Everybody's Arranger

Ralph Burns—From Woody Herman to Ray Charles to Bob Fosse

Burns was flattered when asked to provide a similar service for Ray Charles; he had admired Charles ever since hearing him at the Apollo in the early 1950s. "Ray would travel with an early tape recorder and this funky old electric piano, so he'd sketch out for me what he wanted," Burns recalls. "He traveled with a great band, but I guess he got tired of them or something because he always asked me to put together a band for our sessions. I was such a big fan of his, it was a real thrill to do those dates." The Genius of Ray Charles and The Genius Hits the Road, apart from saddling Charles with his nickname, "the Genius," introduced him to an instrumentation that combined a big band with strings and produced two of the most powerful love songs of his career, "Come Rain or Come Shine" and "Georgia on My Mind."

Burns began writing for the theater with two Nancy Walker vehicles, the Phoenix Theater's revue, Phoenix 55, and the 1957 Broadway comedy, Copper and Brass. During the brief run of the latter, he met Bob Fosse. They worked together so frequently that Fosse is as much a retrospective of Burns's best work as it is of the choreographer's. He also worked twice with Richard Rodgers, on No Strings (he says the composer was a pussycat) and Do I Hear a Waltz? (he got caught in a crossfire between the composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim).

In 1969, Burns, who had done the Broadway production of Sweet Charity, orchestrated the movie at the suggestion of Fosse and songwriter Cy Coleman. Sensing that Broadway musicals were now going the way of big bands and ballad singers, Burns settled in Hollywood. He got the opportunity to combine swing and Broadway in his score for Martin Scorsese's New York, New York. Having written for so many different kinds of artists, Burns is somewhat at a loss when you ask him which area he prefers. But he is quick to point out his "least favorite medium." "Movies were never as much fun as shows. On Broadway, you get to collaborate with other artists and exchange ideas. In Hollywood, you're always alone in a house, trying to please some producer on the phone who doesn't know what the fuck he wants so he tries to get everything to sound like what John Williams was doing 10 years ago."

Ralph Burns, NYC, 1999
photograph by Jenny Bagert
Ralph Burns, NYC, 1999

At 77, Burns is still based in Hollywood, but he comes back to New York frequently to work on projects he likes, including Tony Bennett's superb album, Ellington Hot and Cool. His next Broadway show, opening this fall, will be a revival of Thoroughly Modern Millie. He readily acknowledges that jazz is his first love, but remains open to new challenges. "You can't keep putting out the same shit your whole life. Just let them give me a good number and I'll really go to town."

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