It was New Year’s eve. We were about to enter one of the low point years in New York City history, 1975. But the Big Apple’s woes made it possible for kids like me and my best friend, Duke, to share an apartment on 73rd Street and 1st Avenue in Manhattan. The rent was $240 a month for the two room, 4th floor walk-up apartment, so we each paid $120. You can barely get a decent bagel for $120 in New York these days.
Duke and I didn’t have any major plans for that night. We were relatively new in town, and New York is a hard nut to crack. Still, we were living a pretty glamorous life, considering.
My friend was an actor, and was about to perform with an offshoot of the Performance Group, the coolest avant-garde theater troupe anywhere. It made its home in an off-beat neighborhood of abandoned industrial warehouses called Soho. At that time, that part of the city, so trendy now, was virtually unknown. The first time I went to see the Group do their thing at the Performance Garage on Wooster Street in 1972, tumbleweeds blew through the wind-swept streets of what was essentially a ghost town. I was blown away by their adaptation of Sam Shepherd’s, “The Tooth of Crime,” not only because of Shepard’s archetypal tale of the battle between a cowboy and a rocker, but more so the acting and production, which had the audience move around the industrial space to be intimately close to where the action was. These were heady days in the New York culture scene.
While Duke was cool for hanging with these über-hipsters, I wasn’t doing too bad myself, for a 19-year-old kid. I was working at the premiere recording studio of the era, A and R Studios, apprenticed to the master-maniac, Phil Ramone. We had just finished recording an album by Judy Collins. It was to become one of her most popular albums, featuring the perennial hit, “Send in the Clowns.”
Participating in the recording of that album during the autumn of 1974 was an honor and a joy.
We cut the tracks in the big room, studio A-1. After a take, Judy would come into the control room for the playback and stand next to me, behind the recording console. Reviewing freshly cut tracks was always a serious affair. Was this the version that had the magic? Was there something subtly off that would render it a useless outtake? The control room was hushed. Everyone listened with the deepest concentration.
When the song ended, Judy, inches from me, looking at me with her intense, blue eyes, would lean over so close her hair would brush against me and whisper, “What do you think?” A pure thrill would ascend through my adolescent body.
I’m not sure why she asked. Judy had unerring taste. She had put together the premiere production team in the business to create this masterwork. The legendary and late Arif Mardin was the album’s producer. His equal, Phil Ramone, was on the engineering controls. Jonathan Tunick was the orchestral arranger. Yet she encouraged me to find my own way to evaluating the merit of the recording.
Perhaps the deepest learning I gained in getting to work with Judy was about this artistic sensibility. Of course she had a great ear, and knew how to pick the best songs. She was responsible for virtually discovering Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen. She herself received the deepest artistic mentorship from her teacher, Antonia Brico, the first female conductor, who she spoke of with reverence.
What is this elusive artistic sensibility that I speak of? It is an attitude, a way of being in the world, a sensitivity and responsiveness to the highest levels of quality and feeling. It is an approach to life and work that involves aspiring to the most penetrating insight into truth. It demands that we be willing to put all of ourselves into everything we do with total passion. Simply being in the presence of that approach to living and work inspired me and taught me how to be.
After assisting on two of her albums, Judy was one of the first artists to give me the opportunity to engineer on my own. I had the incredible fortune to engineer her retrospective album, “So Early in the Spring,” which covered her career from 1961 – 1976. I got to listen to all of her recordings, and learned to appreciate the early work of this master on the deepest level. Judy not only mentored me as a role model, but by giving me that opportunity, she advanced my career and artistic development.
This depth of being has held Judy in good stead. Her most recent, 2010 album, “Paradise,” on her own label, Wildflower, is a terrific work of art that continues a career of beauty, depth, and meaning. Her voice is more radiant, powerful, and gorgeous than ever.
We finished Judy’s album at deadline, the last day of the year. My job was to make a tape copy of the whole thing, and deliver it to the producer, Arif, at his apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Since we had nothing else to do, I asked Duke if he wanted to come along to make the delivery.
I had gotten to hang deep with Arif during the months of the recording. He was the rare exception to the rule that the artists at the top were assholes. Arif proved you didn’t have to pull people down to make yourself look more brilliant. Arif was cultured, well-mannered, and real.
Mr. Mardin was supremely musical. There’s a scene in the film “Amadeus,” about Mozart, where the court composer, Salieri, plays a ditty he has composed for the young, up-and-coming genius. The composition is pedestrian, and you can hear the obviousness of its harmonic structure. Mozart sits down and riffs on the theme, and in a few moments turns the exercise into music. That’s the magic that these heavies were able to make happen, and Arif embodied this kind of tastefulness at its ultimate.
The Mardins lived in one of those big, old pre-war buildings on the Upper West Side. These grand dames of Manhattan real estate had coveted huge apartments called “classic sixes” and “classic sevens.” You simply don’t find these kinds of pads anywhere else in Gotham, where real estate footage is at a premium.
Duke and I were somewhat intimidated by the stately dimensions and class of the building, but we would never show it, knowing how to be cool. We sauntered in, telling the doorman where we were headed, me with my tape in an envelope, delivery boys with a difference.
We rang Arif’s doorbell. I assumed he would grab the tape, say thanks, and we’d run off into the night gleeful at getting that close. An elegant, impeccably coiffed woman, with caramel colored skin, coffee colored eyes and black hair, came to the door. She had a welcoming smile. I told her my business.
She said, “Oh, we are getting ready for a party, but Arif will be here in a minute. Please come in. I’m Latife, his wife.”
Come in? Arif was one of those legendary cats Duke and I both idolized. Here was an opportunity not to be missed. We looked at each other quickly, and stepped over the threshold instantly. She rushed away. We stood in the apartment’s foyer. The place had the wooly smell of antique rugs, and the muted glow of golden light reflected off of old wood.
Arif came dashing out. He looked like a falcon, with a round head and a sharp beak of a nose. He wore an ascot, with some well-tailored trousers and a white shirt. His black hair was slicked back over his mostly bald head. His thin, moustache added the final touch of panache.
He reached out his hand to shake mine, as if we were old buddies, and I introduced my friend, whom he greeted warmly. His deeply intelligent eyes and confident handshake eased our embarrassment.
“Boys, good to see you!” he said in his aristocratic Turkish accent. “Sorry it has taken a minute, I’m preparing for a party.”
Before I could make excuses and turn to the door to leave, he said, “Come in! Come in! Do you have a minute? Please!”
I stammered, “Are you sure? I mean, we don’t want to get in the way, with your party and all that.”
“No, no,” he giggled. “Please come in.”
Again, shocked, we agreed. Our feet started to rise from the ground. We were being invited inside to hang out with Arif Mardin on New Year’s Eve? This was fun.
He brought us into his study and invited us to sit down. We sat on a couch facing floor to ceiling shelving filled with boxes of audio tape.
Both Duke and I knew a few things about Arif. He was one of the key people responsible for the “Atlantic Sound.” Atlantic Records was started by the venerable Ahmet Ertegun. Beginning in the 1940’s, this brilliant foreigner turned the larger world onto American Rhythm and Blues. By the 1960’s, with the influence of Arif and Jerry Wexler, Atlantic represented the New York soul sound at its funkiest and classiest.
Looking at the tapes, I said, “Wow, knowing the stuff you’ve worked on, you must have some amazing tapes here.”
This was all the encouragement Arif needed. Like a kid who has been asked to show off his toy trains, Arif jumped at the invitation to play.
“You want to hear some?” he said, clearly hoping we’d say yes.
We both nodded enthusiastically. “Yeah! Of course!” we said in unison.
He rushed over to the shelves and pulled out an outtake by the Young Rascals, saying, “You’ve got to hear this.”
The Rascals were a great ‘60’s, New York blue-eyed soul band that had a string of hits including, “Groovin’, “People Got to be Free,” “Beautiful Morning,” “How Can I Be Sure?” and Arif’s first production hit, “Good Lovin’.” It was thrilling to hear an unreleased track featuring Felix Cavaliere’s deep-feelin’ voice and organ, the Brigati brothers background vocals, Gene Cornish’s guitar, and the propulsive pop of Dino Danelli’s drumming.
Arif was dancing. With the enthusiasm of a 12-year-old, Arif said, “Do you hear that? These guys cooked. Wait. If you think that’s something. . .”
He impatiently rifled through the shelves, intent on finding something he really wanted to play for us. His wife, Latife, came in. She carried a silver tray with an array of tan morsels.
“I made these for the party and thought you might enjoy some.”
Arif, distractedly, said, “You must try my wife’s Turkish delight.”
Duke and I said thanks, and each grabbed one of the round, soft balls.
While that was going on, Arif had found the tape he was looking for. He had thread it onto his reel-to-reel tape machine, and hit the play button. I put the sticky thing into my mouth just as the track found its groove. It all hit at once. Now I knew what my jazz cat friends were talking about with heroin. The sweetness exploded in my mouth and the funk exploded in my ears. The gods talked about ambrosia, the ideal taste, the perfect combination of ingredients, and it was on my tongue. Through the speakers, down my ears and and straight into my belly, the queen of soul, Aretha Franklin, playing her gospel piano and backed by the Atlantic rhythm section, sang her petunias out, on a track no one had heard, played by the guy who was there and made it happen. Every neuro-transmitter in my brain was on a syncopated pulse.
Arif was in a transcendent state as well. He beamed, swaying his hips from side to side. He looked at us with tears in his eyes, nodding, as if to say, “yes, yes, you get it, you get it!” In that one moment we shared the secret of the universe and the word was one sweet, funky, Turkish yes.
Latife had left the tray, and I couldn’t help but reach out and put another one of those magical addictive concoctions inside my body. I feared the second could not match the first – it rarely does – but this was the time it did.
I don’t know how much longer I swirled in this psychedelic euphoria, or what else Arif played for us. From then on, it all becomes a blur.
But the moment stays with me forever. What this lovely man did for two boys from the depths of Brooklyn on that night transformed me fundamentally. He taught me what it meant to be really cool. When you are that good, you don’t have to lord it over others. You can be not only magnanimous, but genuine. The thing I saw in Arif that night – no matter what he had achieved, what family he came from, or what his talents were – was that he was at heart, a fan. He was a fan of the Rascals and Aretha, just like me and Duke. I’m sure that what made him such a great producer and arranger over his half-century career was that he was a fan of all the acts he worked with. I’m sure he was a fan of the Bee-Gees who he pushed to stellar heights, and a fan of Norah Jones, his last great triumph. In fact, I’m sure that Arif was a fan of life.
What he taught me that night, is that that’s what I want to be. I want to be classy by sharing all I have with anyone who is open to receiving it. I want to take in the whole damn thing, everything that goes in my mouth, and ears, and eyes, and hands, and find the beauty, the sweetness, and the funk in it, and sway my hips from side to side, and say to whoever is with me, an unequivocal, euphoric, turkishly delightful, yes.
Bless you, Arif.