Arif Mardin, the titan record producer, arranger, and executive, whose career — mostly with Atlantic Records — spanned over 40 years and included 12 Grammys and over 50 gold or platinum albums, died yesterday at the age of 74.
Among the remarkable list of diverse but typically soulful artists who benefited from Mardin’s astute, painterly guidance are singers Norah Jones, Aretha Franklin, Roberta Flack, Cher, Dusty Springfield, Laura Nyro, Brook Benton, John Prine, Judy Collins, Barbra Stresiand, Anita Baker, Carly Simon, Diana Ross, Donny Hathaway, Jewel, Phil Collins, Bette Midler, Willie Nelson, Howard Jones, David Bowie, and Chaka Khan; groups such as the Rascals, Hall and Oates, Average White Band, Bee Gees, Queen, Scritti Politti, Culture Club, Manhattan Transfer, and the Modern Jazz Quartet; and trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, flutist Herbie Mann, and saxophonists Charles Lloyd and King Curtis.
Born March 15, 1932 in Istanbul, Mardin graduated from Istanbul University and studied at the London School of Economics. In 1957, he married his wife, Latife. The following year, instead of going into his father’s gas station chain business, Mardin became the first recipient of the Quincy Jones Scholarship at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. After graduation, he taught at Berklee for a year; eventually, he was made a trustee of the school and was awarded an honorary doctorate.
Prior to his first semester at Berklee, however, he made some key connections that would stand him in particularly good stead. He attended the Lenox School in Massachusetts’ Berkshire Mountains, studying with such notable jazz and Third Stream figures as Gunther Schuller, George Russell, John Lewis and Max Roach. A composition Mardin wrote for Lenox faculty so impressed Atlantic co-owner Ertegun that after Mardin’s Berklee tenure, Ertegun hired him as an assistant and archivist at Atlantic Records.
He soon became production manager at the label, and in 1969, was named a vice president. He was obviously a quick study; his first project, the Rascals’ “Good Lovin’,” went to No. 1. It was recorded to eight-track; the background vocals were done separately from Felix Cavaliere’s lead. Music was beginning to flex technological muscles.
“In 1963 or 1964, the artist would choose the song, then go into a small office and work with the arranger,” Mardin told Carlo Wolff in a 1998 interview. “The following day, an orchestra – two guitars, Fender bass, piano, maybe a Wurlitzer, a drummer, 10 to 12 strings and a few woodwinds – would come together. The vocalist would be in a separate booth. The record would be made right there, no overdubs. Tom Dowd would mix it to a mono quarter-inch tape, with the correct balance. He would also record it to eight-track.”
The aim of the process was purity, Mardin said. But that could be restricting, and as technology progressed, constraints were loosened. One day, when Ray Charles was recording “Believe to My Soul,” Charles didn’t like the way some female backup vocalists sounded. So Dowd told Charles four tracks were free to record on, and “Charles filled those in himself,” Mardin says. “He sang the girls’ parts.”
In 1969, Mardin released the first of his two solo albums, Glass Onion (Journey, a less thematic work, followed several years later). Glass Onion included Mardin’s jazzy arrangement of the Rascals’ 1967 hit, “How Can I Be Sure.” The Mardin version ultimately became a lounge hit in London dance clubs – in 1996.
In the ’70s, after creating a monster funk aggregation in the Scottish group Average White Band, his greatest achievement was producing the Bee Gees. With the brothers Gibb, Mardin scored worldwide hits in the melodic disco of “Jive Talkin’,” “Nights on Broadway,” and “Fanny (Be Tender With My Love).”
Mardin said he didn’t realize the Bee Gees were breaking ground; he also didn’t sense how big they’d be. But he and the Bee Gees worked hard during that era, particularly on Main Course, their 1975 breakthrough.
Barry, Robin and Maurice Gibb listened to a lot of rhythm ‘n’ blues before making that album. “I really enjoyed those sessions,” Mardin said, adding he especially relished Barry Gibb’s falsetto. “I always like vocalists to hurt up here,” he jokes, pointing to his throat.
Since the Bee Gees’ heyday ended at the dawn of the ’80s, Mardin has notched major successes with Chaka Khan (“I Feel for You”) and Scritti Politti, whose Cupid and Psyche ’85 was one of the most interesting blends of funk and disco that decade (Mardin produced three tracks on it).
Mardin kept current by listening to the radio, ordering the latest discs and studying them at home. He also wrote modern classical music and enjoyed early 20th century work in that genre, above all the music of Alban Berg and Arnold Schoenberg.
“I like layers in music that give you the feeling of distance,” Mardin said. “I like having things going on in the background. You have something to define the furthest point, then things that are nearer.” Mardin’s own albums have remarkable depth of field.
Mardin retired from Atlantic in 2001, but he soon reappeared at EMI’s revived Manhattan label under Blue Note chief Bruce Lundvall. There he put an extraordinary grace note on his career, co-producing Norah Jones’ Blue Note smash Come Away With Me, which won Grammys for album of the year and record of the year in 2003 and earned Mardin producer of the year honors. He also produced Jones’ follow up effort Feels Like Home, which sold over 1 million copies in its debut week alone in February 2004.
Mardin, who had been suffering from pancreatic cancer for about a year, is survived by his wife Latife, son Joe, and daughters Julie and Nazan Joffre. His funeral will be in Istanbul.