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Ralph Burns (June 29, 1922 – November 21, 2001) was an American songwriter, bandleader, composer, conductor, arranger and bebop pianist.


Early life

Burns was born in Newton, Massachusetts where he began playing the piano as a child. In 1938, he attended the New England Conservatory of Music. He admitted that he learned the most about jazz by transcribing the works of Count Basie, Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington. While a student, Burns lived in Frances Wayne’s home. Wayne was already a well-known big band singer and her brother Nick Jerret was a bandleader who began working with Burns. He found himself in the company of such famous performers as Nat King Cole and Art Tatum.


After Burns moved to New York in the early 1940’s, he met Charlie Barnet and the two began working together. In 1944, he joined the Woody Herman band with members Neal Hefti, Bill Harris, Flip Phillips, Chubby Jackson and Dave Tough. Together, the group developed one of the most powerful and distinctive sound. For 15 years, Burns wrote or arranged many of the band's major hits including "Bijou", "Northwest Passage" and "Apple Honey", and on the longer work "Lady McGowan’s Dream" and the three-part Summer Sequence.

Burns worked with numerous other musicians. Stan Getz was featured as a tenor saxophone soloist in "Early Autumn", a huge hit for the band and the launching platform for Getz’s solo career. Burns also worked in a small band with soloists including Bill Harris and Charlie Ventura.

The success of the Herman band provided Burns the ability to record under his own name in the 1950s. He collaborated with Billy Strayhorn, Lee Konitz and Ben Webster to create both jazz and classical recordings. He wrote compositions for Tony Bennett and Johnny Mathis and later Aretha Franklin and Natalie Cole. Burns was responsible for the arrangement and introduction of a string orchestra on two of Ray Charles’s biggest hits, "Come Rain or Come Shine" and "Georgia on My Mind".

In the 1960’s, Burns was freed from touring as a band pianist, and began composing for Broadway including the major show Chicago, Funny Girl, No, No, Nanette, and Sweet Charity. In 1971, Burns first film score was for Woody Allen’s Bananas. Burns worked with film-director Bob Fosse and in 1972 won Academy Award for Cabaret and created the soundtracks for Lenny (1974) and Martin Scorsese’s jazz-themed New York, New York (1977). Fosse again employed Burns to create the soundtrack for All That Jazz for which he also won an Academy Award in 1979. He then worked on Urban Cowboy (1980) and in 1982, Burns received another Academy Award nomination for his work in Annie.

His work for the stage was also notable. Baryshnikov on Broadway in 1980 earned Burns an Emmy Award for his work. Burns won the Tony Award for Best Orchestrations in 1999 for Fosse and posthumously in 2002 for Thoroughly Modern Millie, which also garnered him the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Orchestrations. In the 1990’s, Burns arranged music for Mel Tormé, John Pizzarelli and Michael Feinstein. Burns was inducted into the New England Jazz Hall of Fame in 2004.

Personal life

In 2001, Burns died from complications of a recent stroke and pneumonia in Los Angeles, California. He was survived by one sister, Nancy Lane (Burns), and three brothers, Leo, Joe, and Gale.




  • Lenny (1974)
  • Piaf (1974)
  • Lucky Lady (1975)
  • Movie Movie (1978)
  • All That Jazz (1979)
  • Make Me an Offer (1980) (TV)
  • Urban Cowboy (1980)
  • Golden Gate (1981) (TV)
  • Pennies from Heaven (1981)
  • Side Show (1981) (TV)
  • Kiss Me Goodbye (1982)
  • Lights, Camera, Annie! (1982) (TV)
  • My Favorite Year (1982)
  • The Phantom of the Opera (1983) (TV)
  • Star 80 (1983)
  • Vacation (1983)
  • Ernie Kovacs: Between the Laughter (1984) (TV)
  • The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984)
  • Moving Violations (1985)
  • Perfect (1985)
  • The Christmas Star (1986) (TV)
  • Penalty Phase (1986) (TV)
  • Amazing Stories (2 episodes, 1986&-;1987)
    • "Magic Saturday" (1986) TV Episode
    • "The 21-Inch Sun" (1987) TV Episode
  • After the Promise (1987) (TV)
  • In the Mood (1987)
  • All Dogs Go to Heaven (1989)
  • Sweet Bird of Youth (1989) (TV)
  • Bert Rigby, You're a Fool (1989)


  • Sweet Charity (1969) (orchestrator)
  • Move (1970) (orchestrator)
  • Bananas (1971) (orchestrator)
  • Cabaret (1972) (conductor) (music arranger) (music supervisor)
  • Lenny (1974) (music supervisor)
  • Mame (1974) (musical director) (orchestrator)
  • New York, New York (1977) (conductor) (music supervisor)
  • The World's Greatest Lover (1977) (orchestrator)
  • High Anxiety (1977) (orchestrator)
  • All That Jazz (1979) (conductor) (music arranger) (music supervisor) (uncredited)
  • Baryshnikov on Broadway (1980) (TV) (music arranger)
  • Urban Cowboy (1980) (music adaptor)
  • First Family (1980) (composer: additional music) (uncredited) (conductor) (music adaptor)
  • Pippin: His Life and Times (1981) (TV) (music arranger)
  • History of the World: Part I (1981) (orchestrator: "The Spanish Inquisition")
  • Annie (1982) (conductor) (music arranger)
  • Jinxed! (1982) (reunion scene arranger and orchestrator)
  • To Be or Not to Be (1983) (orchestrator)
  • A Chorus Line (1985) (conductor) (music arranger)
  • In the Mood (1987) (conductor) (orchestrator)
  • The Josephine Baker Story (1991) (TV)
  • Life Stinks (1991) (dance orchestrator)
  • The Addams Family (1991) (additional orchestrator)
  • Fosse (2001) (TV) (orchestrator)
  • Chicago (2002) (special thanks)


  • Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1997) (writer: "Early Autumn")
  • Star 80 (1983) (music: "Overkill", "Off Rsmp", "Improvise", "Funky") (lyrics: "Overkill", "Funky")

Awards and nominations

  • 1973 Academy Award for Best Music, Scoring Original Song Score and/or Adaptation – Cabaret
  • 1980 Academy Award for Best Music, Original Song Score and Its Adaptation or Best Adaptation Score – All That Jazz
  • 1980 Emmy Award for Outstanding Achievement in Music Direction – Baryshnikov on Broadway
  • 1999 Tony Award for Best Orchestrations – Fosse
  • 2002 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Orchestrations – Thoroughly Modern Millie
  • 2002 Tony Award for Best Orchestrations – Thoroughly Modern Millie
  • 1983 Best Music, Original Song Score and Its Adaptation or Best Adaptation Score – Annie
  • 1986 Drama Desk Awardfor Outstanding Orchestration – Sweet Charity


External links


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