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2007 Sun-Times Q-&-A with Phil Ramone

This question-and-answer interview with Phil Ramone, the legendary music producer who died Saturday, originally was published in the Chicago Sun-Times on Nov. 18, 2007, soon after the release of his book Making Records: The Scenes Behind the Music, with the headline “Any way you spin it . . . Phil Ramone has a musical tale or two to tell.”

When you’re one of the most successful and highly respected record producers in the business, and you’ve worked with some of the biggest names, you’re bound to have stories about what goes on in the recording studio in the wee hours when everything is falling into place. Or those hours when an artist unleashes a torrent of obscenities at the people behind the glass booth.

Phil Ramone has seen and heard it all. And in his new book,

Making Records: The Scenes Behind the Music, Ramone recounts many a studio session with the likes of Elton John, Billy Joel, Barbra Streisand, Bob Dylan, Frank Sinatra, Ray Charles and many more. Neither a biography nor a memoir, the book is a recollection of various studio sessions, conversations therein, plus some interesting insight into the recordmaking process, from a guy who knows.

Question. Why did you decide to write a behind-the-studio scenes book instead of a biography?

Answer. I didn’t want to write a biography; we have plenty of those. I wasn’t gonna write a book about the backstage world of rock ‘n’ roll. I wanted to let people get inside the recording studio, somewhere they probably will never get to see, to see what I see and hear what I hear, without getting too technical about the process.

Q. What does a recording studio mean to you?

A. It’s the gymnasium of what we do in the music business. It’s the most productive an artist, a musician, will ever be. The tape, the room and me are always one part of the equation, then the arranger is brought in, and then you bring in the singer. I generally cut everything I do live with the singer in the booth and four or five pieces live. There’s no other way to make music.

Q. What is more important, the artist or the song?

A. The song’s the thing, it’s the most important piece of the equation. Then comes what you surround it with – the artist, the attitude of how you treat the musicians, the arrangement. I’ve spent most of my career around a certain type of songwriter and artist, people like [Tony] Bennett and [Frank] Sinatra who were great interpreters of the song. For them, the star was always the song, they knew how to stay out of the way of the song. That’s what made their singing so incredible.

Q. Let’s talk about some of the artists. Tell me about Tony Bennett.

A. The Tony Bennett experience is completely from another place. He doesn’t like to rehearse in the studio, so he does that at his own place. He comes in ready to work, to lay down the tracks. He always brings in his own trio. So did Sinatra. It’s that core upon which everything else is built. And he’s pretty much a one- or two-take person, and then he’s outta there.

Q. Sinatra . . .

A. Sinatra also had his core rhythm section that he brought with him, and they all knew when to stay out of the way of the song. If you wanted to change anything, you had better have a really good reason for doing so because these guys knew exactly what they wanted out of a song. What they didn’t want to hear out of my mouth was, “I want another take.” Because the first question out of Sinatra’s mouth was “Why?” and you better have a very good reason because you’d have those steely blue eyes looking at you through the glass.

Q. Bob Dylan, whom you refer to as a “m-----f----r” in the book during the “Blood on the Tracks” sessions . . .

A. [Laughing] He was just a perfectionist like no one I’ve never seen. His musicality transcends trends, because he was never about trends. He’s timeless.

Q. Ray Charles . . .

A. Ray was always a surprise in the studio. He could be in the foulest of moods, but when the music started and it was right, the whole atmosphere changed, his whole attitude changed. He was a tough customer, very demanding, and I say that lovingly because I got along with him really well. I remember seeing him in the studio for the first time when I was 18 or so, and he was sitting there at the piano, and he’s yelling out notes and changes and getting mad because the feeling wasn’t right. Then, he’d stop and do what Count Basie would do — just play the piano and hum. Then, his rhythm section would lay down the tempo. Quincy Jones once said that Ray taught him more about arranging than anyone.

Q. You were the mastermind behind Marilyn Monroe’s “Happy Birthday Mr. President” moment for President Kennedy. What was that like?

A. An armory had been transformed into a massive theater for the president’s birthday celebration, and I was handed the terrifying job of doing something with Marilyn Monroe’s appearance, which turned out to be the most fun I’d ever had. 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.

Q. So did you get to kiss Marilyn Monroe that night?

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

Q. After all these years, who’s the one who got away from you, the one you never got a chance to record?

A. I’d have to say John Lennon. I worked on a TV show with him but never in the studio. I would have been interested to see what he could have done as a songwriter in his later years.

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