"I live to live each day like it will be my last," said George Martin when interviewed for a documentary on his long life in the public eye as pop music's greatest producer. "So why the hell should I be here talking to you?"
Proper, polite, erudite, and armed with the same Goon Show-inspired humor that drove his most famous disciples The Beatles, George Martin was the grand gentleman of rock n' roll. Martin, who died March 7 at the age of 90, is being remembered as the premier producer of the 20th century, the man who all-but-invented the role in the modern world. But George Martin will forever be appreciated for believing in The Beatles, signing them to EMI, and as their producer, confidant, and brother-in-arms, firing their already electric imaginations. Martin pushed and challenged the songwriting of Lennon & McCartney and inspired the band to incorporate electronics--varying tape speeds, overdriven amplifiers, classical music motifs, and sound effects--into their recording process and their compositional process as well.
George Martin also helped produce and befriend not only (virtually) every Beatles session but seminal albums and hits by America, Cilla Black, Jeff Beck, and many, many more. His comedy recordings with Dudley Moore and Peter Cook in the early '60s are undiscovered gems. It was Martin's experience recording comedy that helped spark his lifelong friendship with the just-out-of-their teens Beatles in 1962.
At that time, Martin was the youngest director of Parlophone, a lagging division of EMI, where Martin was charged with producing comedy records and the occassional pop and jazz session at the company's studios at Abbey Road when Brian Epstein, a record store owner from Liverpool, sent over an acetate of the pop group he was managing. Epstein had been turned down by every label in London. Would Martin give them an audition?
Unimpressed by the songs but intrigued by the harmonies, Martin made perhaps the most important shrug-of-the-shoulders in pop music history and said: "sure, let's get them in the studio and try them out." Martin listened and concluded he didn't like their drummer. The Beatles' lead guitarist didn't like Martin's tie. They got over those hurdles. The Beatles changed their drummer. Martin kept his tie. And so began the bloom of the first flower petal of the 1960s.
“When I joined EMI, the criteria by which recordings were judged was their faithfulness to the original," Martin told The New York Times in 2003. "If you made a recording that was so good that you couldn’t tell the difference between the recording and the actual performance, that was the acme. And I questioned that. I thought, O.K., we’re all taking photographs of an existing event. But we don’t have to make a photograph; we can paint. And that prompted me to experiment.”
Martin stayed "posh" even as the The Beatles changed with the times, nearly always attending their sessions in a white shirt and tie (and the occasional turtleneck). But musically he was a perfect match for The Beatles whose love for the studio grew more intense as fans and media attention made normal life nearly impossible outside of Abbey Road Studios.
George Henry Martin was born in London on January 3, 1926. He began playing piano--self-taught--as a child and discovered he had perfect pitch and a fondness for classical music. Martin attended Bromley Grammar School where he formed his first band, George Martin and the Four Tune Tellers. He served in the Fleet Air Arm during World War II but continued to play piano part time. At the end of the war, Martin studied at the Guildhall School of Music studying composition, oboe and conducting. He worked part time in the BBC music library before joining Parlophone Records, where he became their youngest label manager in 1955 at age 29.
The Beatles first single with Martin producing, "Love Me Do," reached Number 16 on the pop charts. But with it came criticism that their manager, Brian Epstein, had over-purchased copies of the single for his record store chain to inflate sales. When John Lennon played Martin his new ballad "Please, Please Me," it was Martin who suggested Lennon & McCartney speed the song up. Upon hearing the new version, Martin told them over the studio intercom, "Boys, you've just recorded your first Number One."
By 1965, The Beatles were making EMI very rich, but Martin's producer royalty was minuscule.
"The head of EMI...showed what a rotten mathematician he was," Martin told Jazzwax. "He said he was going to give me a raise, which was marginal, and an £11,000 pound bonus for the previous year. But during our discussion he accidentally revealed how much I was worth. He said that EMI had earned 2.2 million pounds on the records I had made, which made the £11,000 pound bonus a bad joke. That convinced me that it was time to leave."
Knowing what he was worth on the open market, in 1966, Martin left EMI and opened AIR studios, one of the first independent studios in London, shortly after The Beatles released Rubber Soul. And though no longer an employee of EMI, Martin continued as The Beatles' independent producer for the rest of their career. Though not credited for any work on Let It Be (which eventually was mixed by Phil Spector), outtakes from the film clearly show Martin observing the genesis of "Get Back" and he continued to oversee The Beatles work--at least from a distance-- on the divisive project, helping engineer Glyn Johns procure recording equipment for The Beatles Apple Studios that was so integral to their sound.
AIR studios would eventually open another branch on the Caribbean island of Montserrat where Martin oversaw (but did not produce) hit recordings by The Police, The Rolling Stones, and Elton John. (In 1989, the Montserrat studio was destroyed in a hurricane and Martin decided not to rebuild.) Martin also opened AIR Lyndhurst studios in a converted Victorian era church in London, which maintains a busy schedule recording soundtracks, gaming soundtracks, and of course, pop music.
Check out the 2012 BBC documentary, Produced by George Martin
. It's a great video memoir that features interviews with many of Martin's friends and artists including Paul McCartney
and Ringo Starr, America, and Cilla Black. (And if The Beatles, Jeff Beck, Peter Sellers, and America wasn't cool enough for you, Martin also produced the Shirley Bassey theme song to the James Bond film, Goldfinger
.) Best of all, there are previously unseen clips of studio mayhem at Abbey Road and hilarious scenes with Peter Sellers reciting "A Hard Day's Night" from the 1965 BBC special, The Music of Lennon and McCartney,
hosted by John
"The Beatles and I were of a like mind," Martin continued. "We always wanted to try something new. The Beatles in particular were constantly coming to me saying, “What can you give us? What instruments do you know about that we could use? What recording ideas can you give us?” Their inquisitiveness pushed us into new territory. They lapped up new ideas. They were very curious people and wanted to look beyond what everyone else could do."