Sidney H. Feller, 89; Producer-Arranger Helped Create Rich Orchestral Sound for Ray Charles

Times Staff Writer

Sid Feller, a producer and arranger who helped create the rich, orchestral big band sound for Ray Charles that resulted in such hits as “Georgia on My Mind” and “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” has died. He was 89.

Feller, who had a history of heart trouble, died Feb. 16 at his home in the Cleveland suburb of Orange Village, said his daughter, Debbie Feller Glassman.

From the moment they stepped into a recording studio in 1959, Feller and Charles clicked. Their musical partnership lasted 30 years and resulted in hundreds of songs. Feller also regularly toured with Charles as a conductor.


“When they were working together, they were soul brothers,” Michael Lydon, author of the 1998 biography “Ray Charles: Man and Music,” told The Times. “Musically, Sid and Ray understood each other perfectly.”

Charles, famous for being prickly about his music, “just adored” Feller, said David Ritz, who co-wrote Ray’s 1978 autobiography, “Brother Ray: Ray Charles’ Own Story.”

“Ray told me that ‘Sid Feller is as close as I’m ever going to come to having a Jewish mother.’ That’s how Sid was -- very warm and patient,” Ritz said.

In a 2002 interview with Billboard magazine, Charles said of Feller, “That’s my angel. He ... knew exactly what I wanted .... [and] how to make them strings cry.”

Charles’ improvisational flourishes were, in reality, carefully orchestrated.

“Ray and I had worked out the charts weeks before, and Ray didn’t change a note,” Feller recalled in “Ray Charles: Man and Music.” “Take after take, he’d sob and crack his voice in the same places.”

Sidney Harold Feller was born Dec. 24, 1916, in New York City, one of three children of Michael Feller, an Austrian Jew who sold citrus fruit in a downtown market, and his wife, Riva.

While a Boy Scout, Feller learned to play trumpet and performed in New York City and the Catskills.

The piano entered his life through a third-floor window after his mother agreed to have one hoisted into his family’s Brooklyn apartment. A friend helped him learn music theory, but he was self-taught as an arranger.

He was taking trumpet lessons in 1938 when he spotted Gertrude Hager, a 16-year-old chorus girl. They got married three years later while Feller was learning to become a bandleader at Army music school at Ft. Knox, Ky.

In 1951, he became a conductor and arranger for Capitol Records and made his reputation arranging easy-listening music for Jackie Gleason.

Instead of creating a standard big band sound with strings, Feller used orchestral touches and interesting melodic lines, Lydon said. Oboes were a signature touch.

At Capitol and ABC Records beginning in 1955, Feller also worked with Dean Martin, Peggy Lee, Mel Torme, Paul Anka, guitarist Charlie Byrd and Woody Herman’s big band.

He had few writing credits but received one for “You Can’t Say No in Acapulco” for the 1963 Elvis Presley movie “Fun in Acapulco.”

In 1965, Feller moved to Los Angeles to work as a freelance arranger and producer, including arranging music for NBC’s “The Flip Wilson Show” (1970 to 1974). He also worked with jazz singer Nancy Wilson and with Eddie Fisher.

In an appearance on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” in the 1970s, Paul McCartney was asked which covers of his music he most liked.

“He said, ‘I love Sid Feller’s arrangements of ‘Yesterday’ and ‘Eleanor Rigby’ for Ray Charles,’ ” recalled Tony Gumina, president of the Cleveland-based Ray Charles Marketing Group.

Feller moved to Camarillo in 1977 and retired from arranging in the late 1980s. He no longer kept a piano in his house, which baffled Charles.

“How could someone with such music in him just stop?” Charles asked Lydon.

With his health failing -- he had a quadruple bypass in the late 1990s -- Feller and his wife moved to Ohio to live with his daughter Debbie.

At a screening of the 2004 biographical movie “Ray,” Feller cried throughout because he felt Jamie Foxx’s Oscar-winning performance brought his friend back to life. Charles had died four months before the movie’s release.

Eight of the 17 soundtracks on “Ray” credited Feller as producer.

Recently, Feller’s conducting baton -- and a photograph of him with Charles -- became part of the Smithsonian Institution’s permanent collection.

In addition to his wife and his daughter Debbie, Feller is survived by two other daughters, Lois of Northridge and Jane Toland of Loyalton, Calif.; a son, Bill, of Cotati, Calif.; a brother; and five grandchildren.