NEW YORK — Phil Ramone, the Grammy Award-winning engineer and producer whose platinum touch included recordings with Ray Charles, Billy Joel and Paul Simon, has died at 72.
Ramone’s son, Matt Ramone, confirmed the death. The family did not immediately release details of the death, but Matt Ramone says his father was “very loving and will be missed.”
Few in the recording industry enjoyed a more spectacular and diverse career. Ramone won 14 competitive Grammy Awards and one for lifetime achievement. He was at ease with rock, jazz, swing and pop, working with Frank Sinatra and Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder and Paul McCartney, Elton John and Tony Bennett.
He produced three records that went on to win Grammys for album of the year – Simon’s “Still Crazy After All These Years,” Joel’s “52nd Street” and Charles’ “Genius Loves Company.”
“I always thought of Phil Ramone as the most talented guy in my band,” Joel said in a statement. “So much of my music was shaped by him and brought to fruition by him. I have lost a dear friend – and my greatest mentor.”
Ramone was a pioneer of digital recording who produced what is regarded as the first major commercial release on compact disc, “52nd Street,” which came out on CD in 1982. He was also part of political history, advising presidential administrations on how to properly record a news conference and helping to arrange the storied 1962 party for John F. Kennedy at Madison Square Garden that featured Marilyn Monroe crooning “Happy Birthday.”
He thrived on producing music for television, film and the stage. He won an Emmy for a TV special about Duke Ellington, a Grammy for the soundtrack to the Broadway musical “Promises, Promises” and a Grammy for the soundtrack to “Flashdance.”
Ramone made an art out of the “Duets” concept, pairing Sinatra with Bono, Luther Vandross and other younger artists, Bennett with McCartney and Barbra Streisand, and Charles with Bonnie Raitt and Van Morrison. In Ramone’s memoir, “Making Records,” he recalled persuading a hesitant Sinatra to re-record some of his signature songs.
“I reminded Frank that while Laurence Olivier had performed Shakespeare in his 20s, the readings he did when he was in his 60s gave them new meaning,” Ramone wrote. “I spoke with conviction. ‘Don’t my children – and your grandchildren – deserve to hear the way you’re interpreting your classic songs now?’”
A native of South Africa, he seemed born to make music. He had learned violin by age 3 and was trained at The Juilliard School in New York. Before age 20, he had opened his own recording studio, A&R Recording, where he served as engineer for such visiting artists as Count Basie and Sarah Vaughan. He had known Quincy Jones since he was a teenager and in his 20s became close to Streisand. By the end of the 1960s, he had worked on “Midnight Cowboy” and other movie soundtracks and would credit composer John Barry with helping him become a producer.
His credits as a producer, engineer and arranger make it hard to believe they belong to just one person: Joel’s “The Stranger,” Simon’s “Still Crazy After All These Years,” the Bob Dylan/The Band concert album “Before the Flood,” such popular singles as Arlo Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant,” Streisand’s “Evergreen,” Judy Collins’ “Send in the Clowns” and Stan Getz’s and Astrud Gilberto’s “The Girl from Ipanema.”
The bearded, self-effacing Ramone was among the most famous and welcome faces within the business, yet he could walk down virtually any street unnoticed. He was not a high-strung visionary in the tradition of Phil Spector, but rather a highly accomplished craftsman and diplomat who prided himself on his low-key style, on being an “objective filter” for the artist, on not being “a screamer.”
“The record producer is the music world’s equivalent of a film director,” he wrote in his memoir. “But, unlike a director (who is visible, and often a celebrity in his own right), the record producer toils in anonymity. We ply our craft deep into the night, behind locked doors.”
In a statement Saturday, Bennett said it was a joy to work with Ramone.
“Phil Ramone was a lovely person and a very gifted musician and producer,” Bennett said. “He had a wonderful sense of humor and a deep love of music.”