Remembering Sir George Martin, the ‘fifth Beatle’

Last Updated by Chip Chandler - Digital Content Producer on
The Beatles and producer George Martin, second from right, in 1963
Chris Ware/Keystone/Getty Images

By Chip Chandler — Digital Content Producer

In my office suite this morning, we’re listening to some of the greatest pop songs ever written: “Dear Prudence,” “Back in the U.S.S.R.,” “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da,” more.

It’s side one of “The Beatles,” the album you know as “The White Album,” the album I know as the one that blew my mind.

We’re listening in memory of the man they called the “fifth Beatle,” producer George Martin, who died Tuesday at age 90.

Martin began recording The Beatles in 1962, after just about every British record label had turned them down. Even he required some convincing initially, but their collaboration would eventually change pop music forever.

“It was just amazing how all of that lined up,” colleague Brian Frank, a Panhandle PBS content producer and former FM 90 program director, told me this morning. “He was the only one who saw.”

The classically trained producer set a Billboard record with 23 U.S. and 30 UK No. 1 singles but is best known for his work with the Fab Four, Joshua Barajas wrote for PBS Newshour. Martin – who also worked with the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, The Bee Gees, Cheap Trick and more – produced all but one (Phil Spector-produced “Let It Be” in 1970) of The Beatles’ albums. FM 90 program director Mike Fuller will celebrate Martin’s wide-ranging career in a special episode of “What the Folk?” from 10 a.m. to noon Saturday.

Paul McCartney, in a post today on his website, said Martin “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.”

In its obituary, the New York Times noted that Martin was “always intent on expanding the Beatles’ horizons (and)… began chipping away at the group’s resistance to using orchestral musicians on its recordings in early 1965.”

Thus, the baroque stylings that created a whole new kind of pop music: The heavy use of strings on “Eleanor Rigby.” The brass flourishes on “All You Need Is Love.” Most essentially, the string quartet on “Yesterday.”

McCartney wrote:

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. … 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.

The teamwork that made Martin and The Beatles thrive “has continued to influence everything that followed,” wrote Slate’s Forrest Wickman.

“George Martin changed the world. Nothing less,” tweeted Stevie Van Zandt, summing up the music industry’s reaction.

In all, Martin produced 13 albums and 22 singles for The Beatles, “a compact body of work that adds up to less than 10 hours of music but that revolutionized the popular music world,” the Times wrote.

“Any whim that they had, he could indulge it,” Frank said this morning.

And we’re all the better for it.