Legendary Producer Phil Ramone Dies at Age 79
Phil Ramone -- an oft-honored visionary in the field of audio recording and the presentation of music; who helmed classic albums by Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand, Bob Dylan, Ray Charles, Paul Simon, Billy Joel and many others over a career that stretched back to the early 1960s -- died this morning in New York. He was 79. (Many outlets reported he was 72, but Billboard has confirmed his correct age with his manager.)
A prolific producer who spent 50 years in the industry, Ramone died Saturday morning at New York Presbyterian Hospital, Ramone's son Matt told the media. Ramone had been hospitalized in late February with an aortic aneurysm.
His 14 Grammy Awards reflect the breadth of his work and the landmark nature of the recordings he was associated with: His first Grammy win came in 1964 for engineering the breakthrough bossa nova album “Getz/Gilberto”; Billy Joel's “52nd Street” won album of the year for 1979 and in 1982 became the first pop CD ever released; and in the year for which he won producer of the year, 1980, his productions included Chicago, Paul Simon and Joel.
Ramone also pioneered the use of a fiber optics system to record from different studios, using the system to record Frank Sinatra's last albums, “Duets” and “Duets II.” The first Grammy for surround sound went to Ramone to Ray Charles's “Genius Loves Company.” That album of duets also won album of the year trophy for Ramone.
As an engineer, he was behind the desk for some of the classic albums of the early 1970s: Bob Dylan's “Blood on the Tracks,” the Band's “Rock of Ages,” Donny Hathaway's “Extension of a Man” and Paul Simon's first two solo albums. The end of the decade found Ramone producing significant commercial hits by Columbia Records artists Chicago, Joel, Kenny Loggins, Barbra Streisand and Phoebe Snow.
"My career as an engineer and producer coincided with one of the most profound periods in pop music history: that of the contemporary singer-songwriter," he wrote in his 2007 book “Making Records: The Scenes Behind the Music.”
Though he eventually earned the nickname “Pope of Pop” -- a monicker he told Billboard in 1996 he “can’t take seriously” -- Ramone spent the 1960s engineering jazz albums such as John Coltrane's “Ole Coltrane,” Gerry Mulligan's “Spring is Sprung” and Keith Jarrett's “Life Between the Exit Signs.” In the middle of the decade he moved toward the pop realm, working with Sinatra, Burt Bacharach and Dionne Warwick; he earned his first production credit on Bacharach's 1969 album “Make It Easy on Yourself.” The two had worked earlier on “Promises, Promises,” one of Ramone's many film and theater projects.
Paul Simon was among the first artists to entrust their sound to Ramone, using him as an engineer and co-producer on tracks on “”There Goes Rhymin' Simon” in 1973 and as co-producer on “Still Crazy After All These Years,” which won album of the year Grammy for 1975. It would be his relationship with Joel as a producer of his biggest sellers of the late 1970s and early 1980s that would cement his reputation as a hitmaker.
Ramone came to New York from his native South Africa to continue his violin studies at Julliard. A prodigy, he performed for Queen Elizabeth II at the age of 10. He largely abandoned the violin -- though he did record with the alto sax player Paul Desmond in the late 1950s -- to focus on songwriting and production. In 1959, six years after he was naturalized as an American citizen, he opened A&R Recording Studios above Manny's Music on West 48th Street in Manhattan.
Working with established songwriters, arrangers and studio musicians, Ramone was able to step from the jazz world into the pop realm. Through Quincy Jones, he worked with Lesley Gore, Warwick came with Bacharach, and that led to film and the theater where he produced and engineered “Pippin,” “A Star is Born” and “Chicago.” In the 1990s, when his roster grew even more eclectic, he balanced producing the revival of “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” and “Big” with music by Luciano Pavarotti, Everything But the Girl, Natalie Cole and Barry Manilow plus executive producing contemporary jazz albums.
More recently he worked with Tony Bennett, Rod Stewart, Joss Stone and Lela Hathaway.
Ramone spelled out his philosophy in his book “Making Records.” “When it comes to making records, substance should outweigh perfection,” he wrote. “Great records are all about feel, and if it comes down to making a choice, Ill go for the take that makes me dance over a bland one with better sound any day.
A founding member of META (the 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 and Engineers Wing, a former trustee of the MusiCares Foundation, and a board member of the National Mentoring Partnership and the 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.
He also produced the annual pre-Grammy MusiCares “Person of the Year” tributes for James Taylor, Brian Wilson, Sting, Bono, Paul Simon, Joel, Elton John and Pavarotti.
Along with his son Matt, Ramone is survived by wife Karen and sons BJ and Simon.
For more on this story, go to Billboard.biz