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Phil Ramone on Tavis Smiley

Feb. 13, 2007

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 him.

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 of life.

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?

Ramone: Yeah.

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 together.

Ramone: That’s kind of what an all-star game can be or not be.

Tavis: Precisely.

Ramone: You step to the plate.

Tavis: A lot of these baseball references, you must be a baseball fan.

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 concerned.

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: None.

Tavis: Yeah.

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 a show.

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.