Remembering Nelson Riddle, 1921-1985

    Frank Sinatra was at first reluctant to work with new boy Nelson Riddle, but the latter’s arrangements transformed the singer’s career


    In his eight years at Capitol (1953-1960) Frank Sinatra worked with three principal arrangers – Nelson Riddle, Billy May and Gordon Jenkins and it’s no accident that in his live concerts he made a point of crediting both the composer(s) and arranger of a specific song. Sinatra knew as well as anyone and better than most just how pivotal the arranger is to a recording. (He had, of course, worked closely and successfully with Axel Stordahl at Columbia.) Of the three who worked with him at Capitol by far the most prolific was Nelson Riddle, whose centenary fell on 1 June 2021.

    Like the majority of arrangers, Riddle, who was born in Oradell, New Jersey, started out as a player, taking piano lessons from age eight and trombone lessons from age 14. By his late teens he was playing trombone in trumpeter Charlie Briggs’ band The Briggadiers in Rumsen, New Jersey. There he met an early mentor, Bill Finnegan, with whom he took arranging lessons. In 1943 he joined Charlie Spivak’s orchestra and almost simultaneously joined the Merchant Marine. He served at Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, which allowed him to continue playing with Spivak.

    After two years in the Merchant Marine he moved to Chicago and joined Tommy Dorsey, holding down the third trombone chair for 11 months before being drafted into the US army towards the end of World War Two. Whilst still in the services he married Doreen Moran, with whom he had six children. Discharged honourably in 1946, he moved to Hollywood, working initially as a jobbing musician-arranger.

    In 1950 Les Baxter hired Riddle to ghost the arrangements on some recording sessions that he (Baxter) was conducting with Nat King Cole. Cole was still primarily known as a jazz pianist but was transitioning to singer. One of the singles Riddle scored was Mona Lisa, which became a runaway hit and launched Cole’s career as a vocalist. Despite Baxter assuming sole credit Cole discovered that Riddle was responsible for the chart and brokered a meeting. The following year singer and arranger had another worldwide smash with Too Young and they did, in fact, spend a fruitful decade – 1950-1960 – turning out hit singles, albeit ephemeral.

    Sinatra and Stordahl collaborated on Sinatra’s first singles but the results were only lukewarm and Stordahl committed to the Eddie Fisher show on the East Coast. Reluctantly, Sinatra agreed to work with new kid on the block – Nelson Riddle – and the rest, as they say, is history

    At the start of the 1950s Frank Sinatra couldn’t get arrested. Following a brief stint with Harry James in 1939 he joined Tommy Dorsey in 1940 and rapidly made a name for himself. In 1943 he went solo, signed a recording contract with Columbia and starred in several hit films but by the late 1940s he was washed up. In 1953 he secured a recording contract with Capitol in which he agreed to underwrite recording costs. His arranger-conductor of choice was Axel Stordahl, whom he had taken with him from the Tommy Dorsey band to Columbia and with whom he had had many hit records. The two collaborated on Sinatra’s first singles but the results were only lukewarm and Stordahl committed to the Eddie Fisher show on the East Coast. Reluctantly, Sinatra agreed to work with new kid on the block – Nelson Riddle – and the rest, as they say, is history.

    The first Sinatra/Riddle recording session was on 30 April 1953, and the first chart that Riddle scored for Sinatra was an old Harold Arlen/Ted Koehler song, I’ve Got The World On A String that they’d written for The Cotton Club Parade in 1932. At a stroke it was a different Sinatra, light years away from the plaintive-voiced, bow-tied callow youth clutching the microphone; with Riddle’s assistance this was a vibrant, swinging Sinatra with brass and reeds in place of Stordahl’s strings and it was an instant success. More hit singles – Young At Heart, Witchcraft – followed but more pertinently Riddle began to arrange long-playing albums for Sinatra beginning with the 10″ Songs For Young Lovers and including at least three classic albums by anyone’s criteria – In The Wee Small Hours Of The Morning, Songs For Swingin’ Lovers, and Only The Lonely. He was, of course (like Billy May), able to draw on the cream of West Coast session musicians for these Capitol charts – trumpeters like Conrad Gozzo, the Candoli brothers, Pete and Conte, drummer Alvin Stoller, trombonists Urbie Green and Milt Bernhardt, etc.

    Although it’s probably fair to say that his collaborations with Sinatra helped establish his arranging chops (just as Riddle’s charts helped reinvent Sinatra as a dynamic, jazz-tinged singer) his talent was such that it would inevitably have been recognised, albeit later rather than sooner. Almost immediately he was receiving arranger/conductor credits on albums by every major artist on the Capitol roster, from Dinah Shore to Dean Martin to Keeley Smith to Peggy Lee. In addition he also released instrumental albums such as Hey … Let Yourself Go, billed as Nelson Riddle and His Orchestra.

    If that weren’t enough he was also accepting commissions to write theme tunes for television shows (Route 66, The Untouchables) and to score films (High Society, Pal Joey and The Great Gatsby), leading to an Academy Award (Oscar) for Best Scoring of a Motion Picture. Nor did he confine himself to Capitol. In 1959 he arranged what was arguably the pièce de résistance of the Ella Fitzgerald Songbook series, Ella Fitzgerald Sings George And Ira Gershwin. He also worked on the final two songbooks, Jerome Kern and Johnny Mercer, and in 1962 he arranged/conducted two further albums, Ella Swings Lightly and Ella Swings Gently).

    If there could be said to be a downside in all these high-profile collaborations it was possibly the affair he enjoyed with singer Rosemary Clooney when they worked together. It was instrumental in the break-up of both their marriages (shortly after his divorce in 1970 Riddle married Naomi Tenenholtz, then his secretary, and they were still together when he died in 1986).

    Although his career peaked in the 1950s and 1960s, Riddle continued to work in the subsequent decade and in 1982 he was approached by Linda Ronstadt, known as both Queen Of Rock and Queen Of Country Rock. She was eager to extend her range and the three albums they did together – What’s New (1983), Lush Life (1984) and For Sentimental Reasons (1986) – not only won a Grammy each but also introduced Riddle to a new generation of admirers.

    Nelson Riddle died on 6 October 1985, aged 64, in Cedars-Sinai Hospital, Los Angeles. He was far and away the most well-known arranger in the jazz/pop fields, easily eclipsing the likes of Jerry Gray, Sy Oliver and his early mentor, Bill Finnegan. It’s both fair and true to say that he brought the word “arranger” out of the backrooms and thrust it into the spotlight making it that much easier for people like Neal Hefti, Robert Farnon, Don Costa and his two great contemporary colleagues at Capitol, Billy May and Gordon Jenkins, to gain the recognition they richly deserved. As legacies go that is as good as any and better than most.

    Nelson Riddle, 1 June 1921 – 6 October 1985