George Martin R.I.P. (1926-2016): More Than Just the Fifth Beatle

On the evening of March 8, famed producer George Martin passed away at home, in his sleep, at age 90. (The announcement was first made on Ringo Starr's Twitter account.) He is, of course, primarily famous as the Beatles' producer, but I was heartened to see many friends in my Facebook feed chose to mark his passing by posting non-Beatles tracks he produced. Martin was a well-established, and well-rounded, producer before he started working with the Beatles. In his career the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee worked in quite a variety of contexts with any number of famous people, from comedy records with Peter Sellers to jazz records with Stan Getz, and practically everything in between.

The Beatles would undoubtedly have become famous without him -- and perhaps he without them -- but they wouldn't have sounded as good. Who else at that time would have made a Beatles record on which not one Beatle played an instrument? Of course, I have just described "Eleanor Rigby," on which Paul McCartney sang over Martin's lovely string quartet arrangement.

In 1998, struggling with hearing loss, he decided to bow out of the business with the album In My Life, released under his own name but full of guest stars ranging from Sean Connery, Goldie Hawn, Robin Williams, and Jim Carrey to Bobby McFerrin, Jeff Beck, Celine Dion, classical guitarist John Williams, and Phil Collins, all heard interpreting Beatles songs. Martin justly included two of his own compositions on the album too, the instrumentals "The Pepperland Suite" and "Friends and Lovers." As one of the true gentlemen of rock rode off into the sunset, this valedictory album and his induction into the Hall put the period to a long and fascinating tale (though he and his son did work on one final Beatles project a few years later, a Beatles remix for Cirque du Soleil). 

I was lucky enough to interview him when In My Life was released. His hearing was so bad that instead of sitting across from me at the conference-room table at his label's office, he had to come around the table and sit right next to me to be able to hear my questions. He was a sweetly polite gentleman, friendly and humble.

Were you classically trained?

Well, I kind of was and I wasn't. The early days were rather like John and Paul, because I was never taught music as a child. And I gravitated to it naturally, and like John and Paul I was running a band when I was 15. But I had never been taught. And it was the tale end of the war; when I was 17 I was in the Royal Navel Air Service, I was 21 when I came out. I had no real training for anything, except I had this gift for music and my musical professor urged me to take that seriously. So I then spent three years of study at the Guild Hall School of Music and emerged from that a professional musician of sorts. By this time I'd studied composition and conducting, so I went right out and I went into record producing, purely by chance. So yes, I was classically trained and my first jobs in record producing were making classical records.

I didn't know anything about record producing. I liked writing [music] and I imagined I could carve some kind of career out of doing that. And that's why I took up the oboe, because I thought it would take a long time to make my writing career, so I thought I would be a professional musician playing the oboe, while I did that.

Among the people you produced were Stan Getz and Jeff Beck, who have reputations for being difficult to work with.

Jeff, Jeff wasn't. Jeff was very, very comfortable. I mean yes, he has had reputations. I've worked with lots of people with reputations for being difficult. But I never found them to be difficult. I found them pussycats. Jeff is a very fine musician and a marvelous guitar player. He can handle a guitar like nobody I know. I mean he can actually make that damn thing sing! I said this to him once, particularly after this one concert, "You really make it sing." He said to me, "The guitar is my voice. I'd like to sing but I can't." And when I did Blow by Blow and then I did Wired, it was exciting, because it was music that I enjoyed very much. It was very rhythmic and funky almost. And I segued it all together, almost like a disc jockey show. I did the whole bit.

And whose idea was the Beatles cover on Blow by Blow?

Oh, "She's a Woman." It was Jeff's idea. He liked it. And in fact when he, when we talked about doing a track for this album, he said he'd love to do one. He said, "But can I pick it?" I said sure. I figured he do something like "Yer Blues" or "Away."

I was looking over the list of what you have produced and I'm sure it was far from complete. But I noticed that for all of your tendency to mix rock and classical music, that you have not done much producing with progressive rock musicians.

What do you call that?

Well, for instance Genesis or Emerson, Lake, & Palmer.

I don't see much progressive about those [laughs]. I just produced what came along. I mean, if Genesis had asked me to make an album, I might have done something with them. I've always liked to do lots of different things. And one of my favorite albums was that one with the Mahavishnu Orchestra, with John McLaughlin. And that's what I call progressive rock.

You've frequently mentioned Jimmy Webb.

Jimmy Webb's a great pal. He's a great writer. And I made an album with him. He's a musician. And he said he didn't want to do any scoring. He wanted me to do the orchestration, because he thought I was a better orchestrator than he was, which I thought was very flattering, 'cause he's a very fine writer. His songs were delightful and they've been used many times since. He was writing absolutely beautiful at that time, and it was lovely working with him.

He also is mad on airplanes, and in particular had the most wonderful sailing plane, which I used to fly up, go out with him. And we were mixing the album, and you know mixing takes quite a long time. You have to hang around, while the engineer's trying all his different things. And we'd kill the time. Instead of doing the Times crossword, we filled the time making paper airplanes. And we had a kind of competition. We were given a sheet of paper and a few paper clips and a bit of tape, and we had to make the best plane. And the one who got it furthest down in the studio was the winner. And we made better and better ones. And eventually, I thought about it, I came in one morning, and made, if I do say so myself, quite a rather nice little plane. And I showed it to him, I said, "Try this one Jimmy," and launched and he went, "Ahhh." It floated probably about 40 feet, down in the studio. And he looked at me, and I was amazed too, and he got hold of his plane and he tore it up and said, "That's it." [laughs] But the kicker to this story is, many years later I was with him, when he was living in New York, and we spent the day together. And I noticed in the corner of his study, a paper airplane, and I looked, and it was the one that I had made. And he said, "That's one of my favorite mementos." And there it was in his apartment. It was lovely.

We get a bit of your composing on the next to last track [of In My Life], "Friends and Lovers," which to me sounds quintessentially English.

Is it? [laughs] Okay, I don't know how to describe it -- it's my writing. Yeah, this is a tune I'd written quite a while before -- in fact, not long after John [Lennon] died -- and it was something I just wrote, naturally orchestrated as it was. I was in Montreux, which is just a beautiful place, and it gave me the inspiration to write this piece and I put it aside. I didn't need it, 'cause you know, you can't really do much with it, unless you happen to have a film to write. If somebody had given me something to score, I might have slipped the theme in somewhere there.

This seemed to be a good opportunity to use it as a preamble to soften people up for what was coming with "In My Life." 'Cause having been through all the mixed bag of tracks that we had on the album, including things like "I Am the Walrus" and "Come Together" and Goldie Hawn singing "Hard Day's Night," that's all lighthearted stuff. So at the end we get a little bit serious, so I thought it needed something to ease the entry into the spoken word of Sean Connery. So I did that as a segue piece. And "In My Life" too is part of my writing anyway, as you know, in the middle.

At first I thought, a recitation? I thought of various examples of that that hadn't worked. And yet by the end Sean Connery's reading is quite moving, especially when he gets to the last line, "In my life I loved you more."

That's right. He does it well. The whole point…it's the one bit of the album that's a little bit serious. Most of it's pop. Most of it's lighthearted. I got a little serious at the end because it is the last thing I'm gonna do, and those lyrics kind of sum up what my life's been like. I've been so privileged to work with so many great people. And I've made a lot of friends along the way. And some are dead, and some are living, and I love them all. And it's been a great time. Without those people I wouldn't be what I am. It's a lot of good memories. So, just a little bit of seriousness at the end. - Steve Holtje

Yes, it was a tad perverse of me to not ask Sir George any questions about the Beatles. Certainly I was reproached for it, with a great deal of incredulity mixed in, by my superiors at CDNOW.com, where this interview was originally published.

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