George Martin: Groundbreaking producer who oversaw The Beatles’ best work and elevated art of album making
As well as being the world’s most respected and best-known record producer, George Martin redefined the role as a collaborative one. His work with The Beatles changed popular music forever – and even at the time, he was referred to as “the fifth Beatle”.
He was charmingly modest about his achievements. “Whatever I did shouldn’t be stressed too much,” he said in 1974. “I was merely the bloke who interpreted their ideas. The fact that they couldn’t read or write music and I could has absolutely nothing to do with it. Music isn’t something which is written down on paper. Music is stuff you hear… I was purely an interpreter, rather like a Chinese interpreter at the League of Nations. But the genius was theirs, no doubt about that.”
George Henry Martin was born in 1926 in Holloway, north London, the son of a carpenter. He started piano lessons when he was eight, only to have them cut short when his mother argued with the teacher. He continued on his own and became adept at learning by ear.
When he was 16, he ran a local dance band, The Four Tune Tellers, with his sister, Irene, as a vocalist. He served in the Fleet Air Arm during the war and when demobbed, he had the bearing of a military man. He deliberately lost his working-class accent.
He befriended a Wren, Sheena Chisholm, but his mother objected to their relationship. He married against her wishes in 1948. His mother died of a stroke three weeks later, and at the time he also had to cope with his wife’s agoraphobia. They were married for nearly 20 years and had two children, Alexis (known as Bundy) and Gregory.
A professor at the Guildhall School of Music, Sidney Harrison, encouraged his talent and urged him to obtain a grant and study there. Upon graduation, he took up the oboe professionally, but needed regular income, and worked for a time in a dreary job at the BBC’s music library. Harrison came to the rescue again, recommending him to Oscar Pruess, the head of Parlophone Records, one of EMI’s in-house labels. Martin was appointed assistant recording manager in November 1950.
Martin discovered that Parlophone had an eclectic catalogue with a reasonable budget but no major performers. “We recorded artists like Jimmy Shand and we never talked about pop,” he said. “All our releases were put into the categories classical, jazz, dance band and vocal.”
Preuss retired in April 1955 and Martin became the youngest label manager in the UK. Preuss’s secretary, Judy Lockhart-Smith, remained with him and, following an affair which led to his divorce, Martin married her in 1966. They had two children, Lucy and Giles.
Martin felt that there was a market for comedy – and in 1957, he produced Peter Sellers’ parody of the skiffle craze, “Any Old Iron”. It reached No 17 in the charts, and led to the albums The Best of Sellers (1959) and Songs for Swingin’ Sellers (1960), which remain funny today. As Sellers felt that he could not parody Frank Sinatra adequately, Martin recruited a young singer to play Fred Flange on the latter album. Martin recognised his potential and, as Matt Monro, he recorded “Portrait of My Love” (1960) and “My Kind of Girl” (1961).
In 1960, Sellers and Sophia Loren capitalised on their successful film, The Millionairess, by having Martin produce a witty song about an Indian doctor and his patient, “Goodness Gracious Me”. Bernard Cribbins performed some humorous takes on modern-day living (“The Hole in the Ground”, “Right, Said Fred”, “Gossip Calypso”), while Charlie Drake had a more frenzied approach (“Splish Splash”, “Mr. Custer”, “My Boomerang Won’t Come Back”), all of which were hit singles.
There were few recording studios outside of London, so Martin would periodically take a mobile unit to Scotland to record Jimmy Shand and several other performers. He realised that the unit could be put to good use nearer to home if he recorded albums of West End successes. They included At the Drop of a Hat (1959) with the comedy songs of Flanders and Swann, and Beyond the Fringe (1961) with his first Fab Four, the iconoclastic satirists Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Alan Bennett and Jonathan Miller. When television responded with That Was The Week That Was, Martin and the show’s producer, Ned Sherrin, devised and recorded a special LP of their sharpest sketches.
Tangentially, Martin was intrigued by the BBC’s radiophonic workshop, which came into its own with its sound effects for Doctor Who. Calling himself Ray Cathode, Martin made an exploratory single, “Time Beat” (1962). He recorded the highly eccentric and experimental group the Alberts, and allowed Rolf Harris to bring his Aboriginal instruments into the studio – all of which proved to be invaluable grounding for his work with the Beatles.
In 1961, Martin discovered The Temperance Seven (there were nine of them, which was thought funny at the time). Their deadpan versions of Twenties hits, “You’re Driving Me Crazy” and “Pasadena”, found their way into the Top 10, and the former was also Martin’s first No 1 as a producer. The Temperance Seven were featured in the comedy film It’s Trad, Dad! (1962), directed by Richard Lester, who would be behind the camera for the Beatles films A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and Help! (1965).
From 1959 to 1962, Adam Faith became Parlophone’s first consistent hit-maker, but the records were not produced by Martin. By May 1962, Faith’s popularity had nose-dived and Martin wanted an act that could duplicate the success of Cliff Richard and the Shadows for another EMI label, Columbia. The Beatles’ manager, Brian Epstein, had called at the HMV store in Oxford Street to have copies made of some tapes in their home recording service.