Monday, April 1, 2013

Genius Loved Company: The Best of Phil Ramone (1934-2013)

I'll never forgot the time I met Phil Ramone. It was on a Saturday night in 2001 at an after-party for Sarah Brightman following her concert at Radio City Music Hall in New York City. Before my publicist friend introduced us, I never would have been able to pick Ramone out in a crowd, but I'd been familiar with his name since 1983 when I'd peruse Billboard's Hot 100 every week and see it listed as the producer of hit single after hit single from Billy Joel's An Innocent Man album.

Although I probably would have walked right by him on Avenue of the Americas an hour before without noticing, I was even more excited to finally put a face to the production credits on all those songs I knew and loved than I was to stand face-to-face with Brightman a few minutes later. Ramone, who died on March 30 at age 79 from complications following heart surgery, was the ultimate behind-the-scenes legend, the man who'd helped create huge chunks of the soundtrack to the best years of my life.

Though few pop-music fans may have recognized him, it would be hard to find one who hasn't loved something he did over the course of his 50-year career. The three Album of the Year Grammy winners produced by Ramone -- Paul Simon's Still Crazy After All These Years, Billy Joel's 52nd Street and Ray Charles' Genius Love Company -- just begin to hint at the breadth of his talent and his collaborators (which also included Bob Dylan, Barbra Streisand, Frank Sinatra and so many more).

He lacked the one superstar act to which he might be eternally tied (Billy Joel was probably the closest thing he had to a regular collaborator), the iconic-by-association status of Beatles producer George Martin, the outsized personality of controversy magnet Phil Spector, a signature sound like Robert John "Mutt" Lange, or the sonic flash of today's Timbalands and will.i.ams, but even without a hook, Ramone's career spanned all of their heydays.

If I were going to categorize the work of  the South African-born and Brooklyn-bred Ramone, I'd  place it alongside that of a quieter group of '60s-and-on super-producers, one that would include Englishmen Peter Asher and Glynn Johns and even Quincy Jones, with whom Ramone collaborated. They came from an era when the best producers didn't specialize solely in any one genre but instead rose to the challenges presented by acts that fell under disparate rubrics. They didn't so much brand the artists they produced with their creative stamp -- indeed Ramone's work never sounds produced, just created organically -- as they did enhance and highlight the best aural qualities of their artist cohorts.

I won't try to list all the music stars to whose legend Ramone contributed (you can read all about them on his Wikipedia page), but I will narrow down his considerable achievements to five songs he worked on that left a particularly lasting impression on me. They're by no means all of his "best," just an introductory sampler for everybody who may not have known his face or his name.

"The Girl from Ipanema" Astrud Gilberto,  João Gilberto and Stan Getz From the landmark 1964 album Getz/Gilberto, which Ramone didn't produce but engineered, winning his first of 14 Grammys (Best Engineered Recording) for his considerable effort.

"50 Ways to Leave Your Lover" Paul Simon I'm going to go ahead and credit Simon's Still Crazy After All These Years co-producer for nudging him out of his up-to-then established musical comfort zone and helping him score his only No. 1 solo single in the process.

"Evergreen (Love Theme from A Star Is Born)" Barbra Streisand Along with the above hit (and Billy Joel's Ramone-produced "My Life"), this Ramone/Streisand co-production remains one of the most vivid musical memories from my first 10 years in the world.

"The Longest Time" Billy Joel The clean, spacious production (listen closely, and you can hear the hiss of background silence) and Joel's layered barbershop-quartet-style vocals make this near-a cappella track my favorite musical moment on an album (An Innocent Man) full of great ones.

"All Because of You" Karen Carpenter One of the five greatest love songs ever by one of the five greatest singers of them. It wasn't all because of Phil Ramone, but his production touch -- a lovely, languid musical setting, with a dash of country torch and twang -- had so much to do with it. Utter brilliance.

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