Arif Mardin: Tales from the Recording Studio Legendary music producer Arif Mardin talks about his four-decade career. He's produced albums for artists such as the Bee Gees, Phil Collins, Bette Midler, Dusty Springfield, and more recently, Norah Jones. Mardin tells tales from recording sessions with Aretha Franklin and Chaka Khan.

Arif Mardin: Tales from the Recording Studio

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

The term `hit-maker' gets thrown around a lot in the music business, but to describe the legendary producer Arif Mardin as a hit-maker is actually an understatement. The 73-year-old record producer has been the wizard behind the curtain for a wide variety of pop, country, jazz and R&B hits over the last 40 years.

(Soundbite of "Sunrise")

Ms. NORAH JONES: (Singing) Sunrise, sunrise, looks like morning in your eyes.

(Soundbite of "Wind Beneath My Wings")

Ms. BETTE MIDLER: (Singing) You are the wind beneath my wings.

(Soundbite of "Son-Of-A Preacher Man")

Ms. DUSTY SPRINGFIELD: (Singing) The only boy who could ever teach me was the son of a preacher man. Yes, he was, he was...

NORRIS: Arif Mardin has always had a special touch with capital-D Divas: Dusty Springfield, Bette Midler, Carly Simon and Barbra Streisand. He stopped by our New York studio to share some of his stories from recording sessions. I began by asking him why he tends to work with so many women.

Mr. ARIF MARDIN (Producer): My wife asked the same question: `Why you working with ladies all the time?' I guess I put them at ease, because there are certain kind of producers, arrangers, musicians who actually are kind of male chauvinist people, and they drive these wonderful, talented people crazy.

NORRIS: So how do you put them at ease?

Mr. MARDIN: Say, `I work for you.' But I'm not a yes man; that's very important. `I work for you, I want to make the project successful, but if there's anything I don't like, I will speak up.'

NORRIS: You also recorded several songs with Aretha Franklin. There's one in particular I'm interested in. It's a song called "Day Dreaming," which begins...


NORRIS: ...with this sort of wonderful, sparkling champagne bubbles kind of opening.

(Soundbite of "Day Dreaming")

Backup Singers: Daydreaming and I'm thinking of you.

Mr. MARDIN: Well, that was Aretha's concept of a young woman daydreaming. Genius. She came up and she played the electric piano, a Fender Rhodes, with the chromatics--(imitates melody)--and then the rhythm section comes in.

(Soundbite of "Day Dreaming")

Ms. ARETHA FRANKLIN: (Singing) He's the kind of guy that you give your everything, entrust your heart, share all of your love till death do you part.

NORRIS: Where was this recorded?

Mr. MARDIN: In New York.

NORRIS: At the Atlantic studios, the Hit Factory?

Mr. MARDIN: Atlantic studios. Now it's an animal shelter. The building's still there.

NORRIS: It's an animal shelter now?

Mr. MARDIN: Right.

NORRIS: That famous studio?

Mr. MARDIN: 1841 Broadway and 11 West 60th. So this was, you know, one of those memorable sessions. And if you notice, the group is not singing a regular 4/4. (Singing) `Daydreaming and a na-na-na-na,' six beats. Where did she come up with these Stravinsky-like time signatures, you know? It's fantastic.

(Soundbite of "Day Dreaming")

Backup Singers: Daydreaming and I'm thinking of you. Daydreaming and I'm thinking of you.

Ms. FRANKLIN: (Singing) Whoo!

Backup Singers: Daydreaming and I'm thinking of you. Daydreaming and I'm thinking of you. Look at my heart.

NORRIS: How closely do you work with artists in developing the arrangement?

Mr. MARDIN: Well, definitely with Aretha, I would be there in the room with my manuscript paper and pencil and try to write what she's trying to play with her left hand, with her right hand. It's almost like making a soup.

NORRIS: And you're the chef.

Mr. MARDIN: Right. Yes, and I stir.

(Soundbite of "Rock Steady")

NORRIS: The song "Rock Steady" was one of Aretha's long line of hits from the early '70s. And it sounds like you-all were having a party in there.

(Soundbite of "Rock Steady")

Ms. FRANKLIN: (Singing) Rock steady, baby. That's what I feel now. Let's call this song exactly what it is.

NORRIS: It's hard to sit down when you listen to this.

Mr. MARDIN: Yes. Yes.

(Soundbite of "Rock Steady")

Ms. FRANKLIN: (Singing) Just move your hips to the feeling from side to side. Put the sound down in your car and take a ride, while you're moving rock steady. Rock steady, baby. Let's call this song exactly what it is.

Mr. MARDIN: (Singing) What it is, what it is, what it is.

NORRIS: Now Aretha's known as the Queen of Soul. Was she also the queen of these recording sessions?

Mr. MARDIN: Definitely. And it was all these wonderful rhythm numbers happened in the studio. We were talking about the soup. For example, we would say to the guitar player, Cornell Dupree, `That was great. Keep it up. Do it. Every eight bars, do that lick.'

(Soundbite of "Rock Steady")

Ms. FRANKLIN: (Singing) Rock steady.

Mr. MARDIN: OK, the drummer does something. `Keep it up.' So the producer's job is to actually also remind the musicians that they have played something memorable and to do it again.

(Soundbite of "Rock Steady")

Ms. FRANKLIN: (Singing) Oh! Rock steady. Rock steady, baby. Oh! Rock steady, baby. Baby.

Backup Singers: What it is.

Ms. FRANKLIN: (Singing) Baby, baby, baby.

NORRIS: You've covered many, many musical styles and genres over the years. And in the 1980s, you sort of jumped into the hip-hop world with Chaka Khan's hit song "I Feel For You."

(Soundbite of "I Feel For You")

GRANDMASTER MELLE MEL: Chaka--Chaka--Chaka--Chaka Khan. Chaka Khan. Chaka Khan.

Mr. MARDIN: As we were mounting the recording onto the main master, my hand slipped on the repeat machine. So it happened to be, `Chaka--Chaka--Chaka--Chaka--Chaka--Chaka Khan,' and we said, `Let's keep that. That's very interesting.' And it was an accident.

NORRIS: It was an accident?

Mr. MARDIN: Right.

(Soundbite of "I Feel For You")

GRANDMASTER MELLE MEL: (Rapping) Let me rock you, rock you.

NORRIS: Was this an experimental project for you, new technology, new sounds?

Mr. MARDIN: Yes. Chaka's brother and I were at home by my piano and I said, `You know, you have two sisters. One of them is called Taka Boom and the other sister is Chaka Khan. Why can't we use these two names like percussion? Taka Boom, Chaka Khan. Taka Boom'--so we tried so many ideas, and nothing came about. But there was a germ of an idea.

(Soundbite of "I Feel For You")

GRANDMASTER MELLE MEL: (Rapping) Chaka Khan. Let me rock you, baby, Chaka Khan. Let me rock you; that's all I want to do. Chaka Khan, let me rock you. Let me rock you, Chaka Khan. Let me rock you because I feel for you, feel for you.

Mr. MARDIN: When we were about to do this particular song, I told my arranger to use her name as percussion. And I want love. I don't want any mention about hip-hop--my gold chain, you know, `I love you, Chaka. I love you.'

(Soundbite of "I Feel For You")

Ms. CHAKA KHAN: (Singing) I feel for you. I think I love you. I feel for you. I think I love you.

NORRIS: After all these years, you're finally now working on a memoir. I'm wondering if there's a nugget of wisdom that you want to pass on to future record producers.

Mr. MARDIN: No. I think, you know, the most important thing is the song, for there are many kinds of songs, like dance numbers, you know, novelty, or you have a song like "Wind Beneath My Wings" that I got three or four letters that I think were more important than receiving many Grammys. I mean, it says, `My mom had cancer. Listening to this song, she found solace,' or, `We were about to divorce and we got back together.' That kind of a thing, I felt like, `Wow, I'm like a priest or a doctor.' And today, no matter what kind of technology is used, all the machinery, all the computers, you still rely on a great song.

NORRIS: Record producer Arif Mardin, describing his life behind the music.

(Soundbite of "Son-Of-A Preacher Man")

Ms. SPRINGFIELD: (Singing) Oh, yes, he was.

Backup Singers: The only one who could ever reach me was the son of a preacher man.

Ms. SPRINGFIELD: (Singing) He was the sweet-talking son of a preacher man.

Backup Singers: The only boy who could ever teach me was the son of a preacher man.

Ms. SPRINGFIELD: (Singing) Oh, I guess he was the son of a preacher man.

NORRIS: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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