George Martin

Often referred to as “The Fifth Beatle”

Produced By George Martin
The CD cover of the great collection "Produced By George Martin". EMI Records Ltd.

George Martin (January 3, 1926 - March 8,2016) is best known as the producer of The Beatles, but he worked with a multitude of other talented artists for many years prior to, during, and following the whirlwind success that was The Beatles. His skills were many, and a potted description might be: artist and repertoire manager, record producer, arranger, composer, conductor, audio engineer, and musician.

Surprisingly, the young George Martin didn’t grow up around music. “There was none in the family, really,” he recalls, “except that people used to gather around the piano at Christmas and do a party piece. I had an uncle who used to play and so I gravitated toward the piano. I had a handful of lessons when I was about eight…and then my mother had a row with the piano teacher and I never went back.” Something must have stuck though and by the time he was 15 he’d started his own dance band, playing quicksteps and fox-trots and earning his first money in the music business. 

That was all brought to halt with the start of WWII when George, aged just 17, volunteered for the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm. It was during the war years that he met a man he describes as his musical “fairy godfather”, Sidney Harrison. Harrison was a professor of music and along with encouraging George as a composer, got him involved in arranging for marine bands.

After the war he urged George to study music full-time at London’s Guildhall School of Music. Despite his parent’s misgivings (they wanted him to get a secure job in the government Civil Service) he used his war service to secure a study grant and majored in piano and oboe.

Then came a short period of work in the BBC music library before the offer of a job (again, with the influence of Sidney Harrison) at EMI Records.

In 1950 George became an assistant to the Artist and Repertoire Manager at the company's Parlophone label. One of his first jobs was to record the London Baroque Ensemble. From there he went on to record every sort and style of music. It was the start of a phenomenal learning curve.

By 1955 George had taken over responsibility for the whole label. “I knew I had to make something more of Parlophone. EMI was considering shutting the label because it was never very successful.” He knew he needed a point of difference in the market and realized no-one in the UK was really doing much with recording comedy. In the US, Stan Freberg and Bob Newhart were having great success, and so alongside their musical offerings (Matt Monro, Cleo Laine, Johnny Dankworth and The Vipers), Parlophone began releasing highly produced ‘sound pictures’, humorous performances by the likes of Peter Ustinov, Spike Milligan, Peter Sellers, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, along with novelty singing acts like Bernard Cribbins, Charlie Drake. Suddenly, Parlophone started to gain some momentum.     

And then, in 1962, in walk four lads from Liverpool, signed to the UK Parlophone label

Parlophone Records has sometimes been portrayed as something of an oddity in the EMI stable, a backwater label that was vaguely embarrassing for The Beatles to be contracted to, and a sign of desperation on the part of their manager, Brian Epstein, to get them signed at least somewhere.

However, respected Beatle biographer Mark Lewisohn differs. He maintains that Parlophone was probably one of the most interesting and eclectic record labels in the world at the time. It wasn’t just releasing comedy and spoken-word acts. The label had a wide range of musical talent on its books with good jazz and rhythm and blues artists from America alongside its roster of UK talent. And George Martin was the youngest label manager and record producer of his generation. EMI staffers running the company’s equivalent labels were all old men.

Martin's classical training and years in the business had given him a great sense of musical history, but he was also a rule-breaker and an innovator – just like the Beatles were. They couldn’t have met a better person to record their music. George Martin was willing to listen to their ideas and run with them.

No other producer would have done that. Similarly, he couldn’t have been luckier than to get The Beatles. He thrived on fresh ideas and they brought with them fresh ideas by the bucket-load. They didn’t want to repeat themselves, but to keep on pushing forward the craft of making great popular music. In George Martin they had a talented and willing accomplice.

But how did George Martin really get The Beatles? Well, Lewisohn in his book The Beatles: All These Years Volume 1. Tune In (Crown Archetype, 2013) has discovered that there’s a bit more to the back-story. He writes that it was likely more down to a man named Sid Colman, the general manager of Ardmore and Beechwood, EMI’s publishing firm. Colman had also heard their demo and was very keen to secure the group’s publishing rights. He went to EMI boss Len Wood, and insisted he put pressure on Martin to sign the band.

At the time George Martin was in the middle of re-negotiating his own contract with EMI. He’d been pushing hard for producer royalties to be included and was even threatening to part ways with the recording giant. Also, something of a scandal was brewing at EMI. George Martin it turned out was having an affair with his secretary. This, along with the difficult contract negotiations, meant he was very much in the bad books with his boss, Len Wood. Martin eventually signed his contract renewal, but one added requirement was that he must sign and record The Beatles.

Either way, it was a match made in heaven and history was definitely made.

As George Martin's success with The Beatles and Parlophone grew, so too did the roster of artists and the hits he produced: Billy J. Kramer and The Dakotas, Cilla Black, Gerry and The Pacemakers, Shirley Bassey, Ella Fitzgerald, Stan Getz, Wings, America, John McLaughlan and the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Webb, Larry Adler, Neil Sedaka, Cheap Trick, Ultravox, José Carreras....the list goes on and on. His was a long and very influential career.

For an excellent overview of George Martin’s career you should see the documentary Produced By George Martin (available on DVD and BluRay), and an excellent six CD box set retrospective, also called Produced by George Martin. (There is a single disc "Highlights" package also available).