Producer Arif Mardin celebrated in documentary 'The Greatest Ears in Town'
It’s a remarkable on one level that a man who played a critical role in shaping a boatload of hit records by Aretha Franklin, the Bee Gees, Bette Midler, Carly Simon, Phil Collins, Dusty Springfield, Chaka Khan, Norah Jones and countless others isn’t a household name. On the other hand, it’s not surprising that longtime Atlantic Records staff producer-arranger Arif Mardin is overshadowed in the pop music history books by the larger-than-life executives he worked for at the label: Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler.
Mardin “was more responsible than he has ever been given credit for many of the successes that we’ve had,” Ertegun himself says in “The Greatest Ears in Town: The Arif Mardin Story,” an illuminating documentary filled with as much humor as pathos that received its first L.A. screening Monday night at the Grammy Museum as part of the facility's "Reel to Reel" film series.
The two-hour film is built around footage shot in 2006 while Mardin was at work on what would become his final recording, “All My Friends Are Here,” a star-studded collection featuring artists he guided to some of their finest performances, singing songs he’d written over the years. He died of pancreatic cancer that year at age 74, shortly before finishing the album, which was released June 15 after being completed by his son, Joe Mardin, who also co-directed “The Greatest Ears in Town.”
The documentary traces his life from his birth in Turkey to an aristocratic family and his early fascination with American jazz through his move to the U.S. to study at the Berklee College of Music to landing a job as a studio assistant at Atlantic in the early 1960s. It was there that he eventually brought the full scope of his skills as a composer, arranger and producer to bear after charting his first hit in 1966: the Young Rascals’ “Good Lovin’.”
It was Mardin who crafted many of Springfield’s blue-eyed soul sessions in the late 1960s, who put the Bee Gees on the dance-minded, falsetto vocal sound that put them on track for their extraordinary “Saturday Night Fever” success and who surprised Khan with the hip hop-laced treatment of Prince’s “I Feel for You” in 1984 that became her biggest pop hit.
Monday’s screening was followed by a brief Q&A with Khan, Quincy Jones — a mentor who secured him the Berklee scholarship that allowed him to move here — Joe Mardin and the film’s co-director, Doug Biro. Mardin’s widow and Joe’s mother, Latife Mardin, who spoke sweetly in the film of their 50-year marriage, was in the audience, and Recording Academy President Neil Portnow was on hand as emcee.
All spoke of Mardin as a man of exceptional grace and wit, one who never attempted to overlay his own musical identity onto the artists he worked with. Instead, he tapped a broad-based set of musical skills to shepherd each to new creative heights.
Longtime Beatles producer George Martin appears in the film expressing admiration for Mardin’s work, and reflecting on the common aspects of their jobs as producers who were classically trained composers and arrangers.
Discussing the advantages such training gives a producer over those without compositional and arranging skills, 26-time Grammy winner Jones noted that in today’s computer and ProTools-driven world of record making, “If you don’t know music, you work for ProTools. If you know music, ProTools works for you.”
“The Greatest Ears in Town: The Arif Mardin Story” will get additional theatrical and television screenings before it is slated for release later this year on DVD, according to a spokeswoman for the project.
-- Randy Lewis
Top photo (l-r) Dizzy Gillespie, Arif Mardin and Chaka Khan in 1981. Courtesy of Joe Mardin
Lower photo: Quincy Jones and Chaka Khan during Monday's Q&A at the Grammy Museum. Credit: Becky Sapp / WireImage