I remember the first time I heard ‘I Feel For You’ by Chaka Khan. It was 1984, and I was still living in Lodi, traveling to Hoboken to hang out with the Colgate Crew. I don’t remember what station I was listening to on the radio but the song came on and I was blown away. I heard Chaka Khan’s voice singing a song by Prince with a rap by Melle Mel and a wicked harmonica by Stevie Wonder. I was shook. I had to pull over. That is the only time I ever stopped driving a car to devote my attention to a song.
The next day I went out and bought the single and the twelve inch. I scanned the sleeves and saw a name on it, Arif Mardin. That name had cropped up a few times on various records in my life. I used to drive a lot back then, it was my job to drive back and forth from Saddle Brook, NJ to Manhattan. After 4PM I used to listen to the new wave/punk rock stylings played on the NYU college station, where I heard quite a lot two songs by a band from England called Scritti Politti, singing Wood Beez (Pray Like Aretha Franklin) and Absolute. Of course I snapped those up when I got the chance, and sure enough there was that name again, Arif Mardin.
Eventually I did a little research and found that I had quite a few records and heard even more that were either produced by or were involved with Arif Mardin. Songs like She’s Gone, Son of a Preacher Man, Jive Talkin’, Nights on Broadway (two of the best Bee Gees songs, ever) among many others. When I was sort of pursuing a career in the music business my first job was at a recording studio called Skyline Studios. One of the sessions that were booked soon after I started working there was the Manhattan Transfer. Skyline was a low key top shelf studio that was soon to hit the skids, but not yet.
Jimmy B, a sweet guy who was managing the studio mentioned to me it might be a good idea to run out and get as many papers as I could. The producer of this session loved to read newspapers from around the world. It just so happened I loved to buy newspapers from around the world. Makes one well traveled when using the papers as packing materials. Anyhow, it was for Arif Mardin who was producing the session. This man was what the term ‘Legendary Producer’ was created for. Ok I know there are bigger, more boldface names, but Arif operated in the background, letting the band or the singer, be the star.
He was very much down to earth, a real gentleman. He was from the old school of record production, working with Aretha Franklin, on so many classics. After Skyline Studios sank I made a lateral move to Right Track Studios, another top of the line studio. An introduction to madness and the back biting that was rumored to be so prevalent in the record business. In the midst of this strode Arif Mardin with his engineer Michael O’Reilly. I remembered to buy a stack of newspapers and set them in the studio for Arif.
He recorded at Right Track frequently, and when he couldn’t get time there, he didn’t have a fit, he just went to another studio and booked time at Right Track when it would be free. He and his assistant, Gloria Gabriel never pulled any star trips though Arif was definitely entitled to have a fit every now and then, I never saw him get upset. Ok, once he got angry but he was upset with a console, not with anyone in particular. I remember asking him about the song ‘A Beautiful Morning’ by the Rascals. A great song that was being used in a Burger King commercial. I thought it was by the Lovin’ Spoonful when he corrected me and told me it was by the first rock and roll band he ever produced.
A while after that, he produced the original Broadway cast of ‘Rent’. That was a fun time for all, the cast were all rather new and were in awe of someone like Arif Mardin. Oh those kids, at least they knew they were in the presence of a legend. In case they didn’t know I’m sure Stevie Wonder who sat in on a session would definitely told them so.
Soon after I was let go from Right Track, Arif liked me enough to hire me to work on his production company. It was ill fated though. Not through any falling out, more through budgetary concerns. I still kept in touch with Arif and his family, becoming friends with his son Joe. I met Arif’s wife Latife, at an art opening that their daughter Julie was presenting. Very nice and welcoming.
After the day that I had at work today, what with me having to tell Felicia that I do really want to continue at McMann and Wanker, err…Tate. (McMann and Tate, that’s it. Freudian?) after that kind of day fraught with smiley faced me, don’t want to be rude after all I get an email from my brother Frank. Arif Mardin died yesterday after a year long battle with pancreatic cancer. Very sad news indeed. My heart went out to his family. I was honored to meet and work for this kind gentleman, this legendary producer, Arif Mardin. Ten years ago I was working for this great artist, now working for a bunch of people who’s lives fall apart if they think you’ve looked at them crosseyed.
Here’s to you Arif, thanks for a lot of great music. I think he measured his life in love.