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Sir George Martin, Beatles producer dies aged 90

Record producer Sir George Martin, known as the “fifth Beatle”, has died, aged 90.

Beatles drummer Ringo Starr broke the news on Twitter and led tributes, saying Sir George “will be missed”.

Sir George signed The Beatles and produced more than 700 records. He also worked with artists including Gerry and the Pacemakers, Dame Shirley Bassey and Cilla Black.

George Martin’s early life

George Henry Martin was born on 3 January 1926 into a working-class family in north London. His parents, a carpenter and a cleaner, wanted “a safe civil servant’s job” for their son. He won a scholarship to St Ignatius’ College in Stamford Hill, but when war broke out his parents moved out of London and he went to Bromley Grammar School.

His passion for music really began when The London Symphony Orchestra, under Sir Adrian Boult, arrived to play a concert in the school hall.

He harboured secret ambitions to be a composer but, in the event, took a job as a quantity surveyor before joining the Fleet Air Arm in 1943 where he qualified as a pilot.

By 1947 Martin was playing the oboe professionally and had been accepted to study at the Guildhall School of Music, despite being unable to read or write a note.

After graduation he spent a brief spell at the BBC’s classical music department before walking through the doors of EMI in Abbey Road as a record producer. He took to the mixing desk like “a duck to water”.

Five years later, at the age of 29, as head of the Parlophone label, he worked with artists such as Shirley Bassey, Matt Monro and the jazz bands of Johnny Dankworth and Humphrey Lyttelton.

Martin also produced catchy, comic numbers, and enjoyed such successes as Right Said Fred with Bernard Cribbins and Goodness Gracious Me with Peter Sellers and Sophia Loren.

George Martin record producer

He made a major contribution to pop music, pioneering recording techniques and establishing the role of the record producer in treating the final recording as the ultimate art-form.

It is a real eye opener to follow the development of a Beatles song like Strawberry Fields from early demos with John Lennon playing a pleasant mellotron backing burbling nonsense words to the final epic recording with all the drama and atmosphere.

After reviewing the tapes of previous sessions, John Lennon decided that he liked both the original recording of Strawberry Fields Forever and the later remake. He asked George Martin to join them together, despite them being in different keys and tempos.

Here’s the version of events according to George Martin:

Lennon said, ‘I like that one, I really do. But, you know, the other one’s got something too,’

‘Yes, I know,’ I said, ‘they’re both good. But aren’t we starting to split hairs?’

Perhaps I shouldn’t have used the word ‘split’, because John’s reply was: ‘I like the beginning of the first one, and I like the end of the second one. Why don’t we just join them together?’

‘Well, there are only two things against it,’ I said. ‘One is that they’re in different keys. The other is that they’re in different tempos.’

‘Yeah, but you can do something about it, I know. You can fix it, George.

And indeed he could. The first recording had been performed in C major, while the second was in A major. Against the odds, Martin and engineer Geoff Emerick found that by speeding up the first version and slowing down the second, they matched perfectly. The resulting pitch was around B flat.

All this was being achieved on what would now be considered basic recording equipment, which would be pushed to the limit for the recording of the Sgt Pepper album.

At the time, EMI had only four-track tape machines so Martin, and his engineers, devised a technique whereby a number of tracks were recorded and then mixed down on to one single track, giving the flexibility of a modern multi-tracked studio.

Following the 1970 break-up of The Beatles, Martin worked with artists such as Sting, Jose Carreras, Celine Dion and Stan Getz, as well as Lennon and McCartney on their solo projects.

By then he had set up his own company, AIR studios, which enabled him, for the very first time, to be able to receive royalties for his work.

In the late 1970s, Martin built a studio on the Caribbean island of Montserrat, and artists including Dire Straits and The Rolling Stones travelled there to record albums under Martin’s respected guidance.

When Hurricane Hugo devastated both island and studio in 1989, Martin produced a benefit album to help raise funds for the victims.

Paul McCartney’s tribute was particularly moving:

“I am proud to have known such a fine gentleman with such a keen sense of humour, who had the ability to poke fun at himself. Even when he was Knighted by the Queen there was never the slightest trace of snobbery about him.

My family and I, to whom he was a dear friend, will miss him greatly and send our love to his wife Judy and their kids Giles and Lucy, and the grandkids.

The world has lost a truly great man who left an indelible mark on my soul and the history of British music.

God bless you George and all who sail in you!”


Further reading

Paul McCartney on George Martin

George Martin Obituary

Mixing, editing: Strawberry Fields Forever

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