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R.I.P. George Martin, One of the Greatest Producers in Rock History, 1926 – 2016

The legendary "fifth Beatle" died last night at age 90

picture-22979-1414617206Andrew Unterberger // March 9, 2016

George Martin, the man who signed and produced the most important band in rock’n’roll history, died last night at the age of 90. Martin’s U.K. manager Adam Sharp confirmed his passing in a statement, saying the behind-the-scenes legend “passed away peacefully at home yesterday evening, Tuesday March 8. The family would like to thank everyone for their thoughts, prayers and messages of support.

To call Martin the “Fifth Beatle” — as countless have in the 50-plus years since he first shepherded the Fab Four into a recording studio — might even be underselling his contributions. He was more like the fourth-and-a-halfth Beatle. The sonic architect of every Beatles album from Please Please Me to Abbey Road  (only 1970’s Let it Be was recorded without his guiding hand), Martin helped the Beatles weaponize the studio in a way that only pop visionaries like Phil Spector, Joe Meek, and Brian Wilson had previously. He was brilliant enough to both capture and unleash the group’s irrepressible energy early in their career, and then to make possible their increasingly oversized conceptual and orchestral ambitions later on.

Of course, even if all Martin had done was get the Beatles to sign on the dotted line for EMI in 1962 — more because he liked their sense of humor than because he liked their actual music — his place in rock history would be secure. But he did so, so much more than that. He turned “Please Please Me” from a ballad to the band’s rip-roaring first U.K. No. 1 — a chart placement he famously predicted immediately after recording. He put the string quartet on “Yesterday,” the most covered song in pop music history. He entertained John Lennon’s raving demands to tape together two wildly different recordings into one coherent piece of music called “Strawberry Fields Forever,” the result enduring as one of the group’s greatest works. You could potentially argue about what outside figure had the most profound impact on the Beatles’ image or success, but in terms of which man not named Lennon, McCartney, Harrison, or Starr had the greatest effect on the band’s actual music, the discussion begins and ends with Martin.

And yet, Martin’s musical legacy goes well beyond Liverpool’s finest. Contemporaneous to his work with the Beatles, the producer also had a hand in the success of other British Invasion artists like Billy J. Kramer & the Dakotas (“Bad to Me,” “Little Children”) and Gerry & the Pacemakers (“How Do You Do It,” “Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying”), as well as the first true classic Bond theme in Shirley Bassey’s 1964 standard-bearer, “Goldfinger.” Amid the band’s dissolution in 1970, Martin would take the reins for Ringo Starr’s solo debut LP, Sentimental Journey, and a couple of years later he returned to the Bond franchise with Paul McCartney on the blockbuster track “Live and Let Die,” also providing the film’s score.

He would helm four further U.S. No. 1 hits across the next three decades — America’s gorgeous 1974 soft-rock standard “Sister Golden Hair,” two boundary-breaking duets for Sir Paul in the ’80s (“Eboy & Ivory” with Stevie Wonder and “Say, Say, Say” with Michael Jackson), and the best-selling single of all-time in Elton John’s Princess Diana tribute, “Candle in the Wind 1997.” He also did LP work for Kate Bush, Dire Straits, Cheap Trick, and Little River Band over the years, and in 2006, he returned to the Fab Four fold to help produce (along with his son Giles) the soundtrack to Love, the Beatles-inspired Cirque du Soleil show.

Paul McCartney issued a statement on his website reacting to the death of the singular rock figure, his “second father.” Read it in full below.

I’m so sad to hear the news of the passing of dear George Martin. I have so many wonderful memories of this great man that will be with me forever. He was a true gentleman and like a second father to me. He guided the career of The Beatles with such skill and good humour that he became a true friend to me and my family. If anyone earned the title of the fifth Beatle it was George. From the day that he gave The Beatles our first recording contract, to the last time I saw him, he was the most generous, intelligent and musical person I’ve ever had the pleasure to know.

It’s hard to choose favourite memories of my time with George, there are so many but one that comes to mind was the time 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.

This is just one of the many memories I have of George who went on to help me with arrangements on ‘Eleanor Rigby’, ‘Live and Let Die’ and many other songs of mine.

I am proud to have known such a fine gentleman with such a keen sense of humour, who had the ability to poke fun at himself. Even when he was Knighted by the Queen there was never the slightest trace of snobbery about him.

My family and I, to whom he was a dear friend, will miss him greatly and send our love to his wife Judy and their kids Giles and Lucy, and the grandkids.

The world has lost a truly great man who left an indelible mark on my soul and the history of British music.

God bless you George and all who sail in you!

Paul