There they are, live and in person, flown in especially from London. A bit fleshy, slightly tan, rarely seen up close by most members of the general public. They are 82 years old now and not as strong as they once were, but still, respect must be given. After all, without them, the world of popular music as we know it — let alone world culture — would not be the same.
They are Sir George Martin’s ears. Clamped closely to the beknighted head and cradling skin-hued hearing aids, they make a subtle, dignified statement; from the side, one notices that the lobes are attached. A recessive trait and, according to Gypsy lore, a sign of high artistic talent.
In this case, the Gypsies must be right. It’s a long way from Abbey Road to Figueroa Street, but that’s where Sir George, the most successful producer in history according to Guinness World Records, has come to receive the Grammy Foundation Leadership Award, to be bestowed in the McCarthy Quad on the USC campus during the annual Starry Night benefit concert.
Though the sky tonight will offer naught but cloud clumps and a half-moon, the afternoon red carpet supplies plenty of terra firma stars, the real attraction for folks who shelled out from $25,000 for a Celestial table to $750 for a basic ticket. Now, you can’t swing a dead cat in L.A. — or, in the case of a PETA benefit, gently hold aloft a happily purring feline — without hitting a red carpet, but the list of Martin patrons (many of whom will be performing) is exceptional and unusual: Jeff Beck, Sir Tom Jones, Yoko Ono, Burt Bacharach, Jimmy Webb, Jeff Lynne and the Quiet Beatle’s widow, Olivia Harrison, among others.
Yes, musicians, not actors. Bona fide talent.
The carpet itself is set up in front of the Cecile & Michael C. Birnkrant Residence Hall, eight stories of freshmen film and music students. Rare is a school that can give its Stars of Tomorrow a visual lesson in the kind of attention they (or some tiny fraction of them, probably) can expect once their show-biz ship comes in; a couple dozen summer-school Trojan teens gaze at the scene from the massive dorm lobby window.
Do they know who George Martin is?
“Yeah! Sir George Martin,” corrects a boy named Quenton Stuckey, who’s 17. “I grew up on the Beatles. My parents played them all the time.”
“We’re gonna see Yoko Ono,” chimes in Mer Reed, also 17. “She’s a big deal to us.”
“She ruined the Beatles!” says Quenton.
Lamont Dozier is an early arrival. Along with the Holland brothers, he wrote some of the biggest of the Motown hits, singles that defined a generation, and define soundtracks for movies about defining a generation. Reporters on the carpet barely seem to know who he is. A large, robust man — “They’re beating me at the gym like I stole somethin’!” is how he describes his workouts — Dozier was and is a devout Beatles/Martin fan with an admitted jealous streak.
“Oh, yeah, I’m the type of guy who talks to the muses: ‘Damn, man, why didn’t you give me that one?’ ‘The Long and Winding Road,’ ‘Here, There and Everywhere’ — I love that stuff. With so many of their songs, I’d always get that feeling of, Why didn’t I write that?”
Moments later, one hopes there are no epileptics around, as the cameras start strobing like crazy. It’s all for Yoko Ono, petite and dainty and looking pretty much like Yoko Ono. At 75, the much-maligned lady is hanging tough, clad in black with a white hat, showing cleavage that frames a small, diamond-encrusted peace-sign necklace.
Yoko, like everyone else here, says wonderful things about Sir George.
“I think he had a sense of the period,” she says quietly, “in what was going on with the world, as well as in music, he had this feeling of what could be so good at the time.”
For no good reason, I ask if she’d ever record a few country songs. She laughs a laugh like spring water cascading onto small stones down a peaceful brook.
“Country music? Oh, let me think about that.”
And then along comes Jones. Sir Tom Jones. Inches away. Big, ruddy face. Big, white teeth. Deep blue eyes that fix on yours, eyes that have brought armies of women to their knees, eyes that can make a grown man wish he had eyes with that kind of power. And, what’s that? A whiff of cologne? Some expensive musk perhaps, or is it just the way God made Tom Jones smell?
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“I know what the Beatles were doing before they met him, and that was ’50s American rock & roll, like I was,” bellows the fabled Welshman. “And I think George Martin brought stuff out of them they didn’t know they had. He’s a remarkable musician with a great sense of humor too.”
Is Jones’ onstage job easier these days, now that panties are smaller? There’s the expansive flash of pearly teeth. He laughs a laugh that sounds like three backhoes destroying stones in a peaceful brook.
“Exactly. Oh yes. A lot easier.”
And here is the man himself, Sir George. Dapper, elegant, tall even with a slight stoop. A chap worthy of tribute, indeed. Remember, he didn’t just record the Beatles, he signed them after every label in England had passed. He gets closer, closer, and ambles by, no time for questions, nothing to say to the mass of press. But the ears, from their decisions on close to six decades of producing music that transcends the hackneyed “soundtrack of our lives” phrase — simply because it’s true — the ears speak for themselves.