Here’s a special online icon in tribute to composer and producer George Martin.
Who: Composer, producer, keyboardist, record executive
What: Working with the Beatles and others, he reshaped the popular music and demonstrated the creative possibilities of the recording studio.
Sometimes known as the “Fifth Beatle” (a title he reportedly disliked) Sir George Martin played a pivotal role in the group’s rise to international fame and helped redefine both the sound of popular music and the role of the producer.
Born in London in 1926, Martin showed musical talent from an early age. While serving as a navy pilot during World War II, Martin continued to play and compose music. One of his piano compositions, “Navy Mixture” was played on the BBC while he was still in the service.
After the war, Martin attended music school and studied classical composition, and later, worked for the Parlophone imprint of the U.K.’s EMI record label. Martin was just 29 when he took over as Parlophone’s label manager 1950. At the time, the label was considered to be one of EMI’s less prestigious brands. He oversaw classical, light orchestra, and later, vocal pop and comedy recordings for the label. That diversity would filter into his later work with the Beatles.
The group had been rejected by virtually every other major British label by the time their manager Brian Epstein met with Martin in 1962. Martin also rejected the group at first. “But Sid Colman, the director of EMI’s publishing arm, Ardmore & Beechwood, had heard demonstration discs of some early Lennon-McCartney songs, and pushed EMI to sign the group so that he could publish their music,” writes Allan Kozinn in the New York Times. “The company resisted at first, but finally agreed, and assigned the band to Mr. Martin’s Parlophone label.”
Martin’s arranging skills proved to be the perfect match for Lennon and McCartney’s songwriting talents, and after the band replaced its drummer, the hits began to flow. “He helped them find the spark that soon became their hallmark by insisting that they think carefully about their vocal harmonies and such niceties of the arranger’s art as introductions and endings,” Kozinn writes. “They quickly internalized his advice.”
The group’s second single in 1962, “Please Please Me” became their first No. 1 hit. Within a year, they were the biggest band in the world. But while other bands were trying to cash in on the Beatles’ “Liverpool” sound, Martin and the band were soon moving the music into uncharted territory. With his help, they released a single backed by a string quartet (“Yesterday”) in 1965. He would also help bring orchestral textures to songs like “Penny Lane,” “Eleanor Rigby,” “Strawberry Fields Forever,” “I Am the Walrus,” and others. He also oversaw the band’s early experiments with electronic music and unconventional recording techniques on albums like Revolver (1966) and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967). After a brief parting of the ways, Martin returned to the producer’s chair for the group’s final recording, Abbey Road (1969).
During the band’s peak, Martin left EMI to form his own production company, known as AIR, which gave him the freedom to work with other artists (including the Beatles). Eventually, Martin and his partners opened world-class recording studios in London and, later, the Caribbean.
He remained active with other acts throughout the Beatles’ run, and continued to be a force in pop music after the band broke up. His credits range from rock/fusion guitarist Jeff Beck to pop icons like Elton John and Celine Dion to hard rock bands like Cheap Trick and UFO.
But according to McCartney, Martin’s impact was far deeper than his role in producing dozens of No. 1 songs. “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,” McCartney wrote after Martin’s passing. “I am proud to have known such a fine gentleman with such a keen sense of humor, who had the ability to poke fun at himself. Even when he was knighted by the Queen [in 1996], there was never the slightest trace of snobbery about him.”