RIP: Phil Ramone

Posted March 30, 2013 by J Matthew Cobb in Features

Legendary…genius…CD pioneer…mixing master…these are just some of the tag lines used to describe the late record producer Phil Ramone

Phil Ramone with Billy Joel

Phil Ramone, the highly celebrated and Grammy-decorated record producer known for working his magical fingers on iconic albums for Billy Joel, Barbara Streisand, Chicago, Ray Charles, Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett, has died at the age of 72.

Ramone was hospitalized in late February with an aortic aneurysm in New York and died Saturday morning at New York Presbyterian Hospital, according to Ramone’s son Matt.

Reading Ramone’s list of album credits often feels like an exhaustive saga of essential records, which led many of his peers to dub him unofficially the “The Pope of Pop.” But he wore that cap very well, particularly when his work peaked in the 1970’s and ’80’s. He was best known for producing elaborate sheen productions, often with luxurious strings and horns, and always using state-of-the-art, cutting-edge digital equipment. It became his trademark, ultimately ramping up his resume with assignments for artists like Carly Simon, Ray Charles, Rod Stewart and Liza Minnelli.

Ramone started out as an engineer behind the scenes, working on classic albums for Bob Dylan (Blood on the Tracks), Donny Hathaway (Extensions of a Man), the Band (Rock of Ages) and the first two solo albums for Paul Simon. His work really starts to percolate at A&R Recording, a music studio at West 48th Street in Manhattan that bears the last initials of his then-business partner Jack Arnold and Ramone. He started the independent studio in 1959 and worked his way up the ladder when he was awarded a Grammy for his engineering work on the jazz album Getz/Gilberto, a collaborative effort from American saxophonist Stan Getz and Brazilian guitarist Joao Gilberto. His Bacharach/David-like sound attracted easy-listening adult contemporary formats and eventually became a part of the recording process for Broadway musicals (Pippin, A Star Is Born, Chicago) and television productions. His production on Joel’s big band tribute, “Big Man on Mulberry Street,” made its way on the popular ’80’s show Moonlighting, which featured an elaborately choreographed six-minute long dance scene including Bruce Willis and Cybil Shepherd.

He won a Grammy for the soundtrack to Promises, Promises in 1970, and led to other soundtrack triumphs including work on Midnight Cowboy, Flashdance, Ghostbusters, Beyond the Sea and the remake of A Star is Born, which featured collaborations with Barbra Striesand and Kris Kristoferson.

Ramone’s work with rock/jazz band Chicago also deserves a careful plug. When the band severed their ties with original producer James William Guercio and after recovering the sudden loss of drummer Terry Kath, the band hired Ramone to supervise their Hot Streets (or “Chicago 12″) album in 1978. Prior to Chicago 12 he had mixed some of their albums, leaving the band most comfortable in leading the band towards a newer and more perfected sound. “Alive Again” and “No Tell Lover” were hits off of that record; the follow-up included the disco ditty “Street Player,” which featured legendary trumpeter Maynard Ferguson. By the time the Eighties showed up, the band rediscovered their hit-making status when they teamed up with David Foster, a producer who bears a striking resemblance to Ramone’s polished sound.

In 1982, Ramone’s work on Billy Joel’s Grammy-award winning 52nd Street (1978) became the center of attention when it became the first article used on compact disc. It was the first commercially-available album used on the cutting-edge format. He would once again reclaim his title as techie pioneer when he developed a sophisticated fiber optic system to record from different recording studios on Frank Sinatra’s last records.

Ramone was also responsible in kicking off a set of comeback albums for Rod Stewart, which transformed the raspy rock singer into a crooning balladeer of American songbook standards. All of those albums – including 2002’s It Had to Be You, 2003’s As Time Goes By, 2004’s Stardust and 2005’s Thanks for the Memory, have been certified platinum in the US.

In recent years, Ramone worked on the gold-certified Duets albums for jazz legend Tony Bennett, including the most recent Viva Duets. Duets II is best remarkable for including rare collaborations with Lady Gaga, Aretha Franklin, Mariah Carey, Carrie Unederwood, John Mayer and the last recorded performance of Amy Winehouse. With that album, Bennett became the oldest living artist to debut at number one on the Billboard 200.

A short spreadsheet of Ramone’s greatest assignments would include:
Still Crazy After All These Years; Paul Simon
Celebrate Me Home by Kenny Loggins
Never Letting Go; Phoebe Snow
Ram; Paul & Linda McCartney
The Stranger, 52nd Street; Billy Joel
Spoiled Girl; Carly Simon
Scores; Barry Manilow
Duets; Frank Sinatra
Genius Loves Company; Ray Charles (released after Charles’s death in 2004)

His most recent work assignments included Dionne Warwick’s Now album and Matthew Morrison’s Where It All Began, which is scheduled for release June 4 on Adam Levine’s new 222 record label.

Along with his son Matt, Ramone is survived by wife Karen and sons BJ and Simon.



About the Author

J Matthew Cobb

Managing editor of HiFi Magazine


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