by Roger Friedman
Tribute to Man Who Made the Bee Gees, Bette and Norah Stars
(Jewel, Arif, and Bette -May 14, 2001)
“I feel like we’re one step closer to the end of an era,” Phil Collins said last night at the star-studded Lincoln Center memorial service for famed record producer Arif Mardin. “I liked that era, and I don’t want it to be over.”
It was a statement that was echoed in all the guests, speakers and performers at Alice Tully Hall. Mardin, 74, died last year after a quick and ugly battle with cancer. He was beloved, that’s for sure. This was one memorial where every speech was heartfelt.
Mardin was the antithesis of the stereotypical record producer, as Clive Davis said in his lovely speech. No gold chains for Arif Mardin. He was an impeccable dresser, humble, polite and articulate.
Among the performers: Norah Jones, whose first two albums Mardin produced; Darryl Hall; Bette Midler; Judy Collins; and Julianna and John Jaffe.
Barry Gibb, who was slated to appear, was absent due to some family problem, but everyone else showed.
Aside from Phil Collins, there were: Felix Cavaliere; David and Eddie Brigati of the Rascals; Carly Simon with sister Lucy; promoter Ron Delsener; Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner; producers Phil Ramone and Russ Titelman; famed Atlantic Records drummer Bernard Purdee; members of the Average White Band; May Pang; a sighting of actor Tim Robbins; and dozens of un-famous people who worked at Atlantic Records in its heyday of Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Sam & Dave, as well as Led Zeppelin and Crosby, Stills and Nash.
There were record executives, too, who spoke most passionately about Mardin. Clive Davis, without notes, held the podium and recalled the friend he employed to produce tracks for Aretha Franklin and Dionne Warwick.
“He more than anyone represented us with heart, feeling, passion and nobility,” Davis said of Mardin. “There was no better ambassador for us in the music world.”
Ian Ralfini, who started Manhattan Records with Arif after they left Atlantic just a few years ago – and immediately hit a home run with Norah Jones – choked up reminiscing about his longtime friend.
Joel Dorn, the producer who launched Bette Midler with Mardin, said, “He was a hand-rolled Havana in a world of El Productos.”
Joe Mardin, Arif’s producer son, genially emceed the two-hour tribute, which everyone noted the missing subject would have loved.
To catch you up: As Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler ran Atlantic Records, it was Arif Mardin, a decade younger, who produced much of the music. He wrote the charts, the arrangements and put his imprimatur on everyone from Wilson Pickett to Judy Collins.
The latter performed “Song for Duke,” her composition about Duke Ellington, a song that Mardin loved, with gorgeous simplicity, accompanying herself on the piano. Darryl Hall, with two helpers (John Oates had a cold) executed an acoustic version of “She’s Gone,” the one song he said was a “real collaboration” with Mardin.
Norah Jones sang “The Nearness of You” and recalled fooling around in the studio with Mardin.
“He rapped on one track like a Tasmanian devil,” she said with a laugh.
Missing, oddly, was Roberta Flack, a singer Mardin really put on the map. Many of Flack’s biggest hits were produced by Mardin including her landmark self-titled 1972 album with Donny Hathaway.
But Bette Midler, in fine voice, came to close the show with a song called “The Perfect Kiss.”
“He saved my a– many, many times,” Midler said, noting that Mardin had produced her biggest hit, “Wind Beneath My Wings.”
It turns out he used that moniker for his wife, Latife, who sat in a front row and beamed as star after star thanked her late husband for their music careers.
“He elevated a lot of garbage,” Midler said, citing songs she brought him with titles like “My Night in Black Leather.”
She then sang “Perfect Kiss” from an album Mardin produced called “Bed of Roses.” Again, the song, the performance, like all the others, was marked by a delicate simplicity in its arrangement and delivery. It was elegant. Just like Arif Mardin.