The multiple Grammy-winning producer, 79, died on Saturday, leaving behind a legacy of song from artists ranging from Barbra Streisand to Paul McCartney, Barry Manilow to The Band. Yet unlike so many of his contemporaries, Phil Ramone didn’t have a signature style. Instead of molding a band or singer to a preferred sonic specialty, he was a true architect of sound, tailoring each production to the individual artist. Ramone was equally comfortable with pop, rock, jazz, R&B, and the worlds of Broadway and Hollywood, not to mention classical – the genre in which Ramone started his love affair with music, as a Juilliard-trained violin prodigy.
Phil Ramone modestly titled his 2007 memoir Making Records, because that’s precisely what he did, from the day he and partner Jack Arnold opened the doors of New York’s A&R Studios in 1959. Prior to that, he had been mentored by Charles Leighton at JAC Recording. At A&R, Ramone perfected the art of engineering. He earned his first Grammy for Stan Getz and Joao Gilberto’s immortal Getz/Gilberto, and soon A&R was the preferred destination for producers Burt Bacharach and Hal David to craft their movies-in-miniature with Dionne Warwick. Ramone’s eclectic C.V. as an engineer and later, producer, took in pop princesses (Lesley Gore), folkies (Peter, Paul and Mary), jazz legends (Tony Bennett), superstars (Barbra Streisand), Beatles (Paul McCartney), Geniuses (Ray Charles), and Chairmen (Frank Sinatra), as well as everyone in between.
Chicago, Phoebe Snow, Kenny Loggins, Carly Simon, B.J. Thomas, Liza Minnelli, Rod Stewart, and of course, Paul Simon and Billy Joel all logged studio time with Phil Ramone at the console. With Simon, Ramone helmed such beloved albums as There Goes Rhymin’ Simon and Still Crazy After All These Years, still cornerstones of the singer-songwriter’s catalogue. With Joel, Ramone embarked on a seven-album, nine-year partnership that remains one of the most successful in rock history. The duo also hold a place in the history books, as Joel’s 52nd Street, produced by Ramone, became the first commercially released compact disc when it hit stores in Japan on October 1, 1982.
To every project, Ramone brought an understated, subtle touch of class that squarely put the emphasis on music and sound: making each musician and singer’s contribution heard, cleanly and resonantly. Even a partial list of songs with Ramone’s involvement is staggering: “Times of Your Life,” “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head,” “It Never Rains in Southern California,” “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey,” “Evergreen (Love Theme from A Star is Born),” “Loves Me Like a Rock,” “Just the Way You Are,” “Afternoon Delight,” “Poetry Man,” “If You Could Read My Mind,” “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” “Maniac.”
Phil Ramone could have ushered in 2013 basking in the glow of acclaimed recent albums from Dionne Warwick and Tony Bennett, but he remained active. At the time of his death, he was working on a variety of characteristically diverse projects with artists such as George Michael and Glee star Matthew Morrison. Bette Midler eulogized him as “kind beyond words,” echoing the sentiments of so many others. Ben Folds called him “brilliant, generous, talented,” while Tony Bennett noted his “wonderful sense of humor and deep love of music.” To celebrate the career of the legendary Phil Ramone, Mike and I have each contributed a playlist of ten favorite projects on which he worked. These aren’t necessarily his most significant, or his most famous, though some might indeed be. Taken together, they simply represent twenty slices of the versatility, dynamism and sheer hallmark of quality that made Phil Ramone an in-demand talent, and sympathetic collaborator of so many, for over fifty years.
If there’s a rock-and-roll heaven, you know they’ve got one helluva band, true. But now there’s one helluva producer sitting at the desk.
Hit the jump for two interactive Phil Ramone Top 10s!
Joe Remembers Phil Ramone
Promises, Promises Overture (United Artists, 1968): In just under four minutes of pure adrenaline, engineer Ramone captured the brassy originality of Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s score. It was a sound – and a sound system – that was unlike anything ever heard on Broadway before, and Phil Ramone’s work on the original cast recording (excitingly given a new coat of paint by the Kritzerland label in 2010) preserved its blend of pop and theatrical savvy for generations of listeners to come. The album snagged Ramone a Grammy Award.
Julian Lennon, “Too Late for Goodbyes” (Atlantic, 1984): Ramone produced this irresistible slice of pop from Beatle scion Julian Lennon in which the son carried on the father’s sound and style. The throwback “Too Late for Goodbyes” from Valotte honored the past but scored a hit in the electronic-dominated eighties, a testament to the song, its singer and its production.
Billy Joel, “Leave a Tender Moment Alone” (Columbia, 1983): Ramone’s remarkable partnership with Billy Joel over the course of seven albums brought out the best in both men, with the producer proving adaptable to each one of Joel’s Tin Pan Alley-meets-rock moods. On An Innocent Man, Joel paid homage to the days of doo-wop and pre-Beatles rock and roll. He could be Little Anthony or Frankie Valli, with Ramone as his Teddy Randazzo or Bob Gaudio. This underrated 1983 pop-R&B gem (a sentimental favorite of this writer since its original release on 45!) features the great Toots Thielemans on harmonica and Joel at his most vocally persuasive.
Carly Simon, “The Wives Are In Connecticut” (Epic, 1985): Reviewing Hot Shot Records’ 2012 reissue of Carly Simon’s Spoiled Girl, I called this Ramone-produced track “a fiendishly clever piece of songcraft about some philandering fellow who also suspects his wife of infidelity, cataloguing her possible conquests in his mind. With a tricky melody and sly lyric, it’s an ‘art song’ every bit as striking as [Simon’s earlier] ‘The Carter Family’ or ‘His Friends Are More Than Fond of Robin.’” Ramone himself described the song as “the biggest piece of salt ever poured on a wound.” Indeed, it’s a singular song that a singular producer was able to palatably bring to life.
Karen Carpenter, “Still Crazy After All These Years” (A&M, 1980/1996): When Karen Carpenter struck out on her own as brother Richard was battling his own personal demons, Phil Ramone was tasked with reinventing her outside of Richard’s shadow. He surrounded Carpenter’s pristine, angelic voice with some of New York’s finest session aces, and although the album was shelved until 1996, it had nothing to do with the quality of Ramone and Carpenter’s work together. Karen’s vocal is confident, sly and earthy on this Paul Simon hit, even if she substituted “crashed out” for “crapped out” in the lyric!
Bob Dylan, “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go” (Columbia, 1975): Phil Ramone was engineering at A&R Studios for the initial Blood on the Tracks sessions, from which five songs made the final album. One of those songs was “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go,” a perfect blend of literary references, offbeat imagery, lyrical poetry and simple tenderness that only Dylan could have written, and only Ramone could have engineered so exquisitely. He returned to the album decades later to oversee Sony’s surround sound mix of the original album.
Dusty Springfield, “The Look of Love” (Colgems, 1967): It’s been said that the original LP of the Casino Royale soundtrack is one of the best-sounding albums of all time, and that purity of sound is due in no small part to Phil Ramone. Among their other accomplishments on the album, he and Burt Bacharach guided the ever-sensual Dusty Springfield to one of her most soulful, sultry performances with the original soundtrack version of the Oscar-nominated “The Look of Love.” Ramone, Bacharach and David created another iconic film song when they reunited for B.J. Thomas’ “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head.”
Gwen Verdon, “Roxie” (from the musical Chicago) (Arista, 1975): In later years, Ramone produced a number of Broadway cast recordings by composers including Stephen Sondheim, such as the Grammy-winning Passion. Of Sondheim, he wrote, “Only Burt Bacharach’s rhythmic complexities compare to Sondheim’s.” But long before, he was selected to produce this Arista Records cast recording of the brassy John Kander/Fred Ebb/Bob Fosse musical Chicago. For this track, he smartly captured not just the song “Roxie,” but much of its introductory monologue, with the inimitable singer-dancer-comedienne-actress Gwen Verdon at her best. Both heartbreaking and funny, Verdon gets to deliver confessions such as this choice one from Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse’s book: “Anyway, to make a long story short, I started foolin’ around…Then I started screwin’ around…which is foolin’ around without dinner!”
Stan Getz and Joao Gilberto featuring Astrud Gilberto, “The Girl from Ipanema” (Verve, 1964): Sure, it’s an obvious choice, but this Ramone-engineered recording ignited the bossa nova revolution in beguiling style. He also earned his first of fourteen Grammys for the Getz/Gilberto album. Though recorded in New York, it transports listeners to a fantasy beach where tall and tan and young and lovely gals linger in the memory.
Paul Simon, “The Afterlife” (Hear Music, 2011): Paul Simon made headlines when he reunited with Ramone for So Beautiful or So What, his twelfth studio album. Ramone had deservedly picked up a Grammy helming the Simon classic Still Crazy After All These Years and also made sweet music with Simon’s former partner Art Garfunkel in his solo career. As co-producers on So Beautiful, Simon and Ramone crafted an inspired collection that was the songwriter’s most consistent and entertaining in years. This quirky story-song is just one of its gems.
Mike Remembers Phil Ramone
Boiling the career of Phil Ramone down to just 10 tracks was impossible – not the least of which because his passing hit me far harder than I’d anticipated. So much of his greatness lies spread between two sides of 12″ vinyl or across a set of compact discs. But there were also some singular achievements – particularly lesser-noted ones, or even things he was far less involved on than the works of Paul Simon or Billy Joel – that deserve a place in the sun. So I compromised: here are five great albums Ramone played a part in, and another five great songs. I hope our treasured readers either recall a favorite of theirs from our lists, or maybe even come away with some new ones.
Ben E. King, “Spanish Harlem” (ATCO, 1960): Phil Ramone’s work in the producer’s chair or behind the mixing board was always characterized by immaculateness, never too ornate but never lacking for warmth. An early example was as an uncredited engineer on Ben E. King’s hit single “Spanish Harlem.” (He finally received due credit in the liner notes to the famed Phil Spector box set Back to Mono.) The young engineer had to balance an impassioned vocal by King on a catchy tune penned by Jerry Leiber and Spector, the production of Leiber and Mike Stoller and a lush string section at the boards – and he did so with grace.
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service Soundtrack (United Artists, 1967): Ramone was the album producer for arguably the greatest soundtrack to a James Bond film. Bursting with colorful arrangements and gorgeous melodies by John Barry, from the Louis Armstrong-sung “We Have All the Time in the World” to the brassy instrumental title track, OHMSS is still the Bond soundtrack album by which all others are judged.
Phoebe Snow, “Poetry Man” (Shelter, 1974): if Paul Simon’s There Goes Rhymin’ Simon was one of the first major works of Ramone as producer, this heartfelt gem by Phoebe Snow (on which Ramone received a co-production credit) proved that his talents behind the boards were something audiences were going to want to stand up and take notice of as the decade moved on.
Paul Simon, “Late in the Evening” (Warner Bros., 1980): arguably the bridge between Simon’s early great solo work (most produced by Ramone) and the worldly hits from Graceland, Ramone oversees a typically strong Simon lyric and melody, bolstered by that insistent bass hook, dashing percussion and an exuberant blast of horns.
Billy Joel, Glass Houses (Columbia, 1980): fewer collaborations in Ramone’s career were more serendipitous than his stretch of production for Billy Joel, from 1977’s The Stranger to 1986’s The Bridge. Ramone bought that warmth to Joel’s evocative songs and road-tested arrangements (played in studio by his ace touring band), but the genius of the partnership is how many styles the pair could dabble in. After two back-to-back smashes with stately, almost jazzy pop (The Stranger and 1978’s 52nd Street), Joel and Ramone tackled New Wave with the immensely entertaining Glass Houses, the closest Joel ever got to sounding – dare we say it? – hip.
Billy Joel, The Nylon Curtain (Columbia, 1982): And then Joel and Ramone’s next studio outing was one of their most adventurous. The Nylon Curtain was melodically bright but also lyrically astute; “Allentown” and “Goodnight Saigon” tackled big issues like poverty and postwar anxiety, while “Laura,” “She’s Right on Time” and “Surprises” tapped into some of the nerviest, emotionally raw ideas Joel ever committed to tape.
Michael Sembello, “Maniac” (Casablanca, 1983): as a producer, Ramone didn’t let mainstream pop success get in the way of working on films, and his musical supervision on the soundtrack to Flashdance set a high bar for pop albums that tied into movies. Ramone produced one of the album’s biggest cuts, the propulsive dance track “Maniac,” a smash for noted session guitarist Sembello.
Vision Quest Soundtrack (Geffen, 1985): though Ramone didn’t produce a track on this album – one of many soundtracks that’s long eclipsed the film it’s inspired by – he was the film’s musical director. And that, in turn, gave us two of the best soundtrack gems of the ’80s: the Top 10 hit “Only the Young” by Journey and the smash ballad “Crazy for You,” one of the strongest early vocal performances by rising superstar Madonna, whom Ramone convinced to contribute to the album.
Burt Bacharach, One Amazing Night (Attic, 1998): Phil Ramone cut his teeth as an engineer, and wasn’t above working out mixes for top performances even as his name became synonymous with great production. Case in point: this intriguing multi-artist live show paying respect to the iconic songwriter, with whom Ramone had collaborated on many of his ’70s solo albums. Familiar and celebrated collaborators (Dionne Warwick, Elvis Costello) rubbed elbows with left-field tributes (Mike Myers’ take on “What’s New Pussycat?” in Austin Powers mode, Ben Folds Five bringing their piano-punk to “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head”), and Ramone’s mix kept the whole thing sounding as warm and fresh as any of Bacharach’s classics.
“Body and Soul” – Tony Bennett & Amy Winehouse (Columbia, 2011): Ramone’s clean, jazzy sensibilities were, for better or worse, the perfect fit for a lot of early-’00s comebacks for staid acts (we’re looking at you, Rod Stewart’s Great American Songbook series). Perhaps the last, best word on that subgenre would be this lauded cut from Tony Bennett’s Duets II, featuring a beloved jazz standard tackled by an old pro and a rising star. Alas, the sad story of Amy Winehouse’s drug-aided demise is too well-known, but this, her last gasp of unbridled brilliance in the studio, is a significant coda to that too-short career. And Phil Ramone was the one to capture it for an adoring public.