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The Hit Maker

What it takes to be one of the greatest producers of all time.

Arif Mardin
Many things about the music industry have changed since Arif Mardin '61 H '85 produced his first hit record in 1965. Back then the world was mono and analog. Now it is multi-tracked and digital.

But four decades later, one thing has not changed. A hit is still a hit, and the formula is exactly the same, Mardin says. It still must be "musically correct, sincere, and commercial."

Mardin should know. He has earned over 40 gold and platinum albums and six Grammy Awards.

Now the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences is honoring the famed producer and senior vice president of Atlantic Records with a prestigious Trustee Award for a lifetime of achievement in music. In accepting the honor, he joins an elite group of producers and composers that includes Clive Davis, Phil Spector, Sir George Martin, Count Basie, and George and Ira Gershwin. NARAS will present the Trustee Award to Mardin on Feb. 20, the eve of the 43rd Annual Grammy Awards.

Longevity like Mardin's is rare in the music business. The secret to maintaining a consistently high level of achievement in such a mercurial business is to strike a balance between music's future and its past, Mardin believes.

"It's a combination of looking forward and also appreciating and loving the good things in the past," he said. "You always should appreciate the history of music. There's a lot to learn from [it]."

To remind himself of music's glorious history, Mardin keeps an old Berklee publicity photo in his New York office. It is a picture of Mardin with Louis Armstrong, taken when the jazz legend visited Berklee in the late 1950s. Looking at the photo helps Mardin remember that great music -- like Armstrong's – is ageless.

At the same time, though, Mardin resists the urge to sentimentalize the past. "I always keep looking ahead," he said. "I'm not a 'those-were-the-good-old-days' kind of person."

Mardin has more than his share of "good old days" to look back on. After graduating from Berklee in 1961, he began his career at Atlantic as an assistant to Nesuhi Ertegun, and soon became a staff arranger and producer. Initially, he worked with the label's jazz artists, including Eddie Harris and Sonny Stitt. But within a few years his focus shifted to pop.

Arif Mardin with Louis Armstrong.
Mardin's first hit for Atlantic was the Rascals' chart-topper "Good Lovin,'" recorded with co-producer Jerry Wexler and engineer Tom Dowd. In 1967 the threesome followed up with Aretha Franklin's soul masterpiece I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You), which included the classic "Respect." Later in the 60s, Mardin made landmark recordings with Dusty Springfield, Isaac Hayes and Laura Nyro.

Throughout the 70s, Mardin worked with leading artists in a variety of genres. He helped craft disco mega-hits by The Bee Gees, pop-rock songs by Hall & Oates, and introspective folk tunes by John Prine. The 80s saw two of his biggest hits, Chaka Khan's "I Feel For You" and Bette Midler's "Wind Beneath My Wings," both of which won Grammy Awards. He also recorded albums with Rod Stewart, Carly Simon, George Benson, Culture Club and Howard Jones. And, in the 90s, he continued to work with innovative artists like The Smashing Pumpkins and Jewel.

Through the years, Mardin has kept up with swift changes in recording techniques, using the most up-to-date tools to enhance an artist's sound. Still, he never allows technology to overshadow the music.

"When it comes to technology, if it broadens the horizons for artists and engineers and producers, then so be it," he said. "I'm not a nerdy technical person. I don't care about brand names, model numbers – but I know what can be done."

Arranging is perhaps Mardin's greatest skill, and the one he values above all others. In fact, one of the musical accomplishments he is most proud of is his arrangement of "Night in Tunisia" (for Chaka Khan's album What Cha' Gonna Do For Me).

His approach to arranging is very hands-on. In consultation with the artist, he changes chords and adds countermelodies freely.

"If the song is the gem, then I like to make that setting just right," he said.

One of an arranger's most important jobs, Mardin said, is to find exactly the right key, thereby maximizing the artist's performance. This is no mean feat when recording a vocalist with a four-octave range.

Arif Mardin (far right) and his classmates look over a score as they prepare for a Voice of America broadcast in the early 1960s.

"Aretha Franklin can sing a Pavarotti aria in Pavarotti's key. Chaka Khan can do the same, so one must not be dazzled by these incredible qualities," he said.

Mardin is extremely modest about the role he has played in fostering the talent of artists like Franklin, Khan and Midler. "They are geniuses. They don't need my nurturing," he said. "I am grateful that I was able to work with people like that."

In some instances, though, Mardin feels he was able to influence artists at pivotal points in their careers and help guide their development. Barry Gibb of The Bee Gees, for instance, credits Mardin for helping create the band's signature falsetto vocals. While recording a song for 1975's Main Course, Mardin suggested Gibb attempt to sing the melody up an octave.

"He just tried to oblige me, took the line up an octave, and had to sing it falsetto because it was impossible to shout," Mardin said. The resulting song, "Jive Talking," became the Bee Gees first platinum album and helped usher in the disco era.

It is a testament to Mardin's musical skills that his career has outlived various trends it helped spark. He believes Berklee played an important role in developing those skills.

Mardin arrived in Boston from Istanbul, Turkey in 1958. His enrollment at Berklee was recommended by Quincy Jones '51, who first met Mardin while on a USIA tour of the Middle East. Jones had been so impressed by some of Mardin's arrangements, he wrote to founder Larry Berk, urging him to offer Mardin a scholarship. While at school, Mardin studied with Herb Pomeroy and Ray Santisi, among others. His Berklee training still helps him to this day, he said.

"We're talking about the nuts and bolts of harmony, counterpoint, composition, orchestration. You have to have that foundation," he said.

"If you don't have that foundation you could be lucky one or two times, then success will elude you."

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