In 1967, Phil Ramone began engineering a string of Dionne Warwick's hits by Burt Bacharach and Hal David. If Bacharach and David were America's equivalent of Lennon and McCartney (perhaps even bigger by some accounts), then Phil was akin to George Martin. But unlike the Beatles, there was no overdubbing. Instead, everything was recorded at once, and Phil had to deal with immediacy and nuance. Bacharach's music was complex, requiring careful miking to capture not only the dramatic string and horn parts but also the powerful vocal and intimate rhythm section. [Illustration by Rob Kelly]
In Part 4 of my five-part interview with Phil, the prolific jazz, rock and pop producer talks about engineering Dionne Warwick sessions:
JazzWax: You engineered eight of Dionne Warwick's hits in the ‘60s. Was Burt Bacharach in the studio for them?
Phil Ramone: Absolutely. For every bit of it. Despite what you read, Burt wasn’t tough on Dionne. There was mutual respect between Burt, Dionne and Hal. They had a special thing, and all wanted the same result—a hit.
JW: How did you record her?
PR: We knew that unless Dionne had a terrible bad throat, we weren’t going to overdub her. Overdubbing was done with a lot of singers—having them sing on top of their own voices to fill it out. Dionne’s voice was so strong and so full of character that overdubbing wasn’t necessary.
JW: How did you and Burt work together?
PR: Eventually, I became Burt’s hearing frame in the control room. When he trusted me, he’d stop coming in from the studio area to discuss things. Instead, he’d just turn around after a take, and I would either give a thumbs up or indicate we needed another one.
JW: So Bacharach would leave you pretty much alone?
PR: [Laughs] No. There would be times when I’d give him a thumbs up and he’d want another take anyway. He’d also sit through everything during the editing process. I think I learned more about musicianship with Burt than with anyone else.
JW: Were there jazz musicians on the Warwick sessions?
PR: Oh sure. You would always see one of the Royal brothers—Ernie or Marshall pretty regularly. Michael and Randy Brecker, too.
JW: How did you capture the big sound on those recordings?
PR: First, I made sure Burt was always in the room playing piano and conducting. I always felt he belonged there—it was his music and vision. The dates went better when he was in the studio. Second, everyone recorded at once in one room. There was no laying down the instrumental tracks first and then having Dionne come in later for the vocals. Recording live like that created energy that came through the record.
JW: Where did you place Warwick in the studio?
PR: In a vocal booth. The backup vocal group was in the next booth. So I had a lot of control over their sound in the studio.
JW: Do You Know the Way to San Jose had a lot going on.
PR: What do you mean?
JW: The song opens with a bass, bass drum, snare and what sounds like a gourd. Then Warwick comes in, backed by an organ. Strings emerge faintly about 30 seconds into the track. Horns follow. Then on the break, the arrangement explodes with the entire orchestra. On the other end, the rhythm section returns. That’s a lot to account for in the control room.
PR: [Laughs] Burt always liked to add theatrical and dramatic components to songs. Within that context there was plenty of freedom to experiment with the studio sound.
JW: How so?
PR: When his arrangement exploded. it was often huge, and we found novel ways to capture it. But we also had to prepare for when the tight rhythm section returned. We had to be able to catch that sensitively, too.
JW: How did you deal with the sudden acoustic bursts?
PR: When I saw that Burt's score called for those dramatic explosions, I’d go out into the studio before we recorded to hear how they played in the room. I wanted to hear how much sound we could get away with on tape.
JW: You didn’t have much wiggle room.
PR: That’s right, because we recorded everything live in the same room at once. You had to plan ahead and mike the room accordingly.
JW: On San Jose, how did the snare drum get that crisp, sparky sound?
PR: There wasn’t time that day for the drummer to replace his snare with a new head. After a head is worn down, it loses its brightness. Changing it would have been a time-consuming process and would have slowed down the session. So we just had the guy turn the head over to get that crisp, shuffling train beat with brushes in the beginning.
JW: Were your Warwick-Bacharach dates recorded at A&R Recording?
PR: Yeah. We started in the original space. But then in 1969 A&R moved to larger space at 799 Seventh Ave. on 52d St. The new studio had been part of Columbia Records. The label was giving it up. The smaller original room on 48th St. was 40 by 35 feet with 12-foot ceilings. It wasn’t what you’d call an ideal studio, but the sound was great. The big one gave us more room.
JW: What did you do to make those Warwick sessions sound so great?
PR: I never really felt that I created a “sound” that was distinctly mine. I didn’t want to. My goal always was to determine how arrangements should be interpreted and captured as vividly as possible. That’s where drama comes in. If you have a great conductor leading the room, you get great dynamics out of the musicians. When Dionne’s voice needed to soar, we could handle that. But to me, the intimate moments on those songs with just the rhythm section made them truly special.
JW: But there is a distinct sound on them.
PR: How do you mean?
JW: For instance, the drums always sounded clear but hushed. The beat is there, but the drums never came across as oppressive or overwhelming.
PR: I’ll tell you what I did differently there. I put the drums on a two-foot riser and stuffed fiberglass under the riser. The drums were alive above the two-foot area, but you didn’t get bottom-heavy reverberation. When the musicians on the sessions played in the room, you could see and feel the drums everywhere but they never drowned you out.
JW: Was Bacharach’s music tricky?
PR: Very. Songs often were in unusual time signatures to begin with and could change multiple times during a song. The lyrics could be tricky, too. Hal [David] wrote to match Burt’s quirky musical style and his lyrics resolved in odd places where another phrase would end or begin.
JW: What was Hal David’s role in the booth?
PR: To make sure we didn't ignore something or didn’t step on a lyric or, in other cases, to make sure we did. There were times when they wanted Dionne to step on a phrase or scream over it. A lot went on musically during these dates, and much was indistinguishable to the listener's ear, other than the music and Dionne sounding very exciting.
JW: So David was the lyric cop.
PR: [Laughs] Yeah, he had to be. He’s the guy who invented the way to put words in their place on those songs. It’s an amazing skill up close. Whether it’s Paul Simon, Billy Joel or any great lyric writer—where they decide to place the phrasing of their words so the singer is a participant in the creation and also unveils the song’s story is a real art.
JW: Was it easy to read Bacharach’s wishes through the control room glass?
PR: Yes, very much so. I knew exactly what he wanted just by how he’d look at me. A look of dissatisfaction is pretty easy. Or perhaps he’d look quizzical, like, “Is that tempo working?” He’s a highly expressive person.
JW: Did the Warwick sessions get increasingly complex over time?
PR: From a musical perspective, perhaps. As the years went on, more and more was being put into the pot to top earlier hits. Of course, Dionne didn’t have to prove anything other than to make a hit record. In the beginning, Burt and Hal wrote for many people, from Tom Jones to Dusty Springfield. Sometimes Dionne didn’t get the first shot at one of those songs. She wasn’t happy about that. But how could she be? Eventually they straightened all of that out.
JW: Was Warwick competitive?
PR: Well sure, everyone was—and still is in this business. The Look of Love was recorded first by Dusty Springfield—this sensuous blonde woman in England. Then Dionne recorded it and gave the song a whole new, take-charge feel. It’s actually a tough song to sing. It’s very sparse with incredibly interesting space. That’s what you’re referring to in all of Burt’s work. Interesting space.
JW: What don’t most people know about Warwick?
PR: When Burt found her, she was already the quickest and most accomplished demo singer I’d ever seen. She would sing a demo once and they’d be ready to record the song that afternoon.
JW: With Bacharach and David starting in 1967, you played the role that George Martin played with the Beatles.
PR: We were making great records. Back in 1964, when the Beatles first showed their wares, from their simplistic initial album released here, Meet the Beatles, you knew they were brilliant. We admired the Beatles. Nobody had ever seen this kind of attention and chart success other than Elvis. Musically, we jumped another mile forward once that kind of challenge was there.
JW: Did Bacharach think he had to up his game with the Beatles on the charts?
PR: I would say there was more competitiveness from song to song. There was a greater consciousness about where the music and lyrics went next. Burt and Hal were fortunate to have a spokesperson for their music in Dionne.
Tomorrow, Phil Ramone talks about Leslie Gore's It's My Party, Dusty Springfield's The Look of Love, Midnight Cowboy, Billy Joel's Just the Way You Are, Paul McCartney's Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey and Louis Armstrong's We Have All the Time in the World.
JazzWax note: Starting in 1967, Phil Ramone engineered a series of Dionne Warwick hits, including What the World Needs Now Is Love, I Say a Little Prayer, This Girl's In Love With You, I'll Never Fall in Love Again, Promises Promises, Alfie and Do You Know the Way to San Jose.
JazzWax clip: Here's Dionne Warwick singing Do You Know the Way to San Jose in 1968. Listen to the different dynamics, including the cushioned drums, crisp brushes on the snare, delicate rhythm section and explosive horns and strings...