Interview With Joe Mardin
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
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
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.
Your father's first big production, The Young Rascals' Good
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?
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
there was overlapping in their respective responsibilities and
talents but this was the basis of the dynamic and division of duties.
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?
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
don't know that stereo necessarily gave my father an edge.
having Tom Dowd record and engineer one's records certainly gave a
lot of artists and producers and edge!
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.
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?
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.
happened, he said he was bitten
by the pop bug.
understood that continuing to have hits meant being current on
musical trends but this also kept him interested musically and
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
between the 60s and the 70s was just one in many musical transitions
he would make throughout his career.
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
for the Fleetwood Mac track Second
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?
a great question and I was unaware of Lindsey Buckingham's admiration
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
was more than reminiscent of one of the guitar parts on Average White
are different examples like Whitney Houston's cover of I'm
in being a loving homage to Chaka's version, duplicates the (Arif's)
arrangement almost note for note.
you have any examples in mind?
Hip Hop owes so much to the bass lines of Chic's Bernard Edwards
(ABC's hit Poison
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
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.
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
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?
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.
exploitation of black artists, musicians, songwriters is sadly well
known and documented and terrible things happened well before the
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,
He was just trying to bring out the best the artists you mention had
in them. Blackness
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.
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?
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.
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.
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
Greatest Ears In Town.
Tell us more about how they became acquainted, their chemistry and
how this was prolific for both of them?
first worked together on Bette's first two albums for Atlantic in the
was a lifelong friendship and creative relationship.
was great understanding and trust and he loved and greatly respected
her artistry and genius.
made each other laugh!
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?
what Carly recounts in the film:
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.
what I recall, Arif was rehearsing the band and James Taylor was
singing a guide vocal before Carly got to the studio that particular
she did, they had cut the track at the new, faster tempo and Carly
was uncertain it
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
One of your father's more underrated projects was working with
Melissa Manchester on her HEY
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?
would have thanked you for remembering this album well.
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.
cover of Vangelis' Race
to the End
[the vocal version of the theme form the motion picture Chariots
definitely has little nods to Ultravox's Vienna
which Arif admired.
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.
title track also has some very Arif production and harmonic touches
and shows Melissa Manchester stretching vocally into some more
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
you should ask that question. Chaka loved the song and Arif
understood immediately that it could be a great vehicle for her.
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.
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?
was the first of his three solo
albums, released on Atlantic in 1969.
referred to it as an arranger's
as it was a set of instrumental arrangements of various hits of the
day with just one original Arif composition, Midnight
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
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.
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.
very funny I discovered was the Arif Mardin Chorus covering the theme
song from the ill-fated Broadway musical Her
were also more serious compositions like his amazing 1993 Suite
recorded by the WDR Orchestra, his one act opera, I
which has not yet been recorded.
more before he finally got to All
My Friends Are Here.
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.
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.
completed the string arrangement for No
in bed, the night before he passed away and I had the honor of
conducting it when we recorded it two months later.
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.
is a DVD extra on the DVD which is about my finishing the album.
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
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?
course, you are referring to the Film Noir extra on the DVD.
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
album. It was something I wanted to cover in the film but the scene
just became too dense. I think he also liked Portrait
while not inspired by Film Noir was inspired by the 1965 Jack Lemmon
to Murder Your Wife.
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?
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
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.
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.
don't think Arif had a particular attachment to vinyl although we
have his wonderful collection of jazz 78s.
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...
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?
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.).
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.
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.
even when producing a record where he adhered to a certain degree of
formula, he had a very real aversion to the musically commonplace.
had a real genius for taking a common musical idea or phrase or chord
and almost imperceptibly imbuing or transforming it into something
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: