George Martin Forever: Peers Salute The Fifth Beatle
"If anyone earned the title of the fifth Beatle it was George," wrote Paul McCartney on his website following the news of the passing of producer George Martin on March 8. "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."
As if earning praise from one of the most decorated songwriters of all time wasn't enough, brief eulogies poured in from all corners of music, from fellow Beatle Ringo Starr, engineer/producer Geoff Emerick and Elton John to Jack Antonoff, Quincy Jones, Yoshiki, and Lenny Kravitz, among many others.
Aside from his groundbreaking output with the Beatles, Martin produced recordings for artists such as Jeff Beck, Celine Dion, John, and Phil Collins. His work also spanned symphonic, choral and chamber music, and jazz, forming a musical résumé matched by few.
"Having worked on hundreds of recordings, he was one of the most innovative producers of all time and his impact on music is unparalleled," said Neil Portnow, Recording Academy President/CEO.
To explore the far-reaching influence of Sir George Martin, GRAMMY-winning producers Peter Asher, Joe Henry, Jimmy Jam, Mark Ronson, and Judith Sherman as well as 12-time GRAMMY-nominated producer Alan Parsons offered fresh perspective and insight on the creative genius and enduring talents of the fifth Beatle.
Alan Parsons: He was a true gentleman in every sense. I consider him to be a mentor. I tried to be him, I really did.
Peter Asher: He was extremely charming and intelligent and well-read. A gentleman. An ideal person to have at a dinner party. I remember a costume party when the Beatles released Magical Mystery Tour. George and [his wife] Judy came as the Queen and Prince Philip. They were perfect.
Joe Henry: The greatest artists and producers have used the studio not to nail ideas to the floor, but to conjure them alive and up into the evolving atmosphere. He was one of the very first to signal the immense range of possibility and ambition.
Mark Ronson: A producer is a bit of a psychiatrist and high school basketball coach. He was a genius at bringing out the best in his artists.
Asher: He knew how to let the creative genius of the Beatles exist in a free way. He knew the right thing for the producer to do was to simply wait for them to figure out their own ideas. And then there were other times when he would actively make suggestions and contribute in a brilliant way.
Parsons: When asked to, he would inject himself musically. John [Lennon] made the most demands on him. John would say, "I want it to be this way. George, make it happen." And George would find a way to do it. The most famous example is with "Strawberry Fields [Forever]," which were two completely different takes of the song at different tempos. And John wanted them to be combined, and said, "Just make it happen. Fix it." And George did.
Asher: He was a trained and gifted musician. My mother taught him oboe at the Royal Academy [of Music]. She said he was a good pupil.
Parsons: He was a true musician. He spoke the musician's language. He had perfect pitch, and could speak to bands about what chords or notes they were playing without actually sitting down at the piano. He was always respectful of the artist, never trying to inject too much of himself into what he did. He wasn't interested in being a dictatorial producer.
Ronson: He had genuine respect for [the Beatles'] songwriting, and a real recognition for how ambitious they were creatively. They were about moving forward always.
Henry: There's a distinct difference between performing your club act in front of expensive microphones for posterity, and the act of thoughtful and deliberate record making. In pursuit of the latter, George Martin defined what it meant to use the written song as a reference map, and then create and discover a landscape upon which its story might flourish. [He] employed the studio as an instrument unto itself —not merely to document an experience, but create one.
Asher: He knew what an orchestra could do. He knew chords and harmonies. The things the Beatles knew instinctively, he knew technically. He looked upon his extensive musical expertise and knowledge as just another tool he could offer.
Henry: The fact that George was a [musician] allowed him to execute ideas, not only suggest them in the abstract. There was no disconnect between his vision and its realization.
Jimmy Jam: His arrangements, such as the string quartet on "Yesterday" or orchestra on other songs, are so much a part of [the Beatles'] records. When you think about the simplicity of the song "Yesterday," you could have done it with a big orchestra. But he knew not to overwhelm it.
Judith Sherman: He had a creative sense of the orchestra. When you think about what orchestral arrangements had been up to then, his were unlike others. Most arrangers write footballs for strings, just long whole-note pads. He gave the strings something to play, instead of just being a chord.
Jam: "Eleanor Rigby" amazed me. The urgency of the strings. Until then, strings were often schmaltzy, and not used as a driving lead instrument mixed with rock guitars. All of a sudden, that changed. He had the widest palette of imagination. He could take anything and mix it in.
Sherman: He was exceedingly creative, not only with the orchestra, but with electronic music and sound effects and tape manipulation, like tape vari-speed and backwards sounds. Electronic music at that time was a tape medium; digital didn’t exist.
Ronson: So many elements he introduced, which are part of our vocabulary: slapback echo on the vocals, the backwards tape, using a string section on a pop ballad. The big medley on Abbey Road is a production masterpiece. The tape loops on "Tomorrow Never Knows." The heavy density of the drum sound on Abbey Road and "Come Together." They were breaking down production barriers every time they went into the studio. Their use of multitracking was unprecedented.
Sherman: Backwards tape creates a beautiful sound. What makes it strange is that the attack comes at the end. The decay comes first and it grows and then breaks off. What George realized was how to use it to make an emotional charge. It wasn't the effect just for the effects.
Jam: When the Mellotron came into play, all of a sudden there were these sounds you'd never heard before. He loved whimsical and avant-garde music, sound effects, [and] backwards music.
Ronson: As refined as the [Beatles] records were, the sound was really raw and alive. The drums are really crunchy. The vocals are pristine, and yet the drums are cracking as hard as any Wu-Tang drum loop.
Sherman: In "A Day In The Life," he had the strings do something they never do, ascending from their lowest note to the highest at their own rate. The first time I heard it, my jaw dropped. What is this and how did they do this?
Jam: His diversity is staggering. From the way [the Beatles] began, with very raw records that were also sophisticated, to Sgt. Pepper …, the fact that all of that was coming from one brain is amazing. I always thought if I ever had a chance to produce records, that would be the approach: to try to not be locked into one thing, but to have a wide musical scope.
Ronson: All the way through, he gently allowed [the Beatles] to evolve, and was there to realize their visions onto tape. Paul and John were always trying to outdo each other, outdo Brian Wilson and whoever else they were thinking about. They wanted to keep pushing further, and George encouraged and enabled that progression. There is nothing dated about what they did. They found that extra magic element that is the difference between what is good and what is extraordinary.
Jam: The Beatles records, and all his productions, are timeless.
Henry: He understood that the recording process should not be beholden to the limits of a medium, but defined by its endless possibilities. He allowed the artists on his watch to feel liberated and fearless, both of which are ultimately more important than any arrangement idea or recording concept.
Ronson: I highly doubt there is one song I have ever worked on that didn't have some influence of George Martin.
(Peter Asher is a three-time GRAMMY winner, including two wins for Producer Of The Year, Non-Classical. He served as director of A&R for the Beatles' label imprint, Apple Records, signing James Taylor, among other acts.)
(A three-time GRAMMY winner, Joe Henry has produced albums for artists such as Rodney Crowell, Aaron Neville and Bonnie Raitt. His solo career spans three decades, including his most recent album, 2014's Invisible Hour.)
(Jimmy Jam is a five-time GRAMMY winner, including a win for Producer Of The Year, Non-Classical for 1986 with production partner Terry Lewis. His work in the studio includes collaborations with Yolanda Adams, Boyz II Men, Mariah Carey, Janet Jackson, and Usher.)
(A 12-time GRAMMY nominee, Alan Parsons is a renowned producer, engineer and songwriter. His credits include work as an assistant engineer on the Beatles' Abbey Road and Let It Be albums. Parsons also co-founded British progressive rock group the Alan Parsons Project.)
(Mark Ronson is a five-time GRAMMY winner, including Producer Of The Year, Non-Classical honors for 2007. His most recent win came at the 58th GRAMMY Awards for Record Of The Year for "Uptown Funk" with Bruno Mars.)
(A 10-time GRMAMY winner, Judith Sherman has earned Producer Of The Year, Classical honors five times, including consecutive wins for 2014 and 2015.)
(Paul Zollo is the senior editor of American Songwriter and the author of several books, including Songwriters On Songwriting, Conversations With Tom Petty and Hollywood Remembered. He's also a songwriter and Trough Records artist whose songs have been recorded by many artists, including Art Garfunkel, Severin Browne and Darryl Purpose.)