Phil Ramone was special in so many ways. In the days and weeks following his passing on March 30, as the stories and remembrances made their way across our industry and out into the world, it became clear that the tales of his vast accomplishments both technically and creatively, of Phil the Musical Genius, were balanced part and parcel by warm recollections of Phil the Kind and Generous Human Being. They were in fact two sides of the same man; you didn’t have one without the other.
Why was he special? It seems so obvious. He’s Phil Ramone! He recorded Marilyn singing “Happy Birthday” at Madison Square Garden and produced Barbra in A Star Is Born. He swung with Count Basie and he sat at the piano with Billy Joel. “The Girl From Ipanema.” “It’s My Party.” He was a confidante to Aretha, Sinatra, Dylan, Paul Simon, Carly Simon, Burt Bacharach, Quincy Jones, Bono, Sinead O’Connor and countless others. He worked with Coltrane! He won his first Grammy in 1965 for engineering on Getz/Gilberto, and he had hits in six different decades! He went beyond music; he helped shape culture!
He also opened an independent studio, A&R Recording on West 48th Street, in 1958, produced the music for the first commercial CD release and pioneered the concept of distance recording with EDNet on Gloria Estefan’s Duets record. He worked on the first Dolby Surround release in film, and he sat in the broadcast truck for the first all-5.1 transmission of a live event over the air. And he was the king of live events—from Concerts in the Park to Kennedy Center Honors to Grammy telecasts—bringing a sense of calm amid even the most daunting challenges.
It’s that sense of calm reassurance, a rare quality he wore like a warm black turtleneck, that brought the two sides of Phil together, according to those who knew him best. He had an inviting yet sneakily conspiratorial smile that simply made artists, musicians, engineers, producers, stage hands, broadcast executives—even Presidents—feel that everything would be okay. The arrangement would come together. The song would be a hit. The show would be fantastic.
As we were putting together this issue of Mix, collecting stories from his friends and family, we were also arranging a cover shoot with Ben Folds in his Nashville studio, the historic RCA Studio A. Phil, it turns out, had worked there a few times, including on Tony Bennett’s Duets II. Folds gracefully proffers that while his relationship with Ramone was nowhere near the depth of so many others, he treasured it, their paths crossing a few times.
“He was in Studio A with Tony Bennett, and at the same time talking freely about music and recording, very generous,” Folds recalls. “I wanted to hear about Lesley Gore—he invented an Ampex 3-track machine so she could overdub off the erase head! Amazing. But I found that for Phil, the fact that he was there for it was always enough. He seemed so excited to be there in that moment. In real time.” That’s what music is, really. Moments in time, sometimes captured, sometimes not. True greatness comes around rarely, but we got to see it. And hear it. Phil Ramone can now join Les Paul, Bill Putnam and Tommy Dowd on the Mount Rushmore of Modern Recording.* I’m sure they will all have a few stories to tell. Phil likes stories.
* Special acknowledgment to Jim Cogan, who first proposed the concept in a Mix series on Bill Putnam. We have taken the liberty of filling out the faces.