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Farewell, Phil Ramone

| April 2, 2013 | 0 Comments


The countless accomplishments spread across Phil Ramone’s five decades in the world of music production all spring from one vital principle: He wanted you to hear what he heard.

That notion guided him through career-defining collaborations with Paul Simon and Billy Joel, and was his aim when recording the voices of Frank Sinatra, Bob Dylan, Ray Charles, Barbra Streisand, Liza Minnelli, Luciano Pavarotti, Carly Simon, Elton John and dozens more of pop’s greatest names.

It’s what brought him 14 Grammys, an Emmy and a long list of other awards. It’s what led him to pioneer new technologies like hi-definition recording, DVD, surround sound and the use of fiber optics for recording (allowing Sinatra to sing with artists in other studios in “real time” for his 1993 Duets album). Fittingly, Ramone produced the first album ever to appear on compact disc: Billy Joel’s 1978 52nd Street, released on CD in Japan in 1982. He was behind the board for Tony Bennett’s 2006 smash Duets: An American Classic, which teamed the singer with partners like Sting, Elvis Costello, Sheryl Crow, George Michael and others; it became the highest-charting album of the legendary crooner’s career upon its release.

Phil Ramone died on March 30 at the age of 79, and we mourn the loss of this brilliant musical force, supportive friend, mentor and ever-smiling face. In tribute, here is conversation Performing Songwriter had with him in 2006. Thank you for your spirit, Phil, and all the music you left us. You will be so very missed.

What was the first session you ever worked on?

I was the third kid delivering coffee on the Genius of Ray Charles record in 1959. Bill Schwartau and Tom Dowd were the engineers, and I remember watching that like a hawk. Ray was an immediate person and fussy. Whatever it was, years later, there I am sitting in the control room, doing the same job, except I was in charge [Ramone produced Charles’ final album, 2004’s Genius Loves Company]. I was very fortunate. I got trained when I was 17 years old and had a couple of guys who were very strong and impatient with me, and that really paid off early.

Like Genius Loves Company, the new Tony Bennett album is a collection of duets. You recorded Duets live in the studio, with the guest artists singing right next to Bennett. Why did you elect to do it that way?

With a live rhythm section going, you don’t sit around. You go for it. Some of the artists didn’t realize it was gonna be live with a rhythm section, and a couple of takes. People really don’t do it that way anymore. When I started in engineering, that’s the way you created your reputation—if you did a really good job, you did it fairly instantly. People were taught to do at least three songs per hour. Sounds ridiculous, but it wasn’t. I like the process to be immediate, and lot of early performances are what really count. I preach that to everybody—you don’t waste five innings of the game before you try to hit. You get out there and get the game going. You build confidence that way, you build originality.

Were the artists excited about the prospect of singing live that way, or were they nervous?

It’s kind of like you come to the playoffs, and you know you’re there for a reason. Tony certainly made them feel extremely comfortable. They knew they were standing on the platform with a winner.

How did you prepare the guests?

They had time to learn what the track was gonna be like. We said, “When you come, that’s what we’re gonna do. Please be ready.” Tony comes from a school of preparedness—before you go into that studio, you know where you’re going with it. That format really worked for everybody. Tony comes as a professional entertainer. He’s just a warm guy and takes care of business. I remember Billy Joel saying, “What style should I sing in?” I knew what was coming. Tony said, “Well, you’ve gotta be Billy Joel!”

One of the artists on the album is Paul McCartney, who’s a great producer himself. Is there extra pressure producing someone like that?

I guess it’s as if Scorsese put himself in the movie and let De Niro take a look through the camera while he was doing his part. You have to have somebody you trust in that booth.

The downside of working with the greatest voices in music must be that occasionally you’d have to be the guy who tells Frank Sinatra he needs to do another take. How do you do that?

You keep things private. I don’t like to use the loudspeaker to say, “Frank, we need another take.” If he says, “How was it?” then you have to be straight and say, “It was great, but I could use another one.” “Yeah, well, let’s do another take.” He resolves it for you. Making a mistake is not the end of the world. As the artist, you don’t need to be reminded that you just made a mistake. When the cuss words come out, I remain silent in that moment, and then say, “You wanna go back a bit, or hit one from the top?” But you have to do it, otherwise you’re just a yes-man, and then you could get really hurt because later in the editing process, you’ve got nothing.

Carly Simon once said you’re “a very good sport.” How important is that?

She did (laughs)? I hadn’t heard that. If you’re humorless, I don’t think you can do it. Sometimes, we’re all kids. You have to know when to let it out and let people feel good and whop around the room and act stupid. It is a tremendous amount of pressure, and we’re not curing anything important. I had a lot of wacky sessions with Paul Simon and Billy Joel.

You had 10-year recording relationships with both Simon and Joel. How does the producer-artist bond evolve over a period like that?

The tears and the laughter come together, because your personal life and their personal life are involved in what they’re doing and why they’re in the studio trying to sort out stuff. It’s the one place you can let go. The first Bob Dylan album I worked on was Blood on the Tracks. He’d been going through a painful experience with his personal relationship, and he just unloaded the first night, song after song. When you see that, there’s hardly any dialogue, hardly anything said to anybody.

How much do you discuss with the artist what the songs are about?

I stay away from the obvious questions—all the questions that they don’t normally like to answer when they get interviewed—and instead think about how, musically, we can make this thing work. Obviously, certain lyrics are poignant, they stick out, and you know what they’re saying. But what kind of groove can you provide for it? What’s the feel? The musical side of me comes out first. Sometimes somebody will say, “Did you understand where I was going with that lyric?” or “How did that hit you?”

What was the most difficult album to work on?

Every album experiences some hiccups. In Billy’s case, it was probably The Nylon Curtain [1982]. Paul Simon’s Still Crazy After All These Years [1975] had moments where you thought you weren’t gonna get by. There’s a rough point in recording an album, somewhere around song number four or five, where you’re trying to get the shape of the thing. That happens on almost everybody’s album.

You’ve always been ahead of the curve technologically in your pursuit of great sound. Where do you get your passion?

It’s a constant feeling that it could sound better, it could get to the public better. I never stop getting fascinated. I can’t. If I’m not sitting and working on it with people, I’m always thinking about it. It’s a neverending search for a new kind of perfection. If you could hear what I hear in the control room … I would give anything for an audience to hear that. It’s the experience. With a format like surround, I  suspect we’re only at the beginning of that.

It seems odd that audio is going in two different directions—either it’s lush, spacious surround sound or heavily compressed MP3s.

The music world has to adapt, encourage or create stuff that can be heard at every level. We have other places now that people want to hear the music we make. It’s just important that it really sounds good and not like it’s coming out of a pinhead. And it’s all available to be rethought later.

Your son, B.J., is now a producer. What’s it like to see him taking up the trade?

I keep saying to him, “You’ve got to make your statements now. This is the age of youth, we don’t ignore you.” He’s getting on the hill a bit, and I have high hopes. He’s working alongside me on certain projects, and shows all the promise that I’d love to have. The state of the art has moved. When your kid is into Pro Tools and the Windows systems, he’s way ahead of the game. Editing, fixing, using his ability.

Are there other useful pieces of knowledge young producers should have?

Being able to play is really good. I grew up around songwriters who were frustrated by producers. That brought on all the singer-songwriters who became producers, the Paul Simons of the world. But there has to be someone in the control room who translates everything you do.

Are there any pieces of gear you’ve worked with lately that you’re excited about?

There are tools like the Melodyne [pitch-shifting and time-stretching application] that can do subtle things. I’m a big believer in capturing performance and not using Auto-Tune type machines that are so heavy-handed in the hands of the wrong people. But doing a little massage on it, so that it gets a subtlety and keeps the honesty of the performance, is OK.

If somebody throws a microphone at me that I believe in, I’ll use it. I’ve had a lot of really good fortune with Audio-Technica. You just look for greater sound. If you’ve got Yamaha at your right and some JBL gear at your left, you’re not gonna go wrong.

As a child growing up in South Africa, you were a violin prodigy and even played for Queen Elizabeth II when you were 10. Do you play anymore?

(Laughs) I tried to a couple of Christmases ago, because my little nephew was learning. I pulled out an instrument I’ve owned since I was 11 and tried to show him a few things. I need to take about six months in a cabin somewhere and try to do it. I’m terrible (laughs)! It’s not like riding a bike.

When you were a kid, did you think that was what you were going to do when you grew up?

Oh, yeah. But you have a better chance of getting older gracefully in the back of the control room.

—By Chris Neal

From Dec. 2006, Issue 98

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An Interview with Phil Ramone also appears in Issue 32, Sept/Oct 1998

Cover 32





Check out other archived interviews with Music Producers & Engineers






Category: In Case You Haven't Heard

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