John Burk and Phil Ramone produced Ray Charles’ “Genius Love Company,” an album that scored five Grammys in 2005, including Album of the Year.
By the time Charles signed with Concord Records, Ramone already had a history with the label as a consultant, offering his talent and advice in addition to bringing in artists. Among his productions for Concord prior to the Charles album were Dianne Schuur/Maynard Ferguson’s “Swingin’ for Schuur” and Peter Cincotti; post-Charles, he handled Paul Simon’s “So Beautiful or So What” and brought in Michael Buble to work with him on Erin Boheme’s “What a Life.”
When Burk, the head of A&R at Concord, was planning the sessions with Brother Ray, Ramone was one of the first people he called for advice.
Burk had a specific question: Since Charles wanted to record at his studio in L.A., how do they deal with the absence of isolation booths?
“Phil had them get these huge outdoor umbrellas and he had the guys stuff them with soundproofing material and put them behind plexiglass, creating a booth for the drums,” Burk recalled Saturday, a few hours after Ramone’s passing was announced. “He was really gifted in that way he always knew what to do.
“It’s funny: If you weren’t paying attention, it would seem like Phil was this guy hanging out, telling stories and making everyone laugh. From him I learned how to create an environment. He knew how to get the flow right and let the artists work at their own pace. He used to say half the battle is letting them know that you care about them.”
Burk says the production of “Genius Love Company” was more collaborative than the credits indicate — Ramone gets sole credit on five of the dozen tracks — and the two were in the control room when Elton John and Charles recorded “Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word.” That recording, Burk notes, was the one that let everyone know the project was something special.
“It was the last session we did together,” Burk says, noting that Charles’ illness forced them to record the band ahead of time, instead of live as they had on the other tracks. “Elton came in early and was hanging out, and Ray came in and we worked out a few details.
“The control room was packed — half the record company was in the control room — and once Ray finished his take it was silent. Everyone was choked up.”
Charles left the studio after about 90 minutes; John was mixing his album “Peachtree Road” in another studio and asked Burk and Ramone to burn him a CD of the studio banter. When John returned to the studio, Burk and Ramone asked John if he wanted to hear the rough mix while they were burning the CD requested.
“Half way through the song Elton turns around and tears are running down his face and he tells Phil ‘this is one of the most impactful moments of my recording career’,” Burk remembers. “We knew we had something special at that moment and that was one of Phil’s gifts. One of the most important things for him was the belief that if you can capture emotion and the human experience behind a song, it takes music to level of communication. He was great at knowing when that was happening.”