Obituary: A gifted and creative musician with the genius to let talent speak for itself
Published 10/03/2016 | 02:30
George Martin, who has died aged 90, will forever be associated with the music of the Beatles which he helped to create; his work with them redefined both the expectations of pop and the very role of the producer.
While the importance of Martin's aural contribution to the records made by the group has always been acknowledged - he was regularly hailed as "the Fifth Beatle" - it has not always been appreciated how vital he was to their early career. It was to Martin, then head of Parlophone Records, a subsidiary of EMI, that Brian Epstein turned in 1962 when every other label had rejected the band, and it was Martin who signed the Beatles after meeting them in June that year.
In giving them a deal, Martin was going against the conventional wisdom of the early pop business. Up to that point, no group per se had been a success, only individual singers such as Elvis Presley and Tommy Steele (whom Martin had turned down); indeed, when Epstein came to him, Martin was looking for a rival to Cliff Richard.
Having ventured north to Liverpool to see the Beatles rock the Cavern Club, Martin understood, however, that it was their collective energy that might make them stars. He was also instrumental in persuading the band to replace their drummer, Pete Best, with one who would be steadier for recording purposes.
Two other decisions of Martin's were to prove of crucial significance. First, having realised that EMI would not give enough of a push to four unknowns from the provinces, he persuaded his friend Dick James to set up a publishing company, Northern Songs, to promote their music; by turning down shares in the business (feeling, as the employee of a rival, that he could not accept them) he missed out on millions.
Secondly, against his better judgement, he allowed the group to record another of their own tunes for release as their second single after the first, 'Love Me Do', had only just reached the Top Twenty. Until then, very few musicians wrote their own songs, and Martin was not yet convinced of the quality of John Lennon and Paul McCartney's material. He relented in the case of 'Please Please Me', and in January 1963 it became the first of 12 straight No 1s for the group, and the first of 30 in all for Martin.
During the early years, beyond giving them some pointers, much as a teacher would do with able pupils, there had been little for him to do with the Beatles' straight-ahead music except to let their talent flow. At that stage, they took their cue from him - for instance beginning 'Can't Buy Me Love' with the chorus - as was only natural given that he was some 15 years their senior and had a reputation as a wünderkind, having taken charge of Parlophone at 29.
Several changes then coincided to involve Martin more closely in the music-making process. The evolution of Lennon and McCartney's sound meant that they began to turn to him for skills that were beyond their range, such as orchestration. 'Yesterday' (1965) was the first of their tracks to feature musicians other than the Beatles and Martin himself, who had played the piano (as none of them then could) on songs such as 'A Hard Day's Night'.
Though he always acknowledged the guiding vision of Lennon and McCartney, the relationship between him and the group became more in the nature of a true collaboration, one which reached its peak of sonic inventiveness of 'Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band' in 1967.
With this album, Martin rightly felt, the recording process was validated as an art form. On it he moved beyond mere novelty into true creativity. Perhaps the most notable example of this was his realisation of the "tremendous build-up of expanding sound" with which Lennon wanted to end 'A Day in the Life'. It was Martin who scored that for the orchestra.
He wrote several books, including a memoir, 'All You Need Is Ears' (1979). He was knighted in 1996.
George Martin married first, in 1948, Sheena Chisholm. After that union was dissolved, he married Judy Lockhart Smith in 1966, who had worked with him at Parlophone. She survives him together with a son and a daughter of both marriages.