Sid Feller

Ray Charles's 'Einstein'

The arranger and record producer Sid Feller was best known for his 30-year association with Ray Charles; their work together included "Georgia on My Mind", "Hit the Road Jack" and "I Can't Stop Loving You". Charles would say, "If they call me a genius, then Sid Feller is Einstein."

Feller was born into a poor immigrant family in New York in 1916. As a schoolboy, he played the bugle for his scout troup and wanted to learn the piano. His mother allowed the instrument to be hoisted through their apartment window. By 1938, Feller was playing in a small Hungarian orchestra in New York and taking lessons from a trumpeter at Minsky's Burlesque. He befriended a 16-year-old chorus girl, Gertrude Hager, and they were married in 1941 at Fort Knox, where Feller was stationed for army service during the Second World War.

After the war, Feller worked with the bandleaders Jack Teagarden and Carmen Cavallero, and in 1951 became an arranger for Capitol Records, working with Peggy Lee and Mel Tormé as well as on a series of easy-listening albums with the comedian and actor Jackie Gleason. The arrangers did the work and Gleason took the accolades, with the series issued under the title "Jackie Gleason Presents".

In 1955, Feller moved to the new ABC Records and worked with the jazz musicians Charlie Byrd and Woody Herman. For Don Costa and the Freeloaders he arranged the album Music to Break a Lease By (1956). In 1959, the rhythm and blues artist Ray Charles moved to ABC from Atlantic. Both Charles and his new label wanted to stress his versatility and, hence, his crossover appeal. The classic first album, The Genius Hits the Road, included "Georgia on My Mind", which Charles recorded with tears streaming down his face; his impassioned vocal worked brilliantly with the conventional choir which Feller had hired. Charles, although he was suspicious by nature, realised that he could trust Feller and they went on to work on one intriguing project after another.

For several years, Charles had wanted to record an album of country songs and he and Feller sifted through 100 possible titles for Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music. It does not sound radical today but, in 1962, it was highly innovative to hear a soulful singer performing country ballads with strings. Numerous artists followed Charles's lead, but it must be said that Charles himself repeated the trick much too often. Also with Feller, Charles recorded radical reworkings of the Beatles songs "Yesterday" (1967) and "Eleanor Rigby" (1968).

Although Feller sometimes conducted for Charles on the road, he had many other commitments, including Steve Lawrence's album Come Waltz with Me (1962) and Doris Day's The Love Album (1967). He wrote a dire song, "You Can't Say No in Acapulco", for the Elvis Presley film Fun in Acapulco (1963). He also scored the Osmonds' Christmas Album (1976) and was the musical arranger for several television series, including The Flip Wilson Show (1969-74)

Feller retired after a heart attack in the late 1990s, but he did take an interest in the remastering of his recordings for the 2004 film Ray. Rather unfairly, he did not appear as a character in the film.

Spencer Leigh

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