Phil Ramone: An appreciation from ‘The Stranger’ to being in the studio for ‘Duets’

Phil Ramone, who died today at 79, had me at “The Stranger.”  I was already a burgeoning young music freak when the landmark Billy Joel album came out in 1977,  but I hadn”t really paid attention to producers and the role they played.

 “The Stranger” changed all of that.

I wanted to devour everything about that album. It”s the first album I remember really dissecting every track over and over and trying to figure out how the instruments fit together and marveling at the arrangements. I know every word, even album tracks like  the spiky “Get It Right The First Time” and the soulful “Everybody Has A Dream.”  I have Ramone”s brilliant production to credit for kicking off a lifelong love of how records came together.

Ramone, a Julliard-trained engineer turned producer, make every instrument pop, whether it was Joel”s piano on the intro to “Only The Good Die Young” or Richie Cannata”s saxophone on “Movin” Out” or, of course, the entire epic majesty of “Scenes From An Italian Restaurant.” The projection was clean and vibrant. I knew that even when I was playing it on my cheap turntable. For someone raised on top 40 gloss, “The Stranger” had a grittiness and attitude that other songs I”d listened to didn”t.

For Ramone”s obit, go here.

Flash forward almost 30 years. It”s the morning after the 2006 Grammy Awards. I”m at Capitol Studios in Hollywood watching Tony Bennett record “Rag To Riches” with Elton John for “Duets,” Bennett”s hugely successful album featuring him performing with John, Barbra Streisand, Billy Joel, Tim McGraw and several others. Phil Ramone is the producer.

As talent editor and then West Coast Bureau Chief for Billboard, I”d met Ramone several times already and interviewed him, but this was my first time being in the studio watching him work. In all my times in the studio, I had never and have never seen anyone so calm and in control.  Bennett cuts everything live, which means if anyone goofs, it”s back to square one (of course, they picked people to be on the album who could really sing and who didn”t need to have their vocals comped). Elton showed up wearing a beautiful tailored suit instead of his usual track suit because he knew Bennett would be dressed to the nines, which he was, and he wanted to show Bennett the respect he felt he deserved.  “For Mr. Bennett, you wear a suit,” I remember him telling me.

Ramone set the professional, yet relaxed, tone. Including rehearsals, John, Bennett, and Bennett”s trio did no more than six takes before it was a wrap. (I remember the publicist told me not to be late because the session would go fast… she wasn”t kidding).

At the end, Bennett made a suggestion that he wanted to try.  I was in the control room with Ramone and it was clear from his reaction to the previous takes that Ramone knew they had it down, and that they didn”t need to do it again, but out of deference to Bennett and with a graciousness that I”ve rarely seen in the studio, he told Bennett that he thought they had nailed it, but, of course, they could try it again the way Bennett wanted to. Want to know how Ramone brought out the best in everyone? That”s how… he made the artists and musicians feel valued, special, and respected. There was no way that Ramone was going to use the take with Bennett”s suggestion. He knew that, I knew that. Hell, probably Bennett even knew that, but Ramone was delighted to give it a try because he knew that”s how he”d continue to get the best from Bennett for the rest of the session.

On his Facebook page, producer Tony Visconti brought up what a great raconteur Phil Ramone was and I found that to be my experience too. When I interviewed him, I knew to set aside at least double the amount of time that we had planned because he had such amazing stories and he was so generous sharing them.  He rambled and would go off on tangents, but I was always so happy to go down any road with him because I knew I was getting gold, whether he was talking about serving as music producer the night Marilyn Monroe sang “Happy Birthday” to John F. Kennedy to hoping to find the next big rock act.

Read excerpts from my 2003 interview with Ramone for Billboard.

Ramone was incredibly active right up until his death. For several months over the last year, he”d been in Los Angeles, staying with producer Gregg Field and singer Monica Mancini, while he produced new projects from Matthew Morrison,  Dionne Warwick and Latin singer Alejandro Fernandez. Longtime friends, Ramone produced Mancini”s 2010 album, “I”ve Loved These Days.”

I reached out to several colleagues of Ramone”s this morning to get their reactions. These aren”t artists who worked with Ramone, other than Monica Mancini. Instead they are people who worked in the trenches beside him or admired him because they shared the same craft.

”Phil was a better friend than producer and he was the best music producer I have ever know. Phil would stay in the “Phil Ramone Suite” in our home whenever he was in L.A.. The best memory? So many, but that would be the two of us at the end of the day having a ritual nightcap before heading to bed. And then doing it all again the next day.”  – Gregg Field, Grammy-winning producer and co-producer of Matthew Morrison”s upcoming album with Ramone

“Phil Ramone was a friend, mentor, brother, father and partner.  He was the personification of everything good that we do in music and in life.  He selflessly shared his vast experience and knowledge with anyone that asked, or for that matter, didn’t ask but needed to be set straight.  He was a child prodigy, classically trained musician that spent his entire life serving the music and the people that made it. I’m having a difficult time imaging a world without him, on the other end of the phone, or the other side of the studio glass.  We are all better off that he was in the world, leaving an incredible legacy of timeless music, and incredibly worse off that he is gone.  Our hearts are broken, that’s for sure. -Grammy Award-winning engineer and producer Ed Cherney

“We were on the New York NARAS board together.  He was so humble. So Interested in what I was doing that when he called me at home (we both live in Connecticut) I thought someone was pranking me. ‘It’s me, Phil…” While ‘The Stranger” changed my life, I have often looked back and referenced many of Phil”s records. Most notably, when I first started working with Art Garfunkel, I went back and listened to ‘Breakaway.” Along with records he produced for Paul Simon, Phoebe Snow, Rod Stewart, and many others, Phil has always been a source of inspiration. He is one of those producers I always admired ‘on and off the court.” May he rest in peace.-Grammy-award winning producer Billy Mann

“Phil was our resident houseguest for three months, I used to make him breakfast every morning: he”d have English Breakfast tea, fruit and and English muffin. It was just a moment that we all just relished. Every morning, we”d  talk about the night before and then it started all over again, it was like ‘Dad”s coming down for breakfast!” There are no words about what it”s like to work with him as a producer, it didn”t get better than that. Just a smile would come over his face. The reason he was there in the first place was he produced a number of the original songs I was doing, including Billy Joel and Paul Simon. He had the sensibility and passion from the day the original songs were created. He would get so many phone calls at our house. That man would be working ’til his dying day. People were calling him on a daily basis to work with him.” -Singer Monica Mancini

Here is Billy Joel”s statement about  Ramone upon learning of his passing: 

“I always thought of Phil Ramone as the most talented guy in my band. He was the guy that no one ever 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.”