Grammy-winning arranger and record producer Arif Mardin, who was behind sounds as diverse as the Bee Gees’ falsetto and Norah Jones’ debut album, died Sunday of pancreatic cancer at his New York City home. He was 74.
His low-key attitude toward artists helped him amass an unusually diverse portfolio. In his long career, he worked with Aretha Franklin, John Prine, Hall & Oates, Roberta Flack, the Modern Jazz Quartet, David Bowie, Carly Simon and Phil Collins.
He also became known as something of a “diva’s producer” thanks to his work with Barbra Streisand, Bette Midler, Chaka Khan, Queen Latifah and Dusty Springfield (on her “Dusty in Memphis” album).
Born into a prominent family in Istanbul, Turkey, Mardin discovered American jazz and big-band music as a youth. He studied piano and began writing and arranging.
In 1956, Mardin met Dizzy Gillespie at a State Dept.-sponsored appearance and gave some of his compositions to group member Quincy Jones. Jones recorded them for broadcast on the Voice of America and then helped Mardin secure the first Quincy Jones Scholarship at Boston’s Berklee College of Music, where Mardin started studying in 1958.
After teaching at Berklee for a year after he graduated, he moved to New York, where he became an assistant to Nesuhi Ertegun at Atlantic Records, the label founded by Turkish expats Nesuhi and his brother Ahmet.
Mardin’s first solo production at Atlantic was “Good Lovin’,” a No. 1 hit for the Young Rascals in 1966.
A year later he became part of Atlantic’s “A team” with Atlantic partner and producer Jerry Wexler and engineer Tom Dowd. He focused on the arranging as they went on to oversee such Franklin albums as “I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You,” “Lady Soul” and “Amazing Grace,” which launched her career and earned her the nickname Queen of Soul.
That “Atlantic sound” led to the “blue-eyed soul” of Hall & Oates and the Bee Gees. To reignite the Bee Gees’ career, Mardin suggested a new, rhythm-based sound and urged Barry Gibb to sing an octave higher.
Mardin rose through the ranks to became a VP and then senior VP at Atlantic.
He won 11 Grammys over almost three decades, including producer of the year in 1975 and 2002. In 1978 he was part of the team behind the album of the year, the “Saturday Night Fever” soundtrack. His other Grammy winners include Dianne Reeves’ “A Little Moonlight” (jazz vocal album, 2003), Bette Midler’s “The Wind Beneath My Wings” (record of the year, 1989) and Chaka Khan’s “Be Bop Medley” (vocal arrangement, 1983, shared with Khan).
Mardin was named to the Recording Academy’s Hall of Fame in 1990 and received its Trustees Award for merit in 2001.
After the 2001 Time Warner-AOL merger, Mardin’s Atlantic career came to an end, as employees over 55 were forced to retire. Bruce Lundvall, president of EMI Jazz & Classics, then enlisted him as an exec at Manhattan Records, a dormant adult-pop label he was reviving.
It was at Manhattan-affiliated Blue Note Records that Mardin had his last major success. Lundvall asked him to work with Norah Jones, whose initial sessions hadn’t captured the intimate quality that had prompted Lundvall to sign her.
Jones was reluctant at first, but after they recorded one song together the rest of the album just rolled out. “Come Away With Me” has sold nearly 10 million copies in the U.S. and was named album of the year at the 2002 Grammys. Mardin and Jones collaborated as producers on her 2004 follow-up, “Feels Like Home.”
In a statement released Monday, Jones said, “Arif was one of a kind. His big heart and laughter always put me at ease both in life and at work. It won’t be the same without him.”
At the time of his death, Mardin was working on an album of his own compositions, with contributions from Jones, Midler, Khan, Dr. John and others.
Mardin is survived by his wife, Latife; son Joe, also a record producer-arranger; and daughters Julie and Nazan. Funeral services will be Sunday in Istanbul. A memorial service is being planned for September in New York.