Obituary: Arif Mardin

Hugely successful record producer whose lush sound rescued Aretha Franklin and Norah Jones

Arif Mardin, the most consistently successful record producer of the last 50 years, has died of pancreatic cancer at his New York home, aged 74. Born in Turkey, Mardin arrived in the US on a music scholarship in 1958 and managed to get a job at Atlantic Records, then a leading independent label specialising in jazz and rhythm and blues. From arranging Aretha Franklin's groundbreaking 1967 sessions to producing Texan singer/songwriter Norah Jones' phenomenally successful 2003 debut album Come Away With Me, he enjoyed a run of success like no other record producer in history.

Mardin was born into an aristocratic Istanbul family. His father was then manager of the Turkish Bank in Cairo, and Mardin vividly recalled, as a 10-year-old, German planes bombing the city while his family hid in the bank's basement. After the war, the family returned to Istanbul. They listened to American music and, noting her son's enthusiasm, Mardin's mother had him enrolled for piano lessons.

Having graduated from Istanbul University, Mardin studied at the London School of Economics. Back in Istanbul he was reluctant to follow his father into the family business, a chain of petrol stations, dreaming instead of concentrating on music. It was then that he met jazz trumpet player Dizzy Gillespie. "Dizzy came through Turkey in 1956. I had the chance to meet him, and he wound up playing one of my pieces and giving me some pointers," recalled Mardin.

This led to Mardin becoming the first recipient of the Quincy Jones scholarship at the Berklee College of Music, in Boston. After graduation he taught there for a year. A Mardin composition impressed Atlantic's co-owner Nesuhi Ertegun - also from Turkish aristocracy - and he was hired in 1963 as Ertegun's assistant and archivist. He soon became production manager and his first project gave New York band the Young Rascals a US No1 hit in 1966 with Good Lovin'.

Mardin later admitted that until then he had only listened to jazz, but having witnessed the rewards created by having a No1 single, he thought "Whoa, maybe I should concentrate on this." Eight-track recording was just becoming possible and Mardin embraced the opportunities the new technology allowed: by being able to separate the recording of musicians, vocalists and orchestras he began to build the lush, beautifully arranged sound that would become his signature.

In 1967 he had more success with the Rascals when their summer anthem, Groovin', was a worldwide hit. Then Atlantic executive Jerry Wexler employed Mardin to arrange sessions he was producing for Aretha Franklin. She had recorded several unsuccessful albums for CBS and Wexler was determined that the way to sell the vocalist was to produce her as a down-home, gospel-flavoured soul singer. From these sessions came I Never Loved a Man and Do Right Woman, two huge hits which turned her into the Queen of Soul. Mardin continued to produce and arrange songs for Franklin across the 1970s.

Wexler then employed Mardin to arrange the strings for Dusty Springfield's classic Dusty in Memphis album. In 1969 he released the first of two solo albums, Glass Onion, whose relaxed jazz flavours found British popularity in 1996 when the song How Can I Be Sure? became a UK lounge hit in clubs. In 1974 Mardin was paired with a struggling Scottish soul group, the laconically named Average White Band. His production emphasised their bright brass and dynamic rhythms, taking them to the top of the US album and singles charts.

Mardin's gift for reinventing struggling artists was not overlooked by the entrepreneur Robert Stigwood, who sent his charges, the Bee Gees, to work with him in Miami. The Gibb brothers' run of folk-pop hits in the late 60s had long since ended and Mardin reinvented them along the lines of the Average White Band. This transformation - perhaps the strangest in pop history - found the band initially topping the US charts in 1975 with Jive Talkin' and the album Main Course and then going on to become the most popular band in the world as disco became an international phenomenon.

While not quite so spectacularly successful, Mardin would also produce excellent recordings for Donny Hathaway, Roberta Flack, King Curtis, Hall & Oates, Petula Clark, Lulu, Chaka Khan, Bette Midler, Laura Nyro, John Prine, Willie Nelson, Culture Club, Scritti Politti, Barbra Streisand and Dionne Warwick. He also produced the original Broadway cast recordings of the hit musicals Smokey Joe's Cafe: the Songs of Leiber & Stoller and Rent, in 1996 and 1997 respectively.

In May 2001 Mardin retired as senior vice president at Atlantic. He then signed with Manhattan/EMI to produce new artists with adult appeal. Norah Jones had disagreed with the initial producer of her debut, so Mardin was brought in to finish her album Come Away With Me, which, when released in early 2002, went on to sell 18m copies. Mardin won four Grammy awards for Jones' album, including best producer (he had previously won in 1976). Mardin also produced Jones' 2004 follow-up album, Feels Like Home.

When asked what made a hit, Mardin replied that a song needed to be "musically correct, sincere, and commercial". The reason for his longevity he said was "a combination of looking forward and also appreciating and loving the good things in the past. You always should appreciate the history of music. There's a lot to learn from [it]."

He is survived by his wife of 48 years Latife, a son and two daughters.

· Arif Mardin, composer, arranger and producer, born March 15 1932; died June 25 2006


Garth Cartwright

The GuardianTramp

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