Phil Ramone was deferential to a fault. He liked to say it was the artist, not the producer, whose name appeared on the front of the album.
That’s why you won’t find mention of Ramone on the covers of CDs by Paul Simon, Billy Joel, Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand, Ray Charles, Elton John, Aretha Franklin, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Tony Bennett, Burt Bacharach, Karen Carpenter, Rod Stewart, Julian Lennon, Gloria Estefan, Renee Fleming, Luciano Pavarotti, Bob Dylan, Dionne Warwick, Diane Schuur, Rufus Wainwright, Phoebe Snow, Bono, Chicago, Natalie Cole, George Michael, Sinead O'Connor, Peter Paul & Mary, Judy Collins, or any number of other iconic artists.
But seek out some of their most memorable, most enduring, and best-sounding recordings, and on the back you’ll see the words “produced by Phil Ramone.”
The conventional wisdom is that artists feel more comfortable in the studio than on stage because they get to experiment endlessly and correct their mistakes. But all too often, the opposite is true. The studio can bring out the deepest anxieties in artists.
Like a high-definition camera, the studio exposes flaws the artist didn’t even know existed. Studio time is expensive and most artists are on tight budgets, so they’re under intense pressure to deliver. And unlike the stage, where a mistake might go unnoticed or unremembered, an imperfection in a recording—or worse, an underwhelming performance—is captured and replayed for eternity.
Ramone understood this and went to great lengths to put artists at ease in the studio. Those who were lucky enough to work with him or observe him in session saw a man with an avuncular presence navigate tense, even chaotic, situations with a warm smile and a steady hand. He was a master at focusing the energies of those around him—artists, session players, engineers, assistants, maintenance technicians, even receptionists and security guards—on getting the most out of the session and having fun doing it.
But it wasn’t just his personal touch that set Ramone apart. He was a gifted engineer, a musical prodigy, a technology innovator, and an inveterate perfectionist who demanded excellence from his collaborators. Artists with similar expectations—Sinatra, Streisand, Simon and Madonna are just a few who come to mind—saw in Ramone a kindred spirit. He was gentle and tactful, but he made it clear he would never tolerate mediocrity.
Although we remember Ramone as a consummate producer, his engineering resume was no less impressive. As a young studio wiz at A&R Studios and other iconic New York rooms, Ramone sat behind the board on the sessions that yielded timeless hits like "Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head" by B.J. Thomas, "Alice's Restaurant" by Arlo Guthrie, "The Girl From Ipanema" by Joao and Astrud Gilberto, and "Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey" by Paul McCartney & Wings.
A lover of films and a longtime advocate of marrying music and images, Ramone produced landmark soundtracks including "Midnight Cowboy," "A Star Is Born," "Yentl," and "Flashdance," reviving or launching careers in the process and shattering sales and airplay records.
In the theater, Ramone served as audio designer for "Hair," "Liza With A 'Z,' " "Promises Promises" and many others, and produced the cast albums of such hits as "Passion," "Starlight Express," "Pippin," "Little Shop Of Horrors," “Seussical,” and “Elton John and Tim Rice’s Aida.”
For television, Ramone supervised music for many of the Grammy and Academy Awards telecasts, the Jimmy Carter inaugural concert special, Paul Simon and Simon & Garfunkel programs, the Emmy-winning TV version of "Liza With A 'Z,' " "The Jim Henson Hour" and a long list of other groundbreaking shows.
Although he was a creative person par excellence, Ramone's grasp of technology was matchless. He championed virtually every technological innovation in the past half century, especially the introduction of the compact disc, which he passionately supported even as many of his peers resisted it. Appropriately, the first CD ever pressed, Joel's "The Stranger," was a Ramone production.
Ramone won 15 Grammys, which put him in the company of his friends and mentors Al Schmitt and Quincy Jones as the most decorated studio professionals. Ramone also served as president of the Recording Academy and advocated tirelessly for artists, music, and technology.
Ramone’s life in music started at age 3, when he learned violin and piano at home in his native South Africa. A prodigious talent, he played classical violin during his early years, including a command performance for Queen Elizabeth at age 10.
Ramone moved to the U.S. as a child and grew up in Brooklyn. In his teens, he broadened his horizons to embrace jazz, pop, and rock'n'roll. His interests turned increasingly toward recording, and he took a job as an engineer in a New York demo studio.
Inspired by such pioneers as Jones, Schmitt, Tom Dowd, and Bill Schwartau, Ramone engineered several sessions a day for years before getting his first break as a producer from John Barry on the soundtrack to the 1969 film classic "Midnight Cowboy." That project, in addition to helping launch Harry Nilsson as a vital new talent, established Ramone as a producer.
He worked on a handful of soundtracks with Barry before taking the reins on albums for the likes of Simon, Peter Paul & Mary, and Snow. Ramone immediately earned a reputation as a producer who brought a truly musical viewpoint to a recording. His career had come full circle, from playing violin to learning the craft of the engineer to applying his vast knowledge of music-making in a production capacity.
There are loads of recordings in our homes and/or consciousnesses that bear Ramone's imprint, and many are pop culture classics. When we hear catchphrases like "it's my party and I’ll cry if I want to," "you can get anything you want at Alice's Restaurant," "everybody's talkin' at me," “good luck movin’ up ‘cause I’m movin’ out,” “still crazy after all these years,” and "tangled up in blue," we’re often too caught up in the greatness of the song to meditate on Ramone’s role in bringing it to the world. But it’s no accident that Ramone was there, behind the scenes, guiding legendary artists to produce the material for which we’ll always remember them.
To his last day at age 79, Ramone was as energetic, innovative, enthusiastic, and committed as when he was an up-and-coming engineer. He leaves behind legions of friends and admirers, a treasure trove of priceless stories from a life among the stars, and a body of work that will stand the test of generations.
Phil Ramone: Select Discography
A selective listing of records produced and/or engineered by Phil Ramone (Con't after page break)