Music Producer Phil Ramone died Saturday morning at New York Presbyterian Hospital after an aortic aneurism hospitalized him in late February. He was 72.
Phil helped to shape the music of so many great artists. His work earned him 14 Grammy Awards, including a Technical Grammy for his lifetime of innovative contributions to the recording industry. The long list of artists he collaborated with includes Burt Bacharach, Bono, Ray Charles, Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin, Etta James, Billy Joel, Quincy Jones, BB King, Paul McCartney, Paul Simon, Frank Sinatra and many more. You can read a statement released by the Recording Academy here.
Phil stopped by SiriusXM on November 29, 2012 to sit down with Ron Bennington and talk about his career, and his newest project, which at the time was working with the Salvation Army Orchestra for Children. Excerpts of the interview, one of the last interviews he did, appear below.
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Ron Bennington: I’m sitting here, looking over the amount of music that you’ve produced or engineered over the years. It would be impossible for us to talk about all of it. It’s a lifetime’s worth of work.
Phil Ramone: Thank God.
Ron Bennington: Now did that occur to you? At what point did it occur to you – wait, I’m part of history? I’m making history here.
Phil Ramone: Because I work with some of the greatest artists in the world, it’s daunting to know what they’ve done. I don’t kind of read my own press or think about it. Other than like last year, working with Tony Bennett on his 85th birthday – then I said – oh, there are goals here.
Ron Bennington: There are goals. Yeah. You could keep going. You could just keep going with it.
Phil Ramone: I hope so.
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Ron Bennington: When you started as a young kid, that was the thing [people] did when [they] were songwriters. You wrote songs and gave them to people and hoped they had hits. And that’s all those songwriters…and but, we got to a certain point where – and if you write the songs, then you have to perform them. Or if you’re a performer, you also have to be a songwriter.
Phil Ramone: It went through both phases. I think the Beatles changed an awful lot of it. Obviously, but then came Elton John and then the groups. And that’s where the James Taylors and David Crosbys and people came out of Simon and Garfunkel of course. But I think like Billy and those kind of artists – they started with small bands somewhere.
Ron Bennington: Yeah. They were out working it for years even before they got in the studio.
Phil Ramone: Yeah. I saw Bruce Springsteen way back. And Streisand, I saw when she was quite young. And I thought – for me, if I can have any career in this business – and I was working in a studio when I was about 15, in a demo studio, learning engineering and then having to sing or play violin or whatever the guy would say…
Ron Bennington: Yeah, whatever you had to do…
Phil Ramone: …you got 15 minutes. Please get it. You’ve got to make a great demo.
Ron Bennington: Yeah and, but when you saw Springsteen when he was young – did you think this guy is going to be there?
Phil Ramone: You can’t – you can’t judge as a much as you can feel. I mean that’s kind of the way we make records. Things…you know I was a friend of John Hammond – he kind of put his arms around me – and a lot of people know who he is, but many people don’t. But he discovered people like Dylan, Aretha, just some of the greatest singers in the world and he was a champion for what the art really meant. And he really stood up for them and I learned that’s part of the game.
Ron Bennington: Yeah, well that’s the thing about you Phil – I mean you have these technical skills – phenomenal technical skills, but then you also have to become somewhat of a people person and almost a coach, I guess to help people through this. Because I guess a lot of people go through very stressful times as they make this record.
Phil Ramone: Oh they do. And for us, us in the booth – I learned from Tom Dowd, some of the great engineers…
Ron Bennington: Wow.
Phil Ramone: …and learning around the early Atlantic days – I became “Boy 2” in some of the dates. And then you start working with Arif Mardin and Quincy Jones. And you’re “night work” because a lot of the guys didn’t like to work real late. And a lot of the dates took place then. And I learned, for me – and I think this is what we’re trying to do now – always to respect the art of the musician. Sometimes the musician made more contribution if not just because of his instincts. For the writer that maybe didn’t know how to get the feel other than by playing guitar or a piano.
Ron Bennington: Yeah. That comes up all the time – it’s so strange when you say writing a song because the lyricist will get songwriting credit and the original melody gets songwriting credit, but there’s so many things that happen in that studio with musicians and they’re not considered songwriters.
Phil Ramone: And they’re such great contributors. Sometimes it steps above a certain level. I think the thing that brought Billy and I together, Billy Joel – was the fact that his band was so much a part of him.
Ron Bennington: Right.
Phil Ramone: And Billy hadn’t really made a record with his own band. It was considered in semi part of those days, you used studio…
Ron Bennington: Studio musicians. Mainly for time though, right? Mainly because these guys can get it done quick.
Phil Ramone: That’s part of it and it’s a very elite group. And they always said – oh, the road band is something else. Which I don’t think at all. I think the two examples with Billy’s band and then certainly with Bruce’s band. Not a bad band.
Ron Bennington: No. Not a bad band at all. And the interesting thing with Bruce is the albums sound completely different when he’s not playing with the E Street Band. It would be up to each person to decide which one they like better, but for me when it’s Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band – you know immediately that that’s the band.
Phil Ramone: Right.
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Ron Bennington: Paul Simon to me is such an interesting thing because this I think – almost prior to Paul Simon and rock and roll – you thought – alright, somebody has a very short porch where all their genius is going to appear. But the fact that the Paul Simon records that he did later on – are at least, matched and maybe better than what he did with Simon and Garfunkel. In terms of his songwriting and all. To me, that was the first guy that I saw – okay, he’s going to write songs for the rest of his life.
Phil Ramone: There’s no question.
Ron Bennington: How does that happen? And why do some guys have such a short career and other people like Paul Simon just seem to grow and grow?
Phil Ramone: Well, I think a lot of it – I won’t call them one hit wonders because a lot of people have 5 to 7 years, maybe. I think all of us are quite aware and I know Paul is – that you have to expand. You have to think you may have some failures, but all of his steps in his career – and I was a part of the early part and then later and then last year.
Phil Ramone: Thank you. I think about people who think like he does. It’s like Stephen Sondheim. Could he write “West Side Story”? Can he write a Broadway show? He doesn’t specialize in pop music. But there are some great songs.
Ron Bennington: But how does he keep that almost hunger? How does the fire stay lit for so many years?
Phil Ramone: You can’t sit unless you have a boat and you want to sit and rock in it and retire. I don’t think great musicians retire. They either feel – because of age and the touring and everything that goes on, but there’s that guy in that Rolling Stones group…(laughs)
Ron Bennington: Yeah.
Phil Ramone: Can’t wait to see that show.
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Ron Bennington: That takes us to Billy Joel. Here’s a great songwriter who I think could have written songs in the 20s, in the 30s, I mean it just seemed like – and then at a certain point – he still goes out and tours, but he stepped away from the writing.
Phil Ramone: Yeah. It’s difficult because I love the guy and I keep threatening him and I say – it’s only 20 years that you haven’t made record.
Ron Bennington: Right. (Phil laughs) Well, one of the problems with Billy Joel is even though he hasn’t made a record in 20 years – he could go sell out Yankee Stadium tomorrow. That audience is still there and I guess he feels – I can still play the old hits. But Billy Joel is one of those guys that you thought he could write a Broadway show – he could do a musical in heartbeat.
Phil Ramone: Oh sure. There’s no question. And I think for Billy and for Paul and for the writers, the Elton Johns – all these people who are idols from the 70s and 80s – have to face it or – you know Elton expanded to the theater. I did “Billy Elliot” with him and other shows which…(chime goes off)…I think that was my timepiece.
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Ron Bennington: In 1958 I think it was – you started a recording studio here on 48th Street, right?
Phil Ramone: Yeah.
Ron Bennington: Was it A&R? What kind of people were coming through there in the 50s and 60s?
Ron Bennington: Wow.
Phil Ramone: “The Genius of Ray Charles”. That’s where friendships for me started. And because I was so young, the big guys did the shows and did the record, but you paid attention to who was on the label.
Ron Bennington: Right.
Phil Ramone: And you did jazz one afternoon and then did an R&B date and then next morning there would be Leiber and Stoller in there with Count Basie. I mean it was diversity …
Ron Bennington: Yeah. And as a kid, you just loved being in the room. No matter what you had to do – whether engineering or just helping out in any way.
Phil Ramone: Oh yeah. Well, you become a very good assistant. And that’s when you get noticed.
Ron Bennington: Yeah. I always try to tell that to the younger people breaking into any business. Just show up. Just show up and sooner or later someone’s going to go – alright, that guy’s been hanging around here awhile.
Phil Ramone: It happened for me. The guy would say – I’m going home. This loud rock and roll kills me. And I’d get the 11 o’clock at night date. And walk out at 5, 6 in the morning – get a cup of coffee – clean up – and come back to work and be on the first jingle date at 9. (laughs) So, if you really care and you have to care – and if you’re not affected by the music then don’t bother. Because it’s really radical. It’s very sensitive. And you know somebody’s breaking a date with someone else to get this thing right.
Ron Bennington: Yeah. To get it done. To get it done perfectly. And the thing that people don’t get, that I think about producing records is – there’s always the time is clicking. You only get so much time.
Phil Ramone: Right.
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Ron Bennington: It’s an unbelievable career. Do you have a highlight or you don’t even bother saying to yourself that something is a highlight?
Phil Ramone: It’s like this whole thing for the Orchestra for Children. Because as a kid, I was taken to places. We had no money. And the city of New York would get passes and we would go as a group to see Leonard Bernstein and then we would go to a Broadway show. It’s the reason that that orchestra for 7 to 9 year olds at the moment – and hopefully it’s expanding – is to play the music that is part of our life. And not think about – it’s wonderful to play classical music, but it takes some chops learn it. This, you can be playing a Disney tune or a great R&B look back…I mean we’ve got Valerie Simpson on the show coming up and – you know, Ashford & Simpson did some amazing music for Motown.
Ron Bennington: Phenomenal stuff. Yeah.
Phil Ramone: And a young artist like Peter Cincotti – same thing. He grew up around it. Grew up in Harlem and then decided to be a jazz pianist and then now, he’s found himself. And I think that we breed in this town.
Ron Bennington: Sure. There’s phenomenal stuff. And the interesting thing is that here you are a kid in Harlem, but you’re only a few stops away from being able to see some of this stuff. And if you can get the kids in there – it’s life changing. Like it was for you when you were a kid.
Phil Ramone: Absolutely.
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Ron Bennington: Is it true? I heard this before, but I don’t know whether it’s a true story. But you were working sound when Marilyn Monroe sang to John Kennedy.
Phil Ramone: Yes.
Ron Bennington: Is that really true?
Phil Ramone: Yeah. I even have a…you know when you think about it – there it was at 7 in the morning and she went over to the band and shook everybody’s hand because she had made a record. Which some people know about – in somewhere in 1959 or 60. And she was so charming and this was going to be a big secret until the show starts, but then they keep introducing her and she doesn’t show up. So, we had to rehearse the joke and everything else. And I looked around and the stagehands and all the guys that I was – I was kind of the new kid on the block – they’re looking at me and I’m saying – so anybody got a camera? (laughs) Today, we’d have 3000 cameras.
Ron Bennington: Right. Everyone would have them out.
Phil Ramone: There’s one shot. And I don’t think they’re looking at me.
Ron Bennington: Yeah. That is amazing. So anyone of these stories from Phil’s life – you could dine out for the rest of your life and he honestly has a billion of them. What a pleasure to have you stop by here today, sir.
Phil Ramone: Thanks Ron.
You can hear this interview in its entirety exclusively on SiriusXM satellite radio. Not yet a subscriber? Click here for a free trial subscription.
You can learn more about Ron Bennington’s two interview shows, Unmasked and Ron Bennington Interviews atRonBenningtonInterviews.com.