Tuesday, April 2, 2013
Phil Ramone & Paul Williams: Makers of Rock History
In reading the recent obituaries of Phil Ramone and Paul Williams I was struck by how the rock producer and the rock writer were connected by only degree of separation: Paul Simon.
In the first issue of Crawdaddy(named for a London Club where the Stones played), Williams reviewed Simon & Garfunkel’s new release, "Sounds of Silence", which he had to buy himself. A copy of that seminal, mimeographed issue in 1966 made it to Paul Simon, who called Williams in his dormitory at Swarthmore to thank him for the review. Crawdaddy predates Rolling Stone and Creem but was eventually overwhelmed by the glitzier magazines. Still, Williams, who also wrote a trilogy on Bob Dylan, set the bar pretty high for writers like Jon Landau and Peter Guralnick, both Crawdaddy alums.
In writing about rock music, my intention was not to judge the records (like a critic) or report on the scene (like a journalist) but to explore as an essayist, the experience eof listening to certain records and feeling the whole world through them.
Phil Ramone crossed paths with Paul Simon a few years latter, producing “There Goes Rhymin Simon” and then helping win three Grammys for “Still Crazy After All These Years.” Reading the list of artists he worked with, first as an engineer then producer, one can’t help but consider him as a giant of late 20th century music. It began with John Coltrane and Count Basie and came full circle with a Grammy for Ray Charles’ duets: "Genius Loves Company." In between, besides Simon, were Dusty Springfield, Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin, Frank Sinatra, Madonna, Billy Joel and Tony Bennett and many others.
For several decades, in the music business, Phil Ramone was the answer to the question: Who you gonna call? No doubt, one key to his success was his willingness to let the artist have the spotlight. As reported in the NY Times, he wrote that a record producer’s role was much like that of a film director: to bring out the best performance.
But unlike a director (who is visible and often a celebrity in his own right), the record producer toils in anonymity. We ply our craft deep into the night, behind locked doors. And with few exceptions, the fruit of our labor is seldom launched with the glitzy fanfare of a Hollywood premiere.
For a guy who spent his life working with rock stars, he says his personal highlight came from a gig with a Hollywood screen legend. He was running sound when Marilyn Monroe cooed Happy Birthday Mr. President in 1962.