Back in the very late 1960s, Billy Preston was sometimes referred to as “the fifth Beatle.”
Already an accomplished session keyboardist for much of the decade, Preston indeed is the only musician other than the original Fab Four to be credited on a Beatles recording. The group’s 1969 No. 1 hit “Get Back” is credited to “the Beatles with Billy Preston.”
But the real fifth member of the band was its long-time producer, George Martin, who died last week at the age of 90. (And, really, the group’s first manager, Brian Epstein — who died in 1967 — had much more influence on the Beatles than Preston. Sorry, Billy — you’re down to No. 7.)
Martin worked as a producer and arranger for more than six decades. After studying piano and oboe at a London performing arts school, he worked for the British Broadcasting Co. before joining EMI, the big U.K. record label.
As a fan of BBC radio comedy program (programme, if you will) “The Goon Show” and the Clouseau movies, I found it cool that Martin got his start producing comedy and novelty records for the likes of Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers. Martin was also a fan of the Goons, and was a personal friend of Milligan, perhaps best known to American audiences for his part in Sellers’ “The Magic Christian.”
But Martin’s fame came from producing the Beatles, who he began working with in 1962, just before their big breakthrough. And, arguably, he was instrumental —literally, in later years — in the success that followed that breakthrough.
I was a Beatle fan from early on, but probably didn’t see Martin on TV until a few years later. I remember thinking that he and the Fab Four were an odd combination — he going on 40 and more the proper English gentleman; they, working class non-Londoners and barely 20.
After hearing of Martin’s March 8 death, I went back and listened to the music he helped them make in the early years. As always when listening to the early Beatles albums, I’m impressed by how good the music sounds. (But part of the reason for that is I grew up listening to their singles on AM radio and a cheap monaural record player.)
I also remembered that Martin had gotten a lot of facetime on a program I had recorded on DVD several years ago, “Beatles on Record.” The 2009 BBC documentary — it can be viewed online — does indeed include a lot of commentary by Martin, but it is also a nice retrospective on the Beatles and their music.
Two of the Fab Four have left the planet, and the remaining two look all of their 70-plus years; on the program, he they look so young, just as we were so much younger, but you watch them mature over the eight or so years covered. The performances shown range from footage taken in the Cavern Club, in their early Liverpool days, to the post-Sgt. Pepper phase.
Martin’s comments during the show are revealing — but also indicate that, while he was talented in his craft and perceptive enough to see some potential in the Beatles, he knew no more than they did where things was going. “I’d been up to the Cavern and I’d heard their repertoire,” the producer says at one point. “They weren’t great, but there was something about them worth investigating/”
And Martin initially didn’t recognize one of the things that would make the group the musical force that it became. “They were nice people, but I didn’t know if they could write any decent songs,” he said.
Martin figured it out pretty quickly, and recognized the power of the music the Beatles were making. Speaking of the recording of “Please Please Me” — one of the earliest Lennon-McCartney compositions — he said, “I was able to tell them, at the end of that session, ‘You’ve got your first No.1’”
The producer noted that the four young performers learned the recording studio “rather quickly,” but didn’t get into using it until much later. “They were too busy. They would dash into the studio, put down their tracks and leave the rest of the work to us,” he says.
Martin was at the console as the Fab Four — like the Beach Boys and other contemporary groups — began to use the studio as an instrument. “’Rubber Soul’ was an indication of where they were going to go,” the producer says of the phase that also included “Revolver.” “They would start telling me what they wanted, and they would start pressing me for more ideas.”
That came to fruition with the recording of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” “It probably did change the face of recording,” Martin said of the Beatles’ landmark 1967 album. “It became a different kind of art form.”
Less than a month after that LP was released, Martin was in the control room when the Beatles performed “All You Need Is Love” as part of “Our World,” the first live global television hookup. More than 400 million viewers, in 25 countries, watched the satellite broadcast.
But Martin didn’t just twirl the dials for the Beatles. He also arranged much of their music, particularly the songs with more elaborate or orchestral parts. He also played keyboards and occasionally other instruments, and conducted orchestral arrangements.
Martin’s skills brought him work as a producer, and arranger, with other acts. For that and personal reasons he was unavailable during the “The Beatles” (“White Album”) recording sessions, and the Beatles produced some of the cuts themselves.
The group was coming unglued during the making of that album, but Martin produced their final three albums, including the classic “Abbey Road,” released over the next two years. But when the Beatles ceased to be, he kept working, producing and arranging music by artists as diverse as Jeff Beck, Cheap Trick, Celine Dion, Gary Glitter, Kenny Rogers and UFO.
He will be best remembered, though, for his work with the Beatles, even if one of them tried to diminish his significance. John Lennon, always the angry young man, lashed out soon after the breakup — but eventually changed his tune and acknowledged Martin’s contributions.
So, to honor the passing of the Fab Four’s fifth, I recommend listening to a bunch of Beatles music. And pondering what The Music might have sounded like, had not George Martin taken that gamble 54 years ago.