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Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Sir George Martin 1926-2016

Would we even know who the Beatles were if not for their legendary producer George Martin?  Like the group's manager Brian Epstein, Martin was the right man in the right place at just the right time.  No other producer would have given the band so much freedom from the onset - allowing them to record their own compositions, not establishing one member as the front man thus giving their music multiple voices, and always gently prodding them forward both as songwriters and as recording artists.

While Martin's arrangements in the latter portion of the group's career are rightfully well-known, he also played keyboards on several of their early tracks, augmenting their sound.  Some were overdubbed as on Misery and Baby It's You, and some were live in the studio with the band as on the astonishing one take performance of Long Tall Sally.

His orchestrations of Lennon/McCartney originals for the soundtrack of A Hard Day's Night are a real treat.  If you own a copy of the film or the United Artists album, listen to his hip 1964 takes on the title track and I Should Have Known Better.  Even better are the kitschy versions of Ringo's Theme (This Boy) and And I Love Her.  Though he had been working with the Beatles for over a year, his arrangements are still more in line with the standard Hollywood treatment of rock and roll music at the time.

In early 1965, when John chose not to play harmonica on the Dylanesque tune You've Got to Hide Your Love Away and asked Martin for something in its place, the producer brought in flautist Johnnie Scott, and his role changed forever.  He cemented that role a few months later with his brilliant score for quartet on the song Yesterday.  Over the next few years, the arrangements became more complex and often experimental in nature, with the master now sometimes learning from his students.  It is to Martin's eternal credit that he not only went along for that ride, but he actively encouraged it.

He lamented in numerous interviews in later years the fact that he frequently gave short shrift to George Harrison's work, yet he and the junior Beatle collaborated amazingly well on the remarkable Within You Without You, creating one of the longest instrumental breaks in the group's entire catalog - a true East meets West dialogue at the dawn of what we now refer to as world music.  Martin continued to use the bending of notes by Western classical instruments in much of his score for the animated film Yellow Submarine.

As tensions within the Beatles mounted during the endless sessions for the "White Album," the producer began staying away, often leaving the group under the watchful eye of young Chris Thomas.  And during the brief but tumultuous Get Back sessions, the task of production usually fell to Glyn Johns.  It was only after a number of tracks had already been recorded for Abbey Road that Martin was asked back to join in one final push for glory, including his admonition to Paul to "think symphonically" when compiling the medley for side two of that album.

Though he worked with many other artists over his long and distinguished career, both before and after his time with the Beatles, it was the unparalleled creative explosion that he oversaw with the boys from Liverpool that truly gives him such an indelible footprint in music history.  His place is secure as long as people continue to appreciate the act we've known for all these years.