He’s not the long-lost brother of Joey and Dee Dee, and his name is known mostly to liner-note scourers, but Phil Ramone’s nearly 50 years behind the studio glass have given him a window on the recording techniques and temperaments of some of music’s biggest names.
The 14-time Grammy winner has produced or engineered records for Billy Joel (The Stranger, Glass Houses), Paul Simon (Still Crazy After All These Years), Barbara Streisand (A Star Is Born, Memories), Bob Dylan (the New York Blood on the Tracks sessions), not to mention duets and standards from Frank Sinatra, Ray Charles, Tony Bennett and Rod Stewart. He’s also helmed dozens of film and Broadway soundtracks and special events – Ramone miked and guided Marilyn Monroe during her famous “Happy Birthday” serenade to JFK.
A mixture of autobiography, studio recording manual and celebrity anecdotes, Making Records doesn’t offer as many behind-the-scene revelations or as much insight as one might expect. But it does have a lot of quick stories that shed light on famous musical moments, such as Ramone’s difficulties mounting Simon & Garfunkel’s concert in Central Park, Dylan’s offbeat studio approach and the sometimes creative way Ramone had to create sound effects in an analog age. That’s him breaking glass – after dozens of attempts to capture the right sound – at the beginning of Billy Joel’s “You May Be Right.”
The book sometimes gets very techy in terms of equipment, machines and details of the recording/mixing/mastering process. Its narrative is often choppy, placing the reader in the studio with Simon in the ‘70s and Joel in the ‘80s in practically the same paragraph. Many quotes from the artists Ramone worked with are clearly taken from previously published interviews, but it’s still an interesting chronicle of how a former teen violin prodigy found more satisfaction and fame on the non-performing side by helping others craft their music.
Record producers run the gamut from guys who basically turn the tape machine switch on to those who become de facto band members, involved with every aspect of helping get an artist’s musical vision onto tape. Old-school Ramone is clearly one of the latter, and it’s afforded him an amazing life experience. – Bob Ruggiero
Making Records: The Scenes Behind the Music, by Phil Ramone with Charles L. Granata, 320 pp., $24.95, Hyperion