Saturday Night Music, March 30, 2013: “Just The Way You Are,” Billy Joel, 1978 (In Memory of Phil Ramone)
Billy Joel, it is said, hates this song. He did not sing it as part of his concert repetoire after 2000. He and his band didn’t like it when it was recorded, because “we did not have the right drum pattern for it. I think we had it as a cha-cha which made us hate the song right off the bat.” It was a song he wrote about his first wife, Elizabeth Weber, who was also his business manager at the time. He had to be persuaded by friends Linda Ronstadt and Phoebe Snow, who were recording their own albums at the same time, to approve the final mix.
I found out after the fact that had “The Stranger” not been a successful selling album. they (Columbia Records) probably would have dropped me from the label. I wasn’t even aware of that at the time. We just went in to make as good a record as we could. I didn’t think at the time it was going to be a big commercial hit. I don’t really know what’s going to be a big commercial hit. We almost left “Just The Way You Are” off the album because we really didn’t like it that much. But some girls talked us into leaving it on the album.
Why? Because Linda and Phoebe, Universe rest her soul, knew it was a “chick song.”
Regarding Columbia’s cavalier attitude towards Joel: it’s the same attitude that record labels have now; if your records make a respectable, mid-range showing, but don’t sell into the stratosphere, you could be brushed off like an insect.
“Just The Way You Are” became part of The Stranger, produced by Phil Ramone, who died today at the age of 79. It was Billy Joel’s third single from this album and first Top Ten song, peaking at No. 3. This was the album where Joel finally arrived at superstar status, and it also cemented Ramone’s reputation as well. Rolling Stone rates it No. 70 on its greatest albums of all time list. And Joel received two Grammys for Record of the Year and Song of the Year for 1979. This is what Joel said of Ramone in a 2008 interview:
Q. Your relationship with producer Phil Ramone began with “The Stranger.” He’s quite a character. How did you end up working with him on the album? Did you know his other work?
A. I can’t list it off the top of my head where I knew him from right now. But at the time when I was going to meet with Phil I wasn’t really sure what he did. He’d been an engineer for a long time before he was a producer. All I knew was that he was involved with a lot of albums I liked. His name would keep popping up on album covers like “Engineered by Phil Ramone” or “Co-produced by Phil Ramone.” I said “This guy really knows his stuff,” and there was a good word of mouth for him in the New York Studio scene. Prior to working with Phil I had always been struggling with producers. They wanted me to use with session players. One guy wanted me to work with Elton John’s band, which was insane. I had already gotten comparisons. I was even talking to The Beatles’ producer George Martin, he wanted to produce “The Stranger” album but he didn’t want to work with my band. He wanted to use session guys. I said, “No, love me love my band.” You can imagine at Columbia Records, “Now the guy doesn’t even want to work with George Martin.” There was a little red pencil going through my name.
Q. Nobody turns down George Martin.
A. I must say, he was gentleman enough to write me a letter after “The Stranger” came out that said “You were right, I was wrong, I should have considered working with your band, congratulations.” He’s a very nice man.
Later, as if to confirm Joel’s initial dislike of the song, Weber divorced Joel in 1982, and no doubt, because she knew how much he was worth, received a lot of money and property in the settlement. Weber had been a tough, smart negotiator when it came to her husband’s contracts, and was recognized as a woman who knew the ins and outs of financial management. She had managed to straighten out Joel’s finances to the point where that he was finally making a profit out of being a singer-songwriter with recordings as well as with concerts. So whatever the final straw was in that marriage, one cannot say that Elizabeth Weber was a complete golddigger.
I wore out The Stranger for months. I loved not only the songs, but the personnel, side guys like Richard Tee, Liberty DeVitto, that fabulous horn guy Phil Woods, Ralph McDonald, Doug Stegmeyer—everyone was tight, tight, tight. You know there are moments with some artists that they are in sync and everything is right. Sometimes it takes the band; sometimes it takes the producer. It happened with Aretha when she did her Muscle Shoals sessions with Jerry Wexler, and it happened here with Billy Joel and Phil Ramone at A&R Recording in New York. And then there was that album cover. It wasn’t just the stylistic front that was important. It was the back. The women can come and the women can go, but sometimes only the dudes remain.
As a producer, [Ramone] had a particularly close association with Mr. Joel and Mr.[Paul] Simon; the back cover of Mr. Joel’s 1977 album The Stranger features a photograph of Mr. Ramone posing with Mr. Joel and his band at a New York restaurant.
“I always thought of Phil Ramone as the most talented guy in my band,” Mr. Joel said in a statement on Saturday. “He was the guy that no one ever, ever saw onstage. He was with me as long as any of the musicians I ever played with — longer than most. So much of my music was shaped by him and brought to fruition by him.”
Mr. Ramone’s relationships with those men were deep enough that he named two of his sons after them: Simon and William (known as B. J.); they survive him, along with Matthew, his third son, and his wife, Karen.
As a producer, Mr. Ramone was known for a conservative sound rooted in jazz and traditional pop, and in later years his biggest successes included albums with [Ray] Charles, Tony Bennett, Elton John and others.
Phil Ramone was born in South Africa in 1934 (previous reports have him dying at 72, but he was actually 79 years old). He grew up in Brooklyn, New York and became an American citizen at 19. Before moving to New York with his parents, Ramone was a child prodigy who began studying at 3 years old and performed classical violin before Elizabeth II at the age of 10, and who later studied at Juilliard. However, he grew bored with his limitations as a classical musician. He thought that his talents would best serve others, and as he had developed an interest in both jazz and pop music, Ramone decided to learn the ropes of the music business at a recording studio. At 20, he was already on his way, co-founding his own music studio called A&R Recording with Jack Arnold.
Ramone may have been called a music “conservative,” but that did not signify that he was stuck in old techniques and ways. His work anticipated new advances in sound. Variety states:
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.
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.”
Even though Ramone was more or less semi-retired, he kept working until almost the end.
More recently he’d helmed “Just a Little Lovin’,” Shelby Lynne’s 2008 tribute to Dusty Springfield, and Tony Bennett‘s “Duets II” set from 2011. He also reteamed that year with Simon for the acclaimed “So Beautiful or So What.” Ramone is also credited with a number of technical innovations, including helping to popularize the compact disc (with the release of Joel’s 52nd Street on CD, one of the first).
Ramone won a total of 14 Grammys, and had received honorary doctorates from Skidmore College and Berklee College of Music. How then did he see himself as a music producer?
In an interview with Billboard magazine in 1996, Mr. Ramone explained why he believed a producer should not leave too much of his “stamp” on a recording.
“If our names were on the front cover, it’d be different, but it’s not on the front cover, and the audience doesn’t care,” he said. “If you think you have a style and you perpetrate that onto people, you’re hurting the very essence of their creativity.”
“The reward of producing,” he continued, “comes when somebody inside the record company who has a lot to do with what’s going on actually calls you and says, ‘Boy, this record really came out great.’ Or when other artists call you and want to work with you.”
And in a 2007 memoir, Ramone likened himself to a film auteur—except that his milieu was audio, not film.
Mr. Ramone defined the role of record producer as roughly equivalent to that of a film director, creating and managing an environment in which to coax the best work out of his performers.
“But, unlike a director (who is visible, and often a celebrity in his own right), the record producer toils in anonymity,” he wrote. “We ply our craft deep into the night, behind locked doors. And with few exceptions, the fruit of our labor is seldom launched with the glitzy fanfare of a Hollywood premiere.”
Ramone was admitted to New York Presbyterian Hospital’s critical care unit with an aortic aneurysm in February. Among his grieving family and close friends are also musical legends, some of whom never got to work with him, but recognized and admired his genius from afar.
Many thanks, Phil. Come back to us again.
- Phil Ramone Remembered by Billy Joel, Stevie Wonder, More As ‘The Star of … – Billboard (billboard.com)
- Watch: Pope of Pop: Legendary Music Producer Phil Ramone Dies (abcnews.go.com)
- Music producer Phil Ramone dies (bbc.co.uk)
- Brian Levin, J.D.: Phil Ramone, Magical Genius Who Elevated His Artists’ Music, Passes (huffingtonpost.com)
- Phil Ramone, Grammy-winning producer, dead at 79 (miamiherald.com)