The role of the record producer, Phil Ramone suggested in his 2007 memoir Making Records: The Scenes Behind The Music, is akin to that of a film director.
But unlike directors, few producers readily come to mind.
There’s Phil Spector, George Martin, Quincy Jones, and the universally loved Ramone himself, who died yesterday at 79.
Ramone, who had been hospitalized in late February reportedly due to an aortic aneurysm, was far and away the most versatile of the quartet, his vast clientele over the last half century including the likes of Ray Charles, Frank Sinatra, Paul Simon, Billy Joel, Tony Bennett, Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan, Stevie Wonder, Elton John and Barbra Streisand.
He was rewarded with countless honors including 14 Grammys (among them, three for Album of the Year—Simon’s Still Crazy After All These Years in 1976, Joel’s 52nd Street in 1980, and Charles’s Genius Loves Company in 2005) and an Emmy (for mixing sound for the 1973 special Duke Ellington…We Love You Madly).
Most recently, he received the Salvation Army’s 2012 Pinnacle of Achievement Award for his humanitarianism and charitable work.
As befits the passing of a music industry giant, the Internet quickly filled with tributes from the high and the mighty.
“I always thought of Phil Ramone as the most talented guy in my band,” said Joel in a statement that soon appeared online. “He was the band member that no one ever saw onstage. He was with me as long as any of the musicians I ever played with–longer than most. So much of my music was shaped by him and brought to fruition by him. I have lost a dear friend–and my greatest mentor. The music world lost a giant today.”
Likewise, Tony Bennett stated: “Phil Ramone was a lovely person and a very gifted musician and producer. It was a joy to have him work with me in the recording studio on so many projects as he had a wonderful sense of humor and a deep love of music. Phil had the admiration and respect from everyone in the entertainment industry and his passing is a great loss.”
Said Barbra Streisand: “I’m so saddened to learn of Phil’s passing. We first worked together in 1967 when I did a free concert in Central Park. His brilliance at capturing sound was immediately evident. Later we worked together on the film A Star Is Born, where Phil was able to record me singing live, including ‘Evergreen.’ In the next decade we worked on the soundtrack to Yentl and many other recordings. Phil had impeccable musical taste, great ears and the most gentle way of bringing out the best in all the artists he worked with. The monumental recordings he produced will endure for all time.”
“Truly one of the great names in music has gone on, but the melodies will remain,” said Aretha Franklin, who performed for Ramone at December’s Salvation Army award dinner. Stevie Wonder said Ramone was “the star of stars behind the stars. What a great man, what a kind spirit, such an incredible producer. Truly a tragic loss for us on earth but what a wonderful blessing for heaven.”
Calling Ramone “the epitome of class,” songwriter Diane Warren tweeted,“One of not only the greatest producers EVER but one of the greatest people EVER, Phil Ramone has passed away.” Bette Midler buttressed, “Phil Ramone, a giant in the recording world; kind beyond words.” Same with Carole King, who said he was “a gift to [his] artists and to the world.”
While he specialized in traditional pop and rock, Ramone also left a huge impression on country music’s Oak Ridge Boys, who tweeted: “We have never forgotten working with Phil on [Paul Simon’s hit] ‘Slip Slidin’ Away.’”
And he also left his mark on jazz musicians: Trumpet player Barry Danielian, now touring Australia in Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, wrote, via Facebook, “My first really A-level sessions in NYC were for Phil. Because of his kindness and encouragement I gained a lot of confidence in my ability to hang at that level. He was always very generous and told me so many great stories about all of the legendary NYC trumpet sections of the past. The music industry has lost a true gem.”
And speaking of the music industry, Recording Academy president Neil Portnow, in a statement, said, “Our industry has lost an immense talent and a true visionary and genius. Everyone who encountered Phil came away a better person for it, professionally and personally.”
Portnow’s predecessor at the Academy, Mike Greene, was a close friend of Ramone.
“Phil was truly the best of us,” said Greene, now president/CEO of Artist Tribe Music, via email. “He was my friend and mentor, as he was to countless others. The measure of this man resided in his deep-seated humility, ethics, lust for life and constantly taking the time to count his blessings and trying to convince us all that he didn’t deserve them.”
Making reference to Ramone’s embrace of cutting edge technologies (52nd Street, for example, was among the first commercially released CDs), Greene acknowledged the one-time child violin prodigy’s well-documented “list of professional ‘firsts,’” then noted that “his most noteworthy traits that we all aspired to emulate came mostly from his personal care and feeding of his flock of close friends and family.”
“I can’t count the number of times Phil would come to me with a groundbreaking idea and then immediately question whether anyone would take note of it or even return his call,” said Greene. “I would look at him, grab his shoulders and say, ‘Phil, did you forget that you are Phil F**king Ramone?’ Decade after decade, he never made assumptions about his station in the pantheon of the great men and women of audio. He just bounded forward doing that which others assured him couldn’t be done, and begrudgingly allowed his friends to sing his praises and passed up countless opportunities to be fabulously wealthy because he refused to play ‘the game’ or compromise his ethics.”
Ramone’s “inspired arc from prodigy virtuoso violinist, to peerless audio engineer and technologist, to multi-platinum/Grammy award-winning producer, to industry leader was a testament to the man and a guiding light to all of us lesser folks he allowed to tag along behind him on his blessed journey,” said Greene.
Also in an email message, American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) president/chairman Paul Williams, spoke of Ramone from a deeply personal perspective.
“Phil was a rare combination of musician and techno wizard,” he said. “A child prodigy on violin, he turned from playing music to producing–and the world was rewarded by his choice. He mastered the art and science of recording music as an engineer and with an amazing ear for what ‘felt right’ he chose the right songwriter, the right song, the right artist, the right band–and the result was a lifetime of musical associations and artistry that we’ll celebrate for decades, probably centuries to come.”
Ramone “was my friend and for a while my manager,” added Williams, concluding, “the world lost a giant today.”
The Songwriters Hall of Fame (SHOF), which honored Ramone in 2010 with its prestigious Howie Richmond Hitmaker Award, was one of many music industry organizations and efforts that benefited from Ramone’s involvement.
“Phil was a vital member of the board of directors of the Songwriters Hall of Fame and producer of our annual gala for over a decade,” said SHOF president/CEO Linda Moran. “He will be missed for his knowledge, musical genius, kindness and friendship. He would be absolutely amazed at the outpouring of affection and love for him–he never realized that he was a national treasure.”
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