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Category:    Home > Interviews > Music > Production > Industry > History > Biography > An Interview With Joe Mardin

An Interview With Joe Mardin

He is a music producer, Grammy nominated filmmaker and the son of legendary music producer, composer, arranger, musician, conductor and genius, Arif Mardin. Joe Mardin not only continues music in the tradition and to the high standards his father set for the industry internationally, but has completed a remarkable documentary biography on his father entitled The Greatest Ears In Town, which we recently covered and is easily one of the best music releases of the year. Now we get a chance to talk to him about music, family, industry, legacy, his late father Arif and completing a massive album his father was in progress on working on up to his passing.

1) Thank you for joining us. Most of these questions will only scratch the surface of your father Arif Mardin's work and legacy in making unforgettable, enduing, lasting music, but it is important for our readers to understand the massive extent of his success and what a giant in music he really was. I wanted to start with his arrival at Atlantic Records, where he at first joined in a bureaucratic capacity in 1963 until record label co-founder Ahmet Ertegun found out what a music talent he was. This led to the pairing of your father Arif Mardin and groundbreaking producer/engineer Tom Dowd becoming this dynamite team of music makers, often joined by or joining Jerry Wexler. When were you first aware of this teaming and its groundbreaking nature?

I was aware from a very young age but it was not Ahmet but Nesuhi Ertegun who hired my father and it was Jerry Wexler who eventually added Arif to the team of Wexler and Tom Dowd.

2) Your father's first big production, The Young Rascals' Good Lovin' in 1966 was a big #1 hit across the board and put him and the group in the map, while keeping Atlantic Records one of the most important records labels around. Any interesting untold stories about the song and its success you can share with us?

The only thing that comes to mind immediately is that when the Young Rascals signed to Atlantic, they insisted their contract stipulate that they would self-produce.

When Tom Dowd and my father were brought in to work with them, even though they were acting as producers, if you look on the records, they are credited with supervision.

3) After years at Columbia Records, Aretha Franklin moved to Atlantic hoping for success that had eluded her, then she met Mr. Wexler & your father, started to work with them and her reign as The Queen Of Soul began in what become more landmark music and some of the most important music this country ever produced, including socially and politically. This included an amazing combination of talent and chemistry. Why do you think this worked so brilliantly?

Credit must first go to Mr. Wexler. He had the vision and really, the chutzpah to think he and Atlantic could provide more success for Aretha than she had managed to achieve with the great John Hammond [who discovered Miss Franklin and later signed a young singer/songwriter to Columbia against the objection of several executives there named Bob Dylan, also producing his early works] and Quincy Jones and Columbia Records.

It was really the combination of Wexler, Dowd and Mardin and in the film, my father and Aretha both explain the dynamic as well as the responsibilities of each member of the team. While of course there was overlap, Tommy was primarily responsible for the sound, Arif would be out on the floor as Aretha says interacting with her and the musicians and Jerry would be in the control room with Tommy overseeing the whole affair.

Again, there was overlapping in their respective responsibilities and talents but this was the basis of the dynamic and division of duties.

4) Your father Arif talked about handling the master tapes of virtually every music act Atlantic and sister label Atco had coming in and out of the company. Though he did not produce and engineer all this music, are their any interesting stories about anything hat might have happened with him and great Atlantic recording artists like Yes, Led Zeppelin, Cream, The Velvet Underground, Foreigner, Chic, Emerson, Lake & Palmer and/or Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young?

Sorry, not really.

5) OK, no secrets or surprises there then. Thanks to Tom Dowd's advanced work in science and physics, Atlantic had the best stereophonic catalog technically over all the other record labels. How did being technically ahead of the rest of the industry like that give your already talented father who loved music a technical edge?

I don't know that stereo necessarily gave my father an edge.

But having Tom Dowd record and engineer one's records certainly gave a lot of artists and producers and edge!

Tommy, especially in the beginning was a mentor to my father. My father learned so much about making records, mixing, cutting tape and all of that certainly gave him a technical edge which also gave him a certain amount of technical autonomy in the studio.

6) Your father could have rested on his laurels and stuck with the same 1960s styles of pop and soul, but instead, he kept moving forward into new directions. If being part of signature music of the 1960s was not enough, he also created landmark sounds and music of the 1970s including launching what became the most successful duo in American music, Daryl Hall & John Oates, as well as giving The Bee Gees a dynamic new identity, sound and feel that included both falsetto singing and a stronger sound than their folk, pop, rock, vocal and British Invasion sound offered, making them the most successful vocal group of the decade and then some. How would you describe the character of the progress of his sound here from what he was doing before?

My father came to America as the first recipient of the Quincy Jones Scholarship at the then Berklee School of Music with the dream of being a big band arranger.

But once Good Lovin' happened, he said he was bitten by the pop bug.

He understood that continuing to have hits meant being current on musical trends but this also kept him interested musically and creatively.

So, in a round about answer to your question, I think the character of progress of his sound (he was somewhat adamant that he did not have a sound) between the 60s and the 70s was just one in many musical transitions he would make throughout his career.

7) His productions continued to be highly influential, imitated and kept the music industry on the cutting edge, down to the great Lindsey Buckingham admitting he was trying to imitate the opening of The Bee Gees' Jive Talkin' for the Fleetwood Mac track Second Hand News from the insanely successful RUMOURS album. How much did you, your father and family notice your father's work informing so many other great artists?

That's a great question and I was unaware of Lindsey Buckingham's admiration of Jive Talkin'.

A very small example: it ended up becoming a much bigger hit but at the time, we thought the guitar part on Rose Royce's Car Wash was more than reminiscent of one of the guitar parts on Average White Band's Cut the Cake.

There are different examples like Whitney Houston's cover of I'm Every Woman in being a loving homage to Chaka's version, duplicates the (Arif's) arrangement almost note for note.

Do you have any examples in mind?

8) Hip Hop owes so much to the bass lines of Chic's Bernard Edwards (ABC's hit Poison Arrow being a prime example), not to mention Electronica and the New Romantics movement in New Wave, that could be a scholarly essay by someone in the know, though Pat Benatar's We Belong has some of the New Wave-style beat of Melissa Manchester's You Should Hear How She Talks About You, which we'll get to momentarily.

The music theorist, writer, critic and scholar Nelson George has controversially argued that African American artists and their music were held at bay, watered down and even stolen by major record labels in unusual ways, including citing a movement in the 1970s as the white negro movement citing music like Wild Cherry's Play The Funky Music White Boy, African American artists doing plainer music to satisfy supposed white audiences, the labels pushing the whole disco movement and citing your father's work with Average White Band, Hall & Oates and The Bee Gees among others as part of this theory. How do you respond to this critique?

I am not well versed enough in Nelson George's work and I don't think it's my place to respond to that critique which involves Arif's work. While I so wish he were here to do so, I will respond to the above premises as you have put them forth.

The exploitation of black artists, musicians, songwriters is sadly well known and documented and terrible things happened well before the 1970s.

Not that there is anything wrong with Play That Funky Music, White Boy but I don't think Arif would have seen a parallel between it and Pick Up the Pieces, She's Gone and Jive Talkin'. He was just trying to bring out the best the artists you mention had in them. Blackness or whiteness was not part of the equation. The mandate was always to try to bring the artist's strengths and personality to the fore in the context of a commercially viable record.

Call me naïve, it just appears to me that trying to perennially characterize exchanges in music as inherently exploitative can only lead to musical segregation. It ignores that in the long term, it has been, will always be an exchange, and restricting that exchange would have denied us Elvis and the Queen of Soul as we know Her among countless other artists. Could Eminem have become the star he is without Dr. Dre?

9) No and collaborations that effective with such synergy can shape an artist for their launch or a significant period of their career. Average White Band is one of those great large band outfits like Chicago, Blood, Sweat & Tears and Earth, Wind & Fire that loved playing music, playing music big, large, with great energy, jamming and with a sense of energy and joy we rarely see today. What happened?

There are great musicians around and people making great music in general but they are not a cornerstone of the mainstream the way they once were. A great example is Snarky Puppy. Funk/jazz, fantastic musicianship, carrying on in the tradition of some of the bands you mentioned but taking it to the next level.

10) Bette Midler was a longtime friend of your father's and he helped her become a music star. He later gave her some of her biggest hits and she wrote a song for his final album that became the title of your documentary, The Greatest Ears In Town. Tell us more about how they became acquainted, their chemistry and how this was prolific for both of them?

They first worked together on Bette's first two albums for Atlantic in the early 70s.

It was a lifelong friendship and creative relationship.

There was great understanding and trust and he loved and greatly respected her artistry and genius.

They made each other laugh!

11) Carly Simon collaborated with your father on a Michael McDonald-penned hit You Belong To Me that remains one of her great records. Any great stories about it?

Only what Carly recounts in the film:

You Belong To Me was co-written by Carly and Michael McDonald and The Doobie Brothers' version which was released prior to Carly's was at a slower tempo which was how she envisaged her version would be.

From what I recall, Arif was rehearsing the band and James Taylor was singing a guide vocal before Carly got to the studio that particular day.

When she did, they had cut the track at the new, faster tempo and Carly was uncertain it

would be right.

But as she tells us in the film, with Arif and James' help, she found her way to sing the song at the new tempo and of course the rest was history.

12) One of your father's more underrated projects was working with Melissa Manchester on her HEY RICKY album, that included the clever smash hit You Should Hear How She Talks About You. I would site it as a further step in the evolution of his sound and approach in music, offering a sharper and crisper version of his rich sound that always was a few steps ahead of everyone else in the business. How did you and he feel about this album?

Arif would have thanked you for remembering this album well.

And as you had mentioned the evolution of his approach from the 60s to the 70s, You Should Hear How She Talks About You represents part of his transition from the 70s into the 80s with his interest in 80s New Wave and the English records being made at that time by groups like Art of Noise and producers like Trevor Horn.

The cover of Vangelis' Race to the End [the vocal version of the theme form the motion picture Chariots Of Fire] definitely has little nods to Ultravox's Vienna which Arif admired.

But he would always put his own little spin on it. In the above instance, either with his string arrangement or with having someone like the brilliant Jeff Porcaro playing drums on it, it was not just a replication or an homage. And needless to say, it was always in service of the artist.

The title track also has some very Arif production and harmonic touches and shows Melissa Manchester stretching vocally into some more rocking territory.

13) With similarly impressive sonics and great sound, your father remake Prince's song I Feel For You with Chaka Khan, then added Stevie Wonder on harmonica referencing his breakthrough hit Fingertips - Pt. 2, adding what we now know was a happy, lucky accident in starting the song with rapper Melle Mel's opening rap exaggerating the first two words, which happen to be the singer's name. It began a harder edged Rap/Hip Hop sound in mainstream music the way Fingertips - Pt. 2 helped launch The Motown Sound. He knew it would be a hit, but did you all expect it to go over so well and be the beginning of a new music era?

Funny you should ask that question. Chaka loved the song and Arif understood immediately that it could be a great vehicle for her.

But most of us did not understand what he was trying to do with I Feel For You until he brought in (co-arranger) Reggie Griffin and it was really Reggie who created the bed on which Chaka and Arif literally reinvented Prince's song.

14) Your father made his own recordings in between all this massive work with the most important music artist in industry history. Please tell us about his early recordings?

Glass Onion was the first of his three solo albums, released on Atlantic in 1969.

He referred to it as an arranger's showcase as it was a set of instrumental arrangements of various hits of the day with just one original Arif composition, Midnight Walk.

There's a funny story my mother tells in the film about this and especially about that Arif chose to include only one of his compositions on the album.

Journey, his second Atlantic album was all original jazz compositions, very much in a 70s, progressive jazz and funk mode. A really great album featuring a who's who of jazz musicians of the day.

He also released a few singles under his name or the Arif Mardin Orchestra which were theme songs from films which Arif orchestrated and produced new versions of.

Something very funny I discovered was the Arif Mardin Chorus covering the theme song from the ill-fated Broadway musical Her First Roman.

Google Evil Companions.

Sorry, dad!

There were also more serious compositions like his amazing 1993 Suite Fraternidad recorded by the WDR Orchestra, his one act opera, I Will Wait which has not yet been recorded.

Much more before he finally got to All My Friends Are Here.

15) You were co-producing with your father in his final years, including on his last album, left to finish his work when his ill health took him from us much sooner than anyone would have wanted it to. Tell us about the album, how much work you had left to finish and your thoughts on the results.

Much of the recording was finished when we lost him with the main exceptions being much of The Greatest Ears In Town and the cameos on All My Friends Are Here.

He completed the string arrangement for No Way Out in bed, the night before he passed away and I had the honor of conducting it when we recorded it two months later.

We discussed many aspects of the album's completion and he knew that I and our longtime engineer and friend, Michael O'Reilly had a pretty good sense of what he liked and didn't like musically.

There is a DVD extra on the DVD which is about my finishing the album.

It was very hard and it still makes me sad when I think about how this hugely accomplished man did not get to complete the album he referred to as his life's work.

16) One of the best revelations in the documentary is that your father loved motion pictures and was a particular fan of Film Noir, an profoundly honest form of filmmaking that was always dark, visual and was created in the 1940s by artists like Orson Welles who brought a new maturity and honesty to the art form. What did he love about it, do you have any special insights about his connection to it and can you name a few Noir films he especially loved?

Of course, you are referring to the Film Noir extra on the DVD.

Laura was probably his favorite Film Noir film as well as a favorite tune which he toyed with for many years via cocktail piano playing (he had a small repertoire of standards he would serenade my mother with after parties) but he also wrote a stunning arrangement of (The Theme From) Laura for Carly Simon's Film Noir album. It was something I wanted to cover in the film but the scene just became too dense. I think he also liked Portrait of Jennie.

His song, No Way Out while not inspired by Film Noir was inspired by the 1965 Jack Lemmon comedy, How to Murder Your Wife.

17) Most people are recording digitally these days, but many people (like myself) still see value and character in analog recording and techniques. What is your view on this subject and what did your father think of this?

I would say we both loved and love analog tape but he really liked the convenience of digital and did not really have any qualms about the sound.

I would love to be able to record projects to analog tape and then transfer it quickly to digital. The repeated playings of tape does degrade the sound. Like transferring film to digital, the analog character can be very successfully maintained in an audio transfer to digital with the high quality equipment and the right know-how.

18) I would like to ask the same about vinyl records to you and if you know what your father thought of them versus the formats that sprung up later. Vinyl never went away and has even made a comeback in recent years.

I don't think Arif had a particular attachment to vinyl although we have his wonderful collection of jazz 78s.

I've gone back to listening to some vinyl and I really enjoy it for well recorded chamber music and some jazz but I kind of prefer digital (or the original master analog tape) for pop, rock, etc...

19) Of course, all this technique, technology and innovation is nothing without real human beings and artists who know how to make music, communicate ideas and bring things together in unforgettable ways that say something. What did your father have that set him apart from his peers?

His musical values and tastes made a difference. He avoided a signature sound, looking rather to bring out what was original and appealing in the artist and the song, avoiding being an Auteur (an artist who leaves certain characteristics on each piece of music, i.e. Phil Spector's Wall of Sound, etc.).

At the same time, he also used to talk about having a measure or two of music in each record he made which was for him or for the more musically initiated to enjoy.

I think something which set my father apart, something only the greatest producers have in common, was an ability to make commercially viable music which was never dumbed down.

But even when producing a record where he adhered to a certain degree of formula, he had a very real aversion to the musically commonplace.

He had a real genius for taking a common musical idea or phrase or chord and almost imperceptibly imbuing or transforming it into something uncommon.

Which also puts him somewhere between an Auteur and journeyman creator of music. And to think that just begins to scratch the surface of his long, massive and landmark career. I wanted to thank you for doing this interview with us and we want to strongly re-recommend the amazing documentary THE GREATEST EARS IN TOWN: THE ARIF MARDIN STORY which you can read all about at this link:


Don't miss it!!!


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