Arif Mardin, 7.28.04

Authors note: I was extremely honored to have the opportunity to interview Arif who was, in my opinion, one of the greatest producers of all time and also a truly gracious and humble man. As far as I know he had not been diagnosed with the pancreatic cancer that would sadly take his life less than two years later on June 25th, 2006.  



RB: You came to the music business relatively late after studying economics in Turkey and London. I assume you had a background in music before that in order to win the Quincy Jones scholarship?


AM: Here’s how it happened. I was a jazz fan since I was ten years old. My sister used to listen to American pop music, which at that time was big bands, Andrews sisters and all that. We are talking about the early forties. I acquired a taste for big band music then on my own later in my teens I was a bebop music fan, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, I was a modernist. So I did have the musical roots and the taste. At one point I started to take piano lessons. It looked like I wasn’t going to be a concert pianist but it gave me enough technique to be able to pick notes and chords, I also took harmony lessons and things like that so I was into music parallel with my education in economics.


RB: That’s very interesting. So when you got the Quincy Jones scholarship your level of musical ability was not so high but you had enough appreciation and understanding and I guess Berklee transformed you?


AM: Not exactly. The level of my musicianship was actually high. At Berklee I learned to formalize it and learned new techniques, it opened up new horizons. The reason I got the Berklee College Quincy Jones scholarship was that I wrote compositions and arranged and orchestrated it for two trumpets, one trombone, three saxophones and three rhythm. I did that, I copied my own parts and sent it to Quincy. Quincy recorded them for Voice of America. He used an A team of New York musicians we’re talking about Art Farmer, Phil Woods, Hank Jones. So these guys played my music, in fact when I received the tape I said did I write this music. They were so fantastic. So I was able to actually write. In fact, a few years before that I was a piano player and arranger in a businessman’s big band in Istanbul. They would come after work at six o’clock and we would play stock arrangements so I had all the experience but of course Berklee opened up totally new horizons.


RB: In my experience most producers in the popular music arena don’t have formal music qualifications. How much do you think your formal training has helped in your career and in what way?


AM: It’s interesting, I think you have three kinds of producers, I’m talking about when I started - today there are many other kinds. You have the songwriter producer who is in control of his or her composition and records the song with an artist. We are talking about Gamble and Huff, Lamont Dozier, Lieber and Stoller, songwriter producers. Or you have music lover producers, like Ahmet Ertegun, Jerry Wexler, the Chess brothers, Berry Gordy they don’t have music training but they love music and they have a song sense, they know lyrics and things like that, they can analyze a song. Then the other would be engineer producer, Hugh Padgham, Tom Dowd, they sit behind the controls and help shape the sessions. Of course today, and I don’t want to put people down, but you have tin-eared producers too. So how it helped me? First of all when I joined Atlantic Records I had all this knowledge of all these modern chords, great harmonic variations and things like that. When I was writing an arrangement for horns I said I had better forget this knowledge because what they are doing is triads, three part chords, one, four, five, that’s blues and rock. So I had to forget my augmenteds, diminisheds, major sevenths and all that and write the orchestrations in a simple, pure way. So it didn’t hamper me but it was a big shock, wow, I can’t use my major seventh here (laughs). But of course I would sneak them in too, wonderful late Dusty Springfield some of my arrangements I have all these little things in it but they don’t sound jarring.


RB: And of course Chaka Khan?


AM: Chaka Khan as well


RB: And Norah Jones too?


AM: Well Norah Jones plays her own piano [parts] - nobody tells her what to do on the piano. So far I only did one string arrangement for her which was a viola and a cello. Norah Jones was an exercise in restraint because she is such a purist and a wonderful artist, anything superfluous will stick out. I’m known as a person of excess, put the background vocals here, strings here but with Norah I was totally the opposite, I just directed it and shaped it in a subtle way.


RB: I was going to ask you to define the producer’s role, which in a way you just did? What I thought was interesting when you defined the three different producer roles was that you left your own role out?


AM: OK yes. Like David Foster. There are musician-producers, the fourth category. I should have said that.


RB: Like Quincy.


AM: Yes Quincy.


RB: George Martin.


AM: George Martin. David Foster for example was an incredibly sought after keyboardist in LA in the seventies before he became a producer. In fact he played a bassline I wrote out for synthesiser for Chaka Khan’s “Nights in Tunisia,” He was the guy who played (sings bassline) all that stuff. And then of course he slowly went into production and writing great songs. He became a musician songwriter producer. He also has that side.


RB: He produced “Through the Fire” on the same album.


AM: Right.


RB: I loved that track too.


RB: That was an interesting record the way you merged Melle Mel in with a mainstream R’n’B artist and song.


AM: It was an education for me too. I was working with John Robie, the day’s hiphop master. I was looking at his edits, he was cutting half inch tape like there was no tomorrow putting things together. So it was very interesting. Melle Mel was working with Reggie Griffin who arranged and played on Grandmaster Flash’s ‘The Message’ and we were working with him. Before that Chaka’s brother was at my house at my keyboard trying to get a beat on a drum machine. I said to him, you know your sister’s names are so percussive, Chaka and Taka Boom ( she had another sister called Taka Boom). So [sings] Chaka-Khan-Taka-Boom-Chaka-Khan-Taka-Boom. We tried to get a drum beat and we didn’t succeed but that remained in my brain [sings] Chaka-Khan-Chaka-Khan. So I said to Reggie why don’t you go to Melle Mel, and I want a love rap I don’t want anything about women or gold chains, try to get a love rap using her name as a percussive thing [sings] Chaka-Khan-Chaka-Khan. So he brought the tape in, very short, we liked it very much and I inserted it in a rough mix. We had a party and I was playing it. Peoples ears pricked up and said ‘oh, this is great, this is great.’ So I said we should use it many times in the song. In the old days there was a sampler called the AMS and my finger slipped on the key so it became [sings] Chaka-chaka-chaka-khan so we said let’s keep it. It was an accident. (laughs).


RB: It was a turning point. That was a very important single.


AM: Very important for me too because it was a learning process, I was in hiphop territory which I wasn’t in before. It was, like, let’s do this, aah it doesn’t fit, let’s take this, aah it fits, that attitude. Even with Stevie Wonder, I said, ‘he will never come and play today,’ because it was Marvin Gaye’s funeral. He showed up and he was fantastic. It was a wish list. I also wanted to have Prince play guitar but he was touring so it didn’t happen.


RB: Your discography and I’m sure it’s abbreviated, is six pages long. Every record on there is something that was successful and that people know about. You must have been inundated with offers to produce projects throughout your career. I’m curious to know how you evaluate a project and what makes you say OK this is the one I am going to do?


AM: The artist must first of all be a genuine artist, I can’t work with concoctions - with a beautiful girl or a handsome young man - put the voice in Protools and correct it. I don’t do that. First of all I am too old, I am seventy-two years old, it needs too much energy and I don’t do that. Artists have to be genuine. Willie Nelson for example is an American classic. Are we looking for a Pavarotti voice? No. He doesn’t have that but he’s got a beautiful voice. Then I worked with Patti LaBelle she can sings rings around anyone. These are genuine, genuine people. I think I analyse the artist first and say, yes, I’d like to do this project because I love his or her voice.


RB: What do you think are the most important ingredients in a hit record?


AM: I think it has to address a certain section of the record buying public. We have a few kinds of records. You have a novelty record which can be a dance record, ‘Who let the Dogs Out,’ or something like that. I’m not saying they’re bad. The other kind would be ‘Wind Beneath My Wings.’ I was extremely gratified when I received letters from the public, they were more important than Grammy’s to me. [The letters would say things like] ‘I played this song when my Mother was dying and it gave us solace.’ ‘My wife and I were about to divorce and we heard this song and we got together again.’ Things like that. I thought, ‘wow, I feel like a priest or something’ [laughs]. She [Bette Midler] touched a certain part of the record buying public. I think also with Norah Jones’ success, especially at that time in 2002, there were too many manufactured records, they were uncertain times with the 2001 memories then this pure voice, unadorned beautiful songs, simple, touched people’s hearts. So I guess it’s a spark that makes a hit record. There are these idiotic software programs, I think they developed one in Spain, they put in a lot of hit records and they come up with a formula saying you have to have this tempo but they don’t analyze language - lyrics.


RB: So you put lyrics very high up on the list of importance.


AM. Yes the lyric is very high up, unless it’s a novelty song, lyrics are very important.


RB: So the artist could come without the song you’ll find the song, do you do a lot of that.


AM: Yes we have to find the song. You write to your publisher and songwriter friends and collect the material. As you say some artists come with their own songs, they write the songs or they find them or we have to find them for the artist.


RB: Have you had that experience where you get to the end of record and you think I don’t have that hit song that lead single yet or do you know up front what you have.


AM: Well you know I think I go with the flow. Working with the Bee Gees on the ‘Main Course’ album. We didn’t realize that we had hits we were just working and having a great time, very energetic electrifying sessions and when the Bee Gees managers and Ahmet Ertegun came to listen to it they said ‘oh wow, you have got massive hits.’ We said, ‘really.’ We didn’t know. (laughs). This is a good surprise. I don’t know if I ever scrapped something and started all over, I don’t think so.


RB: I didn’t mean the whole album but where you might say ‘I’ve got ten good tracks but I need that one extra single.’


AM: Well yes, and if you are lucky you have got this extra beautiful song and you go and record it, of course.


RB: So generally you don’t always know when you’ve got the hit?


AM: You just feel it, it’s a very, very rare feeling. With Jive Talkin' definitely we knew we had something after hearing it so many times. With Bette Midler for example, ‘Wind Beneath My Wings,’ ‘Oh you recorded another ballad with her,’ that was the record company talking. All of a sudden it started especially with the movie, affecting people. The other one was ‘Oh, From a Distance, you have the word God in there I don’t think any station will play this.’ And then (laughs) it was proven wrong.


RB: ‘Wind Beneath My Wings’ was recorded many times previously


AM: Many times, many, many times, and ‘From a Distance too.’


RB: So how do you explain that, was it the magic between…?


AM: The magic of Bette’s delivery and also the very sad situation in the film ‘Beaches.’ If you have a good film and your song is featured in the film, definitely it is a plus.


RB: You have been on staff, pretty much your whole career at Atlantic since 1961 and now at Blue Note.


AM: I am retiring from Blue Note in September.


RB: I’m sure you are not retiring though?


AM: No I have projects.


RB: There must have been something that you really liked about working within a company setting. When you are in a company there is usually a lot of work other than music or production that has to be done as well. What did you like about working for a company rather than being freelance?


AM: I think it was maybe security. I had a financial arrangement. Also it’s a legendary company and Ahmet Ertegun is still there and I love to be with him, you just feel attached. I’m not too much of a freelance person, where I would have to hustle, they come to me. I was also one of Atlantic Records officers I had duties to do there too.


RB: Did you mind that side of it?


AM: No.


RB: You say that it was a legendary company but you helped to create that legend.


AM: Well I was part of it but they were legendary before I even joined. They had all these wonderful pioneer R’n’B records and John Coltrane and all that. When I joined in 1963 I became part of that phenomenal motion.


RB: It was an incredible time. It seemed as if every record I liked was on Atlantic, Stax or one of the subsidiary labels.


RB: Do staff producers generally get the same kind of points on records they produce as freelance producers or do they have a completely different arrangement with the label?


AM: First of all when I helped produce the Rascals, Tom Dowd (my mentor) and myself we received the smallest percentage. We were salaried, it was like a bonus, ‘you did good work so here it is.’ It’s the individual understanding or contract. I don’t know if an A&R person produces an act for a label what he will get, will he get a percentage from the general A&R pool. There are so many ways he can get paid. Does the A&R person have permission to produce an act belonging to a rival company, which I did. Ahmet Ertegun gave me permission, he said ‘hey produce anyone you want.’ So I worked with Clive Davis. I also stayed within the WEA family, I was doing Warner Bros. It all depends, today’s way of payment for a producer/A&R man can vary, will he get a great bonus at the end, will he get a percentage of all the acts from an A&R fund. How much of a percentage will he get on sales is hard to say. It all depends on salary and the understanding he has with the label. With a freelancer he can say I want this much but [as a freelancer] you are judged by your last success.


RB: Always (laugh)


AM: There are incredible amounts of advances given. These days, I hear, especially in the Hip hop field, young producers like to get more on the advance and less on the points. That’s one way of looking at things.


RB: I’ve heard crazy numbers like $100,000 advance per track. I haven’t managed to track anyone down who can confirm that. I’m also told that advances are much lower than two or three years ago.


AM: I don’t know, I’m not privy. The only think I know is that there are a lot of big advances and not too much caring about the points.


RB: I always preferred the points over the advances myself.


RB: I heard that there is a book in the works.


AM: Yes my memoirs. It went on the backburner a little bit when I started at EMI.  I am on my sixth chapter, it’s going to be very interesting, it’s not a tell all. It’s all musical and funny anecdotes with Bette Midler, in the studio, funny things, what was recorded when and with which musicians, my childhood in Turkey, World War two. My father was a bank manager in Alexandria, Egypt in 1941 and ’42 and we used to visit him. In 1942 Rommel was at the gates. Every night we would have air raids. It was almost like that Spielberg film. So these will be the things that will be in the book.


RB: I will be the first in line to buy it.


RB: Thank you for taking the time to talk to me.


AM: You’re welcome.

Additional Producer Interviews
Bill Laswell
Linda Perry
Peter Collins
Daniel Sheehy
Peter Ganbarg
Wendy Page
Sandy Roberton
Katrina Sirdofsky
Arif Mardin
Lauren Christy
TAOMP title image 2
by richard james burgess
Jim Hall