Sound decision

Times Staff Writer

PHIL RAMONE, who has 14 Grammys at home, was dubbed "the Pope of Pop" some years ago and though it's not the sleekest of nicknames it does capture one defining attribute of his career -- Ramone's long resume is densely packed with divine studio moments.

How many other producers have worked with Frank Sinatra, Bob Dylan, Ray Charles, Paul McCartney, Paul Simon, Barbra Streisand, Elton John, Tony Bennett, Quincy Jones and Bono?

Ramone's musical odyssey began as a violin prodigy in South Africa and included a stop at the Juilliard School. By the 1960s he was an in-demand studio wiz at the dials and then a producer with a reputation for his artist-friendly approach. B.B. King once said of him: "Phil Ramone gave me the courage to do anything I wanted to try to do."

Ramone has just published a memoir, "Making Records: The Scenes Behind the Music" and he will be the producer this month of the MusiCares Person of the Year dinner for Aretha Franklin and part of the elite sound team working during the Grammy broadcast itself. Oh, and he also has his 34th Grammy nomination this year, this time for his work with saxophonist Dave Koz. When did you attend your first Grammys?

The first one I went to was in 1962. It was amazing. Back then it was just a small dinner affair, you know, it wasn't on television. I went again in 1963 and 1964 and then won the next year [for best engineering/nonclassical] for the album "Getz/Gilberto." Winning, that's just a magical moment in your life. I think I was 30. Those first years going, watching Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme and Andy Williams win awards, it was amazing. And then winning was indescribable. After taking home a dozen, doesn't the award start to mean less?

Never. Frank Sinatra said it best when he said the Grammy isn't for what you do commercially or on the charts, it's for what you do musically and as an artist. That was a heck of a goal to put in front of a kid like me back then. Hey, I would love to win this year, the 50th year. That would be brilliant. Three albums you produced have won album of the year: Paul Simon's "Still Crazy After All These Years" in 1975; Billy Joel's "52nd Street" in 1979; and Ray Charles' "Genius Loves Company" in 2004. Tell us a story about one of them.

Working with Ray on "Genius" was really special for me. Previous to that album, he had not been doing well and anyone who only paid attention to the charts would have written him off, but the idea of doing a duets album with all these great artists really energized him . . . some of the recordings came very close to the end of his life and it was a struggle for him, like that fragile performance with Elton John. It was in its own way as invigorating for the listener as the early sessions with Bonnie Raitt and Natalie Cole. I had met Ray back in 1959 and he was really, as an artist, the same man. He cared about what his music said to people and he had the freedom within to not care about the charts and to believe in his art. You're working on the sound for this year's Grammys broadcast. What kind of challenge is that?

You have to remember what the "S" stands for in NARAS; it's the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences. The show has to be the best-sounding broadcast and it is. It's right up there at the tip. We've accomplished a lot.


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