“It’s like the director of a film. It doesn’t matter what you’ve got going on in front of the camera, if they don’t capture it in a masterful way, you don’t see it on the screen.” That’s Quincy Jones, explaining the role of a record producer Monday night at the Grammy Museum in downtown L.A. But Jones, who produced Michael Jackson’s Thriller album, among other pop milestones, wasn’t talking about himself. He was trying to convey the importance of Arif Mardin, whose work is celebrated in the new documentary The Greatest Ears In Town, co-directed by Joe Mardin and Doug Biro.
Mardin, who made breakthrough hit records with recording artists Dusty Springfield, Aretha Franklin, Hall & Oates, the Bee Gees, Norah Jones, Willie Nelson, Bette Midler, Carly Simon and countless others, died of pancreatic cancer in 2006. The film captures him in the studio during his last years of life, and recording sessions for a forthcoming album of his own compositions, sung by many of the top talents he worked with, titled All My Friends Are Here.
Documentary films rely on their subject’s charisma, and Mardin, who never sought the spotlight in life, had charisma to spare. In much of the footage he is a balding, aging man in a baseball cap, his chest sunken from his illness, but he is utterly winning. He comes across as unassuming and elegant, unpretentious and brilliant.
Born into a wealthy and aristocractic family in Istanbul, he followed his passion for jazz to New York and Atlantic Records, where his gifts for composing and arranging soon advanced him from an assistant’s job to a creative post as a staff producer. Starting in the mid ‘60s, he spent most of his career at Atlantic, working for “the local Turks,” Ahmet and Nasser Ertegun, and their partner Jerry Wexler. His talent as a writer was prodigious – some of the songs on All My Friends Are Here sound like classics; there’s not a clunker in the bunch. But he devoted himself to bringing out the best in others, creating evocative sonic backdrops for the stories in records like Brook Benton’s A Rainy Night In Georgia, or the Rascal’s Good Lovin', two of his earliest hits. “I go where the artist goes,” he said of his versatile approach, which ranged from lush strings to potent funk.
Just a few of the creative moments recounted in the doc: Daryl Hall is awakened to the potential of the intro hook to "She’s Gone", Hall & Oates’ breakthrough hit; Barry Gibb is encouraged to “go up an octave,” resulting in the falsetto vocals that distinguished "Nights On Broadway" and many Bee Gees hits that followed, and Chaka Khan is surprised with the “Chaka Khan, Chaka Khan” chant that opens her recording of Prince’s "I Feel For You" – the Arif Mardin produced smash that helped re-launch her career in the ‘80s.
Shot on HDV, the feature-length doc has to overcome some initial roughness – why does it come in and out of focus so often in its first few minutes? – and an editing style that can seem amateurish. But what it presents is enthralling. It’s a fly-on-the-wall look at a rarely seen part of a music-making process that yielded legendary results. Mardin, with his eccentric syntax, Middle Eastern accent, and sly sense of humor, is a charmer. Son Joe, the co-director, presents him as a full person, and includes his courtship and marriage to his wife of 50 years, Latife.
And clearly, he was beloved by the artists he worked with. The great Quincy Jones, who in the ‘50s helped Mardin win a scholarship to the Berklee School of Music, had to hold back emotion several times during the Q&A, and he held hands with Chaka Khan to soothe himself. But he was also hilarious, ripping off one-liners and crack-up observations.
Telling stories about his association with Steven Spielberg, Jones said, “They had to remake E.T. cause the first one looked too much like a brother.” Trying to explain the passion that drives the development of jazz musicians, he said, “They shack up with the music first, then they court it and marry it later.” About a diva he worked with who was a pill, he said, “Please! That woman could wring the balls off a pool table.”
And Khan told of many nights spent at home with the Mardins, who became like a second family. “Arif opened up doors and brought colors and I became like a warrior-ess, unafraid, because of the things he put before me,” she said of their association. “Now I’m wondering who can produce me, outside of Mr. Jones here.”
The U.S. premiere of the doc, presented by the Recording Academy, was held June 15 in New York City. Although specifics are not yet available, the producers are aiming at theatrical and broadcast release for the doc later this year, and All My Friends Are Here, which features vocals by Bette Midler, Norah Jones, Dr. John and others, has just been released on NuNoise Records.
[Photo of Dizzy Gillespie, Arif Mardin, and Chaka Khan, courtesy of Los Angeles Times]