Music producer Phil Ramone, who died on March 30, 2013, worked with the world's greatest musicians, from Billy Joel to Frank Sinatra. NY1's Budd Mishkin spoke with the acclaimed New Yorker in 2007 and filed the following report.
Phil Ramone is known for doing just about anything to make a musician comfortable in the studio.
"When Billy came in, we said, Îwhat should we ask for? How about blue M&Ms?’ Somebody took us seriously and went out and got blue M&Ms, and sorted out the browns," says Ramone.
Billy is Billy Joel — one of the many prominent musicians whose records Ramone has engineered and produced in some forty years in the business, going back to a time when they still called them records.
And he made most of them here in New York.
"People say, why do you like to record here?’ and I say, Îthere's no parking spaces, so you really hustle to get from one studio to another,’” jokes Ramone. “You gotta work hard, you gotta carry all your gear and play with an attitude."
And Ramone thinks music recorded in New York sounds different than it does when it's recorded in Los Angeles.
“You bet, you bet it does,” says Ramone. “You pull up in L.A. to a studio, you gotta parking space, a guy greets you, nobody is a wiseass, you know? Here you gotta protect your whole interest.”
His friend Quincy Jones and the Mentor National Mentoring Partnership recently honored Ramone for his work with young people in the music business.
He's won more than a dozen Grammys.
In 1996, Billboard Magazine dedicated an entire edition to him, with praise from many of the musicians with whom he's worked.
That list reads like a musical who's who: Billy Joel, Paul Simon, Frank Sinatra, Ray Charles, and Tony Bennett, in last year's “Duets: An American Classic.”
"You always doubt where you were and what you were and what it is you did before that worked,” says Ramone. “I never pull out same stops ever. I used to say that's a cardinal rule for making music. Don't do the same trick twice. If you use something that made a sound, put it in a closet and say, Îthank you for that.’”
But what if you've worked with a musician for years and then have to tell them their latest song is not that good?
“If your level of relationship is honest and you’ve done it for a long time with them, just can say, Îthere’s something better here’ or have a suggestion," says Ramone.
Ramone's career has included working on Broadway shows and movies, like “Midnight Cowboy.”
He does most of his work in a room, behind a console.
There have been fun moments.
"Sinatra called me Îkid’ even when I was 50,” says Ramone.
"There's not a lot of dialogue between Bob Dylan and guys like me at that time,” he says.
And poignant moments.
“It became harsh as life took him away from us, that this was the last recording,” says Ramone after listening to Charles’ last song ever recorded. “I didn't even think he would get to that session. When it was over control room was in tears. The whole control room in tears."
“Ray [motioned for me to come over] and I went over to him and he said, ÎI'm just not well today,’” Ramone recalls. “’But anything you don't like I'll fix.’ He said goodbye to us and I just knew there wasn't going to be another goodbye.”
Ramone was born in Cape Town, but he came to New York as a little boy, showing an early talent for the violin.
That didn't exactly help his street credibility growing up on West 82nd Street.
"Playing the violin, you either are going to get teased or you’re going to get beat up, one or the other or worse, especially if you start to get a little notoriety, the other kids, parents say, Îwhy don't you play the violin like him?’ ÎNo, no guitar is what I want,’" says Ramone.
Ramone says he started taking lessons at Juilliard at ten. But his real classes as a teenager were held in jazz clubs.
"They were very strict. They didn't quite approve of some of the antics of people like me trying to electrify the instrument and trying to play be-bop jazz and funk,” says Ramone.
He was interested in electronics, which eventually led him to engineering records in the early Î60s.
He was at the console for a song that would eventually take on an iconic status: "The Girl From Ipanema."
"You know you're involved in great music,” says Ramone. “I’ve always maintained a simple thing” if you start to believe it's a hit that's one thing. If you start to try to make it a hit, it will never work.”
He added producer to his credits while working with Paul Simon in the early 70's.
A few years later, he began a decade long professional relationship with Joel, debuting with his most successful album to date, “The Stranger.”
"When you’re producing someone else and it's their name, their image, their work, and when it all melts together it really goes together — it's something special," says Ramone.
The respect that Ramone commands from performers even allows him to have some fun at their expense.
“You can only over-perfect to a certain point,” says Ramone. “I once teased Streisand about the fact that a year later after the record was out, she said, Îwhat are you doing?’ I said, ÎI'm still mixing Evergreen.’ She said, ÎReally do you think that...’ and then she realized I was ripping at her.”
Ramone had already worked with many of the greats in the music industry when he finally got the call he'd anticipated for decades: A chance to record Frank Sinatra.
"I was absolutely in living fear that I would screw up, because you knew that he was going to do two takes, if you were lucky,” says Ramone. “So many years later and he kept going and going I realized how brilliant that was, because he put his own tension on himself, so that you were up at a new scale. You should see how 60 musicians respond when you do that. It's a whole other ballgame.”
Ramone is married with grown children. He's working on a book about his life and the years spent in his second home.
"A friend of mine said, Îthe studio is your mistress.’ And I said, Îwhat a terrible thing to say,’ but in many ways the work is,” says Ramone.
Ramone has engineered and produced songs that are sung and heard all around the world.
And yet even he occasionally has to be reminded of the music's impact.
“I remember sitting with people like Quincy Jones and Louis Armstrong, other people and saying, Îyou know, we're not curing anything, we’re not doing anything other than·’ and somebody stopped us, and said, Îno, no, no you don't understand. You can't see that what this is: a wave in a ripple that goes through the world."
— Budd Mishkin