Nelson Riddle

From Academic Kids

Nelson Riddle and Frank Sinatra, 1956
Nelson Riddle and Frank Sinatra, 1956

Nelson Riddle (June 1, 1921 - October 6, 1985) was a well-known American bandleader, arranger and orchestrator whose career spanned from the late 1940s until the early 1980s. Riddle is perhaps best known for his 1950s work for Capitol Records, providing jazzy big-band style arrangements to accompany such vocalists as Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Nat King Cole, Judy Garland, Peggy Lee, and Keely Smith. Later, his arranging talents were also used by Ella Fitzgerald, Shirley Bassey, Linda Ronstadt, and others.

Early years

Riddle was born in Oradell, New Jersey, the only child of Marie Albertine Riddle and Nelson Smock Riddle, Sr. Following his father's interest in music, he began taking piano lessons at age eight and trombone lessons at age fourteen. After his graduation from Ridgewood High School, Riddle spent his late teens and early 20s playing trombone in and occasionally arranging for various local dance bands, culminating in his association with the Charlie Spivak Orchestra.

In 1943, Riddle joined the Merchant Marine where he continued his musical work. After his enlistment term ended, Riddle travelled to Chicago to join the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra in 1944; he remained the orchestra's third trombone for eleven months until drafted by the Army in April, 1945. Just months after Riddle entered the Army, World War II ended and he was discharged in June 1946 after only fifteen months on active duty. Riddle moved shortly thereafter to Hollywood to pursue his career as an arranger, and spent the next several years ghostwriting arrangements for more established names in the music business, and also serving on the arranging staff at NBC.

The Capitol years

In 1950, Riddle was hired by arranger Les Baxter to create several arrangements for a recording session with Nat King Cole; this was Riddle's first, albeit indirect, association with Capitol Records. Although one of the songs Riddle had arranged, "Mona Lisa," soon became the biggest selling single of Cole's career, the work was credited entirely to Baxter and thus Riddle saw recognition continue to elude him. However, once Cole learned the true identity of the arrangement's creator, he sought out Riddle's work for other sessions, and thus began a fruitful partnership that furthered the careers of both men at Capitol. Nat King Cole's "Unforgettable" was the first recording date for which Riddle received full credit as arranger and conductor (Johnny Mandel's adaptation of the original Riddle chart for Natalie Cole earned Mandel a Grammy Award in 1992.)

In 1952, Capitol Records executives viewed the up-and-coming Riddle as a prime choice to arrange for the newly-arrived Frank Sinatra. Sinatra was reluctant however, preferring instead to remain with Axel Stordahl, his long-time collaborator from his Columbia Records years. When success of the first few Capitol sides with Stordahl proved disappointing, Sinatra eventually relented and Riddle was called in to arrange his first session for Sinatra, held on April 30, 1953. The first product of the Riddle-Sinatra partnership, "I've Got The World On A String", became a runaway hit and is often credited with relaunching the singer's slumping career.

Riddle was to stay at Capitol for another decade, during which time he continued to arrange for Sinatra and Nat King Cole, in addition to such Capitol artists as Dean Martin, Keely Smith, and Ed Townsend. He also found time to release his own instrumental albums on the label, most notably "Hey...Let Yourself Go" (1957) and "C'mon...Get Happy" (1958), both of which peaked at a respectable number twenty on the Billboard charts.

In 1963, Riddle joined Sinatra's newly-established label Reprise Records. Much of his work in the 1960s and 1970s was for film and television, including his hit theme song for Route 66, steady work arranging episodes of Batman and other television series, and the scores of several motion pictures including the Rat Pack features Robin and the Seven Hoods and the original Ocean's Eleven.

In the latter half of the 1960s, the partnership between Riddle and Frank Sinatra grew more distant as Sinatra began increasingly to turn to Don Costa, Billy May and an assortment of other arrangers for his album projects. Although Riddle would write various arrangements for Sinatra until the late 1970s, "Strangers in the Night," released in 1966, was the last full album project the pair completed together. The collection of Riddle-arranged songs was intended to expand on the success of the title track, which had been a number one hit single for Sinatra arranged by Ernie Freeman.

Later years

Because of changes in musical tastes, Riddle only worked sporadically in the 1970s. During this time, the majority of his work was for film and television, including the score for the 1974 version of The Great Gatsby. which earned Riddle his first Academy Award after some five nominations.

In 1982, Riddle was approached by Linda Ronstadt and producer Peter Asher to write arrangements for an album of pop standards Ronstadt had been contemplating for some time. The end result was a three-album contract which included what were to be the last arrangements of Riddle's career. Arrangements for "What's New" (1983) and "Lush Life" (1984) won Riddle his second and third Grammy Awards (the last was awarded posthumously in 1986).

In 1985, Riddle died at age 64 of liver ailments. He is interred in the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, Hollywood, California.

Following Nelson Riddle's death, his last three arrangements for Linda Ronstadt's For Sentimental Reasons album were conducted by Terry Woodson; the album was released in 1986.

In February 1986, Riddle's youngest son Christopher, himself an accomplished bass trombonist, assumed the leadership of his father's orchestra. The Nelson Riddle Orchestra continues touring to this day, playing tribute concerts showcasing Riddle's arrangements for Frank Sinatra and others.

Following the death of Riddle's second wife Naomi in 1998, proceeds from the sale of the Riddle home in Bel Air were used to establish the Nelson Riddle Archives at the University of Arizona, which officially opened in 2001. The opening showcased a gala concert of Riddle's works, with Linda Ronstadt as a featured guest performer.

In 2000, Erich Kunzel and the Cincinnati Pops released a Nelson Riddle tribute album entitled "Route 66: That Nelson Riddle Sound" on Telarc Records. The album showcases expanded orchestral adaptations of the original arrangements provided by the Nelson Riddle Archives, and is presented in a state-of-the-art digital recording that was among the first titles to be released on multi-channel SACD.

While in the Army, Riddle married his first wife Doreen Moran in 1945. The couple had six children: In 1968, Riddle separated from his wife Doreen; their divorce became official in 1970. A few months later, he married Naomi Tenen, then his secretary, with whom he would remain for the rest of his life.

Notable Song Arrangements

"I've Got You Under My Skin" (for Frank Sinatra)
"One For My Baby (And One More For The Road)" (for Frank Sinatra)
"The Lady Is A Tramp" (for Frank Sinatra)
"Mona Lisa" (for Nat King Cole)
"Night and Day" (for Frank Sinatra)
"On The Street Where You Live" (for Dean Martin)
"Unforgettable" (for Nat King Cole)
"What's New" (for Linda Ronstadt)
"Witchcraft" (for Frank Sinatra)

Notable film and television work

Batman (although Neal Hefti wrote the popular theme song, Riddle scored the actual episodes)
Li'l Abner (one of Riddle's first film scores)
Route 66 (theme song earned Riddle a Top 40 single in 1962)
The Great Gatsby (earned Riddle a 1974 Academy Award)
The Man from U.N.C.L.E.
A Man & His Music (1965/1966/1967 award winning TV-Specials for Frank Sinatra)

Selected discography

Dean Martin - This Time I'm Swingin' (Capitol Records, 1960)
Erich Kunzel - Route 66 - That Nelson Riddle Sound (Telarc Records, 2000)
Frank Sinatra - Songs For Young Lovers (Capitol Records, 1953)
Frank Sinatra - Swing Easy (Capitol Records, 1954)
Frank Sinatra - In The Wee Small Hours (Capitol Records, 1955)
Frank Sinatra - Songs For Swinging Lovers (Capitol Records, 1956)
Frank Sinatra - Close To You (Capitol Records, 1957)
Frank Sinatra - A Swingin' Affair (Capitol Records, 1957)
Frank Sinatra - Sings For Only The Lonely (Capitol Records, 1958)
Frank Sinatra - Nice'n'Easy (Capitol Records, 1960)
Frank Sinatra - Sinatra's Swingin' Session! (Capitol Records, 1961)
Frank Sinatra - The Concert Sinatra (Reprise Records, 1963)
Frank Sinatra - Academy Award Winners (Reprise Records, 1964)
Frank Sinatra - Moonlight Sinatra (Reprise Records, 1966)
Frank Sinatra - Strangers In The Night (Reprise Records, 1966)
Linda Ronstadt - Lush Life (Asylum Records, 1984)
Nelson Riddle - Hey...Let Yourself Go (Capitol Records, 1957)
Nelson Riddle - C'mon...Get Happy (Capitol Records, 1958)

Further reading

September in the Rain: The Life of Nelson Riddle by Peter J. Levinson, 2001 ISBN 0823076725

External link


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