He is the Sound of Music

11/15/2008
By From the Lowell Sun

By David Perry

"Trust," says Phil Ramone, describing his job. "It's all about trust." Ramone, 67, was in Lowell yesterday to provide the keynote address opening the 2008 Art of Record Production Conference.

Hosted by UMass Lowell's Sound Recording Technology and Music Business programs, the three-day event -- setting up shop for the first time in North America -- has drawn more than 200 sound-recording experts from around the world and will show off UML's acclaimed facilities and faculty. It's part academic exercise, part professional gathering.

It brings together the men and women who, from control rooms and the shadows of studios, shape popular music's tones and context, its warmth and depth. They set the table for the feast of songs that reach the public.

Unlike another producing Phil, fans have to search album covers for Ramone's name.

"It's not about me, it's about them," he says.

A partial list of the people who have trusted Ramone to deliver a sound in their heads to record-store bins: Frank Sinatra, Paul McCartney, Ray Charles, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Madonna, Tony Bennett, Liza Minnelli and Stevie Wonder. His particularly long, fruitful collaboration with Billy Joel includes 52nd Street, the first album to be commercially available on compact disc. He has recorded television, theater and film, too, including A Star is Born, Flashdance and Ghostbusters.

When Marilyn Monroe cooed "Happy Birthday, Mr. President" to JFK, it was Ramone who got it on tape. "I was 5 years old," he jokes.

Ramone, who has 14 Grammys and an Emmy, is currently working with Nikki Yanofsky, a 14-year-old Canadian jazz-influenced singer ("a real prodigy," he says) and is executive producer of a forthcoming film about the history of recorded music that may be called Passport to Truth.

His account of his life in music, Making Records: The Scenes Behind the Music, was released a year ago.

Ramone, sipping a Dunkin' Donuts coffee ("God, I love the stuff," he says) in a hospitality suite at the DoubleTree Hotel in downtown Lowell, is dapper all in black. He's calm and loves talking music in a sonorous voice.

Born in South Africa, Ramone grew up poor in Brooklyn. His father died when he was young. Ramone's mother took a job in a department store and earned enough to buy Phil and his sister a piano. Phil got a job, too, delivering coffee. Maybe it would buy a stereo. One of his deliveries was to a recording studio. He watched a bit as the sessions took place, then watched some more.

"And every bit of it meant something to me. It was a great study, a gift."

He was already an accomplished musician, having taken up the violin at 3, studying on scholarship at Juilliard, performing for Queen Elizabeth at 10.

In his late teens, he got a job in a home studio that would become A&R Studios. He fell under the tutelage of the great engineer/producer Tom Dowd, whose daughter, Dana, was in the crowd last night.

In the evening interview with Maureen Droney, senior executive director of the Producers and Engineers Wing of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, Ramone recalled his beginnings as an engineer, climbing up a ladder to find the room's sweet spot. They recorded demos and commercial jingles at first, four an hour.

"But, boy, when you heard somebody make a record from one of the demos, Paul Anka or Little Anthony, oh!" says Ramone.

His engineering hit -- and first Grammy, in 1965 -- came when Stan Getz and Joao Gilberto recorded the bossa-nova song, "The Girl from Ipanema." Ramone says the song needed a vocalist, and the only Brazilian in the room who could sing in English was Astrud Gilberto, whose smoky voice gave the song its lilt.

"Six months later," says Ramone, "it was a hit and all the Brazilians came to New York."

Yesterday, he spun stories of technical foibles vanquished and such triumphs as bringing the great sax player Phil Woods to blow the solo on Joel's "Just the Way You Are," though Joel and his band (especially the drummer) "hated" the tune.

Early on, when session players said there was no use for women in the studio because they couldn't move a piano, Ramone hired a female bartender to do just that after he saw her throw two fighting thugs out of the joint.

His job, he insists, is serving the artist.

"We're there for the person who's on the front cover," he says.

Tantrums and dictating don't work. Calmly bringing out the best in an artist does.

In 1993, Ramone proposed a recording project to Frank Sinatra called Duets. It had been nine years since Sinatra's last recording.

"I did those songs 40 years ago," Sinatra told him.

Ramone assured him that stellar singing partners could be lined up with a phone call and recorded with the magic of fiber-optics.

"He kept saying, why do this?" recalled Ramone. "He said he couldn't sing like he could in 1952."

"Well," Ramone explained, "Laurence Olivier did Hamlet in his 20s."

Ramone appealed to Sinatra's notion that one had to live in the songs like suits.

"Wouldn't you like to see him do Hamlet as a 75-year-old?" he asked.

Sinatra saw the logic.

People kept telling Ramone it was a mistake.

The first night, says Ramone, was "a total disaster. He hated the booth."

The second night, Sinatra announced, "the reed's not working," meaning his voice was out of sorts.

The third night, Ramone brought in a table, a lamp, an upright piano, a full bar. He set up the musicians as Sinatra would have recorded with them years earlier. He even had a menu printed up and set on the bar.

Sinatra entered. Dead quiet.

"Why are we here?" he asked Ramone.

"This is the thing you promised you'd do," said the producer.

"Tell me why," said Sinatra.

"Laurence Olivier," said Ramone.

Tape rolled. They laid down nine songs that night. "Nobody does that many songs in one session," says Ramone.

It sold millions, made Sinatra hip to a new audience and was followed by Duets II in 1994.

And it's another chapter in the Ramone legend.