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Phil Ramone, Pioneering Music Engineer and Producer, Dies at 79

Multiple Grammy winner shepherded recording innovations and hits by Paul Simon, Billy Joel, Barbra Streisand, many others

Storied music producer and engineer Phil Ramone, who for half a century pushed the technological and creative boundaries of recorded music, died Saturday in New York. He was 79.

Ramone had been hospitalized in late February after suffering an aortic aneurysm. His son Matt confirmed his death this morning, saying his father was “very loving and will be missed.”

A 14-time Grammy winner, Ramone’s list of production credits is nearly unrivaled in popular music, encompassing some of the biggest hits from Billy Joel, Paul Simon, Barbra Streisand, Stan Getz, Chicago, Bob Dylan, Natalie Cole, Quincy Jones and Frank Sinatra, and his technological advances include pioneering work with surround sound, solid state recording and digital recording. (Appropriately, Billy Joel’s Ramone-produced “52nd Street” was the first album to ever be commercially released on compact disc.) A frequent music supervisor and producer for film, TV and Broadway, Ramone also won an Emmy for his work on a 1972 Duke Ellington special.

“Phil had impeccable musical taste, great ears and the most gentle way of bringing out the best in all the artists he worked with,” Streisand said in a statement. The two first worked together on the recording of her 1967 free concert in Central Park.

Perpetually at the forefront of technological advances, and an early proponent of the CD, Ramone was the rare producer who was enamored with neither newness nor tradition, bringing an analog philosophy and approach into even the most cutting-edge techniques. As he told Sound on Sound magazine in 2005, “There’s a whole generation of people who are not quite used to the fact that if something fails, they’re responsible, and not the machine… I tell young engineers that they should be efficient on any system, but they have to prioritize understanding music, rather than numbers and waveforms.”

Born in South Africa, Ramone studied the violin from a young age and became something of a prodigy, playing for Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II when he was 10. He moved to New York and attended Juilliard, where he quickly developed an interest in engineering and tech. He opened his first recording studio, dubbed A&R Recording, with partner Jack Arnold in 1958. He worked a variety of engineering and production jobs over the next few years, most notably recording Marilyn Monroe’s iconic “Happy Birthday, Mr. President” performance for John F. Kennedy in 1962.

His breakthrough work, and first Grammy, came in 1964, when he worked as an engineer with Stan Getz and Joao Gilberto on the bestselling “Getz/Gilberto” LP, which kickstarted the bossa nova vogue and made “The Girl from Ipanema” into a standard. From there he struck up a productive relationship with Quincy Jones, producing a variety of his ‘60s records, as well as Peter, Paul & Mary, Harry Belafonte and Sinatra.

Toward the end of the decade he made his first forays into film music, producing Arlo Guthrie’s titular song from “Alice’s Restaurant,” as well as Nilsson’s “Everybody’s Talkin’,” used as the theme for “Midnight Cowboy.” Both songs were hits on their own merits. He also co-produced the original cast recording album of Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s Broadway hit “Promises, Promises,” for which he collected another Grammy.

In the 1970s, Ramone began perhaps the two most fruitful collaborative relationships of his career, with Paul Simon (with whom Ramone won his first album of the year Grammy, for “Still Crazy After All These Years”) and Billy Joel (with whom Ramone won his first record of the year Grammy, for “Just the Way You Are.”) He also produced such hits as Paul McCartney’s “Ram” LP, Albert Hammond’s “It Never Rains in Southern California,” Streisand’s “Evergreen,” Starland Vocal Band’s “Afternoon Delight” and B.J. Thomas’ “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head,” as well as engineering Bob Dylan’s career highlight “Blood on the Tracks” album in 1975.

Hired to produce music for the 1976 Streisand-starring remake of “A Star is Born,” Ramone registered a number of industry firsts, including the first use of Dolby four-track discrete sound in a film, as well as the first satellite link between Todd-AO and a studio. (Ramone’s fascination with remote recording techniques would later lead him to innovate the use of fiber-optic cables for “real time” recording between musicians in different locations, which he employed for the huge-selling Frank Sinatra “Duets” albums in the 1990s.)

A few years later, he produced the music for Simon’s feature film “One Trick Pony.” Though a commercial disaster, the film marked the first use of optical surround sound in a motion picture.

The 1980s began on a high note for Ramone, with the producer churning out a plethora of huge hits for Joel and assembling the soundtrack for B.O. hit “Flashdance.” In 1980, he won producer of the year at the Grammys.

Ramone’s most notable later successes included Sinatra’s “Duets” album, a smash hit in 1993, and Ray Charles’ posthumous “Genius Loves Company,” for which he won two Grammys: album of the year, and the inaugural surround sound album award.

His technical advances continued apace into the new millennium as well. As Brad Hohle, the director of professional technical support for Dolby Laboratories, told Variety: “Phil was instrumental in defining how to monitor and record 5.1 audio for music in the early 2000s…(he was also) instrumental in the transition of the Grammys production and broadcast from stereo to multi-channel in 2002.”

His other ventures into film include music work on “August Rush,” “Beyond the Sea” and “Ghostbusters.”

In addition to his Emmy and Grammys, Ramone was also awarded honorary doctorates from the Berklee College of Music and Skidmore College. His last Grammy came in 2004, when he picked up a traditional pop vocal album award for “Tony Bennett Duets: An American Classic.”

He is survived by his wife, Karen Ichiuji-Ramone, as well as three sons.

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