Featured Column: Remembering Phil Ramone
In My Life
Anyone of us who ever played sports for a team, be it Little League, Pop Warner, High School, College and probably the Pro’s as well, has at one time or another heard their coach say “There’s no “I” in team.” Athletes and coaches come and go, but on some sideline, in some gym and on some playing field, the one constant that we can all be sure of is that the coach will point to that phrase to underscore the meaning of the team working together.
A football team is comprised on eleven players on the field. Highly unlikely a team with an all-star quarterback can win every game if his receivers can’t catch the thrown ball. Don’t care if your basketball team has Kobe Bryant. If he doesn’t have four really good players around him, there will be more losses than wins. And no matter how spectacular the baseball pitcher may be, he only pitches on every fourth day, which leaves three other days for the less spectacular players to try and win some games together.
There are many talented musicians in this world. We hear them on radio, see them in concerts and actively buy their music. And for every artist you have heard, there is ten more standing behind them looking for their big break. We see them performing on the streets, on subways and in our parks. In many cases, these street performers are as good, if not better than some of the famous names we know, but for whatever reason these folks have just not made the right connections to guide them and achieve stardom.
I have always felt that however great the Beatles were, their producer George Martin made them even better. Producers like T-Bone Burnett, Bryan Eno, Rick Rubin, Jerry Wexler, Daniel Lanois, Clive Davis, Shel Talmy, Phil Spector and Holland-Dozier-Holland used their production talents that elevated the level of performance by some very talented people that took those recordings from excellent to extraordinary. A savvy record producer is able to coax the best musical performance from an artist, while at the same time giving that artist an environment that exudes confidence. In essence, the team making the music is headed by the artist, but the producer coordinates the artist, studio, selection of material, appropriate microphones strategically placed and whatever else is needed to complete the project.
For me, the producer that stands proudly with the above mentioned group of record producers is Phil Ramone. Phil died in New York last month at the age of 79. He was the guy whose name on a record jacket meant that the recording you were about to buy was of the highest musical quality.
In addition to making sure that the proper microphones are strategically placed in the studio, the record producer is counted on to make the recording process less stressful for the artist so that within a collaborative atmosphere, the best possible musical performance can be captured. In all the interviews I have ever seen about Phil, mega stars like Quincy Jones, Barbra Streisand, Paul McCartney and Billy Joel speak about him in the most glowing of terms both as a musician, confidant and a good person. Certainly he had a rare confluence of virtues in a business not known for many people with all those attributes.
What’s even more remarkable about Phil is that his work covered most musical genres’. Be it jazz with John Coltrane and Quincy Jones, pop with Barbara Streisand, Tony Bennett and Burt Bacharach, Broadway shows like Promises, Promises, folk with Bob Dylan and Paul Simon, R&B with Donnie Hathaway and Ray Charles or rock with Billy Joel, Paul McCartney and Julian Lennon, the finished product was always of the highest quality. What’s amazing is that he could successfully work with new artists like Joss Stone while at the same time gracefully ease into work with music veterans like Ray Charles.
When Julian Lennon’s first album was released, I grimaced to myself and initially thought that this was just another record by the son of a famous person. How could this record be any good, I thought. In the record store, I read the back cover and discovered that Phil was the producer. I bought the record based on Phil and to this day, it’s still one of my favorite records. The tunes are excellent, Julian’s voice is perfectly recorded and the separation of the music on the speakers simply makes for a well produced album.
I looked in my record collection and to no surprise; I have 43 albums that were produced by Phil. Moreover, many of those albums consistently remain favorites of mine. Naturally, the Billy Joel albums will always be special, but there is one that I particularly like even though it took years to be released. I have an album in which Karen Carpenter appears without her brother. The song selection on this solo album was a radical departure from the tunes previously sung by The Carpenters. Upon completion of the album, the record company opted not to release it. The reasoning given for holding the release was that the songs were too radical a departure in style and subject matter and they did not want to alienate Carpenters’ fans. Tragically, Karen died far too young and well before this album was released, but this project is a legacy to her incredible voice and showed that under the guidance of producer like Phil Ramone, her musical chops could reach an even higher level.
With the passing of Phil Ramone, the business of music lost a true artist. I will always be grateful for the music he produced and the enormous influence he had over the years while collecting 14 Grammy awards.