Phil Ramone dies at 79; pop producer was star behind the stars

Phil Ramone stands inside Studio B of the Capitol Records building in Hollywood in 2008. Ramone was known for forging close creative relationships with artists and for the sumptuous sounds of his work, which typified an era of lavish recording budgets.
(Genaro Molina, Los Angeles Times)
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Phil Ramone, the veteran record producer whose work with such top-tier talent as Barbra Streisand, Bob Dylan and Paul Simon made him one of the most revered figures in the music business, died Saturday. He was 79.

He died of complications from pneumonia stemming from surgery he had last month to prevent an aortic aneurysm, his son, Matt Ramone, told the Associated Press.

“Our industry has lost an immense talent and a true visionary,” Neil Portnow, president and chief executive of the Recording Academy, said in a statement Saturday.

Phil Ramone: In the March 31 California section, the obituary of music producer Phil Ramone gave his age as 82 and his birth year as 1931. According to his family and public records, he was born in 1934 and was 79. —

Stevie Wonder called Ramone “the star of stars behind the stars” and Tony Bennett said the producer was admired and respected by “everyone in the entertainment industry,” according to their publicists.


The winner of 14 Grammy Awards — including one in the early 1980s for producer of the year — Ramone was known for forging close creative relationships with artists and for the sumptuous sounds of his work, which typified an era of lavish recording budgets.

He also won an Emmy Award for helping to craft a 1973 television special, “Duke Ellington … We Love You Madly.”

Among the albums Ramone produced were Simon’s “Still Crazy After All These Years” in 1975 and Billy Joel’s “52nd Street” in 1978. Both were honored with Grammys for album of the year.

Throughout his career, Ramone was an early adopter of recording technology as it evolved, and “52nd Street” is widely regarded as the first audio CD to be mass-produced.

Equally important, though, were his cozy relations with A-list artists, connections Ramone put to creative use in assembling all-star duet albums for Frank Sinatra and Bennett. In 2011 Ramone also oversaw Bennett’s Grammy-winning “Duets II,” which paired the crooner, then 85, with younger singers such as Lady Gaga and John Mayer.

He also collaborated with Frank Sinatra, Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin, as well as on the soundtracks of such films as “Midnight Cowboy” (1969) and “Flashdance” (1983).

While working with Streisand on her 1983 film adaptation of “Yentl” he described his role to The Times: “‘Yentl’ takes place in 1903, so when the songs are heard in the film, they’re played turn-of-the-century style. That’s OK for the movie, but Barbra wants to put some of these songs on the pop market — obviously, they have to be updated, be produced in a way that fits the current market. That’s where I come in.”

Streisand said in a statement Saturday, “Phil had impeccable musical taste, great ears and the most gentle way of bringing out the best in all the artists he worked with.”


Ramone was born in South Africa in 1931, according to his 2007 memoir “Making Records,” but some public records give his birth year as 1934. He grew up in New York, where his musical talent — and dedication to the craft — developed at an early age.

“While most 10-year-olds were outside playing ball, I was inside playing the violin,” he wrote in his book.

He studied at the Juilliard School before shifting his attention from classical music to pop and jazz. As a teenager, he had nurtured the interest by secretly listening to the radio.

After apprenticing as an engineer, he co-founded a New York studio and called it A&R Recording; the “A” was for his partner, Jack Arnold.


In 1962, Ramone engineered Marilyn Monroe’s famously breathy performance of “Happy Birthday, Mr. President” at President Kennedy’s televised Madison Square Garden birthday party.

By the early 1960s, he was working on a series of important jazz recordings, winning his first Grammy for Stan Getz and João Gilberto’s “Getz/Gilberto,” which turned “The Girl From Ipanema” into an international smash. He later moved into pop and rock, engineering and then into producing blockbuster projects by Simon, Joel and many others.

“I always thought of Phil Ramone as the most talented guy in my band,” Joel said in a statement Saturday. “So much of my music was shaped by him and brought to fruition by him.”

Quincy Jones, who like Ramone was one of the few producers who was nearly as famous as his clients, said Saturday in a release: “Whenever I was in the studio recording, if Phil wasn’t there by my side it would seem like one ingredient was missing.”


Ramone had served as a producer on Jones’ most recent studio album, 2010’s “Soul Bossa Nostra.”

Other recent projects included “Just a Little Lovin’,” Shelby Lynne’s 2008 tribute to Dusty Springfield, and a reteaming with Simon for 2011’s acclaimed “So Beautiful or So What.”

A member of the Songwriters Hall of Fame, Ramone was chairman emeritus of the board of trustees of the Recording Academy and a co-chairman of its producers and engineers wing.

He lived in Wilton, Conn., and had a wife, Karen, and three sons, Matt, Simon and William.


“The greatest interaction in the world,” Ramone wrote in his memoir, “is the creativity involved in making music.”