Arif Mardin, a Grammy-winning arranger and record producer whose four decades of hits include Aretha Franklin’s classic 1960s recordings, the Bee Gees’ falsetto-driven comeback in the 1970s and Norah Jones’ current adult pop, died Sunday of pancreatic cancer at his home in New York City. He was 74.
Mardin was known as a low-key figure in the studio who deferred to artists and made his points diplomatically, an approach that resulted in an unusually diversified portfolio. Other artists he worked with included the Young Rascals, John Prine, Hall & Oates, Donny Hathaway, Roberta Flack, the Modern Jazz Quartet, David Bowie, Carly Simon and Phil Collins.
He also became known as a “diva’s producer” through his association with several distinctive female singers. Besides Franklin and Jones, he worked prominently with Barbra Streisand, Bette Midler, Chaka Khan, Dusty Springfield (on her acclaimed “Dusty in Memphis” album) and Queen Latifah.
“He never made an Arif Mardin record, he made records that served the artist,” Bruce Lundvall, president of EMI Jazz & Classics, told The Times on Monday. “Some producers, you can tell who produced the record just by listening. He always served the artist and did the right thing. He had a way with the artist that was very gentle and yet very firm.”
One of Mardin’s high-impact inspirations came during his 1975 sessions for “Main Course” by the Bee Gees, a group that had been without direction or hits for several years. In addition to giving them a modern, rhythm-based sound, he suggested that Barry Gibb sing an octave higher. The resulting falsetto became a signature for the group as it returned to the charts with “Jive Talkin’” and “Nights on Broadway.”
Though he never imposed an identifiable style on his records, Mardin did have a predilection for strings and a layered sound, a tendency that might be traced to his early training as an arranger.
Born into a prominent family in Istanbul, Turkey, Mardin fell in love with American jazz and big-band music before he reached his teens. He studied piano and began writing and arranging, playing with groups of amateur jazz enthusiasts.
In 1956, Mardin went to see Dizzy Gillespie’s orchestra perform during a State Department-sponsored tour. He met the bandleader, and he gave some of his compositions to group member Quincy Jones. Jones recorded them for broadcast on the Voice of America, and then helped Mardin secure the first Quincy Jones Scholarship at the Berklee College of Music.
Mardin left his life of comfort in Turkey in 1958 to study music at the Boston institution, where he taught for a year after graduating. After moving to New York, he went to work at Atlantic Records as an assistant to Nesuhi Ertegun, a fellow Turkish expatriate who had founded the storied label with his brother Ahmet.
Mardin quickly moved up. His first solo production was “Good Lovin’,” a No. 1 hit for the Young Rascals in 1966, and a year later he became part of Atlantic’s “A team” with Atlantic partner and producer Jerry Wexler and engineer Tom Dowd. He focused on the arranging as they went on to oversee such Franklin albums as “I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You,” “Lady Soul” and “Amazing Grace,” among others.
“Whether it was horn charts or string charts, Arif had the magic touch, illustrious arrangements of depth and beauty,” Franklin wrote in her autobiography.
Mardin became a vice president and senior vice president at Atlantic as he amassed credits, including Midler’s “Wind Beneath My Wings” and Collins’ “Against All Odds” in the 1980s.
He won 11 Grammys over almost 30 years, including producer of the year in 1975 and 2002. He was named to the Recording Academy’s Hall of Fame in 1990 and received its Trustees Award for merit in 2001.
Mardin’s Atlantic career ended after the 2001 Time Warner-AOL merger, when employees over 55 were forced to retire. EMI’s Lundvall quickly stepped in and enlisted him as an executive at Manhattan Records, a dormant adult-pop label that he was reviving.
“He absolutely adored the people here, because it was a music environment that he remembered from the old Atlantic days when he and Jerry Wexler and Ahmet were together,” Lundvall said Monday. “He came here and he heard music playing in all the offices. He said, ‘My God, this guy’s playing Sonny Stitt records!’
“He knew everything about jazz.... He had a wonderful apartment, he and his family, and he had a music room and he would pull out old 78s that he had bought when he was a kid in Turkey, of Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, 78s on a Turkish label.... He loved to talk music all the time.”
Manhattan-affiliated Blue Note Records was the home of Mardin’s last major success. Lundvall asked the producer to step in on a project with young singer Norah Jones, whose initial sessions hadn’t captured the intimate quality that had prompted Lundvall to sign her.
Jones was reluctant at first, Lundvall said, but after they recorded one song together the rest of the album just rolled out.
“Arif said, ‘I have to keep my hands away from the idea of strings and stuff like that,’ ” Lundvall recalled. “He kept pushing his hands back, he said. ‘No no no, keep it simple, keep the focus on her voice and on her piano playing, add little colors here and there but don’t try to overproduce this.’
“I don’t think he ever overproduced anything, but he certainly didn’t with Norah, and she was thrilled.”
She should have been. “Come Away With Me” has sold nearly 10 million copies in the United States and has made her a major star. Mardin and Jones collaborated as producers on her 2004 follow-up, “Feels Like Home.”
In a statement released Monday, Jones said, “Arif was one of a kind. His big heart and laughter always put me at ease both in life and at work. It won’t be the same without him.”
At the time of his death, Mardin was making an album of his own compositions, with contributions from Jones, Midler, Khan, Dr. John and others. “He was working on this in the hospital room,” Lundvall said. “He was writing an arrangement a few weeks back for his son to finish if he didn’t live long enough, and sure enough he didn’t. But I think the record is something we’ll all hear at some point.”
Mardin is survived by his wife, Latife, son Joe and daughters Julie and Nazan. Funeral services will be Sunday in Istanbul. A memorial service is being planned for September in New York.