Sir George Martin, Beatles' music producer, dies at age 90
Classically trained, he helped redefine pop culture with the Beatles
Martin produced 23 No. 1 hits in the United States
Sir George Martin, the music producer whose collaboration with the Beatles helped redraw the boundaries of popular music, died Tuesday, according to his management company. He was 90.
Martin died “peacefully at home” in England, according to Adam Sharp, the founder of C A Management which represents the music producer.
“In a career that spanned seven decades he was recognized globally as one of music’s most creative talents and a gentleman to the end. The family ask that their privacy be respected at this time,” Sharp said.
Martin worked with countless others over a career that spanned decades, including Peter Sellers, Shirley Bassey, America, Cheap Trick, Jeff Beck and Celine Dion. But his fame, and his influence, rests on the seven years he spent with the Beatles, the most successful group in music history – a group Martin helped propel to the top spot with his musical expertise, tasteful arrangements and willing experimentation.
For Paul McCartney, Martin was “like a second father to me.”
“If anyone earned the title of the fifth Beatle it was George,” he said in a statement. “From the day that he gave The Beatles our first recording contract, to the last time I saw him, he was the most generous, intelligent and musical person I’ve ever had the pleasure to know.”
Ringo Starr thanked the producer in a tweet: “God bless George Martin peace and love to Judy and his family.” Judy refers to Martin’s wife of nearly 50 years.
Martin’s son, Giles – who worked with his father on the Beatles remasters and the “Love” album – also tweeted about the loss.
“RIP dad. I love you. I’m so proud to have been your son. I’ll miss you more than words can say. Thank you for the all times we had together,” he tweeted, adding a second tweet with a photo.
“Started out as my dad. Ended as my best friend. Love is all you need,” he said.
Martin’s partnership with the group he signed to Parlophone Records in 1962 changed all of their lives – and, by extension, popular culture.
“When I first met the Beatles in 1962, I didn’t think much of their songs at all,” he told JazzWax.com. “But they learned so quickly how to write a hit. They were like plants in a hothouse. They grew incredibly fast.”
The polished, classically trained producer began as a father figure to the four somewhat scruffy lads from Liverpool, capturing their songs on tape with a minimum of fuss or studio gimmickry. But by 1966, he was as much a collaborator as mentor, using his knowledge of both musical structure and recording technology to help the band realize its musical visions.
Typically modest, he described his role as a producer in matter-of-fact terms.
“Put simply, my job was to make sure recordings were artistically exceptional and commercially appealing, maximizing the qualities of artists and songs,” he told JazzWax.com.
In Martin’s hands, however, that job was both expansive and unobtrusive. Songs produced by George Martin had a distinctive touch but rarely called attention to his work. The spotlight was on the music.
And yet his role cannot be overstated. Working with engineers such as Norman Smith and Geoff Emerick, Martin helped the Beatles turn the studio into another instrument.
He added a string quartet to “Yesterday” – a decision that McCartney initially balked at, telling Martin: “Oh no, George. We are a rock and roll band.”
With a gentle bit of nudging, Martin added the cello in low octave and violin in high octave. “His idea obviously worked because the song subsequently became one of the most recorded songs ever,” McCartney said in a statement.
He allowed backward tape loops on “Tomorrow Never Knows,” even if he couldn’t make John Lennon’s voice sound like chanting Tibetan monks – one of Lennon’s characteristically absurd requests.
The work reached a pinnacle in 1967, with Martin’s ingenious oversight of the “Penny Lane” / “Strawberry Fields Forever” single and the album that often tops the lists of greatest ever: “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”
By then, even he wondered whether the group had gone too far.
“As we were getting longer and longer into the album, and more and more avant-garde, I was wondering if we were being a little over-the-top and a little bit, maybe, pretentious,” Martin recalled in a 1992 documentary about “Pepper.” “Is the public ready for this yet?”
Finding odd harmony
On the surface, the contrast between the patrician-looking Martin and his long-haired musical charges couldn’t have been starker. He was movie-star handsome, reserved, establishment; they were casually pretty, energetic, counterculture. He was the World War II generation; they were the ones who helped upend it.
But the two sides had a surprising amount in common. Martin came from a working-class background, as did the Beatles. Moreover, the producer was a keen fan of comedy, having worked with members of “The Goon Show,” such as Sellers and Spike Milligan, and produced the satirical “Beyond the Fringe” troupe. Their work was well known to the comedy-loving Beatles.
It was a sense of humor that may have initially bound them together. According to legend, when introduced to Martin at an audition for his record label, the producer asked the band whether there was anything they didn’t like. George Harrison quickly responded, “Well, for a start, I don’t like your tie.”
At EMI’s staid Abbey Road Studios, where the studio engineers were required to wear lab coats, Martin could have easily taken offense. Instead, it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
George Henry Martin was born in London on January 3, 1926. He took an interest in music from an early age, teaching himself piano and becoming enraptured by radio broadcasts of orchestras. By the time he was 15, he was running a small band, George Martin and the Four Tune Tellers.
He enlisted in the Royal Navy at 17 and served as a pilot and commissioned officer, though he “managed to evade Japan,” he told Rock Cellar magazine. Upon leaving the military in 1947, he enrolled in the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, studying piano and oboe.
After a short stint at the BBC, he joined EMI Records’ Parlophone label, a tiny part of the huge record conglomerate. Martin had some success – he did a hit record with actor Peter Ustinov in 1952 – but was still caught off-guard when he was asked to take over the label in 1955. He hadn’t yet turned 30.