Recording industry legend Phil Ramone, who passed away March 30 at age 79, was a undoubtedly a great producer and engineer. By every measure and consensus, Ramone was also a good man. He was a "people person" — always friendly and willing to offer a few words of wisdom to an artist or student (or journalist). He was also a great friend of The Recording Academy.
Ramone won an impressive 14 GRAMMYs from 32 career nominations. He was the producer of three albums that won a GRAMMY for Album Of The Year: Paul Simon's Still Crazy After All These Years (1975), Billy Joel's 52nd Street (1978) and Ray Charles' Genius Loves Company (2004). Ramone also won for Record Of The Year for Joel's "Just The Way You Are" in 1978 and earned Producer Of The Year (Non-Classical) honors in 1980. He received a Recording Academy Trustees Award in 2001.
"Phil Ramone was a prolific and legendary producer, engineer and composer who made countless significant contributions to the recording industry," said Recording Academy President/CEO Neil Portnow, who added Ramone "was a pioneer of audio technological developments."
Ensconced in his own temple of contemporary sound, A&R Recording on West 48th Street in Manhattan, Ramone was at ease in any genre, including pop, rock or jazz. Over a 50-year career, his résumé included work with GRAMMY winners such as Joel, Simon, Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, Elton John, Paul McCartney, and Bob Dylan. Ramone also helped orchestrate Frank Sinatra's comeback in the early '90s, producing the Chairman of the Board's duet recordings with artists such as Bono, Barbra Streisand, Tony Bennett, and Willie Nelson, among others.
Ramone honed his chops in the early '60s, engineering jazz albums for the likes of John Coltrane, and earned his first full production credit on Burt Bacharach's 1969 album Make It Easy On Yourself. From his mentor Quincy Jones, Ramone learned about the feel and elegance of jazz and applied these naunces to the classic pop voices of Lesley Gore, Dionne Warwick and, of course, Streisand.
Perhaps it was because he was a people person that Ramone was such an excellent producer. He listened to what people had to say, and had that rare gift of hearing what an artist had to give. A producer has to be as sure of his own vision as he is of the artist, he believed, and Ramone's ego was always in balance. As Joel said, "I always thought of Phil Ramone as the most talented guy in my band."
As notable as his musical achievements are, Ramone's contributions to modern recording through his technical innovations may be equally remarkable. He was an early pioneer of the CD format, urging CBS in 1982 to release Joel's 52nd Street as the first pop CD ever released.
Ramone introduced optical surround sound for movies and pioneered the use of a fiber-optic system to record from different studios, using the system to record Sinatra's Duets and Duets II albums. In 2004 he was among the professionals awarded the first GRAMMY for Best Surround Sound Album for Charles' Genius Loves Company.
Ramone tirelessly combined his production work with his wider role in the industry as a dedicated member of The Recording Academy. Joining The Academy in 1968, Ramone served as Chair of the Board of Trustees from 1997–1999 and was a Board member for the MusiCares Foundation and founding member of The Academy's Producers & Engineers Wing. He was also on the P&E Wing's Advisory Council and served as a board member for the GRAMMY Museum.
"In my 32 years in this business, I can't recall a single individual who has started and inspired more careers than Phil Ramone," says GRAMMY winner Frank Filipetti, who worked with Ramone on Academy projects over the years. "His insight, attention to detail and artistry were the building blocks of dozens, if not hundreds, of successful careers."
"I don't know anybody [who] did more for The Academy," says GRAMMY winner and longtime friend Al Schmitt. "He epitomized all the good things that [The Academy does], education and a lot of the things like GRAMMY Camp and MusiCares."
Ramone played a vital role in the annual MusiCares Person of the Year gala, participating as music director for the tributes to Franklin, Simon, Joel, Streisand, James Taylor, Brian Wilson, Sting, Bono, Elton John, and Luciano Pavarotti. A production almost as arduous as the GRAMMY show itself, Ramone always pulled it off with grace and aplomb. "He was a member forever, like me," Schmitt adds, "and he was willing to do everything he could for [The Academy]."
Those who knew Ramone spoke not only of his work but of his human touch and generosity. Streisand recalled "his brilliance at capturing sound" and his "impeccable musical taste, great ears and the most gentle way of bringing out the best in all the artists he worked with," and Wonder called him "a great man, a kind spirit, an incredible producer." "His immense talents were only surpassed by the gigantic size of his heart," said Jones.
"Our industry has lost an immense talent and a true visionary and genius," said Portnow. "The Academy has lost a very dear and close friend. Everyone who encountered Phil came away a better person for it, professionally or personally."
(John Sutton-Smith is a music journalist and TV producer who helped establish the GRAMMY Foundation's GRAMMY Living Histories oral history program, currently comprising almost 200 interviews.)