The first time I noticed the name of Arif Mardin on a record label, it was as co-producer of The Young Rascals’ “Good Lovin’.” According to the documentary, The Greatest Ears in Town: The Arif Mardin Story, the reason for that is that “Good Lovin'” was the first number one record with Mardin’s involvement. Thereafter, especially during his three decades with Atlantic Records, Mardin produced the likes of Bette Midler, Aretha Franklin, The Bee Gees, Carly Simon, Brook Benton, Donny Hathaway, The Average White Band, Jewel, Phil Collins, Judy Collins, Barbara Streisand, Hall and Oates, Chaka Khan, Willie Nelson, Dusty Springfield, and Norah Jones.
But to simply describe Mardin as a producer for all these and other artists is to understate his achievements. For over 40 years, he was a composer, arranger, engineer, and talent scout and groomer of potential stars. As Sir George Martin observed in The Greatest Ears in Town, Mardin was one of the few producers to actually have a background as a musician himself. This allowed him to shape compositions and provide ideal instrumental settings in a wide variety of genres because he could explain and write the language of music.
It all began during Mardin’s early years in Istanbul where he gained a strong background in jazz. In 1956 he met Dizzy Gillespie and Quincy Jones which helped inspire Mardin’s move to New York. Then, Mardin met fellow Turkish emigres Nesuhi and Ahmet Ertegün, who brought him to their fledgling Atlantic Records. Working alongside fellow pioneering producers Jerry Wexler and Tom Dowd, Mardin quickly rose in the ranks and the rest, as they say, is music history. And that history includes over 40 gold and platinum albums, over 15 Grammy nominations, and 12
Without question, such a career is more than worthy of an in-depth appreciation. The Grammy-nominated The Greatest Ears in Town is just that, something of a collage of personal perspectives digging into who Mardin was and what he accomplished during his lifetime. Briefly released as a digital download with limited screenings in June 2010, the film was co-produced and co-directed by Joe Mardin, Arif’s son. Now available to the general public in its polished, fully edited form, much of the documentary centers on footage of Arif Mardin in the studio working on his third and final album, All My Friends Are Here. These 2006 sessions showcase, among other highlights, Bette Midler singing her tribute to Mr. Mardin, “The Greatest Ears in Town,” hence the documentary’s title.
While not presented as a linear biography, throughout the film we do hear about Mardin’s personal life through interviews with the man himself, his widow Latife, and, in the final minutes, Joe Mardin discussing the finishing work he did on All My Friends Are Here after his father’s death in 2006 midway through the project. Other interviews with performers who knew and worked with Mardin include the above mentioned Aretha, Martin, Khan, Midler, Norah and Quincy Jones, Nelson, and Phil Collins, along with Dr. John, and Jewel. We also see how many of these performers reunited with Mardin for the title song of his album, “All My Friends Are Here” including The Average White Band, Randy Brecker, Phil Collins, Barry Gibb, Robin Gibb, Lalah Hathaway, Cissy Houston, Daryl Hall & John Oates, and The Rascals. Yes, that’s all in one jazzy groove.
One theme resonates through every conversation: Arif Mardin was a gentleman who knew how to coax the best out of all the performers standing before him in the studio. We learn musical tidbits such as how Mardin inspired Barry Gibb to sing falsetto on 1975’s “Nights on Broadway” which resulted in one of the most recognizable sounds of the disco era. Likewise, he was the innovator who came up with the scratch sounds for Chaka Khan’s ’80s hit cover of Prince’s “I Feel for You,” which also showed hip-hop influence.
Beyond the interviews and the studio scenes, we hear passages from the hits Mardin produced including his demonstrating how he layered guitars to create the sounds he was looking for. On top of all that, the DVD comes with 24 never-before-seen minutes of bonus materials. Most of these are further reminiscences and tributes, but we also get an alternate take of “No Way Out” by Mardin featuring Nicki Parrott, another song from the All My Friends Are Here collection.
Coming on November 5 on DVD and various digital platforms, The Greatest Ears in Town should certainly appeal to any participant in the music business whether as a recording artist, producer, or composer. Further, anyone interested in the history of modern popular music from jazz to pop to R&B to rock should be aware of the work of Arif Mardin, as he personified many of the changing trends from the mid-’60s until the early years of the 21st century. If you want the insider’s perspective, well, actually many insider perspectives, The Greatest Ears in Town is as enjoyable a music lesson as anyone can expect.