George Martin, 1926–2016.
In the summer of 1971, I got a lift to Marblehead, Massachusetts, to audition for George Martin. It wasn’t my idea. I wasn’t ready; musically I was barely ambulatory, but my friend Dick Shapiro had dropped out of school a few months earlier and landed a gig with a mobile recording service who’d set up shop in an old house on the Cape to record Seatrain. George Martin was producing, and had agreed to see me.
When Martin walked in, he filled the room. He was trim and neatly pressed, gracious, with just a hint of malice behind his poise, like an assistant principal making a surprise visit to the classroom. I got the sense that he’d rather be sharpening pencils.
The room was in shadow, curtains still half drawn, though outside the window the sun was shining and pretty girls in kerchiefs were digging in the garden by the porch.
Martin looked me over and in a glance assigned me to the children’s table. It happened as quickly as that.
“Most of the time you know way before someone plays a note,” a label executive once told me. “Someone walks in the room and … just the way they carry themselves, the way they move, the light in their eyes or the way they take you in. You know if they’ve got it. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred. Have I ever been surprised? Hell, yeah! This one time I had an artist walk into my office, and instantly I felt that this was someone special. Instantly. The way his hair fell over his eyes, this sort of bad-boy smirk, and I noticed that his jeans were badly torn, but his boots were neatly polished. There was a sense of careless decadence about him that was so cool that I was instantly designing the album cover in my head, I could already see the marketing campaign. It was that close. And then he pulled out a guitar and started to screech in this high, girly voice, like Tiny Tim with anger issues. It was terrible. I think I peed my pants.”
Martin listened politely as I worked my way through a couple of songs. And then he nodded and held his hand up.
“I think a cello would be good. Something low, under your singing.
“You should stay away from flutes,” he advised, like a doctor warning a patient about carbonated beverages. “You have an interesting voice … ”
I brightened and looked up expectantly.
“Not necessarily a good voice,” he cautioned. “But interesting. Avoid double tracking it. It’ll smooth out all the edges.”
“But with the Beatles … ”
“Well, yes, with George early on. Of course. We had to do something.”
“John? ‘No Reply’? ‘Every Little Thing’?”
“Oh John’s always hated the sound of his voice. He’ll do anything to disguise it. Wants to sound like the Dalai Lama on the moon or a man inside a vacuum cleaner.”
“And Paul? ‘I’m Looking Through You’?”
“Oh, they were calling the shots by then. Their call. Have you heard his solo record? No effects. So simple. So good to hear his voice like that.”
He nodded, and I stood up to put my guitar away. As I did, a few coins fell out of my pocket and clattered to the floor. I bent down to pick them up.
“Wait,” George Martin smiled. It was the first time I had seen him smile. “Listen. You can still hear it.”
A light metallic sound was hanging in the air.
“See? The record isn’t over yet,” he smiled. And then he walked out of the room.
Brian Cullman is a writer and musician living in New York City.