Beatles, artists from Kenny Rogers to Cheap Trick have been among those blessed to work with the famed producer. Publicity photo.

Martin has said he was happy to move on when The Beatles broke up in 1970; now he no longer had to deal with the pressure of trying to get a hit with each release. The hits kept coming, though, most notably through Martin’s work with the band America. Martin has gone on to work with innumerable artists: Jeff Beck, Ultravox, Kenny Rogers, Cheap Trick, Dire Straits, Aerosmith and Jimmy Webb, to name a few. He produced the original cast album of 1993 production of “The Who’s Tommy,” and Elton John’s memorial single for Princess Diana, “Candle in the Wind,” which is the biggest selling single of all time.

But Martin never really stopped working for The Beatles, either, even when The Fab Four set out on solo paths. Martin produced Ringo Starr’s debut album, “Sentimental Journey.” But the former Beatle he’s worked with most often has been McCartney, working on “Live and Let Die,” “Tug of War,” “Pipes of Peace,” “Give My Regards to Broad Street,” “Press To Play,” “Flowers in the Dirt” and “Flaming Pie.” He also suggested McCartney work with producer Nigel Godrich on “Chaos and Creation in the Back Yard” (released in 2005), one of McCartney’s best albums.

Martin took some heat for producing the soundtrack album of the legendary flop film “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” — although the 1978 album did produce hit singles for Earth, Wind & Fire (“Got To Get You Into My Life”) and Aerosmith (“Come Together”). But he redeemed himself with his work on “The Beatles Anthology.” Though Martin didn’t work on the “new” Beatles singles created for the 1994-1995 project (“Free As A Bird” and “Real Love”), he did produce all three of the albums.

Martin then announced that his last new project would be the 1998 album “In My Life,” a collection of Beatles covers, in part because his years of working in the studio have resulted in significant hearing loss. Thankfully, he returned to work on another Beatles-related project in 2006, working with his son, Giles, on remixing The Beatles’ music for Cirque du Soleil’s “Love” show; the album won two Grammy awards, and the show continues to run in Las Vegas. It’s likely to be Martin’s last album. And it’s fitting that it should be with the band helped enshrine the name “George Martin” in rock history.