George Martin's Beatle Magic

The Abbey Road genius, who helped shape the band's quickly evolving sound, wasn't the Fifth Beatle as much as rock and roll's First Producer.

The recently restored video of the Beatles' epic "A Day in the Life" offers fleeting glimpses of the band's producer, George Martin, conducting, along with Paul McCartney, the orchestra that gave the song its classic thundering crescendo.

The video captures vintage George Martin: in the shadows, but always there in the studio to help the Beatles soar.

The legendary producer, who died Tuesday at age 90, played a crucial role in elevating rock and roll to an art form to reckoned with, becoming more responsible for the Beatles’ sound than anyone except John, Paul, George and Ringo.

The classically trained Martin wasn't the band's producer as much their musical interpreter. He took the sounds bursting out of McCartney and John Lennon and gave their songs shape that set them apart, even in the early pop days. He famously sped up the tempo of "Please Please Me" from a Roy Orbison-like ballad to a buoyant, urgent teenage plea. Martin let the band break old songwriting rules by kicking off "She Loves You" with the explosive minor-key chorus that heralded the British Invasion.

As the group quickly evolved – going from "I Want to Hold Your Hand" to "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" in less than four years – Martin not only kept up, he gently guided their fast-moving musical exploration, sharing their quest for perfection and their spirit of innovation.

Martin's influence is there for the listening: He scored the strings for "Yesterday" and "Eleanor Rigby." He slowly played the harpsichord-like piano solo on "In My Life" and later sped up the tape to insert a compact classical interlude into the sweet pop ballad. He slowed down Lennon's haunting vocal on "Strawberry Fields Forever" to match the key of the Beatle's favorite take on the instrumental track (the evolution of the song, available via the "Anthology" series and more extensively elsewhere, offers a master class in the creation of a masterpiece).

Cellos became an instrument of psychedelia on "I Am the Walrus," and a collection of random organ loops provided the carnival-like swirl of intrigue on "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite." With recording engineer Geoff Emerick, Martin turned Abbey Road into a musical laboratory where odd and amorphous requests – like Lennon declaring he wanted his voice to sound like the Dalai Lama shouting from the mountaintops in "Tomorrow Never Knows"  – meant tearing apart and rewiring speakers and microphones until they produced a sound like no other.

Martin, more than anyone, listened to the Beatles. What he heard in them and how he helped them achieve what they heard in their heads filled fans hearts with indelible music.

In his later years, Martin became a keeper of the Beatles catalogue, offering a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at the making of "Sgt. Pepper" and adding insight to the "Anthology" documentary. But he always was willing to try something new. He oversaw the creative mixes his son Giles assembled for the Cirque du Soleil spectacle "Love," which is approaching its 10th anniversary.

George Martin's final contribution to the Beatles cannon is the undisputed standout of the "Love" collection: The understated orchestration he added to the George Harrison's beautifully spare acoustic demo of "While My Guitar Gently Weeps." The poignant score would seem to have nothing in common with Martin's raucous build to an orchestral climax on "A Day in the Life."  But both are classic Martin: His work served the Beatles, but never overwhelmed or overshadowed their genius.

Fans, no doubt, are gently weeping for George Martin, whose long life brought joy to countless millions, even as he toiled largely in the background. He wasn't the Fifth Beatle, but he'll live on as the First Producer of rock and roll.

Jere Hester is Director of News Products and Projects at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.   

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