PHOTO: Michael Ochs Archives | Getty Images
By Christopher Scapelliti
George Martin, famous for having signed the Beatles in 1962 and produced nearly all of their records, has died. He was 90.
The cause of death has not been released.
Often referred to as “the fifth Beatle,” Martin was a producer at EMI’s Parlophone Records in 1962 when he was approached by the Beatles’ manager, Brian Epstein, who was trying to land the group a record contract after having been turned down by all the other labels.
Both Martin and Parlophone were unlikely choices. The label was known for novelty records, including comedy discs by the Goons, featuring actor Peter Sellers. Martin was himself a producer of classical music and had no experience recording rock and roll.
Still, Martin heard something he liked in the Beatles’ music. He was also bowled over by their charm. Following their audition, he sat down with the group to lecture them about their performance and the need to upgrade their gear if they wanted to be professional artists.
When he was finished, Martin asked the group if there was anything they didn’t like. “Well your tie, for one,” remarked George Harrison. Martin cracked up. Afterward, he considered hiring them just for their entertainment value
“It wasn’t so much their music that attracted them to me at first,” he told Mark Lewisohn in The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions. “It was their charm. They were very charming people.”
In an era where producers held dominance over their acts, Martin was unique for allowing the Beatles some sway, no doubt because he recognized their intelligence and talent. In 1962, after rejecting an early, slower version of their song “Please Please Me,” he pushed them to record a professionally written lightweight pop number called “How Do You Do It” for their second single. The group demurred—they wanted to write their own songs. Martin told them that when they could write something as good as that he would let them. They responded by revamping “Please Please Me,” picking up the speed and turning it from a bluesy dirge to a full-on rock and roll song. Martin was blown away. “Gentlemen, you’ve just recorded your first Number One single,” he said after they’d tracked the song, and he was right. “Please Please Me” went to the top of the charts and marked the start of the Beatles’ rise.
As a producer, Martin was also key to helping the group achieve the sounds they heard in their heads. When Paul McCartney presented him with the gentle acoustic number “Yesterday” in 1965, Martin suggested a light string accompaniment, rather than a full band arrangement, settling on the perfect musical setting for McCartney’s melancholy song.
The following year, as the group set out to record Revolver, Martin relinquished absolute control of the studio, allowing them to commandeer all of Abbey Road Studios’ tape machines to record John Lennon’s sonic masterpiece “Tomorrow Never Knows.” The track’s layered sounds were achieved by spooling the tape decks with prerecorded tape loops, whose sounds Martin and engineer Geoff Emerick faded in and out of the song, playing the decks as if they were collectively a single instrument.
But it was 1967’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band that is remembered as Martin’s, and the Beatles’, masterpiece. Together, they approached each song with a sense of musical adventure, using sonic effects, unusual instrumentation and orchestration to lift the music beyond anything yet heard in the pop world. Sgt. Pepper’s is widely regarded as the album that made rock and roll respectable as a music form. While there are those who would disagree with the merits of that accomplishment, there is no denying that the album changed how records were made and the level of artistic control that artists had in the studio. Much of that is down to Martin’s instincts as a producer and his trust in his artists.
He was most certainly an independent thinker. He surprised everyone when, in 1965, at the height of Beatlemania, Martin struck out on his own, leaving EMI and launching Associated Independent Recording (AIR). It was a sign of his importance to the Beatles that EMI continued to use him to record their music. AIR remains one of the world’s pre-eminent recording studios.
Martin continued to produce and record numerous acts after the Beatles’ broke up in 1970, including Jeff Beck, Cheap Trick, America, Mahavishnu Orchestra and Elton John. He also continued to work with Paul McCartney, producing “Live and Let Die,” his theme song for the 1973 James Bond film of the same title, and McCartney’s collaborations with Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson, “Ebony and Ivory” and “Say Say Say,” respectively. He stepped down from producing in the Nineties due to hearing loss.
Martin is survived by his wife of nearly 50 years, Judy Lockhart Smith, and his four children, including his son, producer Giles Martin.