Grammy Award-winning producer and engineer Phil Ramone, who died Saturday at age 79, created hits for Billy Joel, Barbra Streisand, Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, Ray Charles and Frank Sinatra. But his craftsmanship and acumen also spilled over into the world of classical music, as an episode involving Luciano Pavarotti demonstrated.
Ramone was serving as the music supervisor at the 1998 Grammy Awards telecast when news came down that Pavarotti, who was scheduled to sing “Nessun Dorma” from Turandot, had developed a minor throat ailment, and his doctor had advised him not to sing. Scrambling to keep the telecast on track, Ramone and Ken Erlich, the show’s executive producer, went to Aretha Franklin's dressing room and asked her to sing Pavarotti’s signature aria instead.
While the exact details of the episode vary, as Ramone described it in his 2006 memoir, Making Records, Franklin was pressed into service on 25 minutes' notice. It was not an easy sell: she had sung the aria three days earlier at a charity event but in another key, with another arrangement and without a full orchestra. Now there was no time to change the key of the arrangement or rehearse for that matter. Ramone delivered a cassette to her dressing room and talked her through the arrangement.
Franklin came through and earned unexpected praise for her rendition of the aria from the international press and even some opera fans. Franklin later told an interviewer, "I did it. I sang the aria and the ovation from my peers was wonderful. I sang Puccini because I love Puccini."
This wasn’t Ramone’s only brush with classical music. He studied violin from age three and attended Juilliard, though not because of pushy parents. "I was one of those fortunate children whose parents said, ‘this is not serious. He’ll get over it,’” he said in a 2006 appearance on WNYC's Leonard Lopate Show. “I just kept taking lessons and it grew from there.” Listen to the full interview:
Ramone also began to play jazz violin, and appeared in small clubs on W. 52nd Street, much to the displeasure of his Juilliard professors. His role model was the conductor, arranger and jazz pianist Andre Previn. “Andre’s versatility was a real inspiration in my life as a budding musician, engineer and producer – he helped me assimilate a generous array of music,” Ramone wrote in his memoir.
In 1995, Ramone produced an album with Previn as conductor and featuring the Curtis Institute of Music orchestra in works by Ralph Vaughan Williams. It appears to be his one traditional classical recording credit. But around that time he also began working on a series of "Pavarotti and Friends" charity concert albums, designed to raise funds for children in Bosnia, Cambodia and Tibet. Ramone also produced "Under the Stars," a 2003 crossover release with Bryn Terfel and Renee Fleming.
In the 2006 Lopate interview, Ramone also talked about his philosophy of the recording studio. “It’s about how you put [musicians] in a place mentally where they feel comfortable and trusting,” he said. “The most vulnerable place in the world is the recording studio. It’s not glamorous and people have this misconception that you go in and sing and come out.” Ultimately, he said, the goal “is to create an atmosphere where they’re completely comfortable.”