Famed Beatles producer Sir George Martin produced 30 number one hits in the UK as well as 23 in the U.S. His distinguished career in music, film, television and live performance would be too great a task to recount in a single blog post. While his records with the Beatles have certainly stood the test of time, in the U.S. it is ironic that the four number one songs he produced in post-Beatles years are not exactly songs that one would expect from George Martin.
A young Martin joined the Fleet Air Arm of the Royal Navy in 1943 at age 17. He would become both a pilot and commissioned officer, though the war would end before he could see action. Leaving the Royal Navy in 1947, he used his veterans grant to continue his music studies at Guidhall School of Music and Drama from 1947 to 1950, where he studied piano and oboe. Ironically, his oboe teacher at the school was Margaret Eliot, whose actress daughter Jane Asher would be Paul McCartney’s girlfriend for five years from 1963-1968; Eliot’s son, Peter Asher, would find fame as one half of Peter & Gordon and later serve as the head of the A&R department for Apple Records in addition to later becoming a highly successful producer in the 1970’s, producing artists such as James Taylor, Linda Ronstadt and J.D. Souther. Paul gave the unused “A World Without Love“, a song he wrote at age 16 that was later published under the Lennon/McCartney moniker, to Peter and Gordon for their first single. “A World Without Love” by Peter and Gordon topped the charts in the UK in February 1964 and three months later reached number one in the U.S. in June. “A World Without Love” and Elton John’s “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds”, a number one hit for two weeks in January 1975 on The Billboard Hot 100, rank as the only two Lennon/McCartney compositions to reach number one in the U.S. by artists other than The Beatles.
After working in the BBC’s classical music department, Martin was the assistant to the head of EMI’s Parlophone Records from 1950-1955 and became the head of the label in 1955. At first Martin signed classical acts and then the label drifted into successful comedy albums. In 1962 Martin thought he needed to bring a successful rock and roll act to the label, and the rest is history as he invited the Beatles to audition for Parlophone on June 6, 1962 and then signed them. In the contract he persuaded EMI to give the four boys two pennies for each record sold instead of the standard one penny per record royalty. When the Beatles found gigantic success, some people in EMI labeled Martin a “traitor” to EMI for giving them the costly two penny per record royalty, which was split four ways.
Needless to say, the Beatles had phenomenal success on the U.S. charts, scoring a whopping 20 chart-toppers on the Billboard Hot 100. The songs were “I Want to Hold Your Hand”, “She Loves You”, “Can’t Buy Me Love”, “Love Me Do”; “A Hard Day’s Night”, and “I Feel Fine” in 1964; “Eight Days a Week”, “Ticket to Ride”, “Help!” and “Yesterday” in 1965; “We Can Work It Out”, and “Paperback Writer” in 1966; “Penny Lane”, “All You Need Is Love” and “Hello Goodbye” in 1967; “Get Back”, “Hey Jude” in 1968; “Come Together/Something” in 1969; “The Long and Winding Road” and “Let It Be” in 1970.
Apart from the Beatles, it is surprising that the four number one songs on the U.S. charts that Martin produced might leave some scratching their heads. They are “Sister Golden Hair” by America (1975), “Ebony and Ivory” by Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder (1982), “Say, Say, Say” by Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson (1983), and “Candle in the Wind 1997” by Elton John.
Martin produced several albums for America, including Holiday (1974) and Hearts (1975). Hearts yielded the # 1 hit “Sister Golden Hair”, which spent one week on the top of the charts beginning June 14, 1975. Martin also produced America’s two top five songs “Tin Man” (1974) and “Lonely People” (1975). America guitarist Gerry Beckley wrote “Sister Golden Hair” as he was inspired by the works of Jackson Browne and wished to make a song in the Browne mold. The song definitely is about a man who is no longer with his girlfriend and contemplating a return to the relationship. At the time of its release, some religious groups in the U.S. claimed that the song promoted cohabitation, while widespread speculation of the true meaning of the lyrics persists to this day. The band’s second number one song (“A Horse with No Name” in 1972 was their first), it would be their last. Ironically lyrics from the band’s 1972 top ten hit “Ventura Highway” included the line “Sorry boy, I’ve been hit by purple rain” which inspired Prince to write his 1984 # 1 album, song and movie – all of which were entitled Purple Rain.
“Ebony and Ivory” paired McCartney with Stevie Wonder in a song about racial harmony. The song topped the charts in both the U.S. and the UK. From the Tug of War album, “Ebony and Ivory” topped the U.S. charts for seven weeks beginning on May 15, 1982. McCartney and Wonder recorded it together at Martin’s famous studio in Montserrat, while the video for the song was filmed individually with each artist as they were separated by an ocean and video technology was able to merge their two parts to successfully make it look like they had collaborated in person on the video.
“Ebony and Ivory” was McCartney’s most successful post-Beatles number one at seven weeks, and the second-longest of his overall career behind “Hey Jude”. The ex-Beatle definitely saved money on studio musicians as in addition to writing the song he himself provided lead vocals, bass guitar, synthesizers, percussion and backing vocals.
This song was banned in South Africa during the apartheid era. It was included on the song list of The Paul McCartney World Tour (1989 and 1990) with Hamish Stuart, the former frontman of the Average White Band, taking over Steve Wonder’s vocal part. McCartney never performed the song live again until 2010 at the White House in the East Room when both he and Stevie Wonder reunited to perform the song live as part of a concert honoring the ex-Beatle with the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song on June 2, 2010.
Three months later in September 2010, Matthew Wilkening of AOL Radio ranked “Ebony and Ivory” as # 9 on the list of 100 Worst Songs Ever. Six years earlier in 2004, Blender ranked the song as # 10 on their list of the worst songs of all time.
The next number one hit produced by George Martin also was a Paul McCartney duet with a famous African-American artist with multiple number one hits. “Say, Say, Say” by Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson, from McCartney’s 1983 Pipes of Peace album, climbed to the top of the charts on December 10, 1983 and stayed there for six weeks. McCartney and Jackson co-wrote the song. For Michael Jackson, the hit was his seventh top ten hit in less than a calendar year, tying a mark that was jointly held by Elvis Presley and the Beatles. The pair had collaborated on the top ten hit “The Girl Is Mine” from Jackson’s epic Thriller album produced by Quincy Jones. Between the two artists, they had a combined whopping 37 number one singles in the U.S. before they recorded this song. Entering the Top 40 section of the Billboard Hot 100 at number 26 on October 15, 1983, it marked the highest new entry in the Top 40 since John Lennon’s “Imagine” debuted at number 26 on October 23, 1971. Oddly, the song was competing in the charts with Jackson’s “P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)”, the second-to-last single released from Thriller.
The elaborate video for “Say, Say, Say” featured Paul McCartney, his wife Linda, and Jackson as travelling hucksters who give their proceeds to an orphanage. Surprisingly, iconic actor Harry Dean Stanton and Oscar-winner Art Carney appear in the video. Music critic Nelson George wrote about the song that it would not have “deserved the airplay it received without Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson”. The internet is full of articles and blog posts listing “Say, Say, Say” as the least favorite McCartney song by far.
Maybe the last number one U.S. single produced by George Martin needs little introduction. “Candle in the Wind 1997” was the famous 1997 re-write of the Elton John/Bernie Taupin classic from the 1973 double album Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, a song which was not released as a single from the album which spawned the top ten hits “Benny and the Jets”, “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” and “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting”. When Elton John decided to perform a new version of the song dedicated to the memory of Princess Diana at her funeral, he called Bernie Taupin and asked him to write new lyrics; Forty-five minutes later, Taupin faxed Elton John the new lyrics to what would become “Candle in the Wind 1997”. When Elton John then wanted the song to be recorded and released as a charity song the proceeds of which would go to the Diana Princess of Wales Memorial Fund to aid charities which were important to the late princess, he enlisted George Martin to produce it.
The song surpassed Band Aid’s 1984 “Do They Know It’s Christmas”, which was also a charity song, as the greatest selling single in UK history. “Candle in the Wind 1997” is the most successful single of all time in the history of the recording industry. It was a number one hit all throughout the world. In the UK it made the unprecedented debut at number one in the charts, staying in the top slot for six weeks. It was a chart-topper in the U.S., in addition to being ranked the top single of all-time in Australia. In Canada, the song stayed in the Top 20 for three years, with 46 non-consecutive weeks at number one. The 2009 edition of The Guinness Book of World Records cites the song as being “the biggest selling single since UK and U.S. singles charts began in the 1950’s, having accumulated worldwide sales of 33 million copies.”
While receiving widespread airplay and generating massive sales after Princess Diana’s death, the song has for the most part disappeared from the airwaves.
One great George Martin-produced song that was not a number one song was the 1973 hit “Live and Let Die” by Wings, the theme song to the James Bond movie of the same name. “Live and Let Die” made it to the number two position on the charts on August 5, 1973 and stayed there for three weeks, never making the jump to the coveted top slot. During those three weeks there was a different song in the number one position each week, “The Morning After” by Maureen McGovern, “Touch Me in the Morning” by Diana Ross, and “Brother Louie” by The Stories.
The producers of Live and Let Die, Harry Saltzman and Albert R. Broccoli, wanted McCartney to write the theme song. Since the screenplay was not yet complete, they sent him a copy of Ian Fleming’s novel Live and Let Die, which he devoured. He wrote the song in an afternoon, and had it recorded in a week. Saltzman and Broccoli loved the song, but were opting for Shirley Bassey or Thelma Houston to sing it. McCartney made it clear he would not allow the song to be used in the movie if his band Wings were not allowed to record it. Saltzman, still smarting from passing up the opportunity to produce the movie Hard Day’s Night nine years earlier, did not want to burn himself again. They allowed McCartney to record it.
McCartney brought in George Martin to produce the single, marking the first time they had worked together since Abbey Road in 1969. Martin had already received accolades nine years earlier for producing the single “Goldfinger” by Shirley Bassey, the theme song to the 1964 James Bond film of the same name, which was a top ten hit in both the U.S. and UK. Saltzman and Broccoli were so impressed with Martin’s production and orchestration of “Live and Let Die” that they asked him to do the complete score of this James Bond film which was the first in the franchise to star Roger Moore. It was the first Bond theme to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Song, losing out to Barbra Streisand’s “The Way We Were”, not to mention the first ever Bond theme song that was a rock and roll arrangement.
The label of the single record of “Live and Let Die” listed “Wings” as the artist, while both the movie’s credits and soundtrack album attributed the song to “Paul McCartney & Wings”. It marked the last McCartney single with Apple Records that was credited solely as “Wings”.
In 1984, “Weird Al” Yankovic wanted to do a parody of “Live and Let Die” entitled “Chicken Pot Pie”, but McCartney refused as he and his wife Linda were committed vegetarians and did not want to promote the eating of animals in any way. Also, during his famous half-time show at the 2005 Super Bowl, McCartney performed “Live and Let Die” and it was the only non-Beatles song in the set. Wings’ “Live and Let Die” was prominently used in a scene in the 2013 movie American Hustle.
While it is true that the aforementioned number one four songs on the U.S. charts were not exactly ones that a person would expect from a George Martin-produced number one hit, he had no control over which songs he was told to produce for the artists who paid him to work his magic on their recordings. That these top artists and groups sought out his expertise is a statement in itself. The magic touch of George Martin did not end with the break-up of The Beatles.