The outpouring of affection that followed news of the death of producer/engineer Phil Ramone told a unique story about the character of a leading light in the field of recording. He was beloved by all who worked with him, whether their connection was in the early '60s, when he was deep in the world of jazz; in the '70s and '80s, when he became the "pope of pop"; or in more recent years, when his work with Ray Charles won six Grammy Awards and he produced "Glee" star Matthew Morrison.
Much as Ramone affected people's lives from behind the glass in recording studios and through his forward-thinking approach to technology, his storytelling, jokes and companionship set him apart from so many others in the field. Ramone died March 30 in New York at the age of 79.
Legends across the pop music spectrum reacted almost in unison, praising him as a friend and mentor. Billy Joel, whose breakthrough came when Ramone worked with him on albums like "The Stranger" and "52nd Street," noted that "so much of my music was shaped by him and brought to fruition by him." Paul McCartney, who recorded the single "Another Day" and the album "Ram" with Ramone, said in a statement, "He was a very sweet man who combined this with expert knowledge of both engineering and production." Barbra Streisand, who began working with Ramone in 1967, pointed out that "Phil had impeccable musical taste, great ears and the most gentle way of bringing out the best in all the artists he worked with. The monumental recordings he produced will endure for all time."
"Whenever I was in the studio recording, if Phil wasn't there by my side, it would seem like one ingredient was missing," said Quincy Jones, whose relationship with Ramone dates back 50 years. "We lost one of the true musicians, innovators and geniuses of the record industry. His immense talents were only surpassed by the gigantic size of his heart."
A violin prodigy, Ramone's musical instincts earned him a trust among other recording artists, many of whom praised him for recording innovations and his patience in the studio, where he had concentrated his efforts beginning in the late '50s. In 1959, he opened his A&R Studios in New York and, during the next decade, developed a reputation as one of the city's premiere engineers, working with Jones, Streisand, Burt Bacharach, Dionne Warwick and such notable jazz musicians as John Coltrane.
His first Grammy win came in 1964 for engineering the breakthrough bossa nova album "Getz/Gilberto," and by looking at the 14 Grammys he won, the artistic and stylistic breadth of his work is evident. He received three album of the year trophies, starting with Paul Simon's "Still Crazy After All These Years" in 1975. Joel's "52nd Street," with an album cover shot at the entrance to Ramone's studio, won in 1979, and Charles' 2005 disc "Genius Loves Company" earned him his third and also won for surround sound in the category's first year. He was named producer of the year in 1980.
"One of the most important things for [Ramone] was the belief that if you can capture emotion and the human experience behind a song, it takes music to a level of communication," says Concord Records head of A&R John Burk, who co-produced the Charles album. "He was great at knowing when that was happening."
Ramone spent the '60s engineering jazz albums like Coltrane's "Ole Coltrane," and in the middle of the decade he moved toward the pop realm, working with Bacharach, Warwick and Frank Sinatra. He earned his first production credit on Bacharach's 1969 album "Make It Easy on Yourself," a follow-up to their association that began with the Broadway musical "Promises, Promises."
As an engineer and producer in the '70s, he was behind the desk for some of the most beloved music of the early '70s: the original recordings of Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks songs, Simon's first three solo albums, the Band's "Rock of Ages" and Donny Hathaway's "Extension of a Man."
"When it comes to making records, substance should outweigh perfection," Ramone wrote in his 2007 book "Making Records." "Great records are all about feel, 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 any day."
Mastering icon Bob Ludwig, who worked at Ramone's A&R Studios, says, "I learned so much from him, his 100% striving to get the most musicality out of any situation, whatever it took. That was something that just formed my whole way of being."
Though not credited until he produced "Hot Streets" in 1978, Ramone had a lengthy association with Chicago as it was becoming one of the biggest bands of its time. He handled the quadraphonic mixes of the group's early albums and, according to trumpeter Lee Loughnane and saxophonist Walt Parazaider, adjusted the way the brass was recorded after the band's first five studio albums by micing each instrument and then adding an ambient microphone to pick up the group sound.
"He worked on positioning us in the studio and had us turn different ways to get sound to bounce off glass," Parazaider recalls. "It took a lot of time to do this. We had the ideas, but he polished what we were doing."
Not surprisingly, his signature sound was a natural echo.
"When I first started getting interested in sound and recording in the early '60s, it was Phil Ramone's recordings that really captured my imagination," producer/engineer/technology pioneer George Massenburg says. "Phil's work was always hi-fi, and that's what I chased as a recording engineer, as a design engineer, as a systems engineer and as a producer. He was the guy."
It was a string of commercially successful albums with Joel, though, that would put Ramone in the upper pantheon of producers. "The Stranger," "52nd Street," "Glass Houses," "Songs in the Attic" and "An Innocent Man" are among the highest-charting albums associated with Ramone.
Beyond the charts, however, Ramone's life was filled with cultural milestones. His recommendations on microphones at the president's podium cleared the way for Marilyn Monroe to sing "Happy Birthday" to President Kennedy in 1962. He was the music/soundtrack supervisor on "Flashdance" and brought in a then-inexperienced Madonna to sing "Crazy for You" for "Vision Quest." He won an Emmy Award for a Duke Ellington tribute TV special. He produced numerous MusiCares Person of the Year galas during Grammy Week; tributes to such performers as Bono, Don Henley, Brian Wilson and Aretha Franklin; and was active with the Songwriters Hall of Fame's annual event.
A founding member of METAlliance (Music & Engineering Technology Alliance), Ramone was also active in music- and service-related organizations. The chairman emeritus of the board of trustees of the Recording Academy, he was co-chairman of the Producers & Engineers Wing, a former trustee of the MusiCares Foundation and a board member of the National Mentoring Partnership and Berklee College of Music. He was also a trustee of the National Academy of Popular Music and the National Recording Preservation Board of the Library of Congress.
Elliot Scheiner, also a METAlliance member, got his first industry job as an assistant at Ramone's A&R Studios. "Aside from being a great engineer and a great producer, he was always looking into the future: 'What could be the next thing that nobody's looked at?'" Scheiner says. "He was a visionary in that regard. He loved to be working constantly, whether it was in the studio or not."
Later in life he became known as a master of duets, first for pioneering the use of a fiber optics system to record from different studios, a technique used for Sinatra's last two albums. Besides Charles' final album, which included duets with Elton John and Norah Jones, he also oversaw Tony Bennett's recent duets projects: "Duets: An American Classic," "Duets II" and "Viva Duets."
Recent projects included Simon's "So Beautiful or So What," Joss Stone's "Colour Me Free!" and Matthew Morrison's "Where It All Began," which Interscope will release on June 4.
"I was so fascinated by this man and his stories," says Morrison, a star on Fox's "Glee," "that I kept asking questions--the work almost didn't happen. He was always fine-tuning things. I knew he would create good music, but I didn't realize how collaborative it would be. He would listen to what I was saying and then put his genius on it.
"After I had finished the recording process, I had a concert in Hartford [Conn., in November]. He took the train to come see me perform, and that meant so much to me. He was a true friend."
Ramone is survived by his wife, Karen, and sons Matt, BJ and Simon.
(Additional reporting by Gail Mitchell and Paul Verna.)