Sir George Martin (1926-2016), “the fifth Beatle”, lived to the ripe old age of 90 with an impressive 6-decade musical career behind him. Best known as the Beatles’ producer who completed the missing link to their unique sound, he was also producer of many Baroque and Classical ensembles, such as the King’s Singers and was an Academy Award-nominated film music composer.
The Martin family acquired a piano when George was six years old and he learned to play via a mixture of formal lessons and being self-taught. He often had “fantasies of being the next Rachmaninov”. As a teenager, he was thoroughly impressed by the sonic abilities of an orchestra:
“I remember well the very first time I heard a symphony orchestra. I was just in my teens when Sir Adrian Boult brought the BBC Symphony Orchestra to my school for a public concert. It was absolutely magical. Hearing such glorious sounds I found it difficult to connect them with ninety men and women blowing into brass and wooden instruments or scraping away at strings with horsehair bows.”
Although George Martin is famed for his career in the music business, he began his working life as a quantity surveyor, coming of age during the turbulent 1940s. He worked as a temporary clerk at the War Office and as an officer and aerial observer in the Fleet Air Arm of the Royal Navy during World War II.
Thanks to his war veteran’s grant, he had the opportunity to study at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama from 1947 to 1950, focusing on oboe and piano. He was particularly enraptured by the music of Rachmaninov and Ravel.
After successfully graduating from Guildhall, he began his entry into the music industry, working at the classical music department of the BBC for a brief stint. That same year, he took up the position of assistant label manager to Oscar Preuss, the head of Parlophone Records at Abbey Road studios. He took over Preuss' position, aged 29, when Preuss retired in 1955. During this period, George Martin focused on producing Baroque and Classical albums. As time went by, he worked increasingly on comedy LPs with preeminent comedians from Peter Sellers to Spike Milligan. He left such a mark on Parlophone that he effectively transformed it from a small, virtually unknown label to a lucrative, profitable business. Beginning in the late 1950s, Martin also began publishing music and having other artists record his work.
Martin’s reputation as a producer led him to being sought after by Sid Coleman who suggested that Martin might be interested in a young band from Liverpool whose manager, Brian Epstein, he had become acquainted with. Until then, George Martin had very little experience with pop music. Martin listened to a tape of the Beatles that had been recorded at Decca, who had turned them down. Although he liked McCartney and Lennon’s vocals, he was overall unmoved. It was actually their witty comments on his first meeting with them in person, coupled with Epstein's conviction that they would "make it", that eventually convinced Martin that they would make a good team. George Martin signed the Beatles in 1962 and produced what would be earth-shattering successes.
"George Martin made us what we were in the studio. He helped us develop a language to talk to other musicians."
If it weren’t for George Martin’s solid background in classical music, the Beatles may not have stood out from other bands of the time. Martin came from a world of formal musical training, which helped bridge the all-too-apparent gap between the world stage and this group of talented but inexperienced young musicians. The majority of the Beatles’ arrangements, orchestrations and instrumentations were written by Martin. It was Martin who showed the Beatles that certain sonorities were actually possible, such as the string quartet in Yesterday, which McCartney was initially sceptical of, and the piccolo trumpet solo in Penny Lane. Martin was able to create diverse soundscapes, styles and moods, from a circus band atmosphere in For the Benefit of Mr. Kite to the moody, urgent, brooding string ensemble of Eleanor Rigby to the retrospective close-harmony clarinet interludes in When I’m Sixty-Four. In fact, the first Beatles song that Martin did not arrange was She’s Leaving Home in 1967 due to Martin being double-booked. In 1971, John Lennon stated that "George Martin made us what we were in the studio. He helped us develop a language to talk to other musicians."
Martin also composed, arranged and produced many film scores, including the hit Beatles movies Yellow Submarine (1968) and A Hard Days’ Night (1964), for which he was nominated for an Academy Award, as well as the James Bond film Live and Let Die (1973).
He was awarded an honorary doctorate of music from Berklee College of Music in Boston in 1989 and another one from the University of Oxford in 2011. He was the only producer to have produced number one records in four consecutive decades – from the 1960s to the 1990s. Only Quincy Jones and Phil Spector have come close to this, each with three decades of number one hits to their names.
George Martin died on 8 March 2016 at the age of 90, survived by his wife of over fifty years, Judy Lockhart Smith and his four children.