Known best as the record producer for The Beatles, George Martin had a long and varied musical career, and continues to enjoy a rare reputation as one of popular music's true "nice guys."
Martin was born into a working-class family in Drayton Park, England, on 3 January 1926. His classical music training didn't actually begin until his 20s; the only formal musical education Martin had as a child was eight piano lessons from an aunt. He kept up with the piano on his own, though, and by his teens led a small combo called The Four Tune-Tellers, along with his being able to play several classical pieces by ear. He'd also begun composing his own songs, with an eye toward someday writing film scores.
By this time World War II was underway, and at 17 Martin enlisted in the Fleet Air Arm, serving as an aircraft observer. While in the service, he both acquired a mentor in Sidney Harrison, who critiqued his early scores and encouraged him to follow a career in music, and appeared on a BBC radio show, playing an original piece. Returning to civilian life in early 1947, Martin found himself at a career crossroads, without much formal education or training. Sidney Harrison encouraged him to enter the Guildhall School of Music in London, where Harrison taught, and arranged an audition. Martin passed, and studied for three years at the Guildhall, paying for this with a veteran's grant, and studying oboe as a second instrument.
After graduation and a stint with the BBC Music Library, Martin was offered a job with EMI's Parlophone record label, as assistant to its chief Oscar Preuss. Preuss both signed the label's artists and produced most of their recordings, and it was these jobs that Martin gradually took over as Preuss retired, leaving Martin in charge of the label at age 29--the youngest label-head in England in the pre-rock era. Parlophone featured mostly classical and regional music, which Martin conducted and produced; he augmented these later with both highly-successful comedy records (including Peter Ustinov's "Mock Mozart" and several Goon Show recordings with Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan, who became close friends) and rock-n-roll when it reached Britain. Despite his triumphs, George Martin nearly went down in music history as "The Man Who Turned Down Tommy Steele," passing up his chance to produce Britain's first genuine rock star to instead sign up Steele's backing group, the Vipers. This mistake was luckily overshadowed by another signing of Martin's, a few years later...
Martin and Beatles' manager Brian Epstein learned of each other when Epstein decided to have acetate test-records made of a Beatles audition tape, during his make-or-break final visit to London to try to get the band a recording contract. Nearly every label in England had turned the band down, and while Martin wasn't bowled over by their demo, he was impressed enough to give them a studio audition. Martin came away from this satisfied with everything he'd heard, except for Pete Best's drumming, and when he offered the band a singles contract in the fall of 1962, it was with the understanding that Best would not play on the records. This was reason enough for the band to want to replace him completely, and Ringo Starr took his place, shortly before the Beatles recorded their first Parlophone single, "Love Me Do".
Martin's first collaboration with The Beatles wasn't a big hit, but their second single with him, "Please Please Me", made an immediate impact, and propelled the band to national stardom in Britain. The hits continued, and Martin's own name began to appear on the recordings he produced (both for The Beatles, and for other artists) a few months later, as the record-producer's role became more widely recognized in the industry. It was Martin's friendship with music publisher Dick James that resulted in the creation of Northern Songs as the Beatles' publishing company; however, Martin never profited directly from this, or even from their early hits--he turned down the chance to become a Northern Songs partner, and as an EMI staff producer, he was paid no royalties. In fact, EMI's antiquated pay-scale was one of the many factors that caused Martin and several other EMI staffers to resign in the mid-Sixties, and establish their own company AIR (Associated Independent Recording). EMI now had to hire Martin back as an independent producer for their artists, and he began receiving producer's royalties on AIR's behalf.
The story of George Martin's relationship with the Beatles has been told again and again, but perhaps best by the man himself, in both radio and television specials, and his own book "All You Need is Ears", which reads both as pop-history and a kind of record-producer's textbook. He has graciously answered questions about the band (sometimes as the only clean-n-sober participant at recording sessions) and his own experiences again and again, proving to be an ideal, well-balanced spokesman. Many of the Beatles' more elaborate productions, especially in their later "studio years," were shaped by George Martin, who arranged their songwriting into final scores and recordings.
Throughout the Beatles' career and beyond, Martin continued to record and produce other artists, including Shirley Bassey, Bernard Cribbins, Flanders and Swann, and later America and Seatrain. He was also able to realize his earlier dream of scoring movies, beginning with his original orchestral score for Yellow Submarine (1968),which he also produced for film and record. In the late 1970s, Martin was approached by RSO's Robert Stigwood to produce the soundtrack for the Bee Gees's Beatles homage Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1978); despite his initial misgivings, he signed onto the project knowing nobody else had his insider's knowledge of their music... and the payment to come would erase a lot of earlier financial shortings from his EMI days.
While George Martin supervised parts of "The Beatles Anthology" in 1994 and 1995, the task of producing the new recordings included with the compilation was given to Jeff Lynne; Martin explained to the press, "I don't produce anymore, because I'm too old." Martin recently celebrated his retirement from the music business, with both a knighthood and the release of "In My Life", an all-star tribute album to the band who gave him his biggest success.