published: 10 /
Nick Dent-Robinson reflects on the career and life of legendary Beatles producer George Martin, who died in March
George Martin was a modest man. I remember his very genuine insistence when I met him just a few years ago that The Beatles were so good that any producer could have recorded them and they'd have still been the same mega-success. Yet they would never have sounded the same.
Who else in the pop/rock world of the early 1960s would have had George Martin's technical skills, classical music expertise and imagination - not to mention great diplomacy and huge patience - that combined to enable The Beatles to create the music they were ultimately capable of?
When the Beatles first met him, George Martin was a 36 year-old World War II veteran and his knowledge of classical music, jazz, swing, country dance music and comedy records was to prove invaluable. In those days who else would have put a string quartet behind McCartney's 'Yesterday' or a mix of violins, violas and cellos on 'Eleanor Rigby'? Or make a piccolo trumpet the key feature of 'Penny Lane' whilst introducing a Victorian steam organ on 'Sgt. Pepper's' 'Mr. Kite'? Those innovations were all firsts. George Martin was a brilliant arranger, as well as a usually uncredited pianist and harmonium (plus occasional woodwind) player on over thirty Beatles tracks. He featured as an instrumentalist on John Lennon's 'In My Life', for example.
Perhaps, though, George Martin's greatest role was as a mentor and musical teacher to the four Beatles. He showed them how to maximise the quite extraordinary musical talent they had. Though, as he was at pains to stress when I talked to him, they also brought out the best, professionally, in him.
He had almost rejected the Beatles, though. His first reaction to all the pressure and hype from the band's ambitious manager Brian Epstein was fairly negative. “They sounded a rough lot,” George remembered. “But when I actually met them they had an energy, a raw drive and intelligence that was different – and I could see they had potential.” Initially the Beatles thought George Martin was a bit too smooth, urbane, well-bred, like a solicitor or posh accountant - someone who'd had life easy. They couldn't have been more wrong.
George Martin was born in 1926 the son of a carpenter in Holloway, North London, and for years his mother scrubbed floors to feed the family when George's father was out of work during the Depression. “We were extremely poor,” George recalled. “But we did have an old piano and, as far back as I remember, I used to play it. I had natural ability and perfect pitch which I can't explain and luckily someone heard me play when I was ten and somehow music lessons were arranged.” George Martin never looked back. By sixteen he was running a school dance band, and on joining the Fleet Air Arm as aircrew during the Second World War he found time to play in various bands. He became a junior officer, too - and learned to speak with the cultivated, public school accent which later impressed the Beatles.
After the war he was accepted by the Guildhall School of Music and later became a freelance musician playing the oboe in various symphony orchestras before joining EMI as 'artists and repertoire' man at Parlophone, their smallest label. He was soon a producer and recorded everything - including 'The Temperance Seven' trad jazz records, Peter Ustinov's 'Mock Mozart', comedy numbers with Peter Sellers and Sophia Loren and Spike Milligan (at whose wedding George Martin was best man).
But, before the Beatles, rock music was not one of George Martin's areas. “It was just not a genre I knew about, it was quite foreign to me,” George explained to me. “I had been too busy with my wife, my family and my cultural interests were just elsewhere.” After 'Please Please Me', however, the Beatles' first huge hit, everything was to change and George Martin enthusiastically worked with the rest of Brian Epstein's stable of artists – from Cilla Black to Gerry & The Pacemakers (to whom he suggested they record the song from 'Carousel', 'You'll Never Walk Alone'), producing a whole series of major successes.
In later years George Martin was in huge demand as a producer. And he wrote film and classical music and was involved in various television documentaries - often about the Beatles. Like the four Beatles themselves, despite all his subsequent achievements, George Martin could never quite escape his greatest years which were undoubtedly in the Sixties.
When I met him (through the singer-songwriter Sam Brown who is a friend of George Martin's son Giles, who is also a record producer), George, now quite deaf, was happy to just enjoy his beautiful 17th-century Oxfordshire home where he and his wife Judy have created a stunning garden. He was a charming, generous and kind man who was genuinely unassuming. But there's no question that, without his foresight, brilliance and influence, the story of the Beatles and of rock music for the last half century, would have been a very different one.