Greatness and greatness: appreciating Sir George Martin

Scholars & Rogues honors the “Fifth Beatle”

George Martin working that magic…(image courtesy Rockcellar Magazine)

“He enabled their ideas to pour forth, providing the electronic effects, the string quartets, the cor anglaise, the trumpets and piccolos, that helped the Beatles transcend the limitations of pop and create music of sublime originality. He allowed them to give expression to their genius, and provided a model for all pop music thereafter.” – Mick Brown, The Telegraph

When the news began to filter out this morning that Sir George Martin, pop music’s most legendary producer, Dutch uncle and studio wizard who helped The Beatles become – well, The Beatles – had died, tributes immediately began pouring in. Artists as diverse as Stevie Wonder, Noel Gallagher, and Jose Carreras expressed sorrow at Martin’s passing and heaped praise on him for his brilliant production work and his gentlemanly demeanor.

Martin’s body of work covered the range of music – classical, jazz, pop – and included comedy (one of the reasons he clicked with The Beatles is that he produced the records of comedy troupe The Goons, favorites of The Fabs whose surreal humor anticipates Monty Python). Martin was a talented musician himself who played piano and oboe at the classical musician level.

It was his demeanor, though, that set him apart from other record producers. He never tried to be hip or cool. He simply tried to help a brilliant pop band achieve its artistic vision. To be understated, he did okay.

Here’s one example straight from Sir Paul McCartney:

I brought the song ‘Yesterday’ to a recording session and the guys in the band suggested that I sang it solo and accompany myself on guitar. After I had done this George Martin said to me, “Paul I have an idea of putting a string quartet on the record.” I said, “Oh no George, we are a rock and roll band and I don’t think it’s a good idea.”  With the gentle bedside manner of a great producer he said to me, “Let us try it and if it doesn’t work we won’t use it and we’ll go with your solo version.”  I agreed to this and went round to his house the next day to work on the arrangement.

He took my chords that I showed him and spread the notes out across the piano, putting the cello in the low octave and the first violin in a high octave and gave me my first lesson in how strings were voiced for a quartet. When we recorded the string quartet at Abbey Road, it was so thrilling to know his idea was so correct that I went round telling people about it for weeks. His idea obviously worked because the song subsequently became one of the most recorded songs ever with versions by Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Ray Charles, Marvin Gaye and thousands more.

It’s a moment we take for granted now – the use of a classical string quartet in a pop song – but that is the first time it had ever been done. That brilliant arrangement idea gave new gravitas to The Beatles’ work. And it inspired them to be more daring in their own musical thinking because they knew they had an ally, guide, and trusted friend to help them realize their musical visions.

Martin was legendary in his modesty about his contribution to The Beatles’ musical legacy. But his life and work are a lesson to all of us. As The Beatles achieved greatness through their creativity and originality, Martin achieved greatness through his understanding of their creativity and originality and used his wide musical knowledge to make their musical dreams come true. Great potential met great execution when Martin and The Fabs were introduced.

Potential and execution – the stuff that dreams are made on, to quote another great English artist. Many thanks, Sir George….

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