George Martin, Who Signed, Produced the Beatles, Dies at 90

George Martin

Former Beatles producer George Martin.

Photographer: Clarence Davis/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images
  • Produced Elton John's best-selling tribute to Princess Diana
  • Retired from studio recording in 1998, suffered hearing loss

George Martin, the U.K. music producer, arranger and composer often described as the fifth Beatle for his work on albums such as “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” and “Abbey Road,” has died. He was 90.

Martin died Tuesday, C A Management, which represented Martin since 1998, said on its website.

“He was a true gentleman and like a second father to me,” Paul McCartney said in a blog post. “If anyone earned the title of the fifth Beatle it was George.”

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Martin signed the Beatles to Parlophone Records, a U.K. label owned by EMI Group Plc, in 1962. He produced all of the band’s records before its breakup eight years later, including “Sgt. Pepper,” named the best album in history by Rolling Stone magazine.

His contribution to the Beatles’ legacy went beyond his production work. “Yesterday,” the greatest song of the 20th century, according to a BBC Radio 2 survey, and “Eleanor Rigby” featured his string arrangements. He composed harpsichord and French horn parts for the band and played piano on some songs.

Martin then worked with artists as musically diverse as America, Jeff Beck, Celine Dion, Kenny Rogers and Neil Sedaka. He produced Elton John’s tribute to Princess Diana, “Candle in the Wind 1997,” the best-selling single of all time.

Martin also was an entrepreneur. He co-founded Associated Independent Recording, a production company with studios in London. He also had his own music-publishing company, George Martin Music.

Going Deaf

In his later years, Martin suffered hearing loss. He retired from studio recording in 1998 after the release of “In My Life,” an album of Beatles songs done by artists he selected. Even so, he worked with his son, Giles, for three years on the Beatles compilation “Love,” the soundtrack of a 2006 production by the Cirque du Soleil circus troupe.

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George Henry Martin was born on Jan. 3, 1926, in the Holloway section of London. He grew up in Drayton Park, located nearby in the Highbury area, and started learning the piano when he was 8 years old.

“Music was pretty well my whole life,” Martin said about his youth in “All You Need Is Ears,” an autobiography co-written with Jeremy Hornsby. Martin started a band that became known as George Martin and the Four Truth Tellers.

He considered careers in architecture and aircraft design before joining the British Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm in 1942. Martin spent five years in the service, where he met his first wife, Sheena Chisholm. They married in 1948 and had a daughter, Alexis, and a son, Gregory, before divorcing.

Music Immersion

After leaving the military, Martin enrolled at the Guildhall School of Music in London. He studied composition, conducting, orchestration and theory and learned the oboe, his second primary instrument, during his three years there.

Martin cataloged music at the British Broadcasting Corp. for a couple of months after completing his studies. The head of Parlophone, Oscar Preuss, then hired him as an assistant in September 1950.

When Preuss retired in 1955, Martin was appointed as his successor. At 29, he became the youngest person to run a label at EMI.

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Parlophone took a back seat at the time to two other U.K. labels run by EMI: HMV and Columbia (unrelated to the U.S. label of the same name). Martin responded by finding a niche in comedy albums. Peter Sellers, who later rose to prominence as Inspector Clouseau in the “Pink Panther” movies, was among his acts.

Martin first met with the Beatles’ manager, Brian Epstein, in April 1962 after receiving a phone call about the group from Syd Coleman, the head of EMI’s publishing arm. He scheduled a June 6 audition at the company’s Abbey Road Studios.

Instant Connection

“It was love at first sight,” Martin wrote in his memoir. “That may seem exaggerated, but the fact is that we hit it off straight away.”

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Martin signed the Beatles to a recording contract later that month. He had his first studio session with the band on Sept. 4, 1962, about three weeks after drummer Pete Best was fired and Ringo Starr replaced him.

John Lennon, McCartney, George Harrison and Starr put out 12 U.K. albums as the Beatles from 1963 -- when they made their debut with “Please Please Me” -- until 1969, when “Abbey Road” was released. Martin produced them all even though he resigned from Parlophone in 1965 to start his production company, known as AIR, with three other co-founders.

Martin’s mastery of the recording studio helped the Beatles pursue sonic experiments, which started in earnest with the 1965 album “Rubber Soul.” The song “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)” featured the first use of a sitar on a rock record.

Disagreements Surface

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“Let It Be,” the band’s final studio album, started as a Martin production. After disagreements between him and the band, Phil Spector was hired to complete the record, released in 1970.

Martin served as the musical director for the Beatles’ films “A Hard Day’s Night” and “Yellow Submarine.” He recorded two instrumental albums of the band’s songs with his own orchestra.

During his time with the group, he produced records by Gerry and the Pacemakers, Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas, and Cilla Black. He also married Judy Lockhart Smith, who had been Preuss’s secretary at Parlophone. They wed in 1966 and had two children, Giles and a daughter, Lucy.

After the band’s breakup, Martin did more Beatles-related projects even as he collaborated with other artists. He produced the three-volume “Anthology” series, along with the “Rock ’n’ Roll Music” and “Live at the BBC” compilations.

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McCartney, Starr

Martin worked on McCartney’s “Tug of War,” “Pipes of Peace,” “Give My Regards to Broad Street” and “Flaming Pie” albums and Starr’s first solo record, “Sentimental Journey.” He also produced the soundtrack for Robert Stigwood’s “Sgt. Pepper” film in 1978.

EMI commemorated the breadth of his musical career in 2001 with the release of “Produced by George Martin,” a set of six compact discs that included only four Beatles songs.

Martin also found time for charitable and humanitarian work, and received the Grammy Foundation’s Leadership Award in 2008 for his efforts. The Caribbean island of Montserrat, where AIR built a studio in the 1970s that was destroyed by Hurricane Hugo, was among the biggest beneficiaries.

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After Montserrat was hit by a volcanic eruption in 1995, he put together a benefit concert in London to raise funds for the victims. He then sponsored a cultural and community center on the island, which opened in 2007.

Queen Elizabeth II knighted Martin in 1996, making him the first music producer to receive the honor. Six years later, he organized a rock concert that was part of the queen’s Golden Jubilee celebration.

Industry Honors

Martin won seven Grammy Awards, including two each for “Sgt. Pepper” and “Love.” He was honored for arranging McCartney’s “Live and Let Die,” the title song for a James Bond film that he scored, and for producing the Broadway cast album of “The Who’s Tommy.” His final Grammy was a Trustees Award, recognizing his career accomplishments.

The U.K. music industry presented him with two Ivor Novello Awards, its highest honor. In 1977, he was picked as the best British producer of the past 25 years. In 1984, he won for outstanding contributions to music.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inducted him in 1999, and the U.K. Music Hall of Fame followed suit in 2006. Salford and Leeds Metropolitan universities in England awarded him honorary doctorates, as did the Berklee College of Music in Boston.

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