Obituary: Sir George Henry Martin CBE, record producer

Born: 3 January, 1926, Highbury, London. Died: 8 March, 2016, London

Record producer, musician and fifth Beatle. Picture: PA
Record producer, musician and fifth Beatle. Picture: PA

The Beatles were a miracle not only of talent, but of chemistry. No producer was better suited for them than the resourceful and open-minded Sir George Martin, who dedicated himself to serving their vision instead of imposing his own. And no act Martin worked with before or after approached the Beatles’ historic power.

Martin, the elegant Londoner behind the band’s swift transformation from rowdy club act to musical and cultural revolutionaries, was remembered yesterday with tributes to his rarely erring taste, his musicianship and his contribution to developing the technology of pop music.

“If anyone earned the title of the fifth Beatle it was George,” Paul McCartney said following the announcement of Martin’s death at age 90.

Many felt he deserved the title, but he was too modest to claim it while producing some of the most beloved songs and most popular and influential albums of modern times - Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Revolver, Rubber Soul, Abbey Road - elevating rock LPs from ways to cash in on hit singles to art forms, “concepts.” From a raw first album in 1962 that took a day to make, to the months-long production of Sgt. Pepper just five years later, Martin would preside, assist and sometimes stand aside as the Beatles advanced by giant steps as songwriters and sonic explorers.

They composed dozens of classics, from She Loves You to Hey Jude, and turned the studio into a wonderland of backward tape loops, multi-tracking, unpredictable tempos, unfathomable segues and kaleidoscopic montages.

“Once we got beyond the bubblegum stage, the early recordings, and they wanted to do something more adventurous, they were saying, ‘What can you give us?’ ” Martin said in 2002. “And I said, ‘I can give you anything you like’.”

His own talents were duly recognised. He was nominated for an Academy Award for producing the soundtrack to the Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night. He won six Grammys, and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1999. Three years earlier, he was knighted.

Besides the Beatles, Martin worked with Jeff Beck, Elton John, Celine Dion and on solo albums by Paul McCartney. In the 1960s, Martin produced hits by Cilla Black, Gerry and the Pacemakers, and Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas and for a 37-week stretch in 1963 one or another of his recordings topped the British charts.

But his legacy was defined by the Beatles.

The Beatles, led by the songwriting team of McCartney and John Lennon, became their own bosses and were among the first rock groups to compose their own material. Inspired by native genius, a world’s tour of musical influences and all the latest stimulants, they were seekers of magic who demanded new sounds.

Martin was endlessly called on to perform the impossible, and often succeeded, splicing recordings at different speeds for Strawberry Fields Forever, or, for Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite, simulating a calliope with keyboards, harmonica and a harmonium that the producer himself played. Martin would have several good turns on the keyboards, performing a lively music hall solo on McCartney’s Lovely Rita and a Baroque reverie (at studio-heightened speed) on Lennon’s In My Life.

His bearing was infinitely more patrician than the Beatles’, but he grew up working class. Born in north London in 1926, Martin was a carpenter’s son raised in a three-room flat. He was a gifted musician who mastered Chopin by ear, a born experimenter enchanted whenever he discovered a new chord. In demand as a producer long before he met the Beatles, he was a graduate of the Guildhall School of Music, studying composition and orchestration and performance on the oboe and piano.

“Music was pretty well my whole life,” Martin wrote in his memoir, All You Need is Ears, published in 1980.

Hired by the EMI division Parlophone Records in 1950, Martin initially worked on classical recordings with the London Baroque Ensemble. He also worked with Judy Garland, jazz stars Stan Getz, Cleo Laine and John Dankworth, and with Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan of the Goon Show, an absurdist comedy troupe much loved by the Beatles.

By the early 60s, Parlophone was fading and Martin was anxious to break into the pop market. His prayers would be answered beyond all reasonable expectations when a Liverpool shopkeeper and music manager, Brian Epstein, insisted that he give a local act, the Beatles, a listen. The Beatles already had been turned down by Decca Records and told that “guitar groups are on the way out”. Martin was also unimpressed by their music, but, to his eternal fortune, was pushed into taking them on by EMI executive LG Wood.

Martin was at first very much in charge, choosing Love Me Do as their debut single and confining the newly-hired Ringo Starr to tambourine (a slight the drummer never quite got over). After the Beatles had a modest hit with Love Me Do, Martin recommended they follow with a light pop track, How Do You Do It. To Martin’s surprise, the Beatles insisted on Lennon-McCartney’s Please, Please Me, originally written as a slow, Roy Orbison-styled lament. Martin’s response typified his perceptive and flexible approach. He agreed to the song, with one condition - they speed it up. The result was a rush of harmony and rhythm, their first smash and the beginning of a phenomenon soon dubbed Beatlemania.

“Gentlemen,” Martin informed the band after Please, Please Me had been recorded, “you have just made your first number one record.”

He was unaffected by the revolutionary changes around him, and his naivety led to some comical moments in the studio, like the night that Lennon, high on LSD, complained of feeling ill. An unsuspecting Martin ordered Lennon brought up to the roof, a dangerous place for an acid head.

The Beatles began to break apart after Sgt. Pepper, released in 1967, and Martin’s contributions would also peak. For Let It Be, a self-conscious effort to reclaim their early sound, they displaced Martin altogether, turning over the tapes to Spector. After Let It Be, an unhappy process for all involved, Martin assumed he was done with the Beatles. But they asked him back for Abbey Road, released in 1969, and their final, slickest record. The band split the following year.

Artistically, Martin would never approach such heights again. But he did manage commercial success with the pop groups America and the Little River Band and produced two top James Bond themes - Shirley Bassey’s Goldfinger and McCartney’s Live and Let Die.

Martin was married twice, and had four children. In his later years, Martin - with his fine white hair and beautifully tailored clothes - was a treasured figure on Britain’s music scene. He played a prominent role at the Queens Golden Jubilee concerts in 2002. His career did exact a price - Martin’s hearing was badly damaged - and left him with a few regrets.