Chances are good you're more familiar with the recordings Phil Ramone helped make than the man himself. Though nicknamed "The Pope of Pop," the producer and engineer -- who passed away Sunday from complications attributed to heart surgery -- maintained a low profile en route to 14 Grammys and innumerable hit records. Born in South Africa in 1934 but raised in Brooklyn, Ramone was a music prodigy who amazingly enough opened his first recording studio (New York City's A & R Recording, Inc.) before he'd turned 20. Soon, he found himself serving as sound engineer for Lesley Gore's oldies standard "It's My Party." He then performed the same role on the 1964 landmark Getz/Gilberto, which, in addition to spawning the global hit "The Girl from Ipanema," helped to spread the gospel of bossa nova. With that record's success, Ramone scored his first Grammy, for Best Engineered Recording.
After gradually expanding his craft to production throughout the late '60s (show album Promises, Promises is an early standout), he hooked up with the two artists who would make his reputation: Paul Simon and Billy Joel. Indeed, considering Ramone racked up production credits for the classics Still Crazy After All These Years, The Stranger and 52nd Street (the latter two of which went multiplatinum), it's not unreasonable to say he is one of the chief sonic architects of 1970s soft rock. And speaking of the '70s, when Ramone wasn't collaborating with Joel or Simon, he found the time to engineer Blood on the Tracks, one of Bob Dylan's greatest works.
On top of ping-ponging between production and engineering jobs, Ramone tried his hand at music direction on numerous soundtrack projects, including Midnight Cowboy (a cult classic if ever there were one), Vision Quest (featuring Madonna's "Crazy for You"), Ghostbusters ("Who you gonna call?") and Flashdance (a bona fide cultural moment). But far and away the most interesting factoid in his long and storied career is the fact that Ramone is the man responsible for recording the wildly suggestive rendition of "Happy Birthday" that Hollywood bombshell Marilyn Monroe unleashed upon Jack Kennedy in 1962, during his 45th-birthday celebration at the White House. Quite a career! Here's a playlist tribute to his life and work.