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In memoriam: Sir George Martin, CBE, 1926-2016

George Martin’s contributions to the way we hear music today are incalculable. Many describe him as the “fifth Beatle,” and his work with those musicians certainly warrants recognition, but his contributions to recorded sound in the twentieth century go far beyond that epithet. In an era when record company marketing lauded hyperbolic praise on stars and some producers presented themselves as supreme geniuses, George Martin maintained a relatively discreet presence. Instead, he took the role of enabler-in-chief, as generous in his praise as he was with his gifts for helping musicians create their best work.

The son of a North London carpenter, George Martin in his autobiography describes how during the depression his mother’s middle class background influenced his parents’ decision to financially support his musical interests. During the evacuation of London during the blitz he studied at Bromley Grammar School where Martin proved an eager adolescent musician, developing his musical ear, teaching himself basic theory and harmony, and leading a dance band (George Martin and the Four Tune Tellers). Upon graduation towards the end of the war, he served in the Royal Navy, Fleet Air Arm, earning an officer’s commission, and on demobilization in 1947 he enrolled at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, studying composition, arranging, conducting, theory, piano, and oboe during his three years at that institution.

Finding work as a musician in postwar Britain had challenges, but Martin had impressed his teachers and his mentor at the Guildhall recommended him to the director of Parlophone Records as an assistant. Oscar Preuss initially assigned Martin to work on the label’s classical catalogue, which consisted largely of chamber music; but Martin gradually added jazz (e.g., Humphrey Lyttelton), developed the label’s Scottish music catalogue (e.g., Jimmy Shand), and built the comedy component (e.g., Peter Ustinov). Nevertheless, EMI’s other labels—Columbia and HMV—were capturing an increasing share of the growing and lucrative British pop-music market, and Preuss knew that he needed someone younger to negotiate the major changes that were sweeping the business. When Preuss retired in 1955, EMI appointed Martin (29) as his successor, the youngest director to oversee an EMI label at the time. Under Martin, Parlophone would sign Adam Faith (recorded by John Burgess) to its roster as well as The Vipers Skiffle Group (recorded by Martin).

In the spring of 1962, Martin listened to selections from The Beatles’ failed Decca audition, parts of which must have made him wince, but he agreed to give them a recording test after intercessions from Ardmore and Beechwood’s Sid Colman and EMI managing director L. G. Wood. John Lennon and Paul McCartney’s compositions had piqued Colman’s interest, while Wood knew that The Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein owned the largest and most influential record store in England’s northwest. On Wednesday 6 June 1962, The Beatles knew they were in the studio because their songs had attracted the attention of a publisher and, eager to demonstrate their potential, they had resurrected and rehearsed three original compositions. Nevertheless, George Martin and his production team, while impressed with the group’s charm and humor, doubted their potential as songwriters. Balance engineer Norman Smith remembered that, “We saw no potential of their songwriting abilities that were to come.” However, he was impressed with the band’s presence and offered, “My thought… George, I think we should sign them.”

Even as they respected his accomplishments, some musicians of the era did find Martin’s demeanor condescending, but this impression likely derived in part from his fatherly inclination to develop the talents of the performers with whom he worked, whether comedians like Peter Sellers, novice singers like Cilla Black, or consummate professionals like Shirley Bassey. He applied his musical ear to create arrangements for Black, Gerry and The Pacemakers, and others, and to encourage the musicians he encountered to grow as artists. His work with The Beatles has the best documentation, but many other artists benefitted from his talents.

Most of his work remained hidden from the public, but some exceptions show how much artists appreciated him. For example, Cilla Black (who passed away last year) in concert footage of a performance with an orchestra led by Martin, mistimes her entry and, with the camera on her, recognizes her mistake with a look of suppressed panic. Behind her, Martin deftly resynchronizes the orchestra to return Black into the arrangement by Johnny Pearson. The palpable relief on her face gives way to an embrace of the emotions of the song. At the end, she turns and curtsies to Martin who returns the acknowledgement with a gentlemanly bow.

Cilla Black, “Anyone Who Had a Heart”:

The Beatles represent his best-known students, developing their interests in the possibilities of the studio and in the art of recording. McCartney in particular learned from Martin and relied on him to help realize his increasingly ambitious ideas, whether in the realization of his melodies in the film music for The Family Way (1966), the psychedelic orchestral bridges in “A Day in the Life” (1967), or his Bond theme “Live or Let Die” (1973).

“Love in the Open Air” (The Family Way):

For all students interested in how modern popular music evolved, Martin’s career demonstrates the interplay between technological innovations and cultural adaptation. When he arrived at EMI, recording engineers still cut recordings into hot wax with lathes and he witnessed the transition from that medium to magnetic tape and, eventually, digital recording. As importantly, he initiated one of the biggest coups in British recording industry when he colluded with some of the most successful producers of the day to form their own production company, Associated Independent Recording (AIR), which remains an important studio. His recognition that corporations reaped substantial profits from their recordings while paying them relatively inconsequential salaries inspired him to lead a producers’ revolt that initiated major changes for London record companies.

More importantly, his productions have shaped our expectations for recorded music in profound ways. Every band that wants their record to have the sound of The Beatles aspires to George Martin’s production values. Film composers looking for the power of the score to the Bond flick Live and Let Die have George Martin as their model. And for those whose professional goals include a balance between musical sophistication and gentlemanly humility, few better examples could be found than George Martin.

Sir George Henry Martin CBE
3 January 1926 – 8 March 2016

LAS VEGAS - JUNE 30: Producer Sir George Martin, the original producer for the Beatles, arrives at the gala premiere of "The Beatles LOVE by Cirque du Soleil" at the Mirage Hotel & Casino June 30, 2006 in Las Vegas, Nevada.  (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
LAS VEGAS – JUNE 30: Producer Sir George Martin, the original producer for the Beatles, arrives at the gala premiere of “The Beatles LOVE by Cirque du Soleil” at the Mirage Hotel & Casino June 30, 2006 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Image credits: George Martin / Vintage radios via iStock.

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