Phil Ramone’s Greatest Collaborations: Sinatra, Simon, Billy, Bono, And…Marilyn?

Chris Willman
Stop The Presses! (NEW)

Phil Ramone, who died Saturday at the age of 79, was a marquee producer if ever there were one--even though a term like that would make him bristle. "It's not about having my time-honored stamp on their work," he said, humbly, to Billboard in 1996. "I'm not Tiffany or Cartier." Producers, he told Billboard, should stay "way in the back. If our names were on the front cover, it'd be different, but...the audience doesn’t care. I don’t think they go to the Phil Ramone section in Tower Records."

But Billy Joel did put Ramone's picture on the cover--albeit the back cover--alongside his longtime group. “I always thought of Phil Ramone as the most talented guy in my band,” said Joel in a statement Saturday. “He was the guy that no one ever, ever saw onstage. He was with me as long as any of the musicians I ever played with--longer than most. So much of my music was shaped by him and brought to fruition by him.” In earlier years, Joel had called Ramone "my George Martin," correlating him to the producer sometimes referred to as the Fifth Beatle.

As an engineer or producer, Ramone worked on a seemingly endless list of classics or unforgettable trifles, from Bob Dylan's Blood On The Tracks to the Starland Vocal Band's "Afternoon Delight." He was producing the original Broadway cast album for Chicago at about the same time he was producing the band Chicago. Here are a dozen of the most remarkable songs or projects Ramone was associated with:

Barbra Steisand, "Evergreen." After hiring Ramone to handle the sound for her 1967 concert in Central Park, Streisand knew that he was up to challenging audio tasks. So she knew who to call when she had another audio challenge--to capture her chops on the fly as motion picture cameras were rolling. "The challenge with A Star Is Born was that Barbra wanted to break tradition and record all of the film's music live, as each scene was performed," he recalled in a Billboard interview. In his 2007 memoir, Making Records, he added: "One of the memories I savor is hearing ‘Evergreen’ for the first time. Barbra was learning to play guitar so her movement would look real in the film, and she’d improvised a pretty melody while practicing one night. The next day she came in and played it for us and it was superb--almost classical in its simplicity...She was reticent about contributing to the film something she’d written, but it was by far the finest song in the picture.” He went on to produce the music for Yentl, as well.

Frank Sinatra and Bono, "I've Got You Under My Skin." "I always thought that Phil was the drummer in my favorite punk band…the Ramones," the U2 singer joked in 1996. "He wasn’t, but he was the precision and timing behind another punk outfit's duets album…He brought myself and Frank Sinatra together in cyberspace." When Sinatra cut his historic Duets album in 1993, he hadn't recorded in a decade, and Ramone was the guy who coaxed a very reluctant Chairman back into the Capitol studios for his last hurrah. Bono later used Ramone again when he recorded a solo version of "That's Life" as a tribute to Frank.

Paul Simon, "50 Ways To Leave Your Lover." Ramone first worked with Simon on the track "Me And Julio Down By The Schoolyard" when the singer's usual producer wasn't available for the session. He went on to produce several of Simon's greatest '70s landmarks and shared an Album of the Year Grammy with him for 1975's Still Crazy After All These Years."Remember the drum cadence at the beginning…?" Ramone asked decades later, as if any music fan could forget. It seems Simon had planned on "a samba beat that he thought would work for the song. Out in the studio, [drummer] Steve Gadd was warming up. Following his usual prerecording routine, he began playing a drum corps-style street beat…Paul heard the nagging rhythm through the open door and stopped playing his guitar” and ran in to tell him not to stop. "In that moment, the personality of '50 Ways To Leave Your Lover’ changed," and samba's loss was classic rock's gain.

Billy Joel, "Just The Way You Are." In his memoir, Ramone recalled, "One day I told Billy Joel that we could use another ballad for The Stranger. ‘Well, here’s a song we’ll never record,’ he said. ‘But you should hear it.’ Billy prefaced his live demo of the song by explaining that he had performed it a few times in concert, but no one in the band--including him--was overjoyed with it. He then sat at the piano and halfheartedly played me a song called ‘Just The Way You Are’.” Joel was worried about being too schmaltzy, but Ramone helped the band ditch the "cha-cha-cha" arrangement that everyone hated and turned the tune into a classic.

Marilyn Monroe, "Happy Birthday Mr. President." One of Ramone's earliest jobs was handling sound for the White House during the Kennedy administration (a role he also took on in the Johnson and Carter years). After JFK used him to set up and run the audio at some White House functions, he asked him to do the same at Madison Square Garden for a birthday party that became most famous for a Monroe serenade. In his book, he remembered Monroe as being a sweetheart during rehearsals. "She put her arm in mine as we walked back toward the piano," he wrote. "‘Where are those damned White House photographers when you need them?’ I muttered to myself."

Liza Minnelli, Liza With a Z. Nowadays, it's common for performers who both dance and sing to switch back and forth between live singing and lip-synching on stage. But mixing the two approaches was all but unheard of when Ramone did it for a famous Minnelli TV special in 1972. Director Bob Fosse wanted all the vocals to be pre-recorded to focus on the dancing, but Ramone was convinced that an all-canned approach would be too obvious to viewers. Said Minnelli years later, "Phil figured out how it went from playback to real voice and back again without the audience ever knowing it…It had never been done before. Bob Fosse couldn’t tell the difference.” One extra touch that Ramone recommended: having Liza bang her chest with her microphone so viewers could know for sure that (some of) it was live.

Dusty Springfield, "The Look Of Love." After many years of engineering, Ramone made the transition to producer with a boost from pal Burt Bacharach, who asked him to produce his score for film scorer John Barry, who asked him to produce his music for the Bond spoof Casino Royale, and John Barry, who had him do the same on the real Bond film On Her Majesty's Secret Service as well as Midnight Cowboy. These resulted in some memorable theme songs, including Louis Armstrong's "All The Time In The World," Nilsson's "Everybody's Talkin'," and this Springfield classic.

Shelby Lynne, Just A Little Lovin'. Ramone got to revisit Springfield in a big way when Shelby Lynne asked him to produce a Dusty tribute album in 2008. After Ramone had spent much of the 2000s doing unremarkable work like the first two Rod Stewart "American Songbook" albums, this richly orchestrated homage from one great singer to another was a notable return to form for the producer.

"The Girl From Ipanema." This bossa nova smash was produced by Quincy Jones and engineered by Ramone, part of a vital partnership that lasted from the mid-'50s through mid-'60s. He won his first Grammy for this song, for Best Engineered Recording.

Simon & Garfunkel, "My Little Town." Ramone had produced solo records for both of the former partners, but there was tension in the air when they entered the studio in 1975 for their first joint single since parting ways five years earlier. Ramone decided that mood lighting would help. "I put blue gels over the lights" of the studio, he wrote in his book, "so that all you could see was their silhouette in the room: two friends singing side by side into their microphones. It was eerie, but the atmosphere mirrored the subtle darkness of the song.”

John Coltrane, "Ole." Early in his career, Ramone was engineering jazz records, like this classic from the sax great. "In the period that wrought Ole Coltrane, he attacked every phrase like a pit bull," Ramone recalled. Although he drifted away from pure jazz, he found ways in the '70s to incorporate it into the commercial records he produced. "Part of the reason I was blessed with success as a producer," he wrote, "is because I wouldn’t hesitate to juxtapose a classical soloist with a rock 'n' roll band, or a jazz player with a pop singer. I started by doing it with Paul Simon [Michael Brecker playing on ‘Still Crazy After All These Years’) and Billy Joel (Phil Woods on ‘Just The Way You Are’ and Freddie Hubbard on ‘Zanzibar’], and found that it added a nice texture to their songs.”

Lesley Gore, "It's My Party." Ramone engineered this pop classic, as well as her haunting follow-up, "You Don't Own Me," both produced by Quincy Jones. "It's My Party" had to be finished in one of the all-time great hurries. They'd just cut the tracks for the song when Jones went to a Saturday night party and ran into Phil Spector, who bragged that he was cutting the greatest song he'd ever heard with the Crystals, and it was called "It's My Party." Realizing that a song publisher had promised the tune exclusively to both of them, Jones called Ramone late that night and asked him to be at the studio Sunday morning to finish the number. By Monday, they were air-mailing hundreds of acetates of the tune to DJs, getting quite the jump on poor, painstaking Spector.

Ray Charles and Elton John, "Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word." Ramone won his last Album of the Year Grammy for producing Charles's Genius Loves Company, a duets project that wound up being released posthumously. Unlike the Sinatra duets project, where Ol' Blue Eyes wanted to cut his parts alone, Ramone had Charles and Tony Bennett in the same room with their singing partners on their respective albums. Charles's duet with John marked the last time the R&B legend ever entered a studio. Elton so treasured the moment that he asked for a recording of the complete session. When he got a rough mix and heard that one of his breaths had been taken out via ProTools, he demanded that it be reinstated, so exactly did he want the finished track to mirror what went down that last bittersweet day.