Wednesday, March 9, 2016

The Late Great Sir George Martin

Sir George Martin, the legendary record producer, arranger, conductor, recording engineer, and composer best known for his work with The Beatles, died yesterday, March 8 2016, at the age of 90.

Sir George Martin was born on January 3 1926 in London. His father was a carpenter while his mother was a cleaner. They had wanted "a safe civil servant's job" for their son, but young Sir George's destiny lay elsewhere. He was six years old when his family got a piano. The instrument launched his lifelong interest in music. When he was eight years old he persuaded his mother to enrol him in piano lessons. The piano lessons ended after only eight because of a disagreement between his parents and the teacher, but young Sir George taught himself to play.

Young Sir George won a scholarship to St Ignatius' College in Stamford Hill. When World War II broke out his parents moved out of London proper and he attended  Bromley Grammar School. It was a concert that The London Symphony Orchestra, under Sir Adrian Boult, played at the school that furthered his interest in music. Despite his ambitions in music, Mr. Martin took a job as a quantity surveyor and then worked as a  Temporary Clerk (Grade Three) for the War Office. After he turned 17 he joined the Fleet Air Arm of the Royal Navy. He qualified as a pilot, became an aerial observer, and earned a commission as an officer. Fortunately the war ended before he could see any combat.

Following the war Sir George Martin played the oboe professionally and was accepted into the Guildhall School of Music even though at the time he could not play music. Following graduation he worked for the BBC's classical department for a time before joining EMI as an assistant to Oscar Preuss, then head of EMI's Parlophone Records. When Mr. Preuss retired in 1955, Sir George Martin became the head of Parlophone. In his early years at Parlophone, Mr. Martin produced an eclectic mix of records. He produced everything from original cast recordings to classical and Baroque music. He produced records for a number of comedy acts. In fact, his first hit was a novelty record with Peter Ustinov, "Mock Mozart". He worked with Peter Sellers on two comedy albums, as well as Spike Milligan on Bridge on the River Wye. He produced Charlie Drake's hit single "My Boomerang Won't Come Back"and Bernard Cribbins's hit single "Right, Said Fred", among other hit novelty records. Sir George Martin also produced more serious, pop music records with such artists as Shirley Bassey, Johnny Dankworth,  Humphrey Lyttelton, and Matt Monro.

It was in June 1962 that Sir George Martin signed a little known band known as The Beatles. While The Beatles' audition was not particularly promising (Ron Richards, who produced the audition, was not impressed), Mr. Martin signed the band anyway, largely on the strength of their personalities. Sir George Martin's first recording session with The Beatles was on September 11 1962. The Beatles recorded  "How Do You Do It", a song by Mitch Murray that The Beatles were not particularly keen on. The song went instead to  Gerry and the Pacemakers (for whom it would be a no. 1 hit in the UK) and The Beatles' first single would be another song they recorded that day, Lennon and McCartney's "Love Me Do". It was on November 26 1962 that The Beatles recorded "Please Please Me". It was Sir George Martin who recommended the band change the song from a rather slow, Roy Orbison-style ballad to a song with a faster tempo. At the end of the recording session Sir George Martin told The Beatles, "Gentlemen, you have just made your first number one record." To a large degree Mr. Martin was right. "Please Please Me" hit no. 1 on NME and Melody Maker's singles charts, although it only reached no. 2 on other charts.

"Please Please Me" would mark the beginning of The Beatles phenomenon in which Sir George Martin played a pivotal role. It was Sir George Martin who recommended music publisher Dick James to The Beatles' manager Brian Epstein. It was also George Martin who acted as an arranger for many of The Beatles' songs and who also moulded their talent as recording artists. It was at his suggestion that a string quartet was added to Sir Paul McCartney's song "Yesterday", although Mr. McCartney was initially reluctant. He scored and conducted the strings for another Sir Paul McCartney song, "Eleanor Rigby". He was also responsible for the strings on John Lennon's "I Am the Walrus".  It was also Sir George Martin and engineer Geoff Emerick who provided much of the technical wizardry necessary for such albums as Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and Abbey Road.

During the Sixties Sir George Martin also did work outside of The Beatles. He produced the early works of other Beat bands, including Gerry and the Pacemakers, The Fourmost, and Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas. He produced the Mod band The Action.  He also produced such mainstream pop acts as Cilla Black, Shirley Bassy (including the classic "Goldfinger"), and Ella Fitzgerald. He also did some work in film. In addition to providing the instrumental scores for The Beatles films A Hard Day's Night, Help!, and Yellow Submarine, as well as the Gerry and the Pacemakers song Ferry Cross the Mersey, he scored the films Crooks Anonymous (1962) and The Family Way (1966). In 1965 Sir George Martin founded Associated Independent Recording (AIR), an independent recording company. Its first London facility opened in 1970.

Sir George Martin continued to be busy after The Beatles broke up. He continued to work with Sir Paul McCartney on and off including the title track to the James Bond movie Live and Let Die. He produced work by Paul Winter, America, , Elton John, Jeff Beck, Robin Gibb, Neil Sedaka, Gary Brooker, UFO, and Cheap Trick. He scored the movies  Pulp (1972),  Live and Let Die (1973), and  The Optimists of Nine Elms (1973). In 1979 Mr. Martin opened AIR Montserrat on Montserrat Island, in the West Indies. Sadly, it would be destroyed by Hurricane Hugo in 1989.

In the Eighties Sir George Martin produced works for Ultravox, the Little River Band, and Kenny Rogers. In the Nineties he produced works for Kate Bush and Celine Dion. He produced Elton John's tribute to Princess Diana, "Candle in the Wind". It was in the mid-Nineties that he returned to work on tracks for the band for which he was best known, The Beatles. Sir George Martin produced the previously unreleased tracks that composed the three albums of The Beatles Anthology. He also compiled The Beatles compilation album 1. From 1997 to 1998 he produced and co-hosted the documentary series The Rhythm of Life.

With the 1998 album In My Life (a collection of Beatles covers by other artists), George Martin meant to retire. As it turned out he continued to do some work in the Naughts and Teens. In 2002 he was a member of the team responsible for the Jubilee concert at Buckingham Palace. With his son Giles Marti he remixed The Beatles' songs for the Cirque du Soleil production Love in 2006. A documentary film, Produced by George Martin, aired in 2011 on the BBC.

There can be no doubt that Sir George Martin was pivotal to The Beatles' success. In his statement on Mr. Martin's death, Sir Paul McCartney said, "If anyone earned the title of the fifth Beatle it was George." Even John Lennon, initially critical of Sir George Martin in the angry days of The Beatles' breakup, admitted the band's debt to him. In a 1975 interview for the BBC's Old Grey Whistle Test, John Lennon said, "Some people say George Martin did all of it, some say The Beatles did everything. It was neither one. We did a lot of learning together." The Beatles and Sir George Martin very much had a working partnership. At the time The Beatles were signed, Sir George Martin had not done much work with regards to rock 'n' roll. At the same time The Beatles were totally unfamiliar with working in a recording studio. The Beatles and Sir George Martin then had to learn from each other.

The end result of that partnership was the most famous oeuvre in rock music. Sir George Martin took The Beatles from the early, simple proto-power pop of "Please Please Me' and "She Loves You" to the more sophisticated sounds of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and Magical Mystery Tour. What makes this even more remarkable is that at the time Sir George Martin and EMI's recording engineers were working with equipment that would be considered primitive today. He had to use four-track tape machines to achieve what could now be easily done with a multi-track studio. Often The Beatles and Sir George Martin had to perform a good deal of recording wizardry to achieve the sounds they wanted. Music was recorded at different speeds (slowed down or sped up). Sounds were spliced together. A lesser producer might not have been able accomplish these things and or even willing to do so, but Sir George Martin, like The Beatles, was open to experimentation.

Of course, Sir George Martin produced many more artists than The Beatles. In the days before The Beatles he was known for the many comedy records he produced. Indeed, he produced some classics of the genre: Bernard Cribbins's single "Right, Said Fred", Charlie Drake's "My Boomerang Won't Come Back", Peter Sellers and Sophia Loren's "Goodness Gracious Me", and many others. Sir George Martin truly had a gift for producing comedy records. Mr. Martin also produced many other rock acts besides The Beatles. He produced seven albums for America and two for Jeff Beck. He produced one of Cheap Trick's best albums, All Shook Up.

It must be pointed out that in addition to his work as a producer, Sir George Martin composed various film scores. What is more, he was very good at it. Live and Let Die boasted one of the best scores of any James Bond movie. 

Indeed, it seems likely that even if he had not been associated with The Beatles that Sir George Martin would have attained fame as a producer. He had a real talent for producing comedy records and mainstream pop songs. It seems likely that in the Sixties he would have moved into producing rock music even had The Beatles not come along. With his talent as a producer and arranger, it would seem that it would be inevitable that Sir George Martin would become famous. Certainly The Beatles owed a good deal of their success to him.

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