Sir George Martin CBE was The Beatles’ producer, arranger and mentor, who signed them to EMI and worked on the vast majority of songs throughout their career.
The early years
He was born George Henry Martin on 3 January 1926. At the age of six his interest in music was piqued by a piano which the Martin family acquired. Two years later he persuaded his parents to let him have lessons, though he only had eight due to disagreements between his mother and the teacher. Following that, Martin taught himself to play piano.
He went to a number of London schools as a child, including St Joseph’s elementary in Highgate and St Ignatius College in Stamford Hill. When St Ignatius pupils were sent to Welwyn Garden City as evacuees during the war, the Martin family moved from London and George enrolled at Bromley Grammar School.
His passion for music grew throughout his school days, which included a memorable performance from the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Adrian Boult.
It was absolutely magical. Hearing such glorious sounds I found it difficult to connect them with 90 men and women blowing into brass and wooden instruments or scraping away at strings with horsehair bows.
During the war he worked briefly as a quantity surveyor and a clerk in the War Office, and in 1943 joined the Fleet Air Arm of the Royal Navy. He remained there until 1947, becoming a pilot and commissioned officer, though he didn’t see combat during the war.
Martin used his war veteran’s grant to enrol at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama between 1947 and 1950, where he studied piano and oboe, and the music of Ravel, Rachmaninov, Cole Porter and Johnny Dankworth. Coincidentally, his oboe teacher was Margaret Asher; she was the mother of Jane Asher, who had a relationship with Paul McCartney in the 1960s.
In 1948, on his 22nd birthday, George Martin married Sheena Chisholm. They had two children, Alexis and Gregory, but later divorced. In June 1966 he married Judy Lockhart-Smith. They also had two children, Lucy and Giles.
After graduating from Guildhall he worked at the BBC’s classical music department, and in 1950 joined EMI as an assistant to Parlophone boss Oscar Preuss. At that time Parlophone, a German EMI imprint, was largely seen as a novelty label of little relevance.
When Preuss retired in 1955, Martin took over as head of Parlophone. His greatest successes came with comedy and novelty records from artists including the Goons, Rolf Harris, Flanders and Swann and, most successfully, the Beyond the Fringe show, starring Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Alan Bennett and Jonathan Miller.
In 1962, using the pseudonym Ray Cathode, Martin released an electronic dance single called Time Beat, recorded at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. Keen to capitalise on the burgeoning UK rock ‘n’ roll scene, he began looking for a group to work with.
With The Beatles
Martin was told about Brian Epstein, who was managing a pop group that had been turned down by the majority of labels including Decca. He arranged to meet Epstein on 13 February 1962, where he heard the Decca recordings, which he thought “unpromising”. He did, however, think well of John Lennon and Paul McCartney’s vocals.
The pair met again on 9 May at Abbey Road, where they agreed a contract without Martin having met The Beatles or seen them perform. The contract, which he felt gave him “nothing to lose”, promised The Beatles a royalty of one penny for each record sold.
George Martin agreed to sign the contract only when he had heard an audition from the band. This took place on 6 June 1962, produced by Ron Richards with engineer Norman Smith. Martin was not present at the session, but did meet the band and listened to the recordings. While he thought the band’s original songs below par, he was impressed by their wit: when he asked them if there was anything they didn’t like, George Harrison replied, “I don’t like your tie”. From then on the session was filled with jokes, which warmed Martin towards them.
The Beatles returned to Abbey Road on 4 September, with new drummer Ringo Starr, for their first session with George Martin. He made them record How Do You Do It, which the band reluctantly agreed to, along with Love Me Do and a slower version of Please Please Me.
Unhappy with Ringo’s drumming, Martin made them re-record Love Me Do a week later with session drummer Andy White. When it reached number 17 in the charts, Martin brought them back into the studio to record a follow-up.
Please Please Me was recorded in November 1962. At the end of the session, he addressed the band from the control room, telling them: “Gentlemen, you have just made your first number one record.”
Many early Beatles songs were rehearsed and arranged on the spot in the studio, immediately prior to recording. As The Beatles’ confidence and curiosity in the studio grew, George Martin encouraged them to experiment, and gradually the old conventions of recording was questioned and often discarded.
Martin acted as the band’s arranger, and he played piano on a number of songs from the release of the Please Please Me album. He suggested adding a string quartet to Yesterday, and scored other songs including Eleanor Rigby and Penny Lane.
He was also called upon to offer solutions to the musically-untrained Beatles’ often wayward requests. These included the splicing together of two takes, recorded in different keys and tempi, of Strawberry Fields Forever, the circus noises on Being For The Benefit Of Mr Kite!, and the realisation of the orchestral climaxes during A Day In The Life.
As George Martin was unable to write the score for She’s Leaving Home, Paul McCartney asked Mike Leander instead. Martin was hurt, but nonetheless conducted the orchestra and produced the recording.
Martin – who had left EMI’s employment in 1965 but continued to work in a freelance capacity – became greatly in demand with other artists, and was unavailable during a number of sessions for The Beatles and Let It Be. He did, however, score the Yellow Submarine soundtrack and produced the band’s final album, Abbey Road.
After The Beatles’ break-up, George Martin continued to produce a range of artists via his company Associated Independent Recording (AIR). He worked with Jeff Beck, Tom Jones, Celine Dion and many more, and in 1979 opened a studio in Montserrat.
In 1994 and 95 he oversaw the post-production of the Anthology albums, once again working with The Beatles’ engineer Geoff Emerick. He used an eight-track analogue mixing desk, which he felt had a truer sound than its modern digital counterparts. He did, however, decline to produce Free As A Bird and Real Love, saying his hearing wasn’t up to the task.
In 2006 George Martin and his son Giles embarked on an ambitious remix project of The Beatles’ songs for the Cirque Du Soleil’s joint venture with Apple Corps. The result was the Love album, which contained extracts from over 130 Beatles songs. It included a new orchestral score, written by Martin, for a solo demo of While My Guitar Gently Weeps originally recorded by George Harrison in 1968.