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George Martin was the Head Beatle

A decade or so ago, my family and I were at Joe’s Crab Shack for a birthday dinner. Abby, my oldest daughter, couldn’t have been more than 9 or 10. At some point during the meal, “It Don’t Come Easy” started playing on the radio.

“Wait, that’s Ringo Starr singing, isn’t it?” Abby said.

As a parent, I have tried to educate my children to appreciate the finer things in life. That means taking them down to the Shakespeare Festival in Cedar City every summer, repeatedly watching the even-numbered original Star Trek movies, and training them to identify which Beatle is singing lead on every one of their songs. So when Abby recognized Ringo’s voice, even on one of his solo recordings, I knew I was a success as a father.

Just before I started writing this column, Abby, now a freshman at Brigham Young University, texted me to tell me that legendary Beatles producer George Martin had passed away at the age of 90. About the same time Abby was grooving to Ringo’s tunes at Joe’s Crab Shack, Martin was completing his final contribution to the Beatles' musical library. For the 2006 soundtrack to the Cirque du Soleil Beatles show “Love,” Martin wrote a perfect string arrangement to accompany a George Harrison demo version of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” It’s perhaps the most beautiful moment in the show, and it’s a poignant capstone to the indelible mark that Martin has left on the world.

Just as it is impossible to overstate the impact of the Beatles’ music on the culture at large, it is impossible to overstate the impact of Martin on the Beatles’ music. He is often referred to as the “Fifth Beatle,” but that’s not quite right. He was more than just one of the gang; he was the Head Beatle, the grown-up in the room who pushed the four headstrong young lads to live up to their potential. Without Martin to guide them, the Fab Four would have been indistinguishable from other ’60s boy bands like The Turtles or Herman’s Hermits. But Martin led them toward a far grander vision.

Consider “Yesterday,” which has become the most-recorded song in history, according to Rolling Stone. The Telegraph reports that Paul McCartney came into the studio with a melody that had come to him in a dream, but he had no lyrics to go along with it. (His working title for the song was “Scrambled Eggs,” and the first line he had come up with was “Scrambled Eggs / Oh my baby how I love your legs.”) It was Martin who, despite some initial reluctance from McCartney, shaped this tune into the classic that it is, arranging and recording a string quartet that fashioned the song into something that sounded wholly different from anything else the Beatles had recorded to that point. By imagining something beyond the typical pop music of the day, Martin expanded the horizons of what the Beatles could be.

Shortly after Martin's death, Paul McCartney wrote a tribute to Martin on Facebook, referring to Martin as “the most generous, intelligent and musical person I've ever had the pleasure to know” and a “second father to me.” That would make him a brother to Martin’s son, Giles, who took over the primary responsibility for producing “Love” when his father’s hearing loss made it impossible for the elder Martin to continue. But despite his hearing loss, George Martin was still able to arrange that final string quartet and make one last lovely addition to the Beatles' catalog. I imagine it as something akin to Beethoven composing his Symphony No. 9 despite being totally deaf. The comparison seems appropriate, as Martin's legacy will endure alongside all of the great composers of the ages.

Jim Bennett is a recovering actor, theater producer and politico, and he writes about pop culture and politics at his blog, stallioncornell.com.