Arif Mardin

Record producer and arranger for Aretha Franklin, Dusty Springfield, the Bee Gees and Norah Jones
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Arif Mardin, producer, arranger and record company executive: born Istanbul 15 March 1932; married (one son, one daughter); died New York 25 June 2006.

In a career lasting over 40 years, the Turkish-born record producer and arranger Arif Mardin worked with the crème de la crème of soul and pop vocalists and jazz and rock musicians. Throughout his long association with Atlantic Records, he produced the Average White Band, Phil Collins, Roberta Flack, Aretha Franklin, Hall & Oates, Donny Hathaway, Jewel, Chaka Khan, Bette Midler and the Young Rascals and also worked with artists signed to other labels such as the Bee Gees, Carly Simon and Barbra Streisand.

Mardin produced the jazzmen Eddie Harris, Herbie Mann and Jean-Luc Ponty, released two acclaimed solo albums and won 12 Grammy Awards including Album of the Year, Record of the Year and Producer of the Year twice.

As technology evolved, he developed a layered approach to recording, most in evidence on "Wood Beez (Pray Like Aretha Franklin)", the 1984 hit single by Scritti Politti. But Mardin also had a knack for putting female singers at ease in the studio and thinking outside the box as when he suggested adding a rap by Melle Mel - of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five fame - to Chaka Khan's cover of Prince's "I Feel for You". The session also involved Stevie Wonder on harmonica and eventually cost $30,000 but the single topped the UK charts and made the US Top Three in 1984.

In recent years, Mardin was one of the prime movers behind the success of the vocalist and pianist Norah Jones's multi-million-selling album Come Away With Me.

Born in Istanbul in 1932, Arif Mardin made the most of his affluent background. After attending Istanbul University, he studied at the London School of Economics in the mid-Fifties and seemed set for a career in the diplomatic service or his father's petroleum business. But he was already a big jazz fan and a budding musician. "Dizzie Gillespie came through Turkey in 1956 and it was the biggest event of my life," he recalled. "I had the chance to meet him, and he wound up playing one of my pieces and giving me some pointers."

Within two years, the newly married Mardin had become the first recipient of the Quincy Jones Scholarship at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. Following his graduation, Mardin taught at Berklee for a year; he would later become a trustee of the college and be awarded a honorary doctorate.

In 1963, the Atlantic Records co-founder Ahmet Ertegun heard one of Mardin's compositions and was so impressed that he hired him as archivist and assistant to his brother Nesuhi. Mardin thrived under the tutelage of his fellow Turks and jazz buffs and was also encouraged by the producer Jerry Wexler and the engineer Tom Dowd. He began working with the Young Rascals, the New York blue-eyed soul group led by the vocalists Felix Cavaliere and Eddie Brigati. He produced "Good Lovin' ", their 1966 US chart-topper - recorded on 8-track - and became the unofficial fifth member of the quartet who also made the Top Ten on both sides of the Atlantic with "Groovin' " in 1967.

Mardin rose from studio manager to house producer and arranger and worked with the jazz artists Sonny Stitt, Freddie Hubbard and Mose Allison. But he came into his own when, with Wexler and Dowd, he arranged and co-produced Aretha Franklin's landmark albums I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You (1967, including "Respect") and Lady Soul (1968). Mardin remained one of the soul singer's favourite producers and arrangers and worked with her until the late Eighties.

In 1969, the Dowd-Mardin-Wexler triumvirate oversaw Dusty in Memphis, now acknowledged as a classic and Dusty Springfield's best album.

Promoted to vice-president of Atlantic, Mardin produced albums by Willie Nelson, John Prine, Doug Sahm. In the mid-Seventies, he made his name with a succession of blue-eyed soul recordings for the duo Hall & Oates - the Abandoned Luncheonette album, including the US Top Ten single "She's Gone"; and the Scottish funk group the Average White Band - the dancefloor fillers "Cut the Cake", "Pick Up the Pieces", "Queen of My Soul" charted in the US and the UK.

He used the same approach when he went to Miami to record "Jive Talkin' ", "Nights on Broadway" and "Fanny (Be Tender With My Love)" which relaunched the career of the Bee Gees as the biggest act of the disco era. "I really enjoyed those sessions. I said can you take it up an octave? I always like vocalists to hurt up there," Mardin said in reference to Barry Gibb's falsetto.

Something of a perfectionist, Mardin often worked on specific tracks rather than a full-length album but, more often than not, these turned out to be the hit singles. His unique relationship with Atlantic meant he was allowed to freelance for other labels and work with everyone from Anita Baker to the Winans via David Bowie, Culture Club, Howard Jones, Patti Labelle, Queen, Leo Sayer, Ringo Starr, Dionne Warwick and even the Israeli singer Ofra Haza.

"I like layers in music that give you the feeling of distance," Mardin said when quizzed about his approach to recording:

I like having things going on in the background. You have something to define the farthest point, then things that are nearer. I like to take advantage of technology, but I don't want to be a slave to it.

Having retired as Atlantic's senior vice-president in 2001, he joined EMI's US operation and co-produced Come Away With Me, Norah Jones's début album for the Blue Note label, which has become the biggest-selling album of the new millennium. "This was a first in my career, over a million records in one week!" said Mardin, who also worked on Feels Like Home, Jones's follow-up album:

With Norah, I really felt I was back at Atlantic in the late Sixties. This had the same feeling: very organic, with musicians listening to each other and playing together, which is very rare nowadays. I'm a jazz fan, so I'm for smooth grooves.

Mardin had recently been working with Queen Latifah and had started writing his memoirs.

"In a business often driven by trend and fashion, Arif remained a true artist, a man of incredible music talent," said Ahmet Ertegun:

In contrast to many other producers, Arif did not have one sound which dominated his records. Rather, he created an environment unique to each performer, the common link being exceptional quality and taste. As a result, for over four decades, he helped singers and musicians of very different styles do the best work of their careers.

Pierre Perrone