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© RD/ Leon / Retna Digital/Retna Ltd./Corbis
He's produced records for a staggering array of some of the biggest names in music, everyone from Frank Sinatra to Billy Joel to Dionne Warwick to Paul McCartney, spanning every conceivable genre. But despite having his name on hundreds of millions of albums, Phil Ramone's ego is surprisingly intact.
"I like to joke with people, ‘I’m the guy on the back cover,' the affable producer says. "It’s not like in the movies where it says, ‘Steven Spielberg presents Abe Lincoln.’ What I do is kind of invisible.”
Ramone's humility might be traced back to the training he received working as a 15-year-old junior assistant at a New York recording studio. "I was what they call a 'tea boy' in England," he says. "Not the most glamorous job in the world, but the experience I gained was invaluable."
Having earned his gofer stripes, Ramone was promoted to assistant engineer and assigned to cutting demos with hungry, hopeful young songwriters, people like Paul Simon. The Brill Building was a hotbed of creativity, and the budding boardsman quickly learned how to make quick conceptual records that would give artists an idea of how songs should sound. "The trick was to make more than just a piano and voice sketch," Ramone says. "I got my chops that way. I even started to work with echo chambers, which was a very big deal then."
Before long, Ramone gained a reputation as a creative sound technician, and his ability to craft recordings with the city's young rockers, many of whom were close to his own age, grew. "Some of the more ‘experienced’ engineers had problems with rock 'n' roll," he says. "They didn’t want to deal with these heavy-laden guitars and the loudest strums you ever heard. But I loved it, and so that really opened doors for me."
Asked to name his big break, Ramone cites the recording of the 1959 album The Genius Of Ray Charles. The arranger was Quincy Jones, and the team of Tom Dowd and Bill Schwartau were engineering. "I was the assistant on the record," Ramone says. "There were a lot of musicians booked for the session – more than I had ever worked with before. Ray Charles’ piano was pushed right up against the studio glass. But Quincy liked what I did, and that led to my doing other things with him. Pretty soon, I was being talked about in the recording world."
That same year, Ramone launched his own independent studio, A&R Recording, and his career took real flight. Whether engineering or producing, he describes his behind-the-glass philosophy as a mixture of technical know-how and personal instincts. “I respect and know that you need to earn the musicians’ confidence and trust," Ramone says. "We’re there not just to accommodate, but we need to have the artist walk in the room and say, ‘Hey, man, that sounds great.’ I’m very fussy about miking and figuring out what a record needs. The bond between an artist and producer is less about dialogue and more about results."
Ramone credits his ability to seize upon spontaneity as one of his key attributes in the studio, and it's resulted in music that has provided the soundtrack to the lives of millions of listeners. "You have to be able to run as fast as the artist," he stresses. "Capture the magic early on. After a few takes, people start intellectualizing what they’re doing, and it loses something. What’s special happens right away, so you have to be ready for it.”
On the following pages, Ramone takes a look back at some of the more memorable moments of his brilliant record-making (and record-breaking) career.