A Q&A With Phil Ramone

Excerpted from the magazine for Billboard.com.

Chances are Phil Ramone has produced the soundtrack to your life -- literally.

Dubbed the Pope of Pop by his peers, the nine-time Grammy Award winner is one of the modern music era's most enduring, influential producers.

Possessed with golden ears, he has worked with music's elite -- Barbra Streisand, Quincy Jones, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon and Rod Stewart, to name a few -- but he takes just as much pleasure in producing a newcomer like up-and-coming jazz sensation Peter Cincotti.

A musician since he picked up the violin at the age of 3, Ramone attended Julliard on a scholarship. He switched from performing to engineering as his horizons expanded beyond classical music. He then made the move from engineer to producer and has been behind the knobs for five decades.

Ramone is now producing the music for "Beyond the Sea," the forthcoming Bobby Darin biopic starring Kevin Spacey. He just finished serving as music director for "The Boy From Oz," the Broadway play about the life of Peter Allen, starring Hugh Jackman.

• • •

Q: You engineered Bob Dylan's "Blood on the Tracks" and produced Billy Joel's "The Stranger." Did you know they were going to be huge records?

A: Not for the longevity, no. I think you and the band may feel enthusiastic and think, "Wow, that feels like a hit," and that's all you get to say. And then people from the record company come over and say, "There's your hit." That's what people used to say about it. They weren't afraid to say, "That song," but now it's too dangerous. But to say something 23 years ago [would last]. No. When I went to opening night of "Movin' Out," Billy [Joel] and I looked at each other and I said, "Did you ever think?" And he said, "Of course not."

Q: You produced both of Rod Stewart's Great American Songbook collections, as well as the album by Peter Cincotti. Why are standards making such a comeback?

A: Over the last 10 years, certain people decided to look at the classic repertoire -- certainly the success of duets with the Sinatra records [which Ramone produced] opened a bunch of doors to look at the music.

I think we then went through a long singer/songwriter period, and then we didn't look at anything but what was current ... [Then standards were] too typically covered, in my opinion. They felt like covers of an idea. I don't see that anymore. I think people have seriously taken on a stance. People like Norah Jones, Peter Cincotti, Diana Krall, Michael Bublé. You know music survives much further than people give it credit. And I think the public, given the chance, will adapt to something that's good.

Q: How do you decide with whom to work? You seem to enjoy working with newcomers as much as superstars.

A: If you believe that the artists are genuine and they are so involved with their passion for music, it inspires you. You can only mentor somebody if they want to be. If they have other pre-conceived ideas or they have formulas -- I'm very afraid of formula -- I just think it's tragic because it burns so quickly and the candle is out for somebody in two to three years. If you're working with really talented people, they have longevity, and I think that's part of what I look for.

If an artist wants to work with me because they feel I've made some credible albums and there've been things that are long-lasting, it's because those artists took the time and we built an idea.

Q: How have the changes in technology affected studios and producers?

A: Strangely enough, in the last four or five years, technology just took a huge leap forward and cut itself in half with cost. I feel bad because a lot of studios are complaining they spend lots of money on consoles and the rooms, and suddenly the guy around the corner is making a record of high quality with Pro Tools [software] or any of these high-tech stations. But guess what? The person behind it has to have good ears, and the person in front of the mic better be talented.

Q: Over the past 10 years or so, you moved away from rock. Was that a conscious decision?

A: No. I didn't hear anything. I was developing some rock bands at N2K when it got sold. I was kind of discouraged to turn around and start all over, so that's when I came up and met with Peter [Cincotti]. If you follow anything that I've ever done, I never stick to one thing more than one year. I'm just afraid to get typecast. No, I'm looking for a band, I'm always looking for that.

Q: So you would love to do a really great rock record.

A: Oh, in a minute.

Excerpted from the Dec. 20, 2003, issue of Billboard. The full original text of the article is available in the Billboard.com Premium Services section.

To order a single copy of the issue, visit The Billboard Store.


The Biz premium subscriber content has moved to Billboard.com/business.

To simplify subscriber access, we have temporarily disabled the password requirement.