Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



(b 28 July 1923, Philadelphia PA; d 27 October 2008, Encino CA) Arranger, composer, conductor, record producer. He first tried arranging while in an army band during WWII, played tenor sax for Gene Krupa and Paul Whiteman in the late 1940s and early '50s, and performed on live TV with jazz small groups on WCAU in Philadelphia. Mitch Miller hired him at Columbia in 1955 to arrange and conduct studio orchestras.

Ellis also recorded his own instrumental albums for orchestra with strings, of which Ellis In Wonderland was the best known. Billie Holiday heard that album and decided that she wanted to make an album with Ellis. Jazz artists in those days often wanted to make an album with strings, feeling that it lent them legitimacy; Holiday's most successful period had been on Decca between 1945 and 1950, when she recorded with strings, and 'Lover Man', her first such record, had been her only chart hit. She had been recording since 1952 for Verve, produced by Norman Granz, but at some point had made a broadcast recording with Percy Faith, a lovely version of 'You Better Go Now'. In this writer's opinion Faith would have been a better choice than Ellis, but Faith allegedly did not enjoy backing singers, which may be why Miller hired Ellis to write arrangements for the Four Lads, Johnny Mathis, Tony Bennett, Sarah Vaughan and others.

In any case Holiday wanted Ellis, who initially received an inquiry from somebody, possibly Granz, but couldn't take the assignment because he was under contract to Columbia. Then perhaps Holiday left Granz for that reason. Producer Irving Townsend later said he had been surprised; 'It would be like Ella Fitzgerald saying she wanted to record with Ray Conniff.' But Townsend had worked for years with female singers and knew their insecurities, and if Holiday wanted to make an album at Columbia, he was all for it.

The next thing Ellis knew, Townsend asked him to keep some dates open in October 1957.  He first met Holiday when they signed the contract, and he later said that she kept blowing appointments, which was why the album wasn't made until March 1958.  She was in poor health, her career had been slowing down, her self-confidence was gone and  she was drinking gin continuously; though famous for being a drug addict, it was in fact alcoholism that was killing her. She had trouble learning new songs; her friend, lawyer Earl Zaidens, said that a couple of backing tracks were recorded ahead of time because she hadn't learned the songs yet, and Ellis said he had to get tough with her at one point and make her go over in the corner with a musician and learn the bridge to a song. Finally the album was almost finished, but they needed one more song; at 3 a.m. after a recording session, Ellis took her to the Colony Record Shop, which in those days in New York City was open all night, and also sold sheet music. She was drunk and a handful getting in and out of taxis, but she chose 'You've Changed'.  It turned out to be one of the best tracks on the album.

The whole thing had been so much trouble that Ellis didn't even want to hear the album and did not attend the mixing, but when Townsend sent him a test pressing, he said many years later, 'I couldn't stay in the house by myself, that's how despondent it made me. It hit me finally. It didn't matter whether she sang the right note or the wrong one, because she sang 25,000 wrong notes on that one. She poured her heart out...' Lady In Satin remained Ellis's best-known work to the general public; some people love it and some hate it, but it's definitely Billie Holiday.

Ellis then went freelance; for Jerry Wexler at Atlantic he wrote arrangements for Bobby Darin ('Splish Splash'), the Drifters, Ben E. King, Clyde McPhatter and others. He worked at MGM, where he backed Connie Francis among others, and Holiday turned up again. Allegedly she turned up to see Ellis without an appointment and a receptionist was going to have her thrown out when Ellis's secretary happened to come along and recognized her. In March 1959 an album called Billie Holiday was made, her strangest and most obscure work; everyone denied that there was any gimmickry, but to this day the album sounds as though pre-recorded backing tracks were slowed down so she could sing with them: she sounds like a sprightly 70-year-old making a comeback instead of a 43-year-old wreck. She had only a few months to live.

Ellis was a highly skilled all-rounder and his jazz background was probably important. Having worked with Sarah Vaughan at Columbia, he did 'Broken-Hearted Melody' with her at Mercury in 1959.  He subsequently recorded with Barbra Streisand (The Third Album, 1964 at Columbia), and made an album with a young folksinger named Emmylou Harris that went nowhere (Gliding Bird, 1969 at Jubilee). At one time or another he worked with Judy Garland, country star Ray Price, Lena Horne, Anthony Newley, Liza Minnelli, Chris Connor and Maurice Chevalier, to name a few. Like a lot of other such highly skilled studio people, he turned to television, writing original music for many of the animated series created by Filmation Sudios from 1968 to 1982, as well as music for the original Spiderman cartoon. He wrote two themes for The Today Show, used from 1971 to 1985, and the second one, based on NBC's famous old trademark chimes, still turns up occasionally. He also wrote themes for the NBC Nightly News, the NBC News at Sunrise with Connie Chung, game shows including Sale of the Century, and much else.

He was so prolific in so many different areas that he used pseudonyms Yvette Blais at Filmation (the name of his wife of over 60 years), Spencer Raymond on Fantastic Voyage in 1968, George Blais on some of the Filmation work and on its feature films, and his teenaged son Marc Ellis's name on The Hardy Boys in 1969. Marc soon joined his father at the workbench and received onscreen credit for co-composing the music for the Flash Gordon cartoon in 1979. They also worked on The Archie Show, Sabrina The Teenage Witch, and much else.

In his later years, Ellis worked on projects with Adam Sandler, Barry Manilow and Bette Midler. After his retirement he helped with fundraising for the Ojai Music Festival.