Phil Ramone on
Tavis: Phil Ramone is one of the most successful
and innovative producers in the history of music. During his
brilliant career, he’s helped craft the sounds of artists
like Frank Sinatra, Billy Joel, Paul McCartney, and Ray Charles,
just to name a few. On Sunday night, he added another award
to his already-overflowing trophy case, with a Grammy for
his most recent project, Tony Bennett’s duets. Phil
Ramone, congratulations, and nice to have you on the program.
Phil Ramone: Thank you, Tavis.
Tavis: This is the first time we’ve actually met in
person. We’ve talked on radio before, when you were
in a New York studio. I don't know if you recall or not, but
the last time we talked, you were on my radio program, talking
about the Ray Charles project with a guy who’s no longer
with us named Billy Preston.
Ramone: Oh. Billy was so good. Such an - well, incredible
musician. And I saw some old footage of him the other day.
Tavis: The Fifth Beatle.
Ramone: Yeah. And he was like James Brown when he was a kid,
dancing on stage. Amazing guy. A wonderful guy.
Tavis: Let me take you back, before we go forward. Let me
take you back. What was it like working on that Ray project?
We’ll get to Tony Bennett in just a second. But that
Ray project was spectacular.
Ramone: There was no health problem that I could see in the
beginning, and that started off in the Songwriters’
Hall of Fame. I called Ray because Van Morrison wanted to
do a duet with his dream. He’d never met Ray, wanted
to work with him. So, (laugh) we got that together, and that
seemed to be the beginning of it. Concord Records was just
in the talking stages, and Ray’s life, for him, was,
like, why would I do these songs?
It’s sort of similar to what Sinatra said. They’ve
heard all these tunes. And I said, “No, no, no, no,
this is about you and guests.” And nothing was better
than Ray doing a duet in the first place. And the conditions
were at his studio, in a certain way where artists came in,
they were so anxious and the honor of working with him is,
well, probably everything you'd ever wanna have in your life.
When he’d sit at the keyboard and start getting a groove.
I said to him after a couple of songs, “I don't know
how and where that comes from.” He said, “It comes
from Basie.” Count Basie. That’s who started that
all. Used to pull the tempo down. And I think it’s probably
one of the great accomplishments in your life, is to be around
Tavis: How do you talk these guys into doing this? When you
sit with Sinatra and say, “You ought to do these duets
with these people, and here’s why you ought to do it.”
Ray Charles, you ought to do these duets with these people,
here’s why. Tony Bennett. These are legends you're working
with. How do you get them to buy into the vision, the dream,
that you're laying out for them, which in every case has turned
out to be, has led to major success in each of their careers?
Ramone: Well, I guess it started in the Sinatra thing. I
grew up watching TV and stuff like every other kid, and duets
seemed to be a nice way to get two artists to do something.
There was something warm about it. Ella and Frank Sinatra,
I never forgot those dates. Then when we talked about it,
I sat down and begged that we’d have a meeting.
And the usual replies, and I don't wanna be the guy that
does all the duets in the world. I certainly, it fell into
place, because I said “It’s about children.”
His grandchildren, my children, other peoples’ children,
to hear an artist at his best. And reassess the songs. Don't
try to do the same arrangements or new arrangements.
In the Sinatra case, and in Tony, they were different attitudes.
One, Frank had not been in a studio for 10 years, and he felt,
well, “I'm not ready for a duet.” And he kept
stretching it and saying, “Maybe, maybe not.”
But after six months, he agreed to it. Whereas Tony said,
and he had been a guest on the Sinatra album, “I’d
like to make one rule. I want everybody there, live.”
And so the whole plan becomes an adventure in what used to
be entertainment. Singing a live duet was kind of the way
Tavis: So first of all, congrats on this fourteenth Grammy.
I was just laughing – not to make you feel old –
but you do realize that you won your first Grammy in the same
year that I was born.
Ramone: That’s possible. Because my mom took me to
the Grammys (laugh).
Tavis: (Laugh) Nineteen sixty-four, the year I'm born, you
win your first Grammy, and I'm gonna put you on the spot.
You do recall what it was for, correct?
Tavis: All right.
Ramone: Yeah, you don't forget that.
Tavis: All right, the first one was?
Ramone: “Girl From Ipanema.”
Tavis: The “Girl From Ipanema.” Yeah.
Ramone: No, you don't ever. I said it last night, “There’s
God driving,” and everybody saying to me, “Well,
how does it feel?” I said, “As good as any kind
of winning of a baseball game.” Any time you're in this
business that something is so recognizable. Tony’s the
most incredible guy in the world.
Tavis: That voice. He has sat in this same chair, one of
the great honors of my career is having Tony Bennett come
to this studio, sit in this same chair, and spend a half an
hour talking to me. What is it about that voice that at 80,
he still belts those notes?
Ramone: You have to have the right genes for this thing to
last. As Sinatra used to call it, the reed. It’s like
something that’s a gift. Some people beat it up. He
doesn’t. He’s an athlete. Plays tennis. He walks.
His attitude about so much time for painting. And he plays,
he works. He keeps the muscle going, as he says. And I don't
know anybody who has an attitude like that.
Tavis: My dear friend, Professor Cornel West and I, last
summer, after Mr. Bennett being on this program, went to see
him at a couple of dates. And I had never, in all these years,
I had never seen him live. So last summer was my first time
going to see Tony Bennett live. And aside from his voice,
which you can see that on TV and know the guy still has it.
But seeing him live, there’s one thing that just moved
me that I still remember to this day.
I've never seen anybody more gracious and more appreciative
of the audience. After every – and I mean every one,
you know this – after every song, he tucks that mic
under his arm, and does this applause for the audience. I've
never seen that in my life.
Ramone: I think he brings – sometimes I asked him about
where the entertainer thing comes from. 'Cause that’s
a fascinating thing. Some people, like Michael Bublé
and some of the guests that are on that record, have a way
of doing something in the studio first. James Taylor. Everybody.
Sting. Everybody that showed up had something.
John Legend, I think no one knew what John – I knew
what John was gonna do, but not from a character point of
view. And you hear it, because they watched him. They have
watched him in performance, and he genuinely loves what he’s
doing. And he embraces his quartet. So this is something he
acquired, but it’s his.
Tavis: Yeah, there’s a humanity about that guy the
likes of which I've never seen. It’s amazing. How do
you know when a duet is going – what makes you know
a duet’s going to work? And I say that because I've
heard a number of duets in my life. Many have worked, others
have not. There’s a trick to doing this, to make the
two – I'm talking about even folk who are both good
at what they do. It doesn’t mean it’s gonna work
Ramone: That’s kind of what an all-star game can be
or not be.
Ramone: You step to the plate.
Tavis: A lot of these baseball references, you must be a
Ramone: Oh, I'm a nut. I'm a total nut.
Tavis: Okay. (Laugh) I like the metaphor.
Ramone: I just can’t help it. I think that what we
do is create these three to five minute pieces, and before
they don't have to be cohesive, there’s no book. The
book is the song first. That, for me, is probably the most
primary source of what excites you. And then you have a repertoire.
If you're gonna work with Tony or any of the greats, you have
to have a good choice.
So maybe 25 choices, and I say to you, “Okay, Tavis,
here’s a song I think you could do with him.”
And something about it, you say “Well, I'm not comfortable
with that.” “Well, if you were to pick the best?”
“Well, I love this song.” Then I start the construction.
And it becomes very tricky at times, because who should start
the song off? Who should switch?
Like Barbra Streisand had a real problem with how she would
enter into the song, right? So she said, “Maybe I should
start. Maybe I do this kind of thing, and this magical voice
comes from here.” So you – it’s architecture
in its best form. It’s the best music, the best lyric.
So I kind of feel much more confident. I think a good director
has that when he has a script.
Tavis: I wanna close talking about this new CD you have in
just a second. First, though, I've been dying to ask you this
question more than any other. I'm always fascinated and hungry
to learn from iconic figures. Those who have set themselves
far and above the rest of us, where their God-given gift is
If you could give me one enduring lesson that you have learned,
one good piece of advice that you’ve learned from working
with iconic figures like Sinatra and Charles and Streisand
and Bennett, etcetera, what would that be? What have you learned
from working with these – one thing you know for sure
that you’ve learned from working with these greats?
Ramone: I gotta think that one that becomes a philosophy
of work, which is “no excuses.”
Tavis: No excuses.
Ramone: And don't speak if you don't have to about trivia.
The time for joking comes because of the trust, and you have
to earn the trust. So, I don't alibi for anything, and I’ll
take the heat. That’s the other thing. Don't let them
take the heat. We take the heat.
Tavis: I like that. No excuses. No alibis for anything. This
new project, “New Music from an Old Friend.” I
love the concept. Tell me about the concept of the project,
first of all.
Ramone: Well, they brought it to me and said, just the title
fascinated me. And some of the artists who are composers,
really. It’s kind of a songwriter’s dream, is
to have the original song, Carole King, let’s say, or
Burt Bacharach, and you're doing “Alfie” with
Peabo Bryson. We cast it, like, 'cause it’s not really
a duet. But when it is, it’s an interesting place.
And then you hear a brand new song by the same composer.
So I don't know, except for what I feel instinctively, that
I think it could be a home run, or it’ll certainly be,
for itself, a good piece of music, and a good piece of art.
And I think that’s the mantra for all of us, is like
why not try to make the best thing possible? And “New
Music from an Old Friend” sounds – I even asked
Paul Williams to write the title as if it was the name of
Tavis: I love the concept, and I love the project. And speaking
of baseball metaphors, I'm sure it’s gonna be a hit.
Not just a hit, a home run. No, not even that. A grand slam.
'Cause Phil Ramone never strikes out. How’s that?
Ramone: I love that.
Tavis: I can go on this for a while, if you want to (laugh).
Ramone: No, no, no, it’s okay.
Tavis: I got a few of these.
Ramone: No (laugh).
Tavis: Okay (laugh). Phil Ramone, nice to meet you.
Ramone: Tavis, thank you.
Tavis: Glad to have you on the program. That’s our
show for tonight. Catch me weekends on PRI, Public Radio International.
Our radio podcast available now at TavisTalks.com. We’ll
see you back here next time on PBS. Until then, good night
from L.A., thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith.
Announcer: For more information on today's show, visit “Tavis
Smiley” at PBS.org.