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Music producer and innovator Phil Ramone dead at age 79

By Michael Martinez

CNN

LOS ANGELES (CNN) -- Innovative music producer Phil Ramone, whose work with the major artists of the modern era won him 14 Grammys and prompted the nickname "Pope of Pop," died Saturday morning in a New York hospital, his son, Matt, told CNN.

The family did not immediately provide a cause of death. Ramone was 79, according to Billboard.

"What a great man, what a kind spirit, such an incredible producer," said Stevie Wonder, calling Ramone "the star of stars behind the stars." "Truly a tragic loss for us on earth but what a wonderful blessing for heaven."

Ramone's collaboration credits are a Who's Who of the music industry: Burt Bacharach, Bono, Ray Charles, Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin, Quincy Jones, Madonna, Paul McCartney, Paul Simon and Frank Sinatra, to name a few.

Many of them responded to Saturday's news with sadness and praise.

"This is so shocking. I just performed for his tribute in December," Franklin said in a statement. "Truly one of the great names in music has gone on, but the melodies will remain."

Said Billy Joel: "I always thought of Phil Ramone as the most talented guy in my band. ... The music world lost a giant today."

Barbra Streisand recalled working with Ramone in 1967 when she did a free concert in New York's Central Park and noticed "his brilliance at capturing sound," she said. They worked on the film "A Star is Born" and later the soundtrack to "Yentl."

"Phil had impeccable musical taste, great ears and the most gentle way of bringing out the best in all the artists he worked with," Streisand said. "The monumental recordings he produced will endure for all time."

From prodigy to producer

A violin prodigy, Ramone began studying music at 3. At 10, he performed for Queen Elizabeth II.

As he got older, though, his focus turned to helping others make the best music possible. He opened his own studio, New York's A&R Recordings, and developed a friendship with Atlantic Records' renowned engineer and producer, Tom Dowd.

"He was not only a great friend, but a mentor," Ramone said in 2005. "... I owe him a tremendous amount. He shaped the way I worked."

There's no question that Ramone made his own mark -- across most all types of music, embracing the old and the new.

A board member of the Grammy Museum at the time of his death, he worked across all genres of music and served as chair of the board of trustees of The Recording Academy.

Ramone's collaboration with Ray Charles, Billy Joel and Paul Simon won a total of three album of the year awards, and Ramone won producer of the year (non-classical) in 1980, The Recording Academy said.

But he never confined himself to one genre. Take, for instance, his work in Broadway and off-Broadway productions, including "Chicago" and "The Wiz." Then there are the songs and entire soundtracks he produced for films such as "Flashdance," "Ghostbusters" and "Midnight Cowboy."

And in television, he produced and supervised music for television specials such as the Oscars, Elton John at Radio City Music Hall, "The Jim Henson Hour" and "The Muppets at Walt Disney World."

'A musical genius and the most lovable person'

Ask Ramone, though, and he'd tell you the reason he had so much success was because of the talent around him, which he worked hard to best showcase.

"It's all about the raw material," he told CNN in 2005 from his home in Westchester County, New York. "You have to be prepared for anything that comes."

Still, while he might have deflected praise, there was no stopping it Saturday night.

Elton John called Ramone "a friend, a musical genius and the most lovable person."

James Taylor, too, praised both the producer -- calling him "a pioneer" -- and the person. "He lit up any room he entered," Taylor said.

Neil Sedaka said he was 16 years old when Ramone added the rhythm section to his demos, which became his first two records, "Laura Lee" and "Snowtime."

"He knew how to get the most out of the artists he worked with," Sedaka said. "With his passing the record business lost one of the all time greats."

Quincy Jones knew Ramone, as a friend and collaborator, for more than 50 years.

If Ramone wasn't by his side in the studio, "It would seem like one ingredient was missing," said Jones, a legendary producer in his own right.

"Today we lost one of the true musicians, innovators and geniuses of the record industry," Jones said. "His immense talents were only surpassed by the gigantic size of his heart."

CNN's Denise Quan and Todd Leopold contributed to this report.

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