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If your life had a sound track . . .

Phil Ramone would be the producer. He warmed up working with Marilyn Monroe, then produced hits for Tony Bennett, Billy Joel, Barbra Streisand and more.

By Sean Daly
Published February 8, 2008


You gutted out a brutal breakup listening to Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks. You danced at your first wedding to Billy Joel's Just the Way You Are. You booked a honeymoon in Bahia - or at least daydreamed of one - after discovering Paul Simon's Rhythm of the Saints.

And maybe, just maybe, you spent most of your ridiculous leg-warmer youth bouncing to the Flashdance soundtrack.

That's the thing about Phil Ramone, the man who produced every one of those musical milestones, not to mention bestsellers by Ray Charles, Tony Bennett, Rod Stewart, Barbra Streisand. Though he's had a Gumpian gift for being in the midst of pop culture history - just wait 'til you hear his Marilyn Monroe story - Ramone has also been a major player in your history.

Calling from Los Angeles, Ramone sums up his legacy simply: "It's just my pursuit of always looking for something different."

Sunday, Ramone will be competing for gold at the 50th annual Grammy Awards. That's appropriate. After all, he has been nominated 34 times and has won 14 trophies over his five decades of work: for Charles' Genius Loves Company, for Stan Getz and Joao Gilberto's Getz/Gilberto, for Joel's 52nd Street, which was also the first album pressed on compact disc.

He just might take home another statue this year, as the producer of saxophonist Dave Koz's At the Movies album.

To think Ramone has done it all on "feel" alone, an intensely personal, decidedly unplugged - and very old-school - method of producing detailed in his new book, Making Records: The Scenes Behind the Music. He first had a clue how to handle talent helming Kenny Loggins' 1977 album Celebrate Me Home. "I was on the borderline of overproducing. So I went the other way after that. I became a minimalist."

With an innate knowledge of what works with listeners, Ramone decided to allow the natural energy of the music flow - slight glitches and all. If Joel sped up coming out of a chorus, let the tape roll. If Dylan plucked a bad string in a frenzy of emotion, stay the course.

This, it should be noted, is the opposite of the way many pop albums are made today. "Perfection has become part of the equipment rather than of your psyche," says Ramone, who gives his age as "let's say 68." "It's daunting to make an album these days."

The music industry, from 50 Cent to Carrie Underwood, is now driven by computer-generated hits and slick, ProTooled albums. Maybe that's why the music biz is suffering; maybe not. Either way, human touch and warm mistakes are "unacceptable," Ramone laments. "But really, what's wrong with that?"

For all the talk of feel and touch, Ramone also knows the technical stuff. He was a violin prodigy at age 3. He attended the Juilliard School before embarking on a career behind the soundboard. He apprenticed as a recording engineer, landing wide-eyed jobs running tape for Burt Bacharach, Quincy Jones, Dionne Warwick as she crooned about Alfie.

But perhaps Ramone's ultimate lesson in handling talent and egos, the big moment that prepared him for those other big moments, was when he worked sound for a Marilyn Monroe gig at Madison Square Garden.

Well, not just any Marilyn Monroe gig: her infamously breathy "Happy Birthday, Mr. President" routine at the 1962 birthday bash for John F. Kennedy. Ramone was 22 - scared, titillated, thrilled out of his mind.

"The sound system was atrocious," he says with a chuckle. "The Garden was then just a fight arena, an old barn that was falling apart." The whole thing made him a nervous wreck. In fact, to this day, he has never spent as much time setting up a mike as he did for Marilyn.

At one point, Monroe even locked arms with a shocked Ramone - "What do I remember feeling? Fear!" - and walked him across the stage. He recalls thinking, Where are those damned White House photographers when you need them?

Once you've worked with the ultimate bombshell fantasy, you're ready to handle all your bold-faced heroes. There was Sinatra on 1993's Duets album. The first time Ramone tried to record the Chairman, the microphone was broken; the second time, Ramone had two mikes set up. "Sinatra was the most comforting person - if he trusted you," he says with a laugh. "He taught me that you have to be prepared."

There was Dylan, recently divorced and letting his misery sing on 1975'sBlood on the Tracks. "He is always Bob Dylan," Ramone says. "He doesn't overspeak." Dylan would often walk into the studio without a word to anyone and just start performing. Ramone learned early to always have the tape running.

Ramone forged his greatest working relationship with Joel, a mercurial, blue-collar talent with a stubborn streak. By listening to the Piano Man, and carefully guiding him in the right direction - for instance, turning Only the Good Die Young from a reggae song into a rock song - he helped make Joel a star.

"You know you're getting through when they play stuff for you that they wouldn't play for anybody else," says Ramone.

One of those unmentionables was a "bad foxtrot" number from 1977's The Stranger sessions that Joel was ready to spike. Drummer Liberty DeVitto hated the song so much, he hurled his sticks in protest. But Ramone was feeling this certain song. "We should do this song totally different," he said. "Give it a samba-like feel."

After reworking the arrangement, Ramone "took Billy off the piano and put him on a Fender Rhodes" for a softer, jazzier sound. And suddenly the hit emerged: Just the Way You Are.

"You have to win their confidence," he says of Sinatra, Dylan and Joel, famously singular men. "You can't powder their nose with garbage."

Amazingly enough, one of Ramone's slyest production jobs might be his latest trick: stripping away the artifice from Shelby Lynne's career and turning the wild-child blond into a natural soul singer. On Just a Little Lovin', inspired by Dusty Springfield, Lynne, who has tried country and rock, is finally positioned to become a star. Ramone says it was all about the hard-living Lynne "understanding what Dusty was all about."

When you press Ramone for juicy dish on his clients, well, you can press all you want. That's not his style. That's not how he got here. The Making Records book is reverent to all his clients. "I wasn't out to write scandal stories," he says. "I wasn't interested in writing a tell-all." So there'll be no dirt on Dylan, on Joel, on Streisand. "I'm not ready to move to an island," he laughs. Instead, Phil Ramone wants to keep making music, keep winning Grammys, keep making history: his, theirs and yours.

Sean Daly can be reached at sdaly@sptimes.com or 727 893-8467. His Pop Life blog is at blogs.tampabay.com/popmusic.