'It's all about the raw material'
Grammy-laden producer Phil Ramone looks forward
By Todd Leopold
(CNN) -- Some record producers like to dominate a song, piling on the instruments, echo and sonic devices. Think of Phil Spector with his Wall of Sound, Trevor Horn piloting Frankie Goes to Hollywood or Max Martin's teenybopper confections, for example.
Others let the musicians do the talking: Columbia Records mainstay Bob Johnston or Rolling Stones helmer Jimmy Miller come to mind.
Phil Ramone is in the latter category. He tries to stay out of the way, molding crisply recorded instruments and voices into an evocative whole.
"It's all about the raw material," he says in a phone interview from his home in Westchester County, New York. "You have to be prepared for anything that comes."
Not that Ramone doesn't play a little bit. The opening piano notes on Simon & Garfunkel's "My Little Town" are so dark and lonely they haunt the whole song, and the multi-tracked Billy Joel -- on top of some bright, bullet-sharp percussion -- gives "Uptown Girl" a streetcorner joy that never lets up.
And, as a guy who loves the latest technology -- among other things, he's been a senior adviser for Lucent Technology, helping them develop Internet downloading functions -- he's not afraid to tap into electronics when it serves the music's purpose, as it did on the Ramone-produced Frank Sinatra record "Duets." For that record, most of the "duets" were actually Sinatra and his collaborators recorded separately.
But, though he observes "technology allows you to do things," you still have to have the chops.
"I was once challenged by a reporter to 'make me sound great,' " he recalls. "I said, 'You have to be able to sing.' "
Making somebody "sound great" has rarely been a problem for Ramone. He has engineered and produced some of the most popular -- and most talented -- singers in the music business. The list includes Sinatra, Simon, Joel, Tony Bennett, James Taylor, Liza Minnelli and Ray Charles.
He's up for two Grammys for his work on Charles' swan song, "Genius Loves Company," for which he produced five cuts. He's also nominated for his work on "The Boy from Oz," and he'll be receiving a special technical award. Overall, including the technical award, he has won 10 Grammys.
If Ramone is best known these days for his work with vocalists, he has actually ranged all over the musical spectrum in his career, engineering and/or producing records for jazzmen John Coltrane, Stan Getz and Gerry Mulligan; folkies Peter, Paul & Mary; soft music duo the Carpenters; hard rocker Alice Cooper; and the Broadway casts of "Promises, Promises" and "Chicago" (both of which, incidentally, featured Jerry Orbach).
He was practically born to music. A violin prodigy, by age 3 he was studying music and by age 10 he had performed for Queen Elizabeth II. He opened his own studio, New York's A&R Recordings, as a young man and developed a friendship with Atlantic Records' legendary engineer and producer, Tom Dowd, whom he credits for much of his studio education.
"He was not only a great friend but a mentor," he says. Ramone started with Dowd by working a jazz date; the next thing he knew, Dowd was asking what he planned for the next evening. "He took me under his wing and I started doing lots of jazz dates."
Dowd also provided a model for comportment in the studio. Dowd saw his work as a collaboration with the artist, and would quietly consult with even the most ornery musicians, Ramone recalls -- though, naturally, Dowd generally knew best.
"They trusted him," he says. "I owe him a tremendous amount. He shaped the way I worked."
Ready for anything
Dowd also taught Ramone the value of preparation, which has come in handy for his work with old pros such as Sinatra, Bennett and Charles -- musicians who were ready to go as soon as they set foot in the studio door.
Sinatra was famous for nailing songs on the first take, and Charles wasn't much different, says Ramone. "The style of this man ... he always knew what he wanted," he says of the late singer, who died in June 2004, before the release of "Genius Loves Company."
Charles, in fact, was in declining health during the album's recording, and Ramone was taking no chances. For a duet with Elton John, "Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word," Ramone told his crew to start rolling as soon as Charles left his car.
It only made sense: For a Tony Bennett-Charles duet on Bennett's 2001 album "Playin' with My Friends," Ramone hit the record button as soon as he got word that Charles was in the building.
"He gets on stage with Tony, and the first rundown was the actual take," he says.
Despite more than 50 years in the business, Ramone still likes to keep abreast of the latest thing. He was an early backer of the compact disc, and believes that the industry will come to terms with downloading and piracy issues when it's had a chance to better educate the public.
In the meantime, there's always something new. Even for somebody with a shelf full of Grammy awards and many best-selling records.
"I'm not the kind of person who looks back very often," he says. "I'm always thinking about what to do next."