Phil Ramone is known among musicians for his artistic sensibility, his confidence and his cool. When tension runs high at recording sessions—either because musicians can't seem to pull the music together or time is running out—Phil is always the deep voice of reason. His take-charge style and patient tone usually puts everyone at ease and back on track. As a musician, he can empathize with the artist. As a technician, he has the sensitivity needed to capture all of the sonics and color on a recording session. As a result, he winds up getting the best out of the artists whose albums he produces. [Pictured, from left: Billy Joel and Phil Ramone]
In Part 5 of my five-part interview with Phil, the legendary producer talks about the wide range of '60s artists he has recorded either as an engineer or a producer:
JazzWax: You were the engineer on Lesley Gore’s hits in the early '60s.
Phil Ramone: That’s right. She was 16 years old at the time but had all the signs of being a big pop star. Once we finished It’s My Party, we started on You Don't Own Me and all those other songs. Lesley always put herself in a place artistically that would have shocked most other people at that age.
JW: How did It's My Party wind up in your hands?
PR: I got a call from Quincy Jones. He had recorded the song for Mercury at Bell Sound, which was a big pop studio in New York in those days. Arrangers tended to write for that room at Bell, and the engineers there were really good. Quincy told me he needed to do some work on the track but couldn’t book time at Bell. It was a three-track recording, and he said he had to have the record out immediately. He asked if I could cut it that night. Producers wanted records cut fast to get them on the radio as quickly as possible to build buzz and an audience.
JW: What did you tell him?
PR: I said yeah, I had a lathe, which was used to cut blank vinyl records from the master tape. I told him we’d work all night to cut whatever he needed for radio.
JW: What was the rush?
PR: Quincy said that producer Phil Spector was cutting the same song with one of the Ronettes [pictured].
JW: How was that possible?
PR: Music publishers were notorious for doing things like that then. They promised you an exclusive, and then you found out everyone had it.
JW: What did you do?
PR: Before we started cutting the records, Lesley needed to repair some of the vocals. Quincy said to me that he wanted to double track it.
JW: What’s that?
PR: Normally you’d copy the recording to another tape and put them together, like the Beatles did, to create four tracks and double the same vocal. I told Quincy that if he was willing to take a risk, I could pull the erase head of the recorder, allowing her to sing right onto her original master. We wouldn't lose a generation, and we'd retain the music's vivid punch. But there was a risk. By running the tape that way, we could wind up erasing the only vocal Quincy had instead.
JW: How did the session work?
PR: Lesley sang to her original voice wearing headphones. We pulled the erase head to stay first generation. It was crazy to do, but we wound up with much stronger sound and a bigger beat. Quincy trusted me, and Lesley had rehearsed what she was supposed to do. If you listen carefully to the record, there’s a sweet amount of imperfection. But it sounds great. I also remixed it so that it had the right kind of pound.
JW: Why the fuss—why did you want that pound?
PR: The big deal for any of us making records in the early ‘60s, as we switched from jazz to pop music, was to get records to sound louder than anyone else’s without using too much compression to do it. You wouldn’t want to do that on a jazz record because you don’t want to lose a generation. Jazz listeners have sharper ears. When you compressed tape, you wound up with noise on there that sounded like an old AM radio. It really was ugly. Long story short, everything worked out great and Lesley's single was a big hit.
JW: Before you engineered Dionne Warwick’s The Look of Love in 1967, you were in England engineering Dusty Springfield’s version in 1966, yes?
PR: Yes. We did that in a small studio in London that was owned by Philips Records. Dusty normally never recorded outside of the vocal booth. In this case, however, she just had a little isolation screen there, which added to the song's taut style and drama.
JW: What was with that odd percussion instrument at the start?
PR: [Laughs] That whole scraper sound—it’s wonderful and obnoxious, isn’t it? Other engineers would have walked out saying, “There’s too much modulation on the dials, you can’t do that.” Only Burt would have tried that. He knew I'd capture it just right. When Burt trusted you, you could do almost anything. It’s the relationship between the artist and engineer that makes the difference.
JW: It's quite a song.
PR: Burt and Hal [David] had written The Look of Love for Casino Royale in 1966, a silly take-off on the James Bond film series. We actually had two hit records with that song before Dionne’s—one by Dusty and the other by Herb Alpert.
JW: How did you capture the intimacy of Dusty's voice?
PR: The microphone can only pick up what it hears. It has no brains. You simply have to pick the right mike. Dusty was known for having that whispery quality, and Burt knows how to get something special out of an artist.
JW: What type of mike did you use?
PR: A Sony C37. The sax solo was done live by an English studio musician. And what you hear is Burt’s interpretation of the song. He half-sang what he wanted to Dusty in a breathy voice to convey his vision.
JW: Is the ‘60s one big blur or do you recall the trends that were happening in music then?
PR: I remember it clearly. My life as an engineer was important to me. Back then, you had to step up to the plate and come up with a sound that made artists stand out. People think singles back then were throw-aways, that they were slapped together, recorded in 10 minutes and pushed out the door to keep kids happy.
JW: They weren’t?
PR: [Laughs] A ton of work went into making those records. In addition to the craftsmanship, we knew we were in a game and that we were competing with the big drum sound of the British groups.
JW: When you were in London engineering The Look of Love, what do you recall of the scene there?
PR: I remember going into studios and seeing groups like the Rolling Stones and the Animals. I remember seeing Keith Moon, The Who’s drummer [pictured]. When I heard him, I said, “There’s a drum sound we had better look out for.”
JW: What did you tell groups when you returned to the States?
PR: I’d tell people, “Are you aware of the sound coming out of England? It’s way beyond just the Beatles." But even here in the States, the scene was expansive and inventive. On the West Coast you had Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys creating new stuff. The same was true of groups in Memphis, Nashville and Muscle Shoals in Alabama. All of these places were coming up with new, distinct sounds.
JW: How did you make the switch from engineer to producer?
PR: In 1969 I engineered John Barry’s score for Midnight Cowboy, including Everybody’s Talkin’, at our A&R studio at 799 Seventh Ave. John gave me the credit for producing the music. That project was followed by a string of hits as a producer, including Paul Simon’s Me and Julio Down By the Schoolyard. Then I met Billy Joel.
JW: You produced The Stranger in 1977, which included Just the Way You Are. You brought in also saxophonist Phil Woods to solo, yes?
PR: I had to. The song needed a lift. My favorite thing to do on a session is to bring in an instrumentalist, the best guy known to man on his horn, for a solo. I knew so many of those great jazz musicians because I had recorded them. Quincy Jones and Frank Sinatra always used the best guys around to solo.
JW: What did you think of The Stranger?
PR: Loved it. Billy’s far more serious as a musician than many people realize. On Just the Way You Are, I said I think we need a jazz guy here. The tune as originally played didn’t have enough muscle and conviction. It lacked a certain intensity. I had changed the drum part because Billy didn’t want to record it the way he had conceived it. When he heard the first few takes, he said it sounded like a bad wedding band.
JW: Why not just use the saxophonist in Joel’s band?
PR: The guy didn’t play alto sax at the time, and tenor was too heavy for the tune. By the way, Billy's saxophonist didn’t talk to me for a while when I said I wanted to use a jazz guy instead. Eventually he asked me who I got to do the part. I told him, “Phil Woods.” He was impressed. Then he listened to Phil's solo and said, “I have to learn that?” I said, “Yeah, you have to learn that solo so you can reproduce it at concerts. It’s going to be a classic.”
JW: How many solos of Phil’s did you record for Just the Way You Are?
PR: Probably three or four. Not a lot.
JW: Then what did you do, take out the knife and start cutting up the tape and reassembling the pieces?
PR: Yeah, pretty much.
PR: Because with tape, as with digital today, you had the luxury of assembling the best of a soloist's various efforts.
JW: So how did that work exactly?
PR: Phil put the headphones on and recorded with the track. He did that three or four times. Then when Phil was done, I listened carefully to all of the solos and pulled the most exciting parts together.
JW: How so?
PR: I might take the first bar and a half from take four, three bars from another take and then the tail end might be the first take. Some were snipped together.
JW: How did you do that?
PR: It’s my job to see that solos are cohesive as a single unit. Saxophonist Michael Brecker used to be really shy. After each of his first two or three takes he’d say, “That’s crap, I don’t know what I was thinking.” But half the time he’d play his best stuff in the first few takes. First takes are sometimes the best takes.
JW: So, to put it bluntly, there are three musical minds on Just the Way You Are—Billy Joel, Phil Woods and Phil Ramone?
PR: I don't know. Recordings are events. It’s always the event in total that gives you the reputation to be able to talk to these guys. The reason you become a producer is so you can save a step in the musician’s creation and help make music that's already great a big hit. If everything works out, you become comfortable with the artists. They become comfortable with you. And you bring what you do to the table to make everything stand out.
JW: Woods' soaring and searing solos turn out to be essential to the song's success. The listener actually waits for them.
PR: I know. Michael Brecker’s solo became so well known on Paul Simon’s Still Crazy After All These Years that Pat Williams did a big band album and orchestrated the solo, note for note. Michael was in that band and said he huddled over with embarrassment.
JW: You added jazz sensibility to rock and teen pop.
PR: Well I think you see it especially in Paul and Billy. On Zanzibar from Billy’s 52nd Street in 1978, I used trumpeter Freddie Hubbard. The trumpeter who plays with Billy now is a young guy, and he’s playing Freddie’s solo from the album note for note. That’s how classic it is.
JW: Rock guys have enormous respect for each other, don’t they?
PR: Huge. I produced a TV show back in the 1990s at Radio City Music Hall with Elton John, Paul Simon and other amazing people. Brian Wilson was about to start a tour for his album at the time. So we brought him over to England for a show there, because everyone who was appearing on stage there, from Eric Clapton to Phil Collins, were huge fans. The love went both ways. I remember taking a car trip south from London with Paul McCartney in the early 1980s. The entire way down we listened to the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds. Paul was insane for the album.
JW: Speaking of McCartney, you produced Ram. Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey remains amazing.
PR: I know. I love it, too. Paul and I talked about our names one night. He said that before he was in the Beatles, he used to go out to play at clubs calling himself Paul Ramone. When I was a kid, I used to get called Ram One instead of Ramone. Paul wrote Ram On for the album.
JW: Is that why the album is called Ram?
PR: [Laughs] I don’t know.
JW: What isn't well known about the making of Uncle Albert?
PR: After Paul wrote the arrangement, I booked a huge orchestra. I said, “Paul, why don’t you conduct this? Conduct it in a passionate way based on what you hear.” Paul said, “I’m not trained to do that.” I said, “You wrote the thing. You’re better trained than anyone. Wave your arms, and you’ll be amazed.” So he did and it came out great. The funny thing is about 20% of the orchestra didn’t know who he was. They were classical players.
JW: What was Louis Armstrong like on We Have All the Time in the World in 1969?
PR: It was so exciting for me. I loved everything Louis did, since I was a little kid. I thought he was one of the greatest vocalists of all time. Then again, I thought of vocalists differently than most people. I like Jimmy Durante and Fred Astaire. They interpret songs with such musicality. It’s all about interpretation and phrasing.
JW: Did Louis watch rushes from the James Bond film, On Her Majesty's Secret Service?
PR: No. We just did the song. The film was still in the editing process. Louis was getting tired. His health was already failing. But he was funny, charming and sweet. It’s those moments of your life that you never forget.
JW: Did jazz do something wrong in the ‘60s?
PR: Not at all. Rock was just more exciting and had a stronger hold on the teen market. My generation had big bands, but they were done by the ‘60s. Count Basie and Duke Ellington were already declining in popularity. There was no longer the kind of mass attraction they once enjoyed. TV no longer focused on jazz and kids didn’t identify with it. Popular music goes in cycles, about every 10 years.
JW: Yet you remain a big jazz fan.
PR: I’m a devotee of great playing, no matter the genre. With AM radio in the ‘60s, long solos were out, which left jazz in a bind. Only when FM arrived in the early '70s were albums in vogue again. At that point, jazz, rock and all forms of music benefitted. Albums created moods, and we all became pretty devoted to good sounding records. [Photo: Alison Steele, an early FM rock disc jockey in New York]
JazzWax clips: Here's Lesley Gore singing It's My Party. This single has always been known for its enormous punch. Now we know why...
Here's Dusty Springfield's The Look of Love...