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Music

The five best George Martin singles produced outside of The Beatles

Sir George Martin will be remembered for his contributions to The Beatles, and rightly so. From the barrelling piano lines on ‘Good Day Sunshine’ and ‘In My Life’, to the off-kilter arrangements he brought to John Lennon classics ‘A Day In The Life’ and ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’, Martin was their most loyal friend and greatest collaborator. But there was more to Martin than The Beatles, and this piece shows a selection of formidable songs he helped create that stand with many of the best tracks The Beatles released.

He was a trained musician, a classical pianist, a pensive collaborator and a deeply spiritual man, searching for that ultimate chord, the one that will bring the tune to greater plains. He was eager to work with musicians who were committed to their work and thrived in a web of originality and ingenuity. What he brought to the recordings wasn’t authority, but assistance, assurance and integrity, helping the musicians feel safe in their nest.

Indeed, Paul McCartney wrote much of his best solo work with Martin, from the sprawling ‘Live and Let Die’ to the shimmering, chiming chords of ‘Here Today’. But McCartney can never escape his moniker as an ex Beatle, and he wouldn’t have continued to work with Martin but for the tremendous work they made together in the 1960s.

For the sake of this list, we won’t be including any of the work McCartney and Martin did together, but we will look at the work Martin did with other artists, some of them recorded in conjunction with The Beatles’ output. From the soaring, searing vocals that were heard on Shirley Bassey’s work, to the pastoral wilderness of America, every song featured stellar contributions from the venerable producer, who was deserted for his work during the 1990s.

Five George Martin singles produced outside of The Beatles:

‘Nellie the Elephant’ – Mandy Miller

This whimsical novelty song was always destined to become a children’s favourite, particularly because of the jaunty brass line, and Mandy Miller’s spirited vocal performance. Lushly produced, the tune is embellished by a stirring orchestral line, earmarking a new form of production design that was sophisticated for the 1950s. The tune has colonialistic undertones that date the song, but the production design still sounds impressive, and may have inspired The Beatles to write children’s fodder ‘Yellow Submarine’ and ‘Goodnight’.

Martin avoids Phil Spector’s trick and lets the strings wash gently over the tune, never forgetting that it is the singer, not the style, that deserves the attention. And although the tune isn’t particularly long, it does hold enough of a running time to let other vocalists chime into the song with deserved ease.

‘I (Who Have Nothing)’ – Shirley Bassey

Shirley Bassey’s version of the tune came hot on the heels of Tom Jones’ spirited version of the song, and while it doesn’t necessarily improve on the song, it’s safe to say it matches it. Bassey’s voice ricochets from the sidelines, culminating in a vocal delivery that is only shaded away from operatic. But while she sings, Bassey is clearly keeping her eyes on Martin, steering the vocal with the might of a conductor keeping his horns, drums and strings intact.

The production holds one of Bassey’s most animated vocal deliveries, as she dives from a whisper to boisterous, even brusque, screams during the chorus line. The pair worked together on a number of projects, including the seminal James Bond number ‘Goldfinger’. Fittingly, Bassey ended up recording two other Bond songs: ‘Diamonds Are Forever’ and ‘Moonraker’.

‘Sister Golden Hair’ – America

George Martin always felt he undervalued George Harrison‘s contributions to The Beatles, favouring the works of bandleaders John Lennon and Paul McCartney, and this might explain why ‘Sister Golden Hair’ sounds so distinctly Harrisonesque. OK, it might not be his mea culpa, but it was Martin’s way of showing that he respected the junior Beatle songwriter in his own idiosyncratic way.

The tune featured on America’s Hearts, which was one of the last to feature keyboardist Dan Peek. The tune was an unusually personal one for the band, leading Gerry Beckley to say, “So all of our songs, including ‘Horse,’ are open to interpretation. But ‘Sister’ was a relationship song and there is a variety of elements. We always combine them as songwriters so that they’re not verbatim, word for word, for a particular circumstance. Poetic license we call it.”

‘The Highwayman’ – Jimmy Webb

“I called George Martin, who was in America,” songwriter Jimmy Webb remembered. “It was very weird, because I was in England calling George Martin who was in America, saying, ‘Hey, George, I wonder if we could get this song on our album.’ Because we were right at the end of our album. And he really liked it and wanted to do it.” Good thing that he did, because the song is the undisputed highlight of El Mirage, a punchy 1970s record that was otherwise too reliant on the cliches of the era.

Written as an ode to England, the tune finds the veteran songwriter in strangely forlorn mode, combining his passion for Al Stewart melding with his interest in soul and celebrity. ‘The Highwayman’ is a gently lyrical tune, and is made all the better for the sparse, scintillating production style.

‘The Reason’ – Celine Dion

Martin’s status was rising in the 1990s, not least because virtually every Britpop band of the era seemed to nick from his production design. But his most important song from the decade wasn’t a rock tune – wasn’t invited to produce The Beatles’ ‘Free As a Bird’ – but a shimmering power ballad that was issued in France as a double A-side with Celine Dion’s ‘My Heart Will Go On’. As it happens, Martin’s song was a superior ballad, and he was deservedly awarded a co-writing credit on the finished piece.

The tune features one of Dion’s dynamic vocals, as she allows herself to float into the ambience and backdrop. As it happens, the song also boasts one of the singer’s most engaging vocals she recorded in English. And nowhere is it more evident than it is on the sparkling coda. Gorgeous.