Billy Joel Pays Tribute to Phil Ramone: 'He Was the King' - Rolling Stone
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Billy Joel Pays Tribute to Phil Ramone: ‘He Was the King’

‘If I hadn’t met Phil, I would have had a completely different life’

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Billy Joel and Phil Ramone attend the 41st Annual Songwriters Hall of Fame Ceremony at The New York Marriott Marquis.

Larry Busacca/Getty Images for Songwriter's Hall of Fame

I first met Phil Ramone when I played Carnegie Hall in 1976. It was my first time headlining there. There used to be an Italian restaurant across the street called Fontana di Trevi where a lot of the classical musicians and opera stars from Carnegie Hall would dine. I had dinner with Phil there, and it really was the inspiration for “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant.”  

Before that, I had seen Phil Ramone’s name on a lot of recordings as an engineer. I was trying to find somebody to produce my next album. I had been working with Jim Guercio on the album prior to that, Turnstiles, but he didn’t get it. He wanted me to work with different musicians. Actually, he put me together with Elton John’s band. I had already been compared to Elton John endlessly. And just because I’m a piano player doesn’t mean I should work with another piano player’s band. It was kind of formulaic, which I hated. 

I wanted to work with my own band. I’d had a good road band for a couple years, we were out just slogging away on the road playing clubs, theaters, colleges . . . you name it. And we were killing it. We were an opening act for everybody – the Beach Boys, the Doobie Brothers, Olivia Newton-John, the Eagles. And we were starting to be able to headline our own smaller venues and I thought my band was really the right group to record with.  

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After the Guercio fiasco, there was actually some interest from George Martin, the Beatles’ producer who I had admired from the get-go. I always loved his productions. And I met with George in New York and he said he wants to work with me, but he wanted to use session players. Now, the other albums that I’d made, Cold Spring Harbor, Piano Man, Streetlife Serenade . . . they were all done mostly with session guys and I didn’t like the way those records sounded. I didn’t like those performances. I thought they were very polished and kinda slick and, again, formulaic. I wanted my own sound. I wanted my own band. I wanted the New York, Long Island guys. 

I actually passed on working with George Martin. And I had also left the Caribou Management company, which was a very successful management company and had decided that my wife was gonna manage me. You gotta picture the scene up a Columbia Records. Cold Spring Harbor was a bomb. Piano Man, the album, didn’t really sell a lot. Streetlife was a bomb and Turnstiles didn’t sell a lot. So you have to imagine them sitting there with a red pencil going, “OK, that’s it for this guy. He doesn’t come through on this next album, he’s gone.” 

There was a time when Columbia was going to drop me and Bruce Springsteen. We were both on tenterhooks. They were like, “So he’s hiring his wife, he fired Jimmy Guercio and he passed on working with George Martin?” I was Terence Trent D’Arby long before he even existed.

But then I met Phil Ramone and everything changed. He loved the energy we put out onstage. He loved the band, he loved the interaction, he loved the sound. He loved the rough edges. He liked that we were rock & roll animals. We just went out there and slammed it. And I don’t know if it was subtle. I don’t know if it was finessed. But it was the right feeling.

Phil said to me, “I love your band. I think you should work with your band. I’d love to do it, I’d love to make a recording.” I didn’t even have the material together for the next album which turned out to be The Stranger. I had bits and pieces of things, I had some ideas, I had some themes. I didn’t really know what the album was gonna be about or if there would be a concept to it.

I liked Phil instantly after we met. He’s very unpretentious. He’s funny. He’s very warm. We just had this sympatico immediately. And I loved that he loved the band. It was kind of like, “love me, love the band.” 

I wasn’t sure what a producer was even capable of before I met Phil. A guy named Michael Stewart did the Piano Man and the Streelight album. He was a Los Angeles guy and was in the Kingston Trio. I guess he was trying to make commercial records and make hits.  My approach to recording had nothing to do with making hits.  It had to do with having fun. The essence of the music that I loved was that it was fun, even when it was deadly serious. Guys like Bob Dylan and the Beatles doing Sgt. Pepper, they were having fun. I can hear it, even when the subject was serious. 

Phil perceived that recording hadn’t been fun for me for a very long time. The process was like pulling teeth. I don’t want to do 15 to 20 takes. I start to hate the song. If I gotta do more than a half a dozen takes, I’m ready to leave. I don’t wanna beat something to death. I just want to be as spontaneous and improvisational and free-wheeling and then I can walk away.  I don’t think it’s a matter of laziness, it’s a matter of being in love. You gotta love what you’re doing. If you love what you’re doing, you’re gonna do a great job. If you’re starting to dislike the process, you’re gonna hear it on the recording. 

Phil understood that. I talked about it with Phil and explained the problems I’d had with other producers. I wasn’t really aware of everything that he could do. I knew that he was aware of everything I didn’t want. That kind of locked it in for me. I knew that he had the technical prowess because he was such a great engineer. I knew he had worked with songwriters because he’d worked with Paul Simon. I knew he had, pop hits, but he also worked with jazz guys and I had a great deal of respect for those players. 

He was a jazz violinist. He was a child prodigy. This is the guy who caught Marilyn Monroe on tape singing happy birthday to JFK. That was his gig! And he knew music, and this was key for me.  One of the things that I admired about George Martin was that he was a musician.  I wanted to work with somebody who was a musician. The first album was produced by Artie Ripp and it was a fiasco. He wasn’t a musician. He didn’t have a clue. He was just kind of an impresario. 

There are so many great Phil stories from the recording of The Stranger. The title song, “The Stranger,” I felt like it needed an introduction. Its kind of a French theme, like the Umbrellas of Cherbourg kind of sound. The sound of a man walking down a Parisian street at night, and the streets are all glistening from rain. I wanted that kind of mood, almost like an Orson Welles The Third Man kind of vibe.

I’m in the studio, and I play the chords on the piano. Then the second time around I start whistling it, just to show that I want another instrument to do. I whistle the whole thing and I finish, I look at him and I say, “So what instrument should that be?” And he looks at me and he goes, “You just did it.” I hadn’t even considered that. I’m not the greatest whistler in the world, but he said that’s what should be on the recording. And I listened back and I went, “Holy shit, he’s right.” I never considered stuff like that. So his musical prowess really came into play there. 

He had to talk me into putting “Just the Way You Are” on the album. When I first got together with the band and worked it out, my drummer was playing it like a cha-cha, and I hated it. It sounded like “And I Love Her” by the Beatles. It just laid there like a log. Then Phil came up with this idea to play it as a backwards samba.  We go, “What’s a samba?” And he got my drummer who was a real rock & roll animal, Liberty, to play this “boom-pah-boom-PAH bomm-ch-boo-boom-CHA” which is a backwards samba.

Then he brought in Phil Woods. I already had my own sax player, but he wanted Phil Woods, a great jazz player, to play the solo. My sax player was kinda bugged, but once I heard Phil Woods solo, I was knocked out. Phil actually created that solo out of six different tracks. Phil did six different versions of the solo, and Phil Ramone spliced them together into one seamless solo. I don’t know how he did it. And this is back in the days when it was analog and you used razor blades and tape.

I was scared to death while he was doing this. I said, “Well what if we lose this?!” He goes, “Don’t worry about it, I know what I’m doing.” And he somehow blended it together into what sounds like one seamless solo. It’s actually six different ones. I was amazed at that, but I still didn’t want to do the song. I didn’t believe in it. I thought it was a gloppy ballad that would be done at weddings, which it is now. It became a wedding standard. He just wanted that song on there. He thought it was a great song. He believed in it.  He thought it was gonna be an important song on the album. The rest of the album doesn’t necessarily sound like that song.

He really had to convince me. One day we were in the studio and he goes out and comes back in with Linda Ronstadt and Phoebe Snow. He goes, “I’m gonna play you a song.” I’m sitting there, and I’m looking bummed out, he says, “What’s the matter?”  I say, “I don’t like this song, I don’t think I’m gonna put it on the album.” And he knew that they were gonna like the song, before they even heard it. It’s a girls song. They heard the song, and Linda Ronstadt goes, “Are you crazy? That’s a great song!” And Phoebe says, “You gotta put that on the album!” I was like, “Really?” I hadn’t really had a woman’s input. And Linda Ronstadt was pretty cute. I said, “Oh Linda Ronstadt likes it? Okay!”

So that got me to do it. Phil believed in it, but I wasn’t sure until he got them to come in and convince me. So that’s another example of what a producer does, he gets the artist to believe in his own stuff. 

“Only the Good Die Young” is another song on that album. I originally arranged it like a reggae. I was even singing it with a jamaican accent. My drummer threw his sticks at me and he goes, “I hate reggae. Why are you singing like that? The closest you’ve been to Jamaica is the Long Island Rail Road!” 

Phil suggested we do it as a straight-four while the drummer played a shuffle.  I said. “You’re gonna play a straight-four against a shuffle? It’s gonna sound awkward and clunky.” But it worked.  The guitar player on that recording is a guy named Hugh McCracken. Strangely, he died the same day as Phil Ramone. He was a famous session guitar player, really funny guy. I had never known about him before until Phil brought him in because I didn’t really have a guitar player at that time.

I put him on the back cover of The Stranger with the rest of the band.  By the time we got to the end of making the whole album he was one of the guys in the band. He was probably the most important guy in the band as far as I was concerned. He brought it to life, he made it all happen on a recording which had never happened before. I was thrilled.

We always would go out and have these crazy lunches or these dinners, and that picture was taken in a restaurant over on Ninth Avenue called the Supreme Macaroni Company. Phil’s wearing a Yankees shirt, he was a real Yankee fan, we went to this place and we looked at each other and we said, “This is where the album cover should be.” We set up a photography session.  My drummer’s holding a bottle of wine. I think we were half-lit when we took the picture. But Phil just felt like he was now part of my family and I wanted him on the cover. And he hadn’t really been given a lot of production credit before that. 

We got to be really good friends, and part of being a friend with somebody, especially if you’re from New York, is torturing them, tormenting them, seeing how much they’ll take. You wind people up. In New York if you’re friends with somebody, you see ’em and you punch ’em in the shoulder, “Hey! How ya doing?” It kinda hurts, but you can only do that to a friend. I remember when I lived in Los Angeles for a couple of years. I had a friend and I punched him in the shoulder and he would go, “Oh man, you’re so hostile. What did you do that for?” And it’s like, “What’s the matter, you can’t take it?” It’s just sort of a New York thing, you test your friendship all the time.

There was one time when we had finished recording in the studio. I don’t remember what song it was, but he had to go and work with Paul Simon. So we went out and then we went to the studio where Phil was working with Paul, and they were listening back to a couple of takes of “Slip Slidin’ Away.” Now, the atmosphere in Paul’s recording session was very hushed, very reverent, very respectful. Totally the opposite of us. All we would do is make jokes, and throw food at each other, and yell and do crazy stuff. 

So we’re listening back to “Slip Slidin’ Away” and we start making cracks like, “OK, how many times are you gonna listen to this?” Because he kept listening over and over.  “What do you think?” “Eh, I don’t know. It doesn’t get me.” And Phil is trying to shush us, putting his fingers over his lips going, “Shhh! Paul won’t like that.” So we just cranked it up, and we really lit into him. “Did you really produce this Phil?!” And Paul was starting to get a little bugged, but Phil was humiliated. He got a kick out of it. Afterwards he said he thought he was gonna explode, because he didn’t want to start laughing, and that would have been a disaster in that particular atmosphere. So stuff like that happens with Phil all the time. 

Another time it was Christmas and we went out to dinner at this place called Wally’s on the West Side. It was a famous hang at the time. We’re having a dinner, and we’re having some wine, and nobody’s feeling any pain, and we’re sitting with Paul Simon and Steve Martin. Now my recording sessions were at A&R studios, and the studio time was still booked we were just out eating. I think I said, “You know I’ve got a studio that’s available if you guys wanna go do something.” So Steve and Paul said, “OK, let’s go make a Christmas record.”

So we go in the studio and it’s about midnight. Steve Martin is scribbling some notes . Paul’s got a guitar and I think I’m playing the piano. We start singing “Silver Bells.” Steve Martin is doing this monologue, “What Christmas means to me!” It’s become this underground recording. Somehow it got out. I don’t know if I have a copy of it, but I guess I’d have to look it up. Somewhere in the archives I have a copy of this thing, but a lot of the FM stations would play it on Christmas-time. It was kind of like a Derek and Clive moment. But stuff like that happened with Phil.

After The Stranger, we made 52nd Street. He had the idea to bring in jazz musicians. I was really enthusiastic about it. The studio was actually on 52nd Street, and they used to call it Swing Street. It had all the jazz clubs back in the 1940s and 1950s . . . I didn’t even know that until Phil told me about it. That’s why we named the album 52nd Street. And actually the picture on the cover was taken right outside of the studio.  It was kind of a dingy entrance with a real greasy elevator, and there was a little bar/restaurant, sort of like the place they hung out on Seinfeld. The building isn’t even there now. I think it’s an insurance office. 

Because The Stranger had been such a success, we didn’t want to repeat the same sound. We wanted to do something completely different. And that’s another good thing about Phil, he was enthusiastic about trying something completely different. I said, “I don’t want to do The Stranger 2, I want to do something different.” And he goes, “Let’s go. Let’s do it.” That’s why the album has more of a jazz bent to it.

“Zanzibar” is kind of a jazz song. I just had this word in my head. [Sings] “Na na na na na na na na, Zanzibar.” And Phil’s listening to my piano part and he goes, “Yeah, I can picture that bar!” And I says, “What bar?” He goes, “It’s a sports bar right? Zanzibar.” I went, “That’s a great idea!” I’m gonna write a song about a barfly at a sports bar who’s hitting on the waitress, and that’s where that came from. 

I wasn’t sure what the solo should be on “Rosalinda’s Eyes.” I started to whistle it again and he said, “Nope, we’ve already done that. I want something different.” So he got some guy to come in and play the flute solo on that. It’s some kind of weird pan flute, I think from South America. 

The song “Until the Night” is sort of a homage to Phil Spector. I was wondering if Phil Ramone would have some kind of resistance to that, but he was totally into it. This is how humble he is. Another producer would go, “I’m not gonna try to sound like a Phil Spector record.” But Phil was completely into it. He wanted to do a new recording like a Phil Spector sound, which “Until the Night” ended up being. It was like a Righteous Brothers song.

We did a bunch of albums after that. Each one sounded different, each one had a different approach. He was into it. He totally took on whatever the project was. I mean An Innocent Man was kind of an homage to the music of the early Sixties, my teenage years. The Nylon Curtain was kind of playing the studio as an instrument, which I had never done before. It took a year to make, and we both finished up that album exhausted but very proud of it.

When we got to The Bridge, which was the last album we worked together on, I wasn’t all that focused on writing again and recording again. I just was a new dad, I just had a baby girl, and I kinda just wanted to be at home with my family at that time, but it was time to get back in the studio. I think there’s two, maybe three good songs, “Matter of Trust” and “Baby Grand.” I wasn’t that enthusiastic about going back in the studio, and the band that I had worked with for so long had become somewhat disenfranchised from the whole process. They really weren’t part of the creative process anymore. It was sort of becoming like a business. 

I thought it was time to work with other people and try something else. It wasn’t because I didn’t like working with Phil, it was just time to do something different. He recognized that too, and we stayed very, very close friends. There was no awkwardness, no problem with us not working together after that. Every time we saw each other it was just like right going back into being good friends. We didn’t see each other a lot, but I always would see him some place in New York at some kind of music event. We’d get together and have dinner and hang out. He used to stay at my house all the time. He was like part of my family. 

I did work with Phil again in 2007 on the song “All My Life.” It was a Tony Bennett-style ballad. It was gonna be a very slow, lush ballad in a Tony Bennett style. And I wanted Phil to produce it, because I knew he always wanted to make a recording like that with me. I knew it wasn’t gonna be a hit record. We weren’t thinking like that, actually we never thought like that. Maybe he did and he didn’t tell me. 

I sometimes think about how different my life would have been if I hadn’t met Phil. I wouldn’t have had the success I had. I would have had a completely different life. I don’t know that I even would have been able to be a recording artist if The Stranger hadn’t done what it did.

I hadn’t had a record like that until I worked with Phil Ramone, and then suddenly everything took off like a skyrocket. We had been playing theaters, we’d been headlining some colleges, some clubs, and “Just the Way You Are” had become a huge hit single! We weren’t even aware of it. We were opening up for the Doobie Brothers in a place called the Syria Mosque in Pittsburgh. We were the opening act, and nobody’s paying any attention to us usually, but we did the song “Just the Way You Are” and the place went crazy! And this is for a full-tilt, big boogie-band audience, the Doobie Brothers audience who would usually go, “Boo! Get off the stage!” And we did “Just the Way You Are” and the place erupted. And we looked at each other like, “What the hell was that all about?” And from them on it was just onward and upward, up up up up up. I mean on a graph it took a huge leap.

Even though we didn’t work much together after The Bridge, we remained very close. His son BJ is my godson, and his wife Karen is a dear dear woman. She’s a very loving, warm woman. He was beloved by every artist he ever worked with, because he was so musical and technically a genius, and funny and warm and unpretentious. We stayed close over the years. 

Phil was also a quintessential New Yorker. He was a diehard Yankee fan and sports fan of New York teams. He used to wear Yankee paraphernalia, he always had his Yankees hat on. He hustled around town all the time. He was an energetic man. He had New York energy, it just buzzed from the guy. 

He was also very chauvinistic and proud to be a New Yorker. I remember he used to go out to L.A. because they would contract him to produce movie soundtracks, and he would come back from L.A. looking kind of beat up. And I go, “What’s the matter?” He goes, “My ass hurts because I’ve been in L.A.” He didn’t really take to that kind of treatment. I guess to a lot of L.A. movie people, music producers were sort of a dime a dozen. But he was Phil Ramone! And when he came to New York he was the emperor, he was the king. 

I remember this one time we were recording Glass Houses or something. He had just came back from L.A. since he produced the soundtrack for the movie Reds with Warren Beatty, Diane Keaton and Jack Nicholson. He brought Beatty and Jack Nicholson into the studio with us. So we’re just these Long Island guys playing music, and we’re playing for a while, and then Jack Nicholson walks up to the mic in the control room and goes, “”So . . . So where’s the pussy?” And we’re like, “Well this isn’t L.A. man, this is New York. We don’t have goldfish bowls full of cocaine and naked women running around the studio.” And he goes, “Yeah but you guys are these rock stars . . . Where’s the pussy?”

There we are thinking they came to hear us play . . . No! They were there to get chicks. And Phil was just laughing. It was a funny moment. Stuff like that happened with Phil all the time. 

I last saw him at the Songwriters Hall of Fame award ceremony. He had been in the hospital I think since February. It was touch and go after the surgery because he contracted pneumonia. But then I heard through his son Matt that they were optimistic. That they thought if he can recover from the pneumonia he’ll be OK.  It may take a while, he’ll have to be in the hospital for a while.

We were kind of hopeful that he was gonna make it. And then I guess complications set in. I’m not really sure about the medical aspects of it, but when I heard he died I was shocked. I just expected him to recover. He’s one of those guys that is always there.  He was one of those larger than life people. How can there be life without Phil Ramone? He was one of those guys who was always there.

In This Article: Billy Joel, Phil Ramone


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