Phil Ramone has won 14 Grammy Awards as a producer. Known for his warm sound and intimate recording clarity, Phil engineered or produced dozens of jazz, pop and Broadway classics, including Ray Charles' Genius + Soul = Jazz, Leslie Gore's It's My Party, Stan Getz's Getz/Gilberto, Paul McCartney's Ram and Paul Simon's Still Crazy After All These Years. He recently completed producing Paul Simon's So Beautiful Or So What, the guitarist's new bluegrass-influenced album due for release in early 2011.
Unlike many producers, Phil began as a recording engineer in the late 1950s. And unlike many recording engineers, Phil is an accomplished musician, having attended the Juilliard School as a violin prodigy. He also has been associated with virtually every major music trend since the late 1960s, engineering many of Dionne Warwick's hits with Burt Bacharach, Frank Sinatra's The World We Knew, Peter Paul and Mary's Leaving on a Jet Plane and Louis Armstrong's We Have All the Time in the World.
In Part 1 of my five-part interview with Phil, 69, the legendary recording engineer and producer talks about growing up in Manhattan and how the teenage violinist wound up in the control room of recording studios:
JazzWax: How did you come to the violin?
Phil Ramone: When I was a kid, my sister and I loved music. I constantly nagged my parents to let me play the violin. I know, this sounds strange, since kids and violins don't often mix. Even my piano teacher told my mother, “He’ll get over it after six months.” But I didn’t. I was fascinated by the instrument—but not for the reasons you’d think. My original interest in the violin came from jazz stars like Joe Venuti and Stuff Smith [pictured]. I couldn’t imagine how they were able to play classical and then ad-lib jazz. I couldn’t figure out how that worked. I just assumed they memorized everything.
JW: What impact did that have on you?
PR: I started memorizing everything. I think it took until I was around age 10 when my fiddle teacher finally realized I wasn’t reading the music in front of me. I protested, saying I was reading. In truth, my teacher was right.
JW: How did you memorize so much music?
PR: I’d play a record and learn the music instantly. I was one of those types of kids with a great ear. When you can do that, you look at the notes on a page and say, “Oh, that’s a B-flat? OK” [laughs]. I was a faker until my teacher threw some ensemble music at me in a kids’ orchestra to see what would happen. Then the truth was exposed. In addition to listening to classical music, I was listening to recordings by Charlie Parker, Count Basie and many other jazz musicians. I was a nutcase for Basie. By the time I was in my early teens, I regularly begged my parents to take me to Birdland to hear him and his band.
JW: Was your true love jazz or classical?
PR: I loved jazz but was a very serious classical student. But I always believed that my creative growth shouldn’t be stuffy. My role models were Andre Previn and Lenny Bernstein. I befriended Andre years later and told him what it meant to me to see guys like him play jazz. My parents were open to me moving in that direction.
JW: Where did you grow up in New York?
PR: In a tough neighborhood on Amsterdam Avenue and 82d St. You walked home with a fiddle case back in the ‘50s and got beat up or you played well and everyone knew it and admired you.
JW: How good were you?
PR: Pretty good. I was something of a prodigy. By the time I was 12 years old, I was doing a fair amount of television recording work at places like RCA. Little by little, I became fascinated by how they miked the musicians in the studio. I was still a kid, and children ask way too many questions.
JW: How were you treated?
PR: People were nice to me and let me come into the control room. I’d ask why two mikes, why over there, why facing that way or this way. I was always top of mind with contractors who would call asking me to play in the orchestra on the Kate Smith Hour or some other star’s TV program. With TV, they worked you for a bunch of minutes. Then you had hours to sit around. During those long breaks, I’d ask more questions. They’d let me go where I wanted as long as I was quiet. I also talked extensively to the audio and production guys. I loved the art of sound and recording.
JW: Where was your first big engineering job?
PR: In the late 1950s, I worked for a demo studio in New York called JAC Recording on West 58th Street. That was the best training I could have gotten. Back then, the engineer was expected to be a musician. I’d play string parts and overdub them like crazy so they sounded on record like a small string section. JAC offered the cheap version of what a Les Paul recording system would be like.
JW: Was this fast work?
PR: Yes. We’d try to do a demo in 15 minutes so the guy who came to us with his song could walk out of our studio relatively quickly with a demo sung by a pro. Paul Simon was one of those demo singers at the time. He sang Burt Bacharach demos, which wasn't bad work. You got paid $5 to $10 for singing them.
JW: Who did you work for at JAC?
PR: Charlie Leighton, the owner. He was a professional harmonica player and recording engineer. He kind of took me under his wing. He said, “If you want to work here, you don’t get paid, but I’ll teach you everything you need to know. I’ll teach you how to make a disc.” Learning how to make a good recording was a real craft and important to me. In those years, that little 45-rpm had to sound great if it wanted to make an impression on publishers.
JW: What was the demo business like in the late ‘50s?
PR: Everyone who wrote songs needed a demo to sell publishers on buying it. In the old days, a pianist would sit in the publisher’s office and bang out the songs brought in by songwriters. But as the 45-rpm became increasingly popular, publishers wanted a more realistic sample of the writer's vision. What was the market for the song? What sound did the writer imagine? What kind of arrangement? And so on. If you wrote a song, you’d bring the sheet music into a demo studio like ours, and we’d have a guy or gal sing your song backed by a piano or guitar or strings.
JW: What happened next?
PR: If a publisher liked what it heard, it would license the song and direct it to the ideal singers or groups, who hopefully would turn it into a hit. That was always the promise, a hit. At JAC, you paid $25 and the rest was left to us. If you paid $50, you’d get two or three guitars all overdubbed.
JW: So in the late '50s, guitarists were increasingly in demand by studios.
PR: Yes. There were guitar players running all over New York recording demos. They’d come in, hook up their guitar, set their amp and roll. You’d record three or four demos with that same guitar player.
JW: What happened next?
PR: When the session was over, the guitar player would rush off to another job, and you'd take a break for lunch. When you came back, you'd do a quick mix. But it wasn’t much of a mix. At JAC, we only had a pair of two-track recording machines. That’s why during this period, studio musicians had to sound great immediately and engineers had to know what they were doing.
Tomorrow, Phil talks about learning the ropes as a recording engineer and leaving JAC to start his own studio, A&R Recording.
JazzWax pages: Phil's memoir with Charles L. Granata, Making Records: The Scenes Behind the Music (2007), is a terrific read and can be found here.
JazzWax clip: Here's Phil Ramone earlier this year at the Grammy Awards...