What was the ‘secret history’ of George Martin?
The George Martin who the Beatles first met in 1962 presented as Professor Higgins to their Eliza Doolittle. With his smart suit, upper class (southern) accent and courtly manners he appeared to be what Brian Epstein described as “a stern but fair-minded schoolmaster”. They assumed that he was backed by family wealth and a private education.
Nothing was quite as it appeared.
In fact George Martin came from a very poor home. According to Kenneth Womack’s biography, Maximum Volume (2017), the cut-glass accent masked a seriously deprived background. Martin came from ‘a family that had no electricity or running water and had one gas jet.’
Nor was this ‘schoolmaster’ the product of a privileged education. Several changes of school marked his early years, though he did manage to win a scholarship to a Catholic (state) grammar school. When war broke out the children were evacuated to Welwyn Garden City but the Martin family moved to Bromley, an affluent Kent suburb.
Until this point Martin’s musical training consisted of eight piano lessons. These ended abruptly after his mother had a ‘disagreement’ with the piano teacher. At Bromley Grammar School, however, a new world opened up:
I remember the very first time I heard a symphony orchestra. I was just in my teens when Sir Adrian Boult brought the BBC Symphony Orchestra to my school for a public concert. It was absolutely magical. Hearing such glorious sounds I found it difficult to connect them with ninety men and women blowing into brass and wooden instruments or scraping away at strings with horsehair bows.
Martin left school at fifteen which at that stage ruled out a career in classical music. His first job was as an office clerk in a surveyor’s office and later he worked for the War Office. At seventeen he joined the Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm, where he became a commissioned officer.
On leaving the navy in 1947, Martin enrolled on a three year course at the Guildhall of Music, studying oboe (under Jane Asher’s mother) and piano. In addition, he taught himself numerous instruments.
After graduation, he took post in the BBC classical music department. From there he joined EMI , where he became the manager of Parlophone in 1955. When he arrived, Parlophone was primarily known as a label specialising in jazz and classical music.
Martin set about expanding its popular appeal, most notably by recording comedy records by radio stars like Peter Sellers and other members of the Goons. In 1962, the year the Beatles signed Bernard Cribbins released two singles that would become perhaps the best-loved British comedy records ever recorded: Right Said Fred and Hole in the Ground. The latter would later be chosen by Noel Coward as one of his desert island discs.
A background in producing comedy records would not have impressed George Martin’s classically trained peers. To The Beatles, however, this was a dazzling CV. Like Prince Charles, they could recite their Goons routines from memory.
They arrived at their Abbey Road audition in awe of George Martin. His more sober assessment was that that comedy was a niche market and that the label needed a stronger foothold in mainstream pop. With this in mind he had signed very popular Mrs Mills. She might have sounded like a pub pianist but she was a rising chart star, as was the young Adam Faith.
Could The Beatles build on this reputation. Martin was initially hesitant:
he wasn’t sure about some of their songs, shaggy hair, Liverpool accents, the name, their beat-up gear, abilities, studio professionalism, or their first drummer Pete Best. source
According to Womack, Martin was also uneasy for reasons rooted in his own ‘hidden’ background.
“Why would George want to align himself with the sort of guys he had been trying to get away from for so long?” source