Listening Back To An Interview With Phil Ramone
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. We're going to remember the record producer and engineer Phil Ramone who died Saturday at the age of 79. He won 14 Grammys. He started his career as an engineer, recording singers like Lesley Gore, Dusty Springfield and Dionne Warwick. He went on to produce recordings by Paul Simon, Billy Joel, Barbara Streisand, Ray Charles and Tony Bennett as well as the original cast recording of Stephen Sondheim's "Passion."
Ramone pioneered long distance recording techniques when he produced Frank Sinatra's "Duets" albums. I spoke with Ramone in 1995. We started with one of the records Phil Ramone worked on at the beginning of his career - Lesley Gore's "You Don't Own Me."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU DON'T OWN ME")
LESLEY GORE: (Singing) You don't own me. I'm not just one of your many toys. You don't own me. Don't say I can't say go with other boys. And don't tell me what to do. Don't tell me what to say. And please when I go out with you, don't put me on display. 'Cause you don't own me.
GROSS: Phil Ramone, welcome to FRESH AIR. What was your role on "You Don't Own Me?"
PHIL RAMONE: I was the recording engineer, working with Quincy Jones who was the producer and Lesley, who I think was 14, maybe 15 at the time. It was one of those overnight, amazing records for both she - I think we had done "Judy's Turn to Cry" first. And I think - I'm sorry, "It's My Party" was her first hit. And within a week they believed that she was going to become a star. So the rush was on to record these songs.
GROSS: So did you record everybody together?
RAMONE: Oh, yeah.
GROSS: Or did you bring them in at separate times?
GROSS: It was all together.
RAMONE: Yeah. As opposite as it is in the '90s, it's just the way it was then. I mean, bands - recording orchestras, rhythm sections, were particular groups of people who were brought together who played well together. And it was very much an in-thing to have certain kind of rhythm players for this kind of music; The Triplets and The Right Hand of the Piano, maybe one of the greatest jazz pianists. You never know who was in the band.
Strings always showed up with their cigars in their mouth and their newspapers.
RAMONE: And played incredibly well, bored to tears with this kind of music at the time. That was an elite group of people who played that kind - not just that kind of music; they'd go on from that to a Johnny Mathis session or a Rosie Clooney or play with Toscanini on the week, during the week. They didn't have much patience and if you were an engineer, if they didn't hear themselves well or something - we never used earphones in those days.
People had to play acoustically in a room. At the time, I had designed this funny little booth to isolate the singer from the band and it was sort of considered a little bit out there. But it really helped. And mainly because we needed to get some kind of attitude going. In those days, it was also illegal to over-dub. And over-dub meaning to put your voice on after the orchestra had left.
GROSS: Why was it illegal?
RAMONE: Well, it was just a union rule. I mean, you performed, you recorded, and you were done. And many things were done behind locked doors later because eventually certain singers were not comfortable singing live. So the producer would say to me, make sure we have a clean vocal so we can change it. And, hence, the building of booths.
GROSS: Right. You needed an isolated...
GROSS: ...booth for the singer so that you could rerecord their vocal without...
GROSS: And also that you can control their volume without also controlling the volume of the orchestra.
RAMONE: Right. I mean, sometimes the band got so loud in the room, you know, any singer could be overwhelmed by the band.
GROSS: I'd like you to describe what the control room was like when you first started engineering.
RAMONE: Studios were rather simplistic. They did not do multi-track recordings when I started. It was - two track was a big deal. The key to it was mono, believe it or not. The studio I worked at was a demo studio first, and you'd come in with a song and we were capable, because there was a bass player and a guitar player and a piano player, to create a demo for you in 15 minutes.
And we would double track. Meaning we would add - I'd play six fiddle parts in a minute. And I'd just...
GROSS: Oh, you'd do the parts yourself?
RAMONE: Oh, sure.
GROSS: For the demo.
RAMONE: Yeah. It taught me that, you know, and engineer it yourself, so you run between the room and then you start the machine and then you run out there and you've got one bar to get there. It wasn't a very large studio, so.
GROSS: Did you save your demos?
RAMONE: No, actually, I didn't. You know, they're acetates, probably. Economics were you kept the tape for a week. If they wanted to pay for storage, a dollar a week, they would pay for it for a month. After that it went into the reuse file.
GROSS: Too bad.
RAMONE: Yeah. Life was very sort of organized. But, you know, that pain has hit me twice in my life since then. Once I lost a complete library of the room where the economic crunch had come and somebody said, you know, we have all those metal reels. So let's go down there and take the metal reels apart. We'll cut the tape off and we'll start with - at least we won't have to pay two bucks a reel. So I lost a complete library. I was away working that summer on some project.
RAMONE: It's amazing how...
GROSS: It hurts me to hear that.
RAMONE: Oh, it kills me. I'm trying to get labels and everyone else to pull out tapes and realize that you may have - it's not about money.
GROSS: But preservation.
RAMONE: You may have a Dylan rehearsal.
RAMONE: And god knows what's sitting in somebody's basement.
GROSS: Right. I want to ask you about one of the recent recordings that you produced, and this is the recording - the original cast recording of Stephen Sondheim's musical "Passion." Wonderful recording.
RAMONE: Thank you.
GROSS: There's a - I think there's a style for doing cast recordings that's maybe different from any other kind of recording.
RAMONE: Oh, yeah.
GROSS: What's different about it?
RAMONE: You need to record everybody in one day because that's what they give you. One whole day to record everybody. It's exhausting but incredibly challenging. And you create the stage for radio, like an old radio show, and you create the best of those pieces and you edit them quickly to make some kind of sense.
GROSS: Was Sondheim at your side?
RAMONE: Every minute.
GROSS: Any interesting advice?
RAMONE: He's a particularly bright, bright man with tremendous musical taste and a following that'll go on forever.
GROSS: Phil Ramone, I just have a final question that you've probably been asked a zillion times. Do people ever confuse you with either Phil Spector or The Ramones?
RAMONE: You bet. Both of them. I get Phil Spector on the streets sometimes and The Ramones, it's a constant. We went to the MTV Awards this year and Joey and I sat together.
RAMONE: Really bizarre. Oh, it's a constant question.
GROSS: So what are the mistakes people make?
RAMONE: Well, they think Wall of Sound, Phil Ramone. And it's not.
RAMONE: Phil Spector is definitely - The Ramones, of course, I take full credit for any of their success and they take it from me too. We just love - there's an interesting love there. It was 20 years of punk, you know. I like people who have another side to the music than just the straight ahead.
GROSS: Right. Thank you very much for talking with us.
RAMONE: You're welcome. Thank you.
GROSS: Phil Ramone, recorded in 1995. He died Saturday at the age of 79. You can download podcasts of our show on our website, freshair.npr.org and you can follow us on Twitter at nprfreshair and on Tumblr at nprfreshair.tumblr.com.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.