Legendary producer Phil Ramone -- who helmed classic albums by Paul Simon, Billy Joel, Paul McCartney, Barbra Streisand, Bob Dylan, Frank Sinatra, Carly Simon and many others over a career that reached back to the early 1960s -- died this morning in New York.
In a special issue honoring Ramone in 1996, Billboard published a lengthy, fascinating Q&A with Ramone by Paul Verna, where the producer talked about a private meeting with John F. Kennedy; working with Sinatra, Simon, Streisand, Joel, and many others; his admiration for Prince’s work; the time one of his productions knocked another out of the no. 1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1983; and much more. The interview took place shortly after Ramone had supervised the music for the 1996 Grammy Awards telecast, and was in the midst of recording vocals for a Johnny Mathis album and shooting a promotional video for the pro audio division of Yamaha.
The article follows in full. Billboard.biz will have much more on the life and career of Phil Ramone in the coming hours and days.
BILLBOARD: I have heard artists and producers marvel at your sensitivity to the artistic process and your total focus on the artist's needs in the studio. How do you do it?
PHIL RAMONE: The artist has to feel that, when the producer walks in the room, he's totally concentrated. I don't want my doctor reading and answering phone calls and having the nurse come in and babble, and say, "Oh, he'll be back in 10 minutes." If he has an emergency, fine, but if I walk there I want those 15 or 20 minutes to be mine.
Rudeness is something I just can't tolerate. The engineers and the people who bring you the coffee are as sacred to me as the people who are at the door. So you have to deal with your own psyche and be humble. When you get to know an artist, you find out the things that have peeved them over the years, and it's generally the stuff that has to do with somebody not wanting to do things their way in the studio.
BILLBOARD: Your discography lists you as music producer for President Kennedy's famous birthday party where Marilyn Monroe sang "Happy Birthday" to him. How did you get involved with the White House?
RAMONE: Richard Adler, who was a songwriter who was producing commercials, came to the studio where I was working and said, "Can you come to Washington with me to this event with the President to honor the Arts Council?" So we went, and the event was in an armory where you couldn't hear or see anything. It was a mess. Danny Kaye was conducting the orchestra, and they had a television hookup to another symphony, but the transmission was horrible. Well, who got blasted in the papers but the President?
Afterward, Richard got a call from the head of the Democratic Party, asking him to resolve the situation for the first anniversary of Kennedy's inauguration. So Richard hired four of us and gave us carte blanche. Now, you have to understand, I was young and I was not known for architectural interiors. But I drew out an idea that I thought would work, which was to build risers with carpeting and stuff everything that could rattle with fiberglass. Then I asked Altec to design a speaker system that could be hung in tiers going straight up towards the audience, so that for every 10 people there'd be a pair of speakers. At that time, this was overkill; nobody had ever done it. Then I went to Richard and said, "I really want to do something to the ceiling (to improve the acoustics of the room). I know there's an experimental balloon that NASA uses for weather." So we took these 12-foot balloons, stuffed them with styrofoam and put netting over them. And then they hung 10,000 balloons underneath it, so when you looked up it was a celebration of red, white and blue. We had a goal that was Olympian in its design. Nothing could be any more unattractive than what was handed to us, and it worked. With many thanks to Tom Dowd, we did it.
BILLBOARD: Did you get to meet the President?
RAMONE: Well, here's the funny part of it. At 7 in the morning, my phone rang, and the voice at the other end said, "This is Jack," and I said, "Yeah, right. Lemme sleep!" And I hung up. On the President! (laughs). I didn't know it was him. But the next ring of the phone came within minutes. "Mr. Ramone," and I heard the Boston accent, "this is Jack Kennedy." And I said, "Mr. President, I can't believe I hung up. I can't believe anything! I'm really sorry. I really feel bad." And he said, "Mrs. Kennedy and I would like to have you come over."
So I went to the White House, and he said, "Well what about the music, how does this work?" I said, "Mr. President, I've heard you don't have recordings of these wonderful evenings, these state dinners." And he said, "Well, can it be remedied?" I said, "Yeah!" Then we went into this plan of how the East Room could be converted into this theatrical event and then go back to being the East Room.
The next event we did at the White House was an evening of great Broadway favorites, and Agnes de Mille had directed a piece for it. Because we couldn't fit the orchestra and the actors onstage, we had to pre-record the orchestra. The show was very precise, and it started very well. We did two or three numbers, and all of a sudden a guy plugged in a spotlight and the lights went out. Just gone. The tape machines just drew to a halt, and all the actors were frozen in position. Now, you talk about being frightened and worrying about what was going on! The Secret Service was up with their flashlights, and we were yelling for the maintenance guy. After what seemed like hours, he managed to put back the power, and we went through another 12, 15 minutes and then the same thing. Now, I figured, not only was my career over, but the embarrassment! I was just despondent; I couldn't figure out what to do. At that moment, I felt a hand on my shoulder and heard a voice, in that Boston accent again, saying, "Stop worrying, Phil. This is not something you could have controlled. It's something we have to evaluate tomorrow, but this audience, even though they were stunned, saw the professionalism and the artistry." And then he said, "Would you consider doing these events for us?" I said, "Mr. President, I'd be honored." So I went on to do special events for the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, and later for the Carter administration.
BILLBOARD: That would have been a thrill for anyone, especially a young man in his early 20s.
RAMONE: Oh, yeah. That training for me was the backbone of respect, continuity, artistic integrity and everything that I hold to be holy to the making of records. And one of the great things about my involvement with the Kennedy administration was getting to know the Social Secretary, whose job it was to keep up with everything that was happening everywhere. One day she said to me, "There's a group that's very exciting; have you heard this single from the Beatles?" And the Beatles hadn't happened here yet, but the Kennedy administration was going to ask them to perform at the White House. Well, obviously it didn't work out that way, but it's interesting that it could have happened very easily had Kennedy lived.
BILLBOARD: Before you became a record engineer, you were a musician. Tell me about those early days.
RAMONE: I started playing the violin at age 3, and I was very fortunate because there were people who heard me who were influential in getting me auditions. By the time I was 7, I was playing concerts -- it was just ridiculous. Believe it or not, there's a camp for these kinds of kids, and I grew up with it. My parents, particularly my mother, never allowed me to think I was different from any other kid. Later on, I was put in the hands of a great teacher, and then I became a scholarship student at Juilliard. So it was those prodigy years that are really the essence of where my musicality comes from.
BILLBOARD: I heard you played a command performance for Queen Elizabeth. How did that come about?
RAMONE: It was great. I was 10 years old. I played the Lalo "Symphonie Espagnole." As you can imagine, it was a major event in my life to do a symphonic performance in front of the royal family.
BILLBOARD: How did you make the transition from violin virtuoso to recording engineer?
RAMONE: Well, there was a side of me that rebelled against the rules of classical music. I started playing jazz and amplifying my violin to make it sound different. In a classical world, you're not allowed to do that. I was picked up by many variety shows and I developed a style that was inspired by Jack Benny, George Burns, Fred Allen, Victor Borge-that kind of humor. It was a great conflict at Juilliard. I mean, they didn't like any of this, and they really put their foot down because, at the time, I was concert master of the orchestra, and they thought I was really off-the-wall. So I started doing club dates as a strolling fiddle player and got a job as an assistant at a studio called JAC, run by a guy named Charlie Layton, who's still around. And I got totally into it. The engineering side of me was there without my knowing what it was.
BILLBOARD: Have you ever gone back to your classical roots?
RAMONE: Yes. I did this record last year with the Symphony Orchestra of the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, with Andre Previn conducting. Andre comes from that same classical training, but he can turn on a dime and play blues and jazz. He's the role model who doesn't stop his classical growth. He's the essence of what I think a musician should be.