Perhaps no other contemporary British musicmaker more rightly bore the title of “Sir” before his name than George Martin.
To my generation, the legendary producer, who died Tuesday night at age 90, was the patriarch of British pop whose eventual global reach in the construction of melody and arrangements was unparalleled. Although deeply learned, he kept his ears and mind open by employing ideas of the past to adorn new pop concepts in an age when cross-generational music making was largely unheard of.
The catalyst for Martin’s grand career was a band called The Beatles. To their remarkably forward-thinking pop songs he added the inspirations of more versed and traditionally inclined ears: classical accents, harmonic structures and all kinds of studio finesse that enriched songs including Yesterday, Eleanor Rigby and A Day in the Life to sound unlike anything audiences had experienced to that point. That this remarkable alliance continued right up to the finale of The Beatles with Abbey Road also demonstrated the remarkable trust that existed between artist and producer. The ideas pioneered by this storied pop alliance continue to echo through all forms of contemporary music.
Martin maintained a sense of restlessness long after The Beatles dissolved. One of my favorite 1970s records under his direction was Jeff Beck’s Blow By Blow, a groundbreaking album of instrumental reinvention by the storied British guitarist — a record highlighted by Beck’s dazzling intuition and Martin’s robust production and orchestration.
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I had the opportunity to sit down with Sir George in 2004, before a presentation he gave for the then-Lexington-based ideaFestival. Eloquent, gracious and impeccably mannered despite the onset of hearing loss, he emphasized that the role of a producer was to enhance an artist’s creative concept, not intrude on it.
“The producer is never the important guy,” Martin said. “The important guy is the one who wrote the original piece of music. The producer comes after that. His job is to get to know who he’s dealing with and do everything he can to bring out the best in a performance and help shape the frame that goes around that performance. You can do that in different ways. Some producers do it by bullying. I can’t subscribe to that. I’ve got to get the fellow to like me and trust me so he will listen to me. It’s terribly important for a young producer to get that credibility.”
There you have George Martin: artistic nobleman, pop architect and father figure.