George Martin, the Beatles’ urbane producer who quietly guided the band’s swift, historic transformation from rowdy club act to musical and cultural revolutionaries, has died, his management said Wednesday. He was 90.
Manager Adam Sharp said in a statement that Martin “passed away peacefully at home” on Tuesday evening.
Martin was too modest to call himself the “fifth Beatle,” but Paul McCartney said Wednesday that “if anyone earned the title … it was George.”
“He was a true gentleman and like a second father to me,” McCartney said.
Martin produced some of the most beloved songs and most popular and influential albums of modern times — “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” ”Revolver,” ”Rubber Soul,” ”Abbey Road” — elevating rock LPs from ways to cash in on hit singles to art forms, “concepts.”
From a raw first album in 1962 that took a day to make to the months-long production of “Sgt. Pepper” just five years later, Martin would preside, assist and sometimes stand aside as the Beatles advanced by quantum steps as songwriters and sonic explorers.
They composed dozens of classics, from “She Loves You” to “Hey Jude,” and turned the studio into a wonderland of backward tape loops, multi-tracking, unpredictable tempos, unfathomable segues and kaleidoscopic montages. Never again would rock music be defined by two-minute love songs or guitar-bass-drums arrangements.
“Once we got beyond the bubblegum stage, the early recordings, and they wanted to do something more adventurous, they were saying, ‘What can you give us?’” Martin told The Associated Press in 2002. “And I said, ‘I can give you anything you like.’”
His own talents were duly recognized. He was nominated for an Academy Award for producing the soundtrack to the Beatles’ “A Hard Day’s Night.” He won six Grammys, and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1999. Three years earlier, he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II.
Besides the Beatles, Martin worked with Jeff Beck, Elton John, Celine Dion and on several solo albums by Paul McCartney. In the 1960s, Martin produced hits by Cilla Black, Gerry and the Pacemakers, and Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas and for a 37-week stretch in 1963 one or another of his recordings topped the British charts.
But his legacy was defined by the Beatles, for the contributions he made, and for those he didn’t.
Before the Beatles, producers such as Phil Spector and Berry Gordy controlled the recording process, choosing the arrangements and musicians; picking, and sometimes writing the songs (or claiming credit for them). The Beatles, led by the songwriting team of McCartney and John Lennon, became their own bosses and were among the first rock groups to compose their own material. Inspired by native genius, a world’s tour of musical influences and all the latest stimulants, they were seekers of magic who demanded new sounds.
Martin was endlessly called on to perform the impossible, and often succeeded, splicing recordings at different speeds for “Strawberry Fields Forever,” or, for “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite,” simulating a calliope with keyboards, harmonica and a harmonium that the producer himself played with such intensity he passed out on the floor. Martin would have several good turns on the keyboards, performing a lively music hall solo on McCartney’s “Lovely Rita” and a Baroque reverie (at studio-heightened speed) on Lennon’s “In My Life.”
His bearing was infinitely more patrician than the Beatles’, but he grew up working class. Born in north London in 1926, Martin was a carpenter’s son raised in a three-room flat without a kitchen, bathroom or electricity.
He was a gifted musician who mastered Chopin by ear, a born experimenter enchanted whenever he discovered a new chord. After World War II service in the Fleet Air Arm, he attended London’s Guildhall School of Music, studying composition and orchestration, and performance on the oboe and piano.
“Music was pretty well my whole life,” Martin wrote in his memoir, “All You Need is Ears,” published in 1980.
Hired by the EMI division Parlophone Records in 1950, Martin initially worked on classical recordings with the London Baroque Ensemble. The technology was primitive, with recording on wax cylinders with machines which weren’t driven by electricity, but by weights. Named head of Parlophone in 1955, he also worked with Judy Garland, jazz stars Stan Getz, Cleo Laine and John Dankworth, and with Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan of the “Goon Show,” an absurdist comedy troupe much loved by the Beatles.
The Beatles, none of whom could read music, depended on Martin’s classical background. They might hum a melody to the producer, who would translate it into a written score, as he did for a trumpet solo on McCartney’s “Penny Lane.” For McCartney’s “Yesterday,” Martin convinced the composer that a bluesy string quartet would serve the song’s tender remorse.
Artistically, Martin would never approach such heights again. But he did manage commercial success with the pop groups America and the Little River Band and produced two top James Bond themes — Shirley Bassey’s “Goldfinger” and McCartney’s “Live and Let Die.”
Martin intended for the production and scoring of Elton John’s “Candle In The Wind ’97,” a tribute to the late Princess Diana, to be his last project. But in 2000 he produced “1,” a multimillion-selling compilation of Beatles’ No. 1 songs, then followed with a six-CD retrospective of his recording career.
McCartney said that with his passing, “the world has lost a truly great man who left an indelible mark on my soul and the history of British music.”
JILL LAWLESS, GREGORY KATZ AND ROBERT BARR