Jon Charles

Jul 18 • In Memoriam

Emmy winning arranger, composer, and orchestrator Jon Charles died on Wednesday, December 28, 2016, in Pasadena, CA, where he had lived for 40 years. He was 70.

Jon was past president of the American Society of Music Arrangers and Composers (ASMAC) and served on its Board of Directors for over 27 years.

Jon Charles was born (on October 14, 1946) and raised in New York, surrounded by music and musicians – his father, choral arranger and composer “The Other Ray Charles”; his uncle, drummer Bobby Rosengarden; and his mother Bernice, a pianist. Instead of playing catch with his father, Jon tagged along on recording dates and TV tapings. On one of these early “outings,” he wound up sight-reading the piano-triplets on the Ray Charles Singers’ famous hit “Love Me With All Your Heart.”

Jon commuted from Long Island to attend the renowned High School of Performing Arts in New York City and studied percussion under George Gaber at Indiana University. In 1968 he became Chief Arranger for The Dick Cavett Show, a roll he would fill for six years. During that time, he got to write charts for guests such as Fred Astaire, Judy Garland, Janis Joplin, and Groucho Marx. Charles shared two Emmy Awards with the Cavett Show team.
In 1974, Jon moved to California, settling in Pasadena, where he worked in TV Variety. For thirty years, he served as Chief Arranger for the Grammy Awards under Music Director Jack Elliott. Other shows for which he arranged include Emmy Awards; Academy Awards; Kennedy Center Honors; The Muppets: A Celebration Of 30 Years; Comic Relief VII; and A Capitol Fourth.

Jon was also Music Arranger for the four-season run of the syndicated Sha-Na-Na television series (96 shows, 1977-1980). Sha-Na-Na was a family affair, with Jon Charles serving as Co-Music Director alongside his father Ray during the first season, then taking the reins for the remaining three seasons. Jon’s sister, Wendy Charles Acey worked as a production assistant on Sha-Na-Na.

For eight seasons, Jon worked as an orchestrator for the hit television series American Idol.

Because of his ability hear the individual parts in an orchestral piece Jon was often hired re-create arrangements off vinyl records when the original charts had been lost. He did this for the Count Basie band among others. One of his favorite gigs was recreating the arrangements on Judy Garland’s iconic 1961 album, Judy Garland at Carnegie Hall, for Rufus Wainwright. Wainwright performed the tribute concert to two sold-out audiences at Carnegie Hall in June 2006. Jon arranged half of the charts for 36-piece orchestra.

Jon also orchestrated and arranged for TV series and motion pictures including work on Forrest Gump and The Jerk. He also composed the music for Shut Up, I’m Crying, a 1971 Oscar nominee for Best Short Subject.

Jon arranged for Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Sammy Davis, Jr., on the 1988 Together Again tour. In 2001, he arranged for Kermit the Frog and the cast of Muppetfest Gala, the first live show ever performed by the Muppets. He also wrote charts for Julie Andrews, Debbie Allen, The Three Sopranos, Joe Cocker, Michael Feinstein, Bob Hope, Audra McDonald, and many, many others.

Jon loved arranging for big bands and larger ensembles and wrote for the Buddy Rich Band, Doc Severinsen’s Tonight Show Band, National Symphony, American Jazz Philharmonic Orchestra, Henry Mancini Institute Orchestra, Hollywood Pops Orchestra, and Los Angeles Pentacostal Community Choir. Once at a concert at Lincoln Center in New York when the American Jazz Philharmonic Orchestra was playing one of his compositions Jon was asked if he was excited to hear what the music sounded like with a full orchestra. He replied, “Not really, when I compose I can already hear it in my head.”

During the summers of 1979, 1980 and 1981, Charles went on the road as Music Director for three different burlesque shows that were taped for Home Box Office: Here It Is, Burlesque (with Ann Corio, Morey Amsterdam, and Pinky Lee); Burlesque U.S.A (with Red Buttons); and With A Touch Of Burlesque (with Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca).

In the area of Live Performance, Jon co-composed two Off-Broadway musicals with John Leone: The Big Favor and The Unified Field. The latter, centered on the life and work of Albert Einstein, was performed at the Los Angeles Theatre Center in 1987.

Known for his generosity and love of community service, Jon provided pro bono music arranging and conducting for numerous charitable events and non-profit organizations including the Betty Clooney Foundation, SHARE, S.T.A.G.E, the Henry Mancini Institute and more, over the course of his 40-year career. In 2003, at the age of 57 Jon began running half and full marathons to benefit cancer research. Over the ensuing 14 years, he raised over $120,000 for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. He served on the Board of the United Nations Association, Pasadena/Foothills Chapter, from 2004 through 2016. He also served as a Los Angeles County Precinct Inspector for every local, state, and national election over a 23-year span, including the 2016 presidential election.

Charles died of natural causes. He is survived by his wife of 23 years Maureen Charles of Pasadena, CA; brother Michael Charles of New Rochelle, NY; foster son, Shakib Ahmad of Toronto; six sisters- and brothers-in-law; nine nieces and nephews; and two grandnieces. He was pre-deceased by his mother Bernice Charles, his father Ray Charles, and his sister Wendy Charles Acey. He was deeply loved and will be sorely missed.

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