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Sir George Martin, CBE (3 January 1926 – 8 March 2016) was an English record producer, arranger, composer, conductor, audio engineer, and musician. He was referred to as the “Fifth Beatle” in reference to his extensive involvement in each of the Beatles’ original albums.
Martin’s career spanned more than six decades in music, film, television and live performance. Before working with the Beatles and other pop musicians, he produced comedy and novelty records in the early 1950s, working with Peter Sellers, Spike Milligan and Bernard Cribbins, among others. In his career he produced 30 number-one hit singles in the United Kingdom and 23 number-one hits in the United States. He also held a number of senior executive roles at media companies and contributed to a wide range of charitable causes, including his work for The Prince’s Trust and the Caribbean island of Montserrat. In recognition of his services to the music industry and popular culture, he was made a Knight Bachelor in 1996. […]
Following his graduation, he worked for the BBC’s classical music department, then joined EMI in 1950 as an assistant to Oscar Preuss, the head of EMI’s Parlophone Records from 1950 to 1955. Although having been regarded by EMI as a vital German imprint in the past, it was then not taken seriously and only used for EMI’s insignificant acts. After taking over Parlophone, as head of artists and repertoire, when Preuss retired in 1955, Martin recorded classical and Baroque music, original cast recordings, and regional music from around Britain and Ireland.
Martin also produced numerous comedy and novelty records. His first success for Parlophone was the “Mock Mozart” single, performed by Peter Ustinov with Antony Hopkins – a record reluctantly released in 1952 by EMI, only after Preuss insisted they give his young assistant, Martin, a chance. In 1956 he produced the well known children’s song “Nellie the Elephant” which was released by Parlophone in October of that year. Later that decade, he worked with Peter Sellers on two very popular comedy LPs. One was released on 10″ format and called The Best Of Sellers, the second was released in 1957, being called Songs for Swinging Sellers (a spoof on Frank Sinatra’s LP Songs for Swingin’ Lovers!).
As he had worked with Sellers, he also came to know Spike Milligan, with whom he became a firm friend, and best man at Milligan’s second marriage: “I loved The Goon Show, and issued an album of it on my label Parlophone, which is how I got to know Spike.” The album was Bridge on the River Wye. It was a spoof of the film The Bridge on the River Kwai, being based on the 1957 Goon Show episode “An African Incident.” It was intended to have the same name as the film, but shortly before its release, the film company threatened legal action if the name was used. Martin edited out the ‘K’ every time the word Kwai was spoken, with Bridge on the River Wye being the result. The River Wye is a river that runs through England and Wales. The album featured Milligan, Sellers, Jonathan Miller, and Peter Cook, playing various characters.
Other comedians he worked with included Bernard Cribbins, Charlie Drake, Terry Scott, Bruce Forsyth, Michael Bentine, Dudley Moore, Flanders and Swann, Lance Percival, Joan Sims, Bill Oddie, and The Alberts. He worked with both Jim Dale and the Vipers Skiffle Group, with whom he had a number of hits. In early 1962, Martin collaborated with Maddalena Fagandini, then working at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, to create two electronic singles, “Time Beat” and “Waltz in Orbit”, which were released as records by the pseudonymous Ray Cathode. As Martin wanted to add rock and roll to Parlophone’s repertoire, he struggled to find a “fireproof” hit-making pop artist or group.
As a producer, Martin recorded the two-man show featuring Michael Flanders and Donald Swann, At the Drop of a Hat, which sold steadily for twenty-five years, although his breakthrough as a producer came with the Beyond the Fringe show cast album, which starred Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Alan Bennett, and Jonathan Miller, and he would also produce the accompanying soundtrack album for David Frost’s satirical BBC TV show That Was the Week That Was in 1963. His work transformed the profile of Parlophone from a “sad little company” to a very profitable business.
Martin was contacted by Sid Coleman of Ardmore & Beechwood, who told him about Brian Epstein, the manager of a band whom he had met. He thought Martin might be interested in the group, even though they had been turned down by Decca Records. Until that time, although there had been considerable success with comedy records, and a number 1 hit with the Temperance Seven, Martin had only minor success with pop music, such as “Who Could Be Bluer” by Jerry Lordan, and singles with Shane Fenton and Matt Monro. After the telephone call by Coleman, Martin arranged a meeting on 13 February 1962 with Brian Epstein. Martin listened to a tape recorded at Decca, and thought that Epstein’s group was “rather unpromising”, but liked the sound of Lennon’s and McCartney’s vocals.
After another meeting with Epstein on 9 May at EMI Studios in London, Martin was impressed by Epstein’s enthusiasm and agreed to sign the unknown Beatles to a recording contract, without having met them or seen them play live. The contract was not what it seemed, however, as Martin would not sign it himself until he had heard an audition, and later said that EMI had “nothing to lose,” as it offered one penny for each record sold, which was split among the four members. Martin suggested to EMI (after the release of “From Me to You“) that the royalty rate should be doubled without asking for anything in return, which led to Martin being thought of as a “traitor in EMI”.
The Beatles auditioned for Martin on 6 June 1962, in studio three at EMI. Ron Richards and his engineer Norman Smith recorded four songs, which Martin (who was not present during the recording) listened to at the end of the session. The verdict was not promising, however, as Richards complained about Pete Best’s drumming, and Martin thought their original songs were simply not good enough. Martin asked the individual Beatles if there was anything they personally did not like, to which George Harrison replied, “I don’t like your tie.” That was the turning point, according to Smith, as John Lennon and Paul McCartney joined in with jokes and comic wordplay, that made Martin think that he should sign them to a contract for their wit alone.
The Beatles’ second recording session with Martin was on 4 September 1962, when they recorded “How Do You Do It”, heavily modified by The Beatles which Martin thought was a sure-fire hit, even though Lennon and McCartney did not want to release it, not being one of their own compositions or style. Martin was correct: Gerry & the Pacemakers’ version, which Martin produced, spent three weeks at No. 1 in April 1963, before being displaced by the Beatles’ “From Me to You”. On 11 September 1962, the Beatles re-recorded “Love Me Do” with session player Andy White playing drums. Ringo Starr was asked to play tambourine and maracas, and although he complied, he was definitely “not pleased”. Due to an EMI library error, a 4 September version with Starr playing drums was issued on the British single release; afterwards, the tape was destroyed, and the 11 September recording with Andy White on drums was used for all subsequent releases. Martin would later praise Starr’s drumming, calling him “probably … the finest rock drummer in the world today”. As “Love Me Do” peaked at number 17 in the British charts, on 26 November 1962 Martin recorded “Please Please Me“, which he did only after Lennon and McCartney had almost begged him to record another of their original songs. Martin’s crucial contribution to the song was to tell them to speed up what was initially a slow ballad. After the recording Martin looked over the mixing desk and said, “Gentlemen, you have just made your first number one record”. Martin directed Epstein to find a good publisher, as Ardmore & Beechwood had done nothing to promote “Love Me Do”, informing Epstein of three publishers who, in Martin’s opinion, would be fair and honest, which led them to Dick James.
The Beatles – As an arranger
Martin’s formal musical expertise helped fill the gaps between the Beatles’ unrefined talent and the sound which distinguished them from other groups, which eventually made them successful. Most of the Beatles’ orchestral arrangements and instrumentation were written or performed by Martin, as well as frequent keyboard parts on the early records, in collaboration with the less musically experienced band. It was Martin’s idea to score a string quartet accompaniment for “Yesterday” against McCartney’s initial reluctance. Martin played the song in the style of Bach to show McCartney the voicings that were available. Another example is the song “Penny Lane“, which featured a piccolo trumpet solo that was requested by McCartney after hearing the instrument on a BBC broadcast. McCartney hummed the melody that he wanted, and Martin notated it for David Mason, the classically trained trumpeter.
Martin’s work as an arranger was used for many Beatles recordings. For “Eleanor Rigby,” he scored and conducted a strings-only accompaniment inspired by Bernard Herrmann. On a Canadian speaking tour in 2007, Martin said that his “Eleanor Rigby” score was influenced by Herrmann’s score for the Alfred Hitchcock thriller Psycho. For “Strawberry Fields Forever“, he and recording engineer Geoff Emerick turned two very different takes into a single master through careful use of vari-speed and editing. For “I Am the Walrus“, he provided a quirky and original arrangement for brass, violins, cellos, and the Mike Sammes Singers vocal ensemble. On “In My Life“, he played a speeded-up baroque piano solo. He worked with McCartney to implement the orchestral climax in “A Day in the Life“, and he and McCartney shared conducting duties the day that it was recorded.
Martin contributed integral parts to other songs, including the piano in “Lovely Rita“, the harpsichord in songs such as “Because” and “Fixing a Hole“; the old steam organ and tape loop arrangement that created the Pablo Fanque circus atmosphere that Lennon requested on “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!” (both Martin and Lennon played steam organ parts for this song), and the orchestration in “Good Night“. The first song that Martin did not arrange was “She’s Leaving Home“, as he had a prior engagement to produce a Cilla Black session, so McCartney contacted arranger Mike Leander to do it. Martin was reportedly hurt by this, but still produced the recording and conducted the orchestra himself. Martin was in demand as an independent arranger and producer by the time of the band’s 1968 self-titled double album (also known as the “White Album”), so the Beatles were left to produce various tracks by themselves.
Martin composed and arranged the score for the Beatles’ film Yellow Submarine and the James Bond film Live and Let Die, for which Paul McCartney wrote and sang the title song. He helped arrange Paul and Linda McCartney’s American number 1 single “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey“.
Paul McCartney once commended Martin by saying: “George Martin [was] quite experimental for who he was, a grown-up.”
The Beatles – Film and composing work
Beginning in the late 1950s, Martin began to supplement his producer income by publishing music and having his artists record it. He used the pseudonyms Lezlo Anales and John Chisholm, before settling on Graham Fisher as his primary pseudonym.
Martin composed, arranged, and produced film scores since the early 1960s, including the instrumental scores of the films A Hard Day’s Night (1964, for which he won an Academy Award Nomination), Ferry Cross the Mersey (1965), Yellow Submarine (1968), and Live and Let Die (1973). Other notable movie scores include Crooks Anonymous (1962), The Family Way (1966), Pulp (1972, starring Michael Caine and Mickey Rooney), the Peter Sellers film The Optimists of Nine Elms (1973), and the John Schlesinger-directed Honky Tonk Freeway (1981).
Martin was also commissioned to write an official opening theme for BBC Radio 1’s launch in September 1967. Entitled “Theme One”, it was the first music heard on Radio 1 (not The Move’s “Flowers in the Rain”, which was the first record played in full on the station). The tune was later covered by the British progressive rock group Van der Graaf Generator.
In November 2017, the Craig Leon-produced album George Martin – Film Scores and Original Orchestral Music was released. The album of new recordings collected a selection of Martin’s compositions together for the first time, including previously unheard pieces Belle Etoile and sketches from the feature film The Mission (1986) which were not used in the original soundtrack.
The Beatles Anthology
Martin oversaw post-production on The Beatles Anthology (which was originally entitled The Long and Winding Road) in 1994 and 1995, working again with Geoff Emerick. Martin decided to use an old 8-track analogue mixing console – which EMI learned an engineer still had – to mix the songs for the project, instead of a modern digital console. He explained this by saying that the old console created a completely different sound, which a new console could not accurately reproduce. He also said he found the whole project a strange experience, as they had to listen to themselves chatting in the studio, 25–30 years previously.
Martin stepped down when it came to producing the two new singles reuniting McCartney, Harrison, and Starr, who wanted to overdub two old Lennon demos. Martin had suffered a hearing loss, so he left the work to writer/producer Jeff Lynne of the Electric Light Orchestra.
Cirque du Soleil and Love
In 2006, Martin and his son, Giles Martin, remixed 80 minutes of Beatles music for the Las Vegas stage performance Love, a joint venture between Cirque du Soleil and the Beatles’ Apple Corps Ltd. A soundtrack album from the show was released that same year.
Martin’s contribution to the Beatles’ work received regular critical acclaim, and led to him being described as the “fifth Beatle”. In 2016, McCartney wrote that “If anyone earned the title of the fifth Beatle it was George”. According to Alan Parsons, he had “great ears” and “rightfully earned the title of “fifth Beatle”. Julian Lennon called Martin “the fifth Beatle, without question”.
In the immediate aftermath of the Beatles’ break-up, a time when he made many angry utterances, John Lennon trivialised Martin’s importance to the Beatles’ music. In his 1970 interview with Jann Wenner, Lennon said, “[Dick James] is another one of those people, who think they made us. They didn’t. I’d like to hear Dick James’ music and I’d like to hear George Martin’s music, please, just play me some.”
In a 1971 letter to Paul McCartney, Lennon wrote, “When people ask me questions about ‘What did George Martin really do for you?,’ I have only one answer, ‘What does he do now?’ I noticed you had no answer for that! It’s not a putdown, it’s the truth.” Lennon wrote that Martin took too much credit for the Beatles’ music. Commenting specifically on “Revolution 9“, Lennon said, “For Martin to state that he was ‘painting a sound picture’ is pure hallucination. Ask any of the other people involved. The final editing Yoko and I did alone.”
In 1971, Lennon said, “George Martin made us what we were in the studio. He helped us develop a language to talk to other musicians.” […]
Paul McCartney remembering George Martin, March 9th 2016:
I’m so sad to hear the news of the passing of dear George Martin. I have so many wonderful memories of this great man that will be with me forever. He was a true gentleman and like a second father to me. He guided the career of The Beatles with such skill and good humour that he became a true friend to me and my family. If anyone earned the title of the fifth Beatle it was George. 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.
It’s hard to choose favourite memories of my time with George, there are so many but one that comes to mind was the time I brought the song ‘Yesterday’ to a recording session and the guys in the band suggested that I sang it solo and accompany myself on guitar. After I had done this George Martin said to me, “Paul I have an idea of putting a string quartet on the record”. I said, “Oh no George, we are a rock and roll band and I don’t think it’s a good idea”. With the gentle bedside manner of a great producer he said to me, “Let us try it and if it doesn’t work we won’t use it and we’ll go with your solo version”. I agreed to this and went round to his house the next day to work on the arrangement.
He took my chords that I showed him and spread the notes out across the piano, putting the cello in the low octave and the first violin in a high octave and gave me my first lesson in how strings were voiced for a quartet. When we recorded the string quartet at Abbey Road, it was so thrilling to know his idea was so correct that I went round telling people about it for weeks. His idea obviously worked because the song subsequently became one of the most recorded songs ever with versions by Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Ray Charles, Marvin Gaye and thousands more.
This is just one of the many memories I have of George who went on to help me with arrangements on ‘Eleanor Rigby’, ‘Live and Let Die’ and many other songs of mine.
I am proud to have known such a fine gentleman with such a keen sense of humour, who had the ability to poke fun at himself. Even when he was Knighted by the Queen there was never the slightest trace of snobbery about him.
My family and I, to whom he was a dear friend, will miss him greatly and send our love to his wife Judy and their kids Giles and Lucy, and the grandkids.
The world has lost a truly great man who left an indelible mark on my soul and the history of British music.
God bless you George and all who sail in you!
From paulmccartney.com, December 2016:
In March producer and family friend George Martin passed away
Paul: The George Martin tribute, that was very moving. It was at St. Martin-in-the-Fields and was sort of funny, and it was sad. So you know, it’s the old one, “We laughed, we cried”. But it was a great chance to just remember things about George.
Obviously, you can’t get all the memories in one tribute like that, but there were a lot of great things. There were a lot of great speakers. There was an old Australian pal of George’s, who was very emotional and very moving and he was clever – because everyone was sort of eulogising – and he said: “But George wasn’t all good! You know, he could get pretty nasty if he was losing at cricket!” Which was funny, you know. But then he got really emotional, you could see he was a real buddy of George’s. I didn’t know him, but that was nice just seeing all the sides of George’s life. It was very moving. And it just gave you a chance to say, “Oh my gosh, I knew this guy”. I worked with him so much. He was like a father figure to me, really.
And he was such a self-made man. He was brought up working class and then sort of scrabbled his way to the top. He was brought up in Hoxton. So I think he was a bit “Landon!” at first, like. And then he went to the Guildhall School of Music, so, very much improved. But he was a joy to work with. A really nice man.
And it’s funny because I always used to treasure his thank you letters. Each year, I would send him a bottle of wine: “Birthday greetings, bottle of wine!”, from the lyrics of ‘When I’m Sixty-Four’. He loved his wine so I would always send him a great red wine. And he would send me the most lovely handwritten thank you letter. And it was always kind of funny, appreciative. I loved his writing. You know how you get to sort of love someone’s writing? I came across one recently actually, in a drawer. And it was like, I love that about him. That he took the bother. He was old school. He took the bother to write a nice, little handwritten thing.
So yeah, all these kind of things were at the tribute. And it was well done musically. Giles, his son, oversaw the music and there were things like Bernard Cribbins, who is a comedy actor that George produced. And he sang one of the comedy songs George produced that was a hit for him. He sang it very well. And like I say loads of great speakers. It was a lovely afternoon. Very emotional. I looked over and there’s Stella and Mary in tears, because they knew him very well. That’s the nice thing, our families have grown up together. It was a lovely, lovely ceremony.
Last updated on April 14, 2021
Sep 03, 1992 • Songs recorded during this session appear on Flaming Pie
Jan 02, 1981 • Songs recorded during this session appear on Tug Of War