The Record Producer In Perfect Harmony With His Artists

By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Legendary producer Arif Mardin didn't have the ego, or the signature sound, of Phil Spector. He didn't have the fame of George Martin, who was best known for his evolutionary work with the Beatles. There was no identifiable Mardin thumbprint, no obvious post-production tweaking: He preferred for the end product to be achieved in the recording studio in a spirit of consultation, cooperation and communion.

Mardin crafted exquisite, empathetic arrangements around his artists, sometimes simply stepping away and letting them find their voice, their groove, their sound -- as he did in the early '60s when he began producing many of the stellar players on Atlantic's jazz roster. The Turkish-born Mardin had fallen in love with American popular music when it was dominated by the big-band jazz of Ellington, Basie and Miller, and he followed the music into the avant-garde of its day, the bebop of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie.

After coming to America in the late '50s to attend Berklee College of Music in Boston, Mardin was drafted into Atlantic by label founders, and fellow Turks, Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegun (the well-to-do, politically influential Ertegun and Mardin families had been friends at home). And by 1965, he'd begun a production history second to none, from the Young Rascals' "Good Lovin' " to Norah Jones's 2002 debut "Come Away With Me," which sold 20 million copies worldwide.

Mardin, who died Sunday at age 74 from pancreatic cancer, probably put a wider range of artists at the top of the charts than any other producer. He had a particular affinity for women singers, with an unmatched client list that included Aretha Franklin, Dusty Springfield, Chaka Khan, Bette Midler, Carly Simon, Barbra Streisand, Laura Nyro, Anita Baker, Ofra Haza, Dianne Reeves, Jewel and Jones.

"Maybe I get along with female artists, though I have lifelong friends like the Bee Gees and Phil Collins and Average White Band," Mardin said in an interview a few years ago, casually naming some of his male hitmakers. But, he admitted, the percentage of female artists was higher. "Maybe it's just a matter of me being lucky to be connected with great singers."

Actually, they were lucky, regardless of gender, to be connected with Mardin, a cultured gentleman with a debonair manner and unerring instincts about how to best serve the artist. The music wasn't about his tastes; it was about the artists and their creativity. You could do round-the-clock radio programming with Mardin's work product.

Simply producing great jazz albums and doing big-band arrangements would have been a wonderful enough career for Mardin, but his path changed in 1966 with "Good Lovin'," his first chart-topping production. The following year proved a breakthrough for the newly signed Aretha Franklin as a sterling team consisting of producer Jerry Wexler, engineer Tom Dowd and arranger Mardin crafted her landmark album, "I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)" and its classic single "Respect," with loads more collaboration to follow. The lines of responsibility among the three men often blurred for Franklin, but each would achieve great renown in his own right.

More than the others on the team, Mardin's work transcended genres, with no one sound dominating his records. The '70s brought the sensitive folk of John Prine, the deep soul of Donny Hathaway, the R&B reinvention of the Bee Gees with "Jive Talkin' " and blue-eyed funk via the Average White Band. And Willie Nelson. Hall & Oates, Judy Collins, George Benson. Washington guitar legend Roy Buchanan. Rod Stewart. The list expanded in the '80s, with dozens of other artists seeking Mardin's exquisite orchestrations and string arrangements.

Though his pace eventually slowed, Mardin was sought out not only by the artists he'd worked with over the decades, but younger artists who turned to him for his expertise and sensitivity, his ability to use technology to enhance and underscore rather than overwhelm their efforts. He instructed but didn't intrude, encouraged but didn't manipulate. The great producer laughed about his awareness of, not slavishness to, ever-new studio recording technology. While it had dramatically changed the way people recorded, "the song remains the same," Mardin insisted. "Things go forward, but a great song is a great song."

This comment was apropos of Norah Jones, and how she represented a basic sincerity Mardin sought in his work.

"I don't take a project if it's just a crass commercial project with no musical value," he noted. "This one was totally the opposite -- total honesty, total heartfelt music."

Which is how a 71-year-old gentleman whose good taste, sterling character and generous enthusiasm never diminished won the 2003 Grammy as producer of the year with "Come Away With Me," which took album and record of the year. About 14 years earlier, Mardin won a Grammy for producing the Bette Midler hit whose inspirational sentiment could just as well apply to his efforts on behalf of myriad artists: He was the wind beneath their wings.

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