'Making Records' explores musical mix of talents

By Philip Booth, Special to the Times
Published January 6, 2008

Making Records: The Scenes Behind the Music
By Phil Ramone with Charles L. Granata
Hyperion, 320 pages, $24.95


Producing a successful recording isn't just about knowing which musicians and engineers to hire, where to place the microphones, how to twiddle the knobs and the fine art of picking the best take.

It's about indulging Paul Simon's desire to track down the source of hypnotic drumming, heard late one night while traveling through the town of Salvador in Brazil, and chancing upon the brass-and-percussion band Olodum, which wound up sparking the opening track of Simon's The Rhythm of the Saints album.

Being a successful producer is also about helping make Frank Sinatra comfortable enough in the studio so he can put his best pipes forward during the icon's late-career work on Duets, a long-distance collaboration with Barbra Streisand, Bono, Aretha Franklin, Tony Bennett and other superstars. The trick: Don't isolate Ol' Blue Eyes in a vocal booth.

It's also about, say, figuring out how to create that arresting shattered-glass sound on Billy Joel's You May Be Right and accommodating Brazilian singer-songwriter Joao Gilberto's request to let his wife, Astrud, sing The Girl From Ipanema on Getz/Gilberto, the groundbreaking bossa nova collaboration with saxophonist Stan Getz.

Those are among the fascinating anecdotes that Phil Ramone, Grammy-winning producer of notable recordings by Simon, Joel, Sinatra, Streisand, Bob Dylan and dozens of other household-name artists, relates in his book Making Records: The Scenes Behind the Music.

Other producers are known for the signature sounds associated with their work: the painterly atmospherics of Daniel Lanois (U2, Dylan, Peter Gabriel); the roots-digging effervescence of T-Bone Burnett (Los Lobos, Bruce Cockburn, the Oh Brother Where Art Thou? soundtrack); the fat, gleaming wall of sound created by that other Phil, Spector.

Ramone instead is a go-to producer appreciated for blue-chip professionalism, solid musical instincts, audio-recording savvy, technical innovation and subtle use of psychology and diplomacy, all in the service of helping high-level artists of practically every genre this side of hip-hop achieve the results they want in the studio.

Making Records goes a long way toward explaining how Ramone developed those talents, and how he has applied his know-how to recordings by the above-mentioned artists as well as Elton John, Simon & Garfunkel, Ray Charles, Paul McCartney, Luciano Pavarotti, Gloria Estefan, Chicago and others.

Ramone's accessible approach is freewheeling, as he jumps, somewhat randomly, among artists and eras. He reminisces on his youth as an acclaimed concert violinist, student of pop culture and budding recording engineer, and recounts and analyzes his work on Joel's late '70s/early '80s blockbusters; Central Park concerts by Streisand and Simon & Garfunkel; a Karen Carpenter solo disc; and various cast recordings and soundtracks for film and television.

Some music fans will rightfully be annoyed by Ramone's overpraise of certain projects - he's alone in calling Joel's The Nylon Curtain "a credible avant-garde statement" - and for his unfettered love for so many slick recordings of middlebrow performances.

But it's a treat being privy to a professional's eye view of the evolution of audio technology, and it's a kick being taken inside the sessions for Getz/Gilberto, The Rhythm of the Saints and Dylan's Blood on the Tracks, among other notable recordings.

The original acoustic New York recordings for that classic Dylan album, half of which was later scrapped and re-recorded in Minnesota, were "unscripted and unpretentious," as Ramone writes. "The intensity of songs like Tangled Up in Blue, Idiot Wind, If You See Her, Say Hello and You're a Big Girl Now - which he arranged as he went along - proved that this was a cathartic exercise. . . . There were no charts and no rehearsals. The musicians had to watch Bob's hands to figure out what key he was playing in."

It's during passages like these that Ramone (with the help of co-writer Charles L. Granata) earns his keep as a valuable observer of American pop history, as well as a key figure in the creation of several landmark pop, rock and jazz recordings.

Philip Booth's writing on music has appeared in Down Beat, Rolling Stone, Salon and many other publications. He produced the CD compilation "Monk in the Sun," featuring jazz notables Nat Adderley, Jeff Berlin and Kenny Drew Jr.