The legendary, yet humble, recording genius, Phil Ramone, 79, whose influence across a stunning spectrum of popular music for decades has passed away in New York. CNN stated, "His collaboration credits are a Who's Who of the music industry," while the Associated Press praised his "platinum touch" in engineering and producing as "spectacular and diverse." He was the recipient of 14 Grammy Music Awards as well as a lifetime achievement Grammy, and was nominated for a dizzying total of 33 overall. He has won Grammy Awards in every decade from the 1960s onward for albums, play scores and soundtracks. Included in these are Albums of The Year for 1975, Paul Simon's Still Crazy After All These Years (#1); 1979, Billy Joel's 52nd Street (#1); and 2004, Ray Charles' Genius Loves Company, as well as Producer of the Year for 1980, and 1978 Record of the Year for Billy Joel's beautiful Just The Way You Are. His work on a 1973 television special on Duke Ellington earned him an Emmy Award as well.
Transformative Producer and Mentor To Artists, Young and Young At Heart
In addition to Joel, Charles and Simon, his collaborations include Frank Sinatra, Bob Dylan, Tony Bennett, Barbara Streisand, Burt Bacharach, Paul McCartney, Aretha Franklin, Elton John, Wes Montgomery, Julian Lennon and Dionne Warwick. What lists can not capture is the magical way he pioneered and elevated the idiosyncratic music and personalities at pivotal points in the careers of the artists he worked with.
With the possible exception of Billy himself, no other talent can claim credit for transforming Billy Joel into the musical icon he has become than Ramone. His production work on Joel's breakthrough 1977 release album The Stranger" (#2, 1978) involved doing everything from recording the tire screach of a Corvette to showcasing the hauntingly honest and beautiful "Just The Way You Are." The Stranger, blocked by the Saturday Night Fever Soundtrack in the Spring of 1978 from becoming number 1, still became the biggest selling album to that point in the history of the storied Columbia Record Label. Another Joel, Ramone produced, album 52nd Street became the first commercial album released as a CD. Ramone said of Joel,
"We got along great. We're both luanatics, of course, so that helped. But there was something uncanny about him and his talent. The energy that he had on stage is what I wanted to get on tape."
In the 1960s, over a decade earlier, his engineering work on Getz/Gilberto earned him a Grammy on one of the best selling Jazz albums of all time. His work several years later with legendary composers Burt Bacharch and Hal David and co-producer Henry Jerome won him a Grammy for best score for an orginal cast show album for Promises, Promises. He also pioneered live recordings of musical legend Barbara Streisand in the 1960s and 1970s. In addition during the 1970s he produced million selling albums for Bob Dylan, Blood On The Tracks, (#1, 1975), Paul McCartney, Ram (#2, 1971) and Paul Simon.
Particularly noteworthy was his reinvigoration of the careers of other legends near the end of their careers. Five years before Frank Sinatra passed away Ramone was able to convince him to work on an album of duets. The album and its production, while not without controversy, became one of the most popular albums of Sinatra's career selling over three million. He has done similar magic with Ray Charles in 2004, and Tony Bennett, who in 2011 at 85 became the oldest living performer to achieve a number one album with Duets II.
The Juilliard educated prodigy who once played violin for Queen Elizabeth turned out to have his best talent in elevating the artistry of others. Nothing I could write on this page, however, could capture his critical, though almost anonymous, contributions more than a sampling of the spectacular timeless music itself that he helped create: