Obituaries

Sid Ramin, whose Roxbury friendship with Leonard Bernstein scaled music’s heights, dies at 100

“West Side Story” Oscar winners from 1961, Rita Moreno (supporting actress) and Mr. Ramin (musical score), talked after meeting for the first time since 1961 at a New York Oscar party.
Associated Press/file 2000
“West Side Story” Oscar winners from 1961, Rita Moreno (supporting actress) and Mr. Ramin (musical score), talked after meeting for the first time since 1961 at a New York Oscar party.

Sid Ramin was attending elementary school in Roxbury when he met Leonard Bernstein one day at the home of a mutual friend. Bernstein was trying, with little success, to teach their friend to play a song on the piano.

“Mind if I try?” Sid Ramin asked. Bernstein watched him play the song with ease and remarked: “Well, you’re the fellow I should be teaching,” according Humphrey Burton’s biography “Leonard Bernstein.”

That boyhood encounter turned into a lifelong friendship between Bernstein and Mr. Ramin, who as an orchestrator, arranger, and composer would go on to win an Oscar and a Grammy for his work on the film of “West Side Story,” for which Bernstein composed the music.

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Mr. Ramin, whose work ranged from revered Broadway musicals to perfume commercials, died July 1 in his Manhattan, N.Y., home. He was 100.

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He was one of two orchestrators — or three, if you count the contributions of Bernstein — on the original Broadway production of “West Side Story,” which opened in 1957. According to “The Sound of Broadway Music” (2009), by Steven Suskin, Mr. Ramin worked on the haunting ballad “Somewhere,” the evocative “Something’s Coming,” the sweetly comic “I Feel Pretty,” the bravado-of-youth anthem “Here Come the Jets,” and the irreverent “Gee, Officer Krupke.”

Sid Ramin could easily have put the letters EGOT after his name, as one of the small group of artists who have won Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony awards. But the Tonys did not formally honor orchestration until 1997, four years after his last Broadway show (“The Red Shoes”). His 1983 Emmy was not usually the first award he talked about; it was for his work on the daytime drama “All My Children.”

If EGOC had existed instead, Mr. Ramin would have easily qualified: He won 12 Clio Awards, the advertising industry’s highest honor.

“Music to Watch Girls By,” a peppy, Latin-accented instrumental he wrote for a Diet Pepsi commercial in the mid-1960s, became something of a phenomenon. It was recorded by a diverse group of musicians, including Al Hirt, Chet Atkins, the Bob Crewe Generation, and (with lyrics added) Andy Williams. Both the Crewe and Williams versions were Top 40 hits.

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The consumer products for which he wrote or arranged lively jingle music included a Revlon fragrance (“Kind of free/Kind of wow/Charlie!”), a laundry liquid (“You’ll look better/In the clothes you trust/To Woolite”), and a toothpaste (“How’s your love life?/How’s your love life?/Use Ultra Brite” — sung to the tune of “The Hallelujah Chorus”).

But Broadway was his major platform. Shows whose orchestrations he worked on, in addition to “West Side Story,” included “Gypsy” (1959), “I Can Get It for You Wholesale” (1962), “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” (1962), Bette Midler’s “Clams on the Half Shell Revue” (1975), “Jerome Robbins’ Broadway” (1989), and “Crazy for You” (1992).

His overture for “Gypsy” was particularly lauded. The British actor John Gielgud once said it was the only recording he would need with him if he were stranded on a desert island. Mr. Ramin made the decision not to include song excerpts in chronological order, as most Broadway overtures do, but to begin with the opening notes (“I had a dream”) from “Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” originally sung by Ethel Merman in the role of Gypsy Rose Lee’s mother.

Mr. Ramin’s work seemed omnipresent in 1960s popular culture. He wrote the music for the “Patty Duke Show” theme (“They’re cousins/Identical cousins . . .’’ and he was also the show’s conductor and music supervisor) and for another popular series, “Candid Camera.”

Although he was the arranger and conductor for “Stiletto,” a 1969 crime drama, and for a 1973 television movie remake of “Miracle on 34th Street,” the movie business was never a major part of Mr. Ramin’s career.

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In a 2011 interview sponsored by the New York Philharmonic, Mr. Ramin recalled going to the West Coast to work on the film of “West Side Story” (1961) and deciding that he and his collaborator, Irwin Kostal, should do as the Romans do.

“Let’s set up a bridge table at the pool and work poolside,” Mr. Ramin recalled suggesting. When the two men, who had also worked together on the Broadway production, decided to take a break and a swim, all their pages flew into the pool beside them – and they had been working in ink. The moral: “We decided we should not go Hollywood.”

Sidney Nathan Ramin was born in Boston on Jan. 22, 1919, the older of two sons of Ezra Ramin, a Russian-born visual merchandiser (the job was called window dresser at the time) for Jordan Marsh, and Beatrice (Salamoff) Ramin. He grew up in Roxbury and was 12 when he and Bernstein became best friends.

“We created little songs together,” Mr. Ramin recalled decades later in a Film Music Foundation video interview, and they exchanged constructive criticism. Bernstein assumed the role of teacher early on.

When Bernstein enrolled at Harvard, Mr. Ramin arranged for them to continue studying together. “I’ll pay you a dollar a lesson and a candy bar,” he told Bernstein.

“I’m glad to see that you’ve decided to study with me. I think you’ll get a lot out of it,” Bernstein wrote to Mr. Ramin in a March 1937 letter, adding that “I can give you a comprehensive outlook on harmony. . . with an eye ever cast in the direction of jazz.”

Mr. Ramin always contended that aside from his early colloquy with Bernstein, he had no training in orchestration – and that he never learned to play a musical instrument. Before joining the Army, though, he did attend the New England Conservatory of Music, as well as Boston University.

On the cover of Mr. Ramin’s album “Love is a Swinging Word, Bernstein wrote: “I have known Sid Ramin since we were both 13. I was impressed with his great musicality then, and I have continued to be more and more impressed ever since. His work with me (and Irv Kostal) on ‘West Side Story’ was invaluable – sensitive, strong, and facile.”

Mr. Ramin spent five years in the Army, much of it in France, where he created original productions for the Army band. In 1946 he moved to New York City, where he attended Columbia University with the help of the GI Bill.

By the 1950s he was the musical arranger for “The Milton Berle Show” (originally “Texaco Star Theater”), NBC’s hit hour-long variety-comedy series. He was also making albums for RCA Victor as the leader of Sid Ramin and His Orchestra. Then Bernstein called about the “West Side Story” job.

Mr. Ramin married Gloria Breit in 1949. In addition to his wife, he leaves a son, Ron, and two grandsons.

“As you may know, Lenny, I’m always on cloud nine when I’m in the same room with you,” Mr. Ramin wrote to Bernstein in a 1976 letter.

Bernstein died in 1990, but Mr. Ramin continued to be interviewed about their work together. “He loved to talk, and I loved to listen to him. I guess it’s about as close to idolizing someone as you can get,” Mr. Ramin told The New York Times in 2003. “My analyst used to say it was a little much.”

Material from The New York Times was used in this report.