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New Doc Tunes Into "The Greatest Ears in Town"

Arif Mardin with some of his many awards in the last months of his life.
Arif Mardin with some of his many awards in the last months of his life.
Courtesy of Damore Public Relations

What do Aretha Franklin, the Bee Gees, Norah Jones, the Rascals, Willie Nelson, Phil Collins, Dr. John, Barbra Streisand, Chaka Khan, the Average White Band, and Hall & Oates have in common?

Not much, musically. But they all made records, and some of their most memorable, in the studio with Arif Mardin staring back at them through the glass in the production booth.

For more than four decades, first as a producer-arranger for Atlantic Records and then as a producer/A&R man for EMI's Manhattan Records, Mardin guided the sound behind a lot of albums, including dozens of gold and platinum sellers.

Mardin's son, Joe -- himself a drummer and producer with NuNoise Records -- co-produced and directed a documentary on his father, The Greatest Ears in Town (Shelter Island). Released earlier this month, its title comes from the song a grateful Bette Midler wrote about him.

The film covers the Turkish-born Mardin's life and career featuring archival footage, interviews with many of the artists he worked with, and his own recollections. Most of the last were filmed while the elder Mardin completed sessions for a record of his solo compositions, All My Friends Are Here.

But Arif Mardin died in 2006 at age 74 from pancreatic cancer and would not live to see its completion -- despite fussing with charts from a hospital bed up to the end. Joe finished it up, and the end result became both a career summation of Mardin as an artist and a tribute that included contributions from many of these he had worked with.

Joe Mardin spoke with Rocks Off about the film, his father's legacy, and how Arif helped to introduce one of the '70s' most distinctive sounds by just fucking around in the studio early one morning.

Rocks Off: Was it hard to balance the roles of being a son wanting to make sort of a valentine to his dad but also be an objective filmmaker? Joe Mardin: We started shooting in his last month of sessions, and I thought I better chronicle it because I didn't know how long he would be with us. Sure, I'm his son, but I'm also someone who is also interested in the history of popular music and the work of this man.

Arif was a "producer-arranger." What strengths did he bring to artists having that background in arranging? Like Sir George Martin and Quincy Jones [both of whom are in the film], he was educated in music. And the perspective he took was that he was composing these classical pieces and bringing them to pop music. Especially in the early days, the orchestral arrangements he did for groups like the Young Rascal and Aretha Franklin. Then also Carly Simon, and Barbara Streisand. And Brooke Benton's "Rainy Night in Georgia."

Atlantic Records had big personalities and big egos in the form of Ahmet Ertegun, Jerry Wexler, and Tom Dowd. By comparison, Arif comes off as pretty easygoing. He wanted to bring out the best in the artist rather than put his personal "stamp" on his productions. Exactly, and that's the case with producers we interview like George, Quincy, the late Phil Ramone, Russ Titelman, and Hugh Padgham. They were and are advocates for the artists and not themselves.

You did a lot of the performer interviews yourself. Did anybody tell you anything about your dad that really surprised you? No, nothing earth-shattering. But some details that I thought, "Oh, I didn't know that."

Interview continues on the next page.

 

It was your Arif who was partially responsible for introducing the Barry Gibb falsetto on Bee Gees records, a sound which went on to do pretty OK for the band in terms of popularity and sales. They've all talked about it. Robin talks about it in the movie and so have Barry and Arif.

There was no master plan. It was 2 a.m. at Criteria Studios in Miami, and they were working on the fade to "Nights on Broadway." They had done the vocals and were trying to add a little bit of energy to the end.

Arif pressed the talkback in the booth and asked Barry if he could go up an octave on his singing, something a little higher. But Barry thought if he sang it in full chest voice, he'd sound like an opera singer. So he tried a falsetto and started ad libbing. And the rest is history! (laughs). They had used a falsetto before, but this is when it really came into its own.

Have you seen the current Rascals Broadway show Once Upon a Dream? Yes, and it was fabulous! I am so pleased for them and they are getting this attention and acknowledgement at this stage. There are all of these Rascals fans out there, and they were dormant. Now, they've been called out, and it's wonderful to see! And [the band] sounds amazing. It's a great musical experience.

Finally, did you see pros and cons when you decided to go into the same line of work as your father? Well, at the age I decided to go into music, I didn't realize there would be any cons, so I didn't know! (laughs). But I grew up in an incredible musical environment at home and tagging along with my father to the studio and observing sessions from a very young age. I think it was inevitable!

What my dad was doing was too cool and he was too cool...I couldn't have done anything else. But he didn't push me into it at all. In fact, my mother was dreading me going into the music business -- because she knew it would be rough!

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