There are certain names associated with longstanding history of music and entertainment that are synonymous with one's timeless legendary status. Without a doubt, Phil Ramone, the prolific and in many ways groundbreaking record producer, was one of the very few living legends that encompassed all of the essential qualities of "the real deal" of a musician. His wide array of hits ranging from Billy Joel's Grammy-winning 52nd Street to Frank Sinatra's last two Duets albums, A Star Is Born original film soundtrack and Dave Grusin Presents: The West Side Story are just a handful of countless classics that will forever stand the test of time.
But quite aside from his 14 Grammy Awards and numerous other accolades, those in the music industry will remember and, above all, miss the "Pope of Pop" not solely for the hits but for the person behind those iconic records. His passing on the morning of March 30th is a reminder that the list of legends in the music business is diminished by one.
Having collaborated with everyone who was anyone in the music world, from Barbra Streisand to George Michael, Karen Carpenter, Ray Charles and beyond, Phil Ramone had an incredibly sensitive approach -- much like a skilled psychoanalyst -- when it came to artists of all backgrounds and calibers.
As a relative beginner in the field (particularly next to a broad range of household names Ramone had worked with throughout his 50-year reign in the industry), I was both humbled and touched by his generosity of heart and stellar musicianship. Around Christmas of 2011, I had just started developing a stage musical based on my half-completed work of nonfiction. Although the project was still in its early stages, because of the team players -- Broadway pros (they don't like being referred to as "veterans"!) already involved in the making of the show -- who had insisted that we plan "ahead", it was decided that the cast album should be produced by a big name in the "cross-over" pop-jazz world. It was a far-fetched idea at the time, since the book of the musical hadn't been written at that point, but I decided to give it a shot and try my luck regardless.
After all, it was a dream I had long harbored as a kid growing up in post-Soviet Moscow of the '90s... One of my idols, Barbra Streisand, had become a childhood favorite in particular because of the Yentl soundtrack that I listened to for days on end. The studio versions of the main tracks (including the single "The Way He Makes Me Feel") were co-produced by Phil Ramone and his longtime collaborator and dear friend -- the legendary Dave Grusin. Every night, I would sit on the balcony of our small Moscow apartment, with an unplugged microphone in hand, an imaginary audience in front of me, and a vast repertoire of Streisand songs, which included some of her signature records produced by Ramone (such as Yentl and A Star Is Born, to name but a few.)
Years later, granted the carte blanche to dream big and allow myself the freedom to come up with a "fantasy" name who would potentially produce the cast album for Matryoshka: The Musical (the show is now in workshop-mode), the first name that came to mind was, of course, Mr. Phil Ramone. It seemed like a wonderful idea but somewhat unrealistic at the same time, and so I reached out to my mentor and musical "Godfather" Mr. Dave Grusin to see what he thought of this. Without the slightest agenda hiding in the back of my mind, I couldn't have imagined in my wildest of dreams that thanks to Mr. DG's belief and complete support, within minutes I would be sending a long email to none other than Phil Ramone, telling him about the project, revealing some of my background and history here and there.
Due to his ever-demanding studio and travel schedules, we were only able to meet face-to-face for the first time over three-and-a-half months later. But again, because of his limited availability, up until March 2012, we had only been able to connect over the phone (at times some of these conversations would span for over an hour or so) but had never once shared any face time. That was until I got on the train at Grand Central to head out of town and meet Mr. Ramone, who was on a brief break from a Dionne Warwick album session at the great sound engineer/mixer/producer Frank Filipetti's home studio.
To say that I was excited if not entirely nervous on the way to Nyack, NY would be an understatement. Fortunate to have worked with some wonderfully gifted, even great musicians, composers and producers throughout the years, I thought anxiety in similar scenarios was a feeling I had long overcome. Alas... Where THE Phil Ramone was concerned, it was impossible to feel neutral and tranquil.
From the first "hello" in person, I knew this encounter would leave an everlasting mark on me. Instead of what I imagined would be a formal "handshake" between one of the greatest producers of all time and a young artist who was above all an immense fan and admirer of his, Phil greeted me with open arms and a cup of hot tea. Right then and there, thanks to Frank Filipetti and his lovely wife Ellie's warm hospitality, we clicked immediately. It was an unforgettable afternoon I will cherish (without an ounce of exaggeration) for as long as I live.
Even the delicious dinner that followed our lengthy music/business discussion, was beautifully spontaneous and cozy. Ellie had initially planned to cook roast chicken (one of my very few no-no's that I've been allergic to since early childhood) but with one look at my face (hard as I tried to disguise it!) all three of these wonderfully sensitive and kind people knew they had to come up with a Plan B. Mr. Ramone himself came to my rescue: "I hear Tinatin eats exclusively alligator meat -- no chicken... Since we don't have an alligator at hand..." And the sweet Ellie interjected right away: "How about a warm mushroom salad?" It was one of those simple but at the same time extremely touching moments that made the young girl inside me feel safe and taken care of. It was a feeling I would be fortunate to relive again on several occasions with Mr. Ramone.
After the great meeting at the Filipetti's, over the next few months, Phil and I got into a dialogue about various possible songs for the record, the general direction for the album, and so on. But due to his overwhelming schedule, aside from numerous phone conversations, we only managed to meet face-to-face just a few times following that first "session".
Yet each and every one of the moments spent in the company of this genius will stay forever engraved in my heart. The last time I saw Phil was just several months ago, after yet another one of his late sessions in Tribeca. We grabbed a drink at a nearby hotel bar to discuss the progress that I had been making on the show with my team and our upcoming rehearsals and readings at the Baryshnikov Arts Center that he said he was eager to attend. Towards the end of the long meeting (his energy was truly staggering!) I shyly pulled out a little surprise from my purse -- a plush green alligator, in reference to our "alligator meat" moment at the Filipetti's. Despite my uneasiness about how he might take the joke (giving a plush alligator to Phil Ramone may have seemed forward to most!) I still remember the boyish spark in his eyes when he grabbed his new friend and said "hello there, little alligator". This became our inside joke. Every email, even the strictly business-related ones, I'd sign as "The Alligator Girl," and whenever we spoke on the phone, he was likely to inquire by the end of the conversation, "So, how's that alligator doing?"
Even though, as fate would have it, I only got the opportunity to meet and get to know Mr. Ramone during the last 12 months of his spectacular life and career, I must admit, hand on heart, that I truly miss him. I cannot begin to even fathom how devastated those who collaborated and spent decades by his side must feel at this moment. Life sure is often unfair, and can it take the most cherished, special human beings and geniuses of their craft away from us so suddenly.
Over these couple of days after hearing the sad news of Phil Ramone's passing, in the quietest of moments, I could not help but reminisce about this... I only had the opportunity to work on just one song with Mr. Ramone (ironically the very song I had co-written with renowned songwriter Phil Galdston that I had dedicated to my mentor, Mr. Dave Grusin, called "If I Met You.") However, I will always feel blessed and privileged to have received even an ounce of his guidance, few but invaluable words of wisdom, encouragement and warmth, and the moments that I was fortunate to share with the true master of his metier and the man with a golden heart. I am forever grateful to have sat in the same room, breathed the same air and shared the beautiful sounds of music with the one and only Phil Ramone.
Dearest Phil, R.I.P. You will be missed tremendously, but you'll be loved and remembered for generations to come.
With love, always,
Your Alligator Girl
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