Arif Mardin, the longtime Atlantic Records producer whose remarkable resume includes major hits with Aretha Franklin, the Bee Gees, Norah Jones and many others, died on June 25th of pancreatic cancer. He was seventy-four.
Born March 15, 1932, to an aristocratic Turkish family, Mardin studied at the London School of Economics. In 1956, when he was writing orchestral arrangements, Mardin met Dizzy Gillespie and Quincy Jones at a concert in Istanbul. The two musicians were impressed. Two years later Mardin moved to Boston, where he became the first recipient of the Quincy Jones Scholarship at the Berklee College of Music. Much later, in 1985, Berklee awarded him an honorary doctorate. After graduating in 1961, Mardin joined Atlantic Records as an assistant to Nesuhi Ertegun, brother of label founder (and fellow Turkish expatriate) Ahmet Ertegun. Mardin’s compositional touch soon earned him a role as staff producer and arranger. His first work was with the label’s jazz artists, including Eddie Harris and Sonny Stitt.
Soon Mardin moved into the pop realm, scoring a 1966 No. 1 hit with the Young Rascals’ “Good Lovin’.” The team behind that single, including co-producer Jerry Wexler and engineer Tom Dowd, helped make Atlantic a multi-genre powerhouse. Mardin worked extensively with Aretha, the Queen of Soul, and made definitive records with Dusty Springfield, Rod Stewart, Laura Nyro and Roberta Flack.
In the early 1970s, Mardin worked on several albums by John Prine, then considered a new Dylan, as well as Bette Midler’s debut and early records by Hall and Oates. His successes with the Average White Band and the Bee Gees, who credited him with suggesting the falsetto sound that became the group’s trademark, led to his first Producer of the Year Grammy in 1975.
Mardin’s commercial instincts served him well on pop productions with Carly Simon and Chaka Khan, whose 1984 smash “I Feel for You” was one of the producer’s biggest hits. He proved adept at ever-changing musical styles, working with Grandmaster Melle Mel on Khan’s hit and going New Wave with Culture Club and Howard Jones. In 1989 he had another blockbuster with Midler’s “Wind Beneath My Wings”; his production work over the next decade included records by Jewel and the original cast recording of Rent.
Mardin became a vice president at Atlantic in 1969 and remained senior vice president until his retirement from the label in 2001. After leaving, he joined EMI’s Manhattan Records, playing a major role in its revival, and produced Norah Jones’ breakout album, Come Away With Me, which earned him his second Producer of the Year Grammy. In total, he won eleven Grammys, as well as the Recording Academy’s prestigious Trustees Award in 2001.
Mardin considered himself a facilitator, lucky to work with great talent. He prided himself on his ability to match an artist with his or her appropriate key. In the studio, he considered himself more an arranger than a technician. “I’m not a nerdy technical person,” he said. “I don’t care about brand names, model numbers — but I know what can be done.”