Phil Ramone: Record producer who worked with Dylan, Simon, McCartney, Sinatra and Bennett
Tuesday 02 April 2013
The record producer Phil Ramone won 14 Grammy awards, including Album of the Year for Paul Simon's Still Crazy After All These Years (1976), Billy Joel's 52nd Street (1978) and Genius Loves Company, Ray Charles' final album (2004), featuring duets with Norah Jones, Willie Nelson and Elton John, another artist with whom he enjoyed a long association. Indeed, Ramone pioneered the concept of cross-genre duets albums, pairing Frank Sinatra with Aretha Franklin, Barbra Streisand and Bono on two million-selling releases in the 1990s, recording their performances separately. He also produced a brace of Tony Bennett collections, including his duet with Amy Winehouse, "Body And Soul", her final recording, in 2011.
While some producers put such a distinctive stamp on their work that you instantly know who was behind the mixing desk, Ramone started out as an engineer and viewed his role differently: "We, as producers, are way in the back. You have to put your ego where it belongs: with the artist, with the song and with the crew that you put together."
Ramone's résumé includes such '70s classics as Paul and Linda McCartney's Ram, Bob Dylan's Blood On The Tracks and the soundtrack album for A Star Is Born. A workaholic, he sometimes had three projects on the go, juggling Joel, Simon and Stephanie Mills in 1983, the same year Joel's "Tell Her About It" replaced another of his productions, Michael Sembello's "Maniac" from the Flashdance soundtrack, at the top of the US singles charts.
So wide-ranging were his talents that a Radio 2 series devoted to him in 2005 ran to six half-hours, all the better to focus on the story of his A&R Recording studio, his stage and screen work as well as his knack for producing live events and catching a moment in the studio. "Great records are all about feel," he said, "and if it comes down to making a choice, I'll go for the take that makes me dance over a bland one with better sound."
"The Pope of Pop" was known for his bright, clean sound, heard to great effect on Hot Streets and Chicago 13, Chicago's much-sampled 1970s albums, and was an early digital adopter with Joel's 1982 album The Nylon Curtain, Sony's first CD. "I always thought of Phil Ramone as the most talented guy in my band," Joel said. "So much of my music was shaped and brought to fruition by him."
Born in South Africa, he started playing the violin at the age of three and played Lalo's Symphonie Espagnole for Princess Elizabeth at 10. After the family moved to New York he earned a scholarship to The Juilliard School. However, he found the teaching restrictive and started trying to amplify his violin and dabbling in jazz.
Following a stint as an assistant at a demo studio in New York he opened A&R in 1959 and began to handle unusual assignments, including John F Kennedy's birthday party at New York's Madison Square Garden 1962, when Marilyn Monroe famously cooed "Happy Birthday, dear President".
He engineered several hits for Lesley Gore, sparking off a lifelong friendship with her producer Quincy Jones, and in 1965 won his first Grammy, for Best Engineered Recording (non-classical) alongside producer Creed Taylor on Getz/Gilberto, the jazz-bossa nova album featuring Stan Getz, João Gilberto, and his wife Astrud singing "The Girl From Ipanema".
In 1967 he was with Burt Bacharach and Hal David when they produced Dionne Warwick's recording of "Do You Know The Way To San Jose", and the Dory and André Previn-penned "(Theme From) Valley Of The Dolls", and engineered more hits for Peter, Paul & Mary and Janis Ian. He received his first production credits at John Barry's insistence for his work on the Midnight Cowboy and On Her Majesty's Secret Service soundtracks in 1969.
By the early '70s his versatility had made him indispensable to Bacharach and David – he won the Best Musical Show Album Grammy for producing their musical Promises, Promises – and he produced Paul Simon's "Me And Julio Down By The Schoolyard" in 1972. Their association continued with There Goes Rhymin' Simon the following year, and included the 1980 album One Trick Pony and 2011's So Beautiful Or So What. He also produced Simon and Garfunkel's 1975 reunion duet "My Little Town", their The Concert In Central Park 1982 live album, and Everything But The Girl's sublime 1993 cover of Simon's "The Only Living Boy In New York".
However, his most fruitful association was with Joel, starting with The Stranger in 1977, and its breakthrough single and Grammy Record of the Year "Just The Way You Are", and encompassing the albums Glass Houses, An Innocent Man and The Bridge and the 1983 UK chart-topper "Uptown Girl". George Martin had also been under consideration in 1977; in 2002, he and Ramone teamed up to produce Party At the Palace for the Queen's Jubilee.
In 1984, Ramone produced Julian Lennon's debut Valotte, and later helmed further McCartney releases, including the "Spies Like Us" and "Once Upon A Long Ago" singles in 1987, and tracks on Ringo Starr's 1991 album Time Takes Time. The risqué solo album he produced for Karen Carpenter in 1979 and 1980 nearly gave the A&M big wigs a heart attack, but it was issued in a revised form in 1996.
This was a rare misstep for Ramone, considered a safe pair of hands; he often drew the best out of female artists like Phoebe Snow and Sinéad O'Connor, whose Am I Not Your Girl? of standards he produced in 1992. In recent years, he specialised in retro albums, producing George Michael's Songs From The Last Century (1999) and tracks for Rod Stewart's Great American Songbook series.
Ramone was arguably more innovative with his use of technology than his approach to production. He was instrumental in the development of surround sound and pioneered the EDNet fibre-optic system to record the Sinatra Duets albums in real time in different locations.
In 2000 I watched Ramone as he attempted to turn around a live album by Elton John and guests over a weekend at Madison Square Garden. When Friday night found the superstar in a dark mood, Ramone remained cool and made the most of the Saturday concert before helping John fix the odd bum note in a studio on the Sunday. The resulting One Night Only wasn't on a par with recordings he had previously supervised for John – notably the in-concert 17-11-70, and Aida, the 1999 concept album with Tim Rice – yet it was testament to his skills. "I'm there to give artists encouragement when needed," he said. "Players are like prodigies, thoroughbreds. You have to handle them with care."
Philip Ramone, record producer and engineer: born South Africa 5 January 1934; married Karen Ichiuji (three sons); died New York 30 March 2013.
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