Phil Ramone, the recording industry pioneer and Grammy-winning producer behind landmark albums for numerous stars including Billy Joel, Paul Simon, Ray Charles and Tony Bennett – died Saturday morning in a Manhattan hospital. He was 79.
Though his family has not released the cause of death, Ramone had been admitted at New York Presbyterian Hospital in February after an aortic aneurysm.
“The music world lost a giant today,” Joel said of Ramone in a statement. “So much of my music was shaped by him and brought to fruition by him. I have lost a dear friend - and my greatest mentor.”
Joel and Ramone won a record of the year Grammy in 1978 for Joel’s “Just the Way You Are,” which Ramone produced, and an album of the year Grammy in 1979 for Joel’s “52nd Street.” In 1980, Ramone won the producer of the year Grammy, in part, for his work on Joel’s “Glass Houses” album.
In all, Ramone won 14 Grammy awards, including album of the year awards for his work with Paul Simon on “Still Crazy After All These Years” in 1975 and with Ray Charles on “Genius Loves Company” in 2004.
“Our industry has lost an immense talent and a true visionary and genius, and The Academy has lost a very dear and close friend,” Neil Portnow, president and CEO of The Recording Academy, said in a statement. “Everyone who encountered Phil came away a better person for it, professionally or personally.”
Born in South Africa and raised in Brooklyn, Ramone trained at The Juilliard School as a violinist, but quickly made his name as an engineer, even attracting the attention of President John F. Kennedy’s White House, where he was charged with improving the sound in the East Room and even handled the sound at Madison Square Garden for Marilyn Monroe’s historic serenading of President Kennedy with “Happy Birthday.”
Ramone’s ability to make people and places sound better led him to become a pioneer in audio technology. He mastered the new compact disc technology to spearhead the effort to turn Joel’s “52nd Street” into the first commercially released CD. He did the same for DVD technology with “Dave Grusin presents ‘West Side Story’,” and won the first best surround sound Grammy for Charles’ “Genius Loves Company.” Ramone also worked with fiber optics technology to allow artists to record tracks in separate locations, which made Sinatra’s “Duets” albums possible, since Ol’ Blue Eyes was rarely in the same place as his singing partners.
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Ramone also became well-known for his ability to spot a great song when he heard it.
“How do I know when we’ve got something special brewing in the room?” Ramone wrote in his 2007 autobiography “Making Records: The Scenes Behind the Music.” “The skin on the back of my neck begins to tingle. The people around me know it when my body starts grooving to the music… I’m mindful that it’s the artist’s name and picture on the album cover – not mine. But there are times when a songwriter or performer is so caught up in writing or polishing a song that they lose objectivity.”
That was the case when he convinced Joel to record “Just the Way You Are” and change it from a cha-cha to the soaring ballad that became a classic.
Such savvy made Ramone beloved by artists across all musical genres. “Phil had impeccable musical taste, great ears and the most gentle way of bringing out the best in all the artists he worked with,” Barbra Streisand said in a statement. “The monumental recordings he produced will endure for all time.”
Stevie Wonder called Ramone “the star of stars behind the stars” on Twitter. Bette Midler called him “kind beyond words.” Electronica artist Moby said Ramone was “one of my favorite people on the planet.”
Ramone is survived by his wife and three sons.
Some of the great songs Ramone produced: