Nelson Smock Riddle, Jr. (June 1, 1921 – October 6, 1985) was an American arranger, composer, bandleader and orchestrator whose career stretched from the late 1940s to the mid-1980s. His work for Capitol Records kept such vocalists as Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole, Judy Garland, Dean Martin, Peggy Lee, Johnny Mathis, Rosemary Clooney and Keely Smith household names. He found commercial and critical success again in the 1980s with a trio of Platinum albums with Linda Ronstadt.
Riddle was born in Oradell, New Jersey, the only child of Marie Albertine Riddle and Nelson Smock Riddle, Sr., and later moved to nearby Ridgewood. Following his father's interest in music, he began taking piano lessons at age eight and trombone lessons at age fourteen.
A formative experience was hearing Serge Koussevitsky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra playing Ravel's Boléro. Riddle said later: "...I've never forgotten it. It's almost as if the orchestra leaped from the stage and smacked you in the face..."
By his teenage years he had decided to become a professional musician; "...I wanted to be a jazz trombone player, but I didn't have the coordination." So his inclinations began to turn to writing—composing and arranging.
Riddle and his family had a summer house in Rumson, New Jersey. He enjoyed Rumson so much that he convinced his parents to allow him to attend high school there for his senior year (1938).
In Rumson whilst playing for trumpeter Charlie Briggs' band, the Briggadiers, he met one of the most important influences on his later arranging style: Bill Finegan, with whom he began arranging lessons. Despite being only four years older than Nelson, Finegan was considerably more musically sophisticated than Riddle, within a few years creating not only some of the most popular arrangements from the swing era, such as Glenn Miller's "Little Brown Jug" but also great jazz arrangements such as Tommy Dorsey's "Chloe" and "At Sundown" from the mid-1940s.
Nelson Riddle & Doreen Moran
After his graduation from Rumson High School, he 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, serving at Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, New York for about two years while continuing to work for the Charlie Spivak Orchestra. He studied orchestration under his fellow merchant mariner, composer Alan Shulman. After his enlistment term ended, Riddle traveled to Chicago to join Tommy Dorsey's orchestra in 1944, where he remained the orchestra's third trombone for eleven months until drafted by the Army in April 1945, shortly before the end of World War II. While in the Army, Riddle married his first wife Doreen Moran in 1945. He was discharged in June 1946, after fifteen months of active duty. He moved shortly thereafter to Hollywood to pursue his career as an arranger and spent the next several years writing arrangements for multiple radio and record projects. In May 1949, Doris Day had a #2 hit, "Again," backed by Riddle.
The Capitol years
In 1950, Riddle was hired by composer Les Baxter to write arrangements for a recording session with Nat King Cole; this was one of Riddle's first associations 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 to Baxter. However, once Cole learned the 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.
During the same year, Riddle also struck up a conversation with Vern Yocum (born George Vernon Yocum), a big band jazz musician (brother of Pied Piper, Clark Yocum) who would transition into music preparation for Frank Sinatra and other entertainers at Capitol Records. A collaboration followed with Vern becoming Riddle's "right hand" as copyist and librarian for the next thirty years.
In 1953, 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. Nelson's personal favorite was a Sinatra ballad album, one of his most successful recordings, Only the Lonely.
For the next decade, Riddle continued to arrange for Sinatra and Cole, in addition to such Capitol artists as Kate Smith, Judy Garland, Dean Martin, Keely Smith, Sue Raney, and Ed Townsend. He also found time to release his own instrumental discs of 45 rpm and albums on the Capitol label. For example, Mr. Riddle's most successful tune was Lisbon Antigua, which was released in November 1955, and reached and remained at the #1 position four four weeks in 1956. Riddle's most notable LP discs were Hey...Let Yourself Go (1957) and C'mon...Get Happy (1958), both of which peaked at a respectable number twenty on the Billboard charts.
While at Capitol, Riddle continued his successful career arranging music for film, most notably with MGM's Conrad Salinger on the first onscreen duet between Bing Crosby and Sinatra in High Society (1956), and the 1957 film version of Pal Joey directed by George Sidney for Columbia Pictures. In 1969, he arranged and conducted the music for the film Paint Your Wagon, which starred a trio of non-singers, Lee Marvin, Clint Eastwood, and Jean Seberg.
In 1957, Riddle and his orchestra were featured on The Rosemary Clooney Show, a 30-minute syndicated program.
In 1962, Riddle orchestrated two albums for Ella Fitzgerald, Ella Swings Brightly with Nelson, and Ella Swings Gently with Nelson, their first work together since 1959's Ella Fitzgerald Sings the George and Ira Gershwin Songbook. The mid-1960s would also see Fitzgerald and Riddle collaborate on the last of Ella's Songbooks, devoted to the songs of Jerome Kern (Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Jerome Kern Songbook) and Johnny Mercer (Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Johnny Mercer Songbook).
In 1963, Riddle joined Sinatra's newly established label Reprise Records, under the musical direction of Morris Stoloff. Much of his work in the 1960s and 1970s was for film and television, including his hit theme song for Route 66; steady work scoring episodes of Batman and other television series including the theme to "The Untouchables" and composing the scores of several motion pictures including the Rat Pack features Robin and the 7 Hoods and the original Ocean's 11.
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.
In 1966, Riddle was hired by TV producer William Dozier to do the music for the Batman TV series starring Adam West. While Neal Hefti had written the Batman theme song we all know today, it was Riddle who did the first two seasons of Batman. Billy May did the third season's music. Riddle's music from Batman was issued on one soundtrack LP and one 45 RPM. During the 1970s, 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 1973, he served as musical director for the Emmy Award winning The Julie Andrews Hour. In 1971, he wrote the theme song for the television series Emergency!. Nelson Riddle's Orchestra also made numerous concert appearances throughout the 1970s, some of which were led and contracted by his good friend, Tommy Shepard.
On March 14, 1977, Riddle conducted his last three arrangements for Sinatra. The songs, "Linda," "Sweet Lorraine," and "Barbara," were intended for an album of songs with women's names. The album was never completed. "Sweet Lorraine" was released in 1990 and the other two on The Complete Reprise Studio Recordings in 1996.
1982 saw Riddle work for the last time with Ella Fitzgerald, on her last orchestral Pablo album, The Best Is Yet to Come.
In the spring of 1982, Riddle was approached by Linda Ronstadt - via telephone through her manager and producer, Peter Asher - to write arrangements for an album of jazz standards Linda had been contemplating since her stint in The Pirates of Penzance. The agreement between the two resulted in a three-album contract which included what were to be the last arrangements of Riddle's career, with the exception of an album of twelve Great American Songbook standards he arranged and conducted for his old friend, opera singer Kiri Te Kanawa, in April 1985, six months before his death that October. Ronstadt recalls that when she initially approached Riddle, she did not know if he was even familiar with her music. He knew her name but basically hated rock 'n' roll. However, his daughter was a big Linda Ronstadt fan and told her father, "Don't worry, Dad. Her checks won't bounce."
When Nelson learned of Ronstadt's desire to learn more about traditional pop music and agreed to record with her, he insisted on a whole album or nothing. He was at first skeptical, but once he agreed his career turned upside down immediately. For her to do "elevator music", as she called it, was a great surprise to the young audience. Joe Smith, the president of Elektra, was terrified that the albums would turn off the rock audience. The three albums together sold over seven million copies and brought Nelson back to a young audience during the last three years of his life. Arrangements for Linda Ronstadt's What's New (1983) and Lush Life (1984) won Riddle his second and third Grammy Awards.
On January 19, 1985, he conducted at the nationally-televised 50th Presidential Inaugural Gala, the day before the second inauguration of Ronald Reagan. The program was hosted by Frank Sinatra, who sang "Fly Me to the Moon" and "One for My Baby (and One More for the Road)" (backed by a single-dancer dance routine by Mikhail Baryshnikov).
Working with Ronstadt, Riddle brought his career back into focus in the last three years of his life. Stephen Holden of The New York Times wrote, What's New "isn't the first album by a rock singer to pay tribute to the golden age of pop, but is ... the best and most serious attempt to rehabilitate an idea of pop that Beatlemania and the mass marketing of rock LPs for teen-agers undid in the mid-60s ... In the decade prior to Beatlemania, most of the great band singers and crooners of the 40s and 50s codified a half-century of American pop standards on dozens of albums ... many of them now long out-of-print". What's New is the first album by a rock singer to have major commercial success in rehabilitating the Great American Songbook.
Riddle's third and final Grammy was awarded posthumously—and accepted on his behalf by Linda Ronstadt just prior to airtime—in early 1986. Ronstadt subsequently presented the evening's first on air award, at which time she narrated a tribute to the departed maestro.
Death and legacy
In 1985, Riddle died in Los Angeles, at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, at age 64 of cardiac and kidney failure as a result of cirrhosis of the liver, which he had been diagnosed with five years previously. His remains are interred at Hollywood Forever Cemetery in Hollywood, California in the Hall of David Mausoleum.
Following Riddle's death, his last three arrangements for 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.
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 a Nelson Riddle Endowed Chair and library at the University of Arizona, which officially opened in 2001. The opening showcased a gala concert of Riddle's works, with Ronstadt as a featured guest performer.
In 2000, Erich Kunzel and the Cincinnati Pops released a Nelson Riddle tribute album titled "Route 66: That Nelson Riddle Sound" on Telarc Records. The album showcased expanded orchestral adaptations of the original arrangements provided by the Nelson Riddle Archives, and was presented in a state-of-the-art digital recording that was among the first titles to be released on multi-channel SACD.
Riddle and his first wife Doreen Moran had six children. Riddle had an extra-marital affair with singer Rosemary Clooney in the 1960s, which contributed to the breakup of their respective marriages. In 1968, Riddle separated from his wife Doreen; their divorce became official in 1970. A few months later he married Naomi Tenenholtz, then his secretary, with whom he would remain for the rest of his life. Riddle's children are dispersed between the east and west coasts of the United States with Nelson Jr. residing in London, England. Riddle's eldest daughter Rosemary is the trustee of the Nelson Riddle Trust.
Riddle was a member of Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia, the national fraternity for men in music.
In a 1982 radio interview on WNEW with Jonathan Schwartz, Riddle cites Stan Kenton's "23 degrees north 82 degrees west" arranged by Bill Russo as inspiration for his signature trombone interplay crescendos.
1. Levinson, Peter J., September in the Rain: The Life of Nelson Riddle, pp. 17–19
2. September in the Rain: The Life of Nelson Riddle by Peter J. Levinson (Billboard Books 2001) ISBN 0-8230-7672-5 p.22
3. September in the Rain: The Life of Nelson Riddle by Peter J. Levinson (Billboard Books 2001) ISBN 0-8230-7672-5 pp.22-23
4. Cotter, Kelly-Jane. (June 15, 2008), A Daughter's Devotion, Asbury Park Press, retrieved 2008-07-07, Nelson lived with his parents in Ridgewood but the family rented rooms in a house in Rumson during the summer. Riddle enjoyed the teen music scene in Rumson so much that he asked to spend his last year of high school in the borough. He and his mother stayed in the rental, and his father visited on weekends.
5. September in the Rain: The Life of Nelson Riddle by Peter J. Levinson (Billboard Books 2001) ISBN 0-8230-7672-5 p.25
6. Gilliland, John (1969). "Show 22 - Smack Dab in the Middle on Route 66: A skinny dip in the easy listening mainstream. [Part 1]" (audio). Pop Chronicles. Digital.library.unt.edu. Track 3.
7. McNeil, Alex (1996). Total Television. Penguin Books USA, Inc. ISBN 0-14-02-4916-8. P. 710.
8. On This Date, SongsBySinatra.com
9. "The Peter Levinson Interview". Jerry Jazz Musician.
10. "Ronstadt: The Gamble Pays off Big". Family Weekly. January 8, 1984.
11. Holden, Stephen (September 4, 1983). "Linda Ronstadt Celebrates The Golden Age of Pop". The New York Times.
12. "Composer Nelson Riddle Dead At 64", Lodi News-Sentinel (United Press International), October 8, 1985: 18
13. Page, Tim (October 8, 1985), "Nelson Riddle Is Dead At 64; Orchestrated Sinatra Songs", The New York Times: 24 (Section A)
14. "Obituaries: Rosemary Clooney". The Independent (London). July 1, 2002. Retrieved 2010-05-20.
Arranged by Nelson Riddle: The Definitive Study of Arranging by America's #1 Composer, Arranger and Conductor (Warner Bros 1985) ISBN 9780897249546
September in the Rain: The Life of Nelson Riddle by Peter J. Levinson (Billboard Books 2001) ISBN 0-8230-7672-5