Arif Mardin was a recording icon, producing and arranging hits for decades as he created career-defining songs for Hall & Oates, Phil Collins, Carly Simon, Bette Midler, the Bee Gees, Norah Jones, Chaka Khan and many others. More than 50 million records were sold with Mardin's name on them, and he took home 12 Grammy Awards in the process. While he spent most of his life behind the scenes, the producer now takes centerstage in the documentary The Greatest Ears In Town: The Arif Mardin Story (Shelter Island; 103 minutes).
Anchored around the sessions for Mardin’s final project, a solo album entitled All My Friends Are Here, the documentary follows the record’s creation but quickly broadens its scope to explore both his personal and professional life from the start.
In fact, the film often feels like a master class on how to become a world-renowned producer, as the likes of George Martin, Ahmet Ertegun, Hugh Padgham, Quincy Jones, Phil Ramone and others weigh in with a variety of viewpoints and stories. Comments from the various legends—all interviewed separately yet often touching on the same topics—play off each other, creating a virtual roundtable on the role of a producer.
George Martin, who like Mardin came to pop production from a background in classical music, modestly states, “We weren’t the prime movers; the prime movers were the guys who write the song and the guys who perform it. So here we have a portrait that is a beautiful, fantastic portrait and all we’re really doing is hanging a very good frame on it and making it look a lot better because of that.”
Backing up that self-effacing view, Mardin announces “I have no ego,” to which Ramone soon adds, “And yet he has to have the strongest ego in the room so that the artist doesn’t lose faith.” Jones offers, “When you’re dealing with Billy Eckstein, Ray Charles and Frank Sinatra, man, you better know what you’re talking about, 'cause they will eat your skin off!”
But talking about what producers do is one thing; seeing a master at work is another, and the documentary affords that opportunity numerous times. Mardin had an innate ability to put artists at ease and draw the best out of them, and that gift is amply displayed throughout the flick, particularly in a segment where he alternately coddles and joshes a grumpy Dr. John through a difficult vocal.
A critical factor in Mardin’s success was his ability to keep things light yet focused. At one point, Norah Jones notes, “He made everybody feel very comfortable in the studio, and that’s important because no matter how good a producer is, I think the key is making people feel comfortable.” Mardin later recounts that he picked up those skills by watching other studio legends—Tom Dowd, Jerry Wexler and Ertegun: “It’s public relations, nurturing and being firm—and the meter is running, so you can’t just waste money in the studio.”
The documentary duly notes that much of Mardin’s success stemmed from the fact that he was a musician, unlike most of his contemporaries at Atlantic Records in the 1960s. His ability to write arrangements that suited artists led to working with the likes of Aretha Franklin and Donny Hathaway. That same kind of musical rapport showed up in the mid-'70s when he produced the Bee Gees and made the unlikely suggestion that Barry Gibb sing in falsetto—a move that soon became the group’s trademark. “It worked; he hit on something that was new at the time and fresh, that Barry could do very well, but it was Arif’s suggestion and it happened at two o’clock in the morning,” reports Robin Gibb.
While Collins, Franklin, Midler, Willie Nelson, Average White Band and Jewel all show up at various points, later in the film, the virtual roundtable returns to debate whether producers should have an identifiable stamp on an artist’s music, mostly coming down on the side of evoking what the artist wants. Ironically, this is followed by a segment on one of the biggest hits Mardin helmed, Chaka Khan’s cover of “I Feel For You."
“We truly loaded the song with hooks,” Mardin intones, and yet Khan herself reveals, “I hated it. I wasn’t thinking about hip-hop at all. The visionary that he was, he saw it was going to be something viable, something special.” As Russ Titelman notes, the track was written by Prince and featured both Stevie Wonder on harmonica and rap legend Melle Mel, but it was Mardin’s instinct to combine such diverse elements and knit them together using early sampling techniques. “It kind of liberated other creative people like myself to go down that road as well,” says Titelman.
Clearly the film was a labor of love for Mardin’s son Joe, who both co-produced and directed with Doug Biro; together, they bring a sense of intimacy to the proceedings, ensuring it never devolves into a mere visual discography. Although the producer passed away from cancer in 2006, the music he shepherded lives on and the film is a testament to that legacy. While best remembered for creating the cornerstones of modern Adult Contemporary music, The Greatest Ears In Town shows that regardless of the genre he was working in—R&B, funk, jazz, country or even hip-hop—Arif Mardin was always focused on creating the best music possible, and that’s a value producers in any genre can believe in.