Ray Ellis dies at 85; arranger worked with Bobby Darin, Johnny Mathis, Doris Day, scores of others
Ray Ellis, the versatile pop music arranger who wrote the charts for hits by the Four Lads, Bobby Darin, Connie Francis, Doris Day and Johnny Mathis, has died. He was 85.
Ellis, a longtime resident of Ojai, died Oct. 27 of liver cancer at an assisted-living facility in Encino, according to his son Marc, a film and television composer.
FOR THE RECORD:
Ray Ellis obituary: A news obituary of pop music arranger Ray Ellis in Wednesday’s California section said “There Goes My Baby” was a hit for Brook Benton. In fact, it was a hit for the Drifters. —
In a career that began in the mid-1950s, Ellis arranged the music for “Standing on the Corner” and “Moments to Remember” for the Four Lads; “Splish Splash” and “Dream Lover” for Bobby Darin; “Everybody Loves a Lover” for Doris Day; “Where the Boys Are” for Connie Francis; and “That Certain Smile” for Johnny Mathis.
According to his son, Ellis worked with producer Jerry Wexler at Atlantic Records arranging a number of R&B classics, including Ben E. King’s “Spanish Harlem,” Brook Benton’s “There Goes My Baby” and the Drifters’ “Under the Boardwalk.” He also worked on some Ahmet Ertegun productions.
“He’s one of the greats that ever lived,” said Peter Marshall, the longtime former host of “The Hollywood Squares” who is also a pop singer and worked with Ellis on a couple of albums. “He was so eclectic, he could arrange ‘Splish Splash’ for Bobby Darin and a version of ‘Silent Night’ for Barbra Streisand. When you hear his body of work, it is really astounding.”
Born in Philadelphia in 1923, Ellis took saxophone lessons as a teenager and played in dance bands in the Northeast before going into the Army in 1943. He found his way into the band of the 1st Armored Division; he played dances and tried his hand at arranging. After the war, he played saxophone, clarinet and flute for Paul Whiteman’s band, including some television work in a live jazz group at a Philadelphia station.
His break came when a friend introduced him to Mitch Miller, then a leading executive with Columbia, who helped Ellis get work arranging the songs for the Four Lads, including “Moments to Remember” in 1955 and “Standing on the Corner” from the 1956 Frank Loesser musical “The Most Happy Fella.”
Both songs were hits, and Ellis became Miller’s protege at Columbia, where he found steady work producing records and often leading the orchestra for his arrangements.
In 1958, he gained notice as the arranger for Billie Holiday’s last two albums, including “Lady in Satin,” which received mixed critical notice. The album seemed to gain greater acceptance over the years and was inducted in the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2000.
“He loved lyrics, and you can hear that on his album ‘Lady in Satin,’ ” Marshall said.
In 1959, Ellis became the A&R director for MGM Records, creating hits for Francis, Frankie Laine and Clyde McPhatter. He later worked with Lena Horne, Judy Garland, Liza Minnelli, Maurice Chevalier and Streisand.
In the early 1960s, he recorded a number of albums of easy listening music for several labels under his own name, including “Let’s Get Away From It All” and “Ellis in Wonderland” for Columbia.
His career also included work for television and commercials. In 1971, he composed the first of two themes for the “Today” show, which lasted until the end of the decade. A second theme, based on the NBC chimes, was the show’s signature for several years in the 1980s.
In the late 1960s, he became a composer for the cartoon studio Filmation and wrote the scores or the arrangements for several Saturday morning cartoon shows, including “Spider-Man,” “The Archies,” “The New Adventures of Tarzan,” “Star Trek” and “Fat Albert.”
As he reached his early 80s, he was still called on occasionally for arrangements. In the last few years, he worked with Barry Manilow and on Bette Midler’s “Peggy Lee Songbook” album.
In addition to his son Marc, he is survived by his wife of more than 60 years, Yvette; another son, Jeffrey, who is a lawyer in Century City; and four grandchildren.
Memorial services will be private. Instead of flowers, the family suggests that donations be made to the American Melanoma Foundation.
Thurber is a Times staff writer.
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