Phil Ramone, hitmaking music producer who won 14 Grammys, dies at 79


Phil Ramone sought to bring out the essence of each performer, regardless of musical style, working seamlessly with a wide range of artists. (Evan Agostini/AP)
March 30, 2013

Phil Ramone, one of the most important recording engineers and producers in the music business, who was responsible for creating the sound for such diverse artists as Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin, Frank Sinatra, Madonna and Ray Charles, died March 30 at a hospital in New York City. He was 79.

A son, Matt Ramone, confirmed the death to news organizations. Mr. Ramone had been hospitalized in February for an aortic aneurysm.

He won 14 Grammy Awards, including three for album of the year, and was recognized as one of the music world’s most prolific and skilled hitmakers. A onetime classical violinist who put down his bow for the soundboard, Mr. Ramone was sometimes called “the man with the golden ears.”

He never developed a signature production style, like Phil Spector’s “wall of sound,” preferring to merge his taste with that of the artist. He sought instead to bring out the essence of each performer, regardless of musical style, working seamlessly with a wide range of artists, from B.B. King to Sinead O’Connor, Tony Bennett to Dusty Springfield, Billy Joel to Luciano Pavarotti. He was the producer of Amy Winehouse’s final recording — a duet with Bennett in 2011 on the standard “Body and Soul.”

Mr. Ramone told the Chicago Tribune in 1985 that working with a musician in a studio is “the most intimate relationship you can have other than someone you share your bed with.”


Music producer Phil Ramone, pictured on Oct. 24, 1983. (Michael Tweed/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

In addition to his high-profile work with musical stars, Mr. Ramone also engineered and produced state concerts at the White House for the presidential administrations of John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson and Jimmy Carter. He was at the controls on the unforgettable night that Marilyn Monroe cooed “Happy Birthday, Mr. Presidentto Kennedy in 1962.

No matter which performer he worked with, Mr. Ramone kept one idea paramount.

“The song’s the thing, it’s the most important piece of the equation,” he told the Chicago Sun-Times in 2007. “Then comes what you surround it with — the artist, the attitude of how you treat the musicians, the arrangement.”

After giving up the violin, Mr. Ramone wrote songs in New York’s fabled hit factory, the Brill Building, and formed a music company in the late 1950s. One of the first hit songs he engineered was Lesley Gore’s “It’s My Party” in 1963.

The next year, Mr. Ramone was the engineer on the landmark jazz recording “Getz/Gilberto,” which helped launch the bossa nova craze with “The Girl From Ipanema,” which featured Stan Getz’s sultry saxophone and Astrud Gilberto’s half-whispered vocals. The album marked the first of Mr. Ramone’s 14 Grammys.

Throughout the 1960s, he worked mostly as an engineer, recording jazz albums by John Coltrane and Count Basie and pop classics such as Springfield’s “The Look of Love” (1967).

Mr. Ramone later helped record Paul Simon’s “There Goes Rhymin’ Simon” (1973) and “Still Crazy After All These Years” (1975), which won a Grammy for album of the year. In 1974, he worked on Dylan’s landmark album “Blood on the Tracks.”

“He was just a perfectionist like no one I’ve never seen,” Mr. Ramone said of Dylan in 2007. “His musicality transcends trends, because he was never about trends. He’s timeless.”

By the late 1970s, Mr. Ramone was collaborating on the first of seven albums with Joel, who once called Mr. Ramone “the most important member of my band.” Together, they won the Grammy for record of the year with “Just the Way You Are” (1978) and album of the year for “52nd Street” (1979).

Mr. Ramone was known as a technological pioneer, and “52nd Street” was the first commercially released compact disc.

In 2005, Mr. Ramone won his third Grammy for album of the year for producing Charles’s final recording, a series of duets called “Genius Loves Company.” He also won several Grammys for producing albums by Bennett.

“When it comes to making records,” Mr. Ramone wrote in his autobiographical book “Making Records” in 2007, “substance should outweigh perfection. Great records are all about feel, and if it comes down to making a choice, I’ll go for the take that makes me dance over a bland one with better sound any day.”

Philip Ramone was born in South Africa, most likely on Jan. 5, 1934. (Many biographical sources give his year of birth as 1941, but his manager told Billboard magazine — and public records confirm — that Mr. Ramone was seven years older.)

He was a child prodigy on violin, beginning at age 3, and moved with his family to New York, where he attended the Juilliard music school. An urban legend — never verified — holds that the Ramones rock band was named for Mr. Ramone.

Survivors include his wife, Karen Ichiuji Ramone; and three sons.

In the 2007 interview with the Sun-Times, Mr. Ramone recalled the night of May 19, 1962, when Monroe shimmied onstage in New York to sing “Happy Birthday” to Kennedy. The evening “turned out to be the most fun I’d ever had,” Mr. Ramone said.

“She was so sweet. She looked sensational. And I looked like a deer in headlights. She comes out and sings that song like it’s never been sung before or since, and all we have is some crummy 16mm film footage of it.

“She gave me a big kiss on the cheek as she said thank you.”

Matt Schudel has been an obituary writer at The Washington Post since 2004.