The tirelessly experimental, gorgeously grandiose production of George Martin is synonymous with the Beatles — and understandably so. His studio stewardship of the group for most of their existence went far beyond the traditional producer role and, together, they pushed the limits of what pop music could sound like. But Martin’s career predated the Fab Four and would continue long after they broke up. He lent his formidable, innovative production and arranging talents to a variety of pop, novelty and soundtrack sessions in the early days; and his work with a panoply of top-name rock artists from the Fifties through the Nineties solidified a legacy that didn’t even need it.
“That’s part of my background, the catholic world of music that has no limits, no blinkers.” Martin told Mojo in 2007. “And when you achieve something that you know hasn’t been done before, and know that people will love it, it’s an enormous feeling of elation, to have done something really worthwhile.”
From passing along Beatles rejects to Gerry and the Pacemakers to fostering Seventies jazz fusion with Mahavishnu Orchestra to helping Elton John’s tribute to Princess Diana became the second best-selling single of all time, here are some examples of why Martin was so much more than the Fifth Beatle.
Bernard Cribbins, “Hole in the Ground” (1962)
Before the Beatles came on the scene, Martin had established his reputation as the producer of some of the most boundary-pushing British comedy records of his era. He recorded a young Peter Sellers and made his name (and Parlophone’s) with the 1961 cast album of the groundbreaking satirical revue Behind the Fringe. “The Hole in the Ground” isn’t quite as world historical as all that, but it’s one of the finest examples of a certain kind of beloved novelty folk number that defined British culture pre-Beatlemania. Noel Coward said that if he was stranded on a desert island with just a handful of recordings, “I think the only one I would never get sick of is ‘Hole in the Ground.'” A simple, funny tune about a Cockney workman trying to do his job while a posh know-it-all tells him how it should be done, there’s nothing here to suggest that its producer would one day help transform popular music forever. But Martin was always judicious enough to know that sometimes a good producer just gets out of the way and lets a song tell its story.
Ray Cathode, “Waltz In Orbit” (1962)
“Creating atmosphere and sound pictures … that was my bag,” George Martin has said of his work on Sgt. Pepper’s. Shortly after meeting the Beatles, Martin and Maddalena Fagandini cut the first commercial release from the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop, a mad scientist’s laboratory for new sound effects. Credited to “Ray Cathode,” their instrumental single featured the Latin-tinged A-side “Time Beat” and its even more outlandish B-side. “Waltz in Orbit” superimposes a jazzy waltz on top of one of Fagandini’s interval signals, a sound played to identify breaks in international programs. Some have heard the seeds of Revolver‘s sonic innovations here.
Billy J. Kramer With the Dakotas, “Bad to Me” (1963)
While the Beatles were still on the first leg of world domination in 1963, John Lennon wasn’t averse to giving away – or selling, anyway – good songs to others. He kept it in the family with his friend Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas’ “Bad to Me.” Penned by Lennon (who suggested Kramer add the “J.” to his professional name), the song bears all the hallmarks of an early Beatles classic, from the skipping beat to the lilting guitar hook. Martin gave the song an uncannily Beatles-esque air: lovelorn, wistful and gently jangling. It became a hit on both side of the Atlantic, another feather in the producer’s burgeoning cap.
Millicent Martin, “In the Summer of His Years” (1963)
When the BBC’s satirical news program That Was the Week That Was was set to air on November 23rd, 1963, they couldn’t have possibly gone on with a normal comedy program a day after the assassination of John F. Kennedy. So TW3 aired a somber shortened broadcast, featuring the debut of “In The Summer of His Years,” a poignant funeral march that lyricist Herbert Kretzmer wrote within hours of the news breaking. Millicent Martin, who also sang the show’s theme song, gave a powerful performance, later rebroadcast in America on NBC, and the studio recording produced by George Martin was issued as the A-side of a 45.
Gerry and the Pacemakers, “How Do You Do It?” (1963)
In 1962, the Beatles passed on releasing their version of the Mitch Murray composition “How Do You Do It?” as their debut single, overriding Martin’s vehement recommendation. But the Fab Four did help Martin work out the song’s kinks in the studio, so when their Liverpool neighbours Gerry and the Pacemakers picked up the jaunty, chirpy earworm a year later, it was ready for primetime. The group’s leader, Gerry Marsden – whom Martin called “a very jolly rock & roll star doing little two-beat songs” in his book All You Need Is Ears – turned it into a Number One U.K. hit. Martin wrote that it was “a little personal vindication in my faith in the song.”
Shirley Bassey, “Goldfinger” (1964)
Martin has a producer’s credit on the theme to the 1964 James Bond film Goldfinger, though the song’s composer John Barry helmed most of the song’s session. Martin produced most of Bassey’s other work of the time, picking songs he thought would be suitable for the English singer and running through them with her, including her first hit “I (Who Have Nothing).” But “Goldfinger” turned into her career-defining smash. The ominous song, inspired by “Mack the Knife” and written by Barry, Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newly, was almost pulled at the last minute after film producer Harry Saltzman reportedly called it “the worst song I’ve ever heard in my life.” It went on to become a Top Ten hit, and widely regarded as one of the greatest film songs of all time. Jimmy Page was the session guitarist that day, and he recalled that Bassey fainted after nailing the song in one take. “She was very emotional, but I liked her very much,” Martin said. “And of course she was a tremendous artist.”
Cilla Black, “Alfie” (1966)
“Cilla was very nervous,” George Martin said, remembering the day be brought British singer Cilla Black into Studio One at Abbey Road to record Burt Bacharach’s “Alfie.” She shouldn’t have been. Her full, piercing performance, along with Martin’s lush drapery, propelled the song to hit status in 1966 (a year before Dionne Warwick would make her own version iconic). Martin described Black’s vocal delivery as “her corncrake voice, the really belting, rocking voice. It wasn’t until we did one of Burt’s songs, as a ballad in a soft voice, that she became a hit.” Yet Martin was still able to coax a bit of that belting, rocking voice out of her at key moments, making for stunning dynamics.
Spike Milligan, “The Q5 Piano Tune” (1969)
Though they couldn’t have been more different, George Martin and the Beatles (particularly John Lennon) bonded over their shared love of Fifties British radio comedy The Goon Show. The show was written, created by and starred Spike Milligan, a father of British yuks and friend of Martin, who produced records for his group the Goons. As Bruce Pollack’s If You Like the Beatles notes, Martin used “ingenious sound effects, engineered through a mastery of echo, reverb, multiple edits and playing with recording tape speeds, all of which became the hallmarks of the Beatles studio repertoire.” In the late Sixties, Milligan created a surreal sketch show, Q5, with skits that didn’t have beginning or ends – Terry Jones noted it as a huge influence on Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Martin produced Q5‘s bizarre theme song, which showcased all of his innovative hallmarks.
Paul McCartney and Wings, “Live and Let Die” (1973)
When the producers of the eighth Bond instalment asked Paul McCartney to record the theme to Live and Let Die, the former Beatle knew just the producer he wanted: A guy he’d worked with in the past and had already recorded his own Bond theme. George Martin not only helped McCartney whip up a suitably cinematic production, he arranged the song’s thrilling orchestral break. When Martin played the track for the producers, he was surprised at their response: “Great. Like what you did. Very nice record. Like the score. Now tell me, who do you think we should get to sing it?” Martin diplomatically explained that McCartney did at least as good a vocal job as their suggestion, Thelma Houston, would have. And after successfully lobbying for McCartney’s performance, he was hired to create the full musical score for the film – the first Bond picture not soundtracked by John Barry.
Mahavishnu Orchestra, “Smile of the Beyond” (1974)
By 1974, the scope of Martin’s production had grown to vast proportions – and there’s no better proof than Mahavishnu Orchestra’s “Smile of the Beyond.” For fourth album Apocalypse, the jazz fusion group was backed by no musicians less grand then the London Symphony Orchestra. On the standout track “Smile of the Beyond,” keyboardist Gayle Moran delivers a soaring, transcendental vocal while Martin’s production pares down the LSO to a whisper – that is, until Jon McLaughlin leaps in with a frenzied yet pristine firestorm of soloing. In his bookAll You Need Is Ears, Martin himself called it “one of the best records I have ever made.”
America, “Tin Man” (1974)
The members of America were Americans, but they formed as Army brats whose parents were stationed in London. It was only natural, then, that when they were planning their 1974 album Holiday, the folk-rock outfit set their sights on the quintessential London producer. As the band’s guitarist Dewey Bunnell said in The Billboard Book of #1 Adult Contemporary Hits: “It was like we knew each other. We were familiar with the Beatles, of course, and we had that British sense of humor.” That humor didn’t exactly bleed over to “Tin Man,” a hit single off Holiday– this was, after all, the band who wrote the almost ridiculously somber “A Horse with No Name.” But Martin did manage to shroud the song in moody, atmospheric mystery.
Stackridge, “Fundamentally Yours” (1974)
Formed in the psychedelic late Sixties, Bristol’s Stackridge Lemon dropped the latter part of their name by the time they began releasing albums in the Seventies. George Martin produced Stackridge’s third and most successful album, 1974’s The Man in the Bowler Hat (issued in the U.S. under the title Pinafore Days), and played piano on the track “Humiliation.” Much of the album is proggy and baroque chamber pop dominated by lush string arrangements, but the opener “Fundamentally Yours” is a dynamic harpsichord-driven rocker featuring snappy drumming by Billy “Sparkle” Bent, who later became Martin’s personal assistant.
Jeff Beck, “Diamond Dust” (1975)
“A successful record has to be a real expression of everyone’s talent,” wrote Martin in All You Need Is Ears. “That was true when I recorded Ella Fitzgerald and it is true when I work with Jimmy Webb. And it is true when I made successful recordings with Jeff Beck.” On paper, the team-up between Martin and Beck seemed unlikely; the former Beatles producer was known for his symphonic finesse and the former Yardbirds guitarist was known for his bluesy edge. But by the mid-Seventies, Beck had disbanded his celebrated power trio and began exploring more ambitious musical vistas, which led to enlisting Martin for Blow by Blow. On it, Beck and Martin find space to spotlight everything from Stevie Wonder’s clavinet to lavish string arrangements – the latter appearing on the record’s jazzy, eight-and-a-half-minute closer, “Diamond Dust,” a cinematic sprawl and synergistic triumph.
Jimmy Webb, “The Moon’s a Harsh Mistress” (1977)
“The Moon’s a Harsh Mistress” had already been recorded by Glen Campbell, Judy Collins and Joe Cocker by the time the songwriter himself got around to it. Webb was inspired by the Robert Heinlein novel’s title that he said “haunted” him for years. “It’s a song to jump out the window by,” Collins said of Webb’s emotionally devastating ballad. The cold, stony effect of his own version is due in large part to arranger George Martin, the first outside producer Webb had ever used. “We came down to the point where we felt we were going to do some string overdubs,” Webb told Record Collector. “Well, I wanted him to do the arrangements. I’m no fool — I’m sitting there with George Martin! I wanted to hear what George was going to do more than what I was going to do.”
Gary Brooker, “No More Fear of Flying” (1979)
A decade after singing the timeless “A Whiter Shade of Pale” with Procol Harum, Gary Brooker went solo following their breakup. The first of his three solo albums, 1979’s No More Fear of Flying, was produced by Martin, whose magic touch is evident from the opening title track and lead single. Stacked with saxophones and trombones recalling Martin’s busy brass arrangement on “Good Morning Good Morning” by the Beatles, “No More Fear of Flying” builds a driving groove around Brooker’s wistful voice and electric piano.
Cheap Trick, “World’s Greatest Lover” (1980)
For 1980’s All Shook Up, Cheap Trick set aside longtime producer Tom Werman to work with the producer who had guided the band’s biggest influence. The Fab Four’s impact on Cheap Trick had never been a secret, but Martin teased out a particularly Beatles-like majesty on album track “World’s Greatest Lover.” It’s a sumptuous ballad stuffed with strategically deployed orchestral flourishes and languid, melancholy acoustic guitar. What really pops is Robin Zander’s rich, resonant, thoroughly Lennon-esque vocal delivery, which is too close to its source material to be anything other than a loving pastiche. The album came out at the end of October in 1980; within weeks, John Lennon would be dead. Presciently, “World’s Greatest Lover” wound up being a breathtaking tribute.
Ultravox, “Hymn” (1982)
“It was George Martin who smoothed everything over,” recalled Ultravox singer Midge Ure in his autobiography If I Was…. During the recording of the band’s 1982 album Quartet, the producer kept a musical disagreement between band members from reaching meltdown proportions. But “smoothed everything over” might as well have applied to the album itself — and in particular its hit single “Hymn.” Ultravox had begun years earlier as a spiky, glam-and-punk-influenced outfit, but by ’82 they had morphed into a synth-pop frontrunner. “Hymn” was the apex, a bombastic, elegantly frictionless anthem that made Ultravox’s rivals sound like they were playing Speak & Spells. Twenty years after turning the edgy sound of rock into something manicured and mainstream, Martin did the same with synth-pop.
Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson, “Say Say Say” (1983)
Martin produced the entirety of Paul McCartney’s 1983 Pipes of Peace album, and recording that LP’s biggest hit in 1982 would provide his first encounter with Michael Jackson — just before the release of the record-breaking Thriller. Sir George was impressed. “He actually does radiate an aura when he comes into the studio, there’s no question about it,” the producer said of the superstar. “He’s not a musician in the sense that Paul is, but he does know what he wants in music and he has very firm ideas.” The song became Jackson’s third Number One single that year.
Kate Bush & Larry Adler, “The Man I Love” (1994)
In 1994, Martin produced The Glory of Gershwin, a tribute album celebrating the 80th birthday of Gershwin’s friend, harmonica virtuoso Larry Adler. Adler joined guests like Peter Gabriel, Elton John and Cher. Said Martin, “Of course Larry was a compulsive name dropper but he really did know the greatest of people, and for me it was wonderful to work with such a legend.” One of the highlights was Kate Bush’s “The Man I Love,” which proved Martin had lost no step in the orchestral work he was known for before the Beatles.
Elton John, “Candle in the Wind 1997” (1997)
The best-selling single George Martin ever produced wasn’t a Beatles song. Immediately following Princess Diana’s death, Elton John quickly reworked his 1973 song “Candle in the Wind,” initially a tribute to Marilyn Monroe, to mourn the late royal. The recording would sell more than 33 million copies worldwide, topping the Billboard Hot 100 for 14 weeks. Though John might not have anticipated such massive sales, the single would clearly be a major pop event, so he contacted Martin to lend the precise air of gravitas he desired. They’d worked together just two years earlier on a track for John’s Made in England album, which was recorded at Martin’s AIR Studios in London. The elderly Martin arranged a string quartet for “Candle in the Wind 1997” and added an oboe as well. It would be the last hit Martin produced.