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, whose 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, and whose orchestrations earned an Academy Award and three Grammy Awards. Riddle was born on June 1, 1921, in Oradell, New Jersey, the only child of Nelson Smock Riddle Sr. and Marie Albertine Riddle, 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 Maurice Ravel’s Boléro. By his teenage years he had decided to become a professional musician. He wanted to be a jazz trombone player but 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 while 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. Finegan created 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.
After his graduation from Rumson 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, 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. 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.
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, a big band jazz musician 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. Riddle’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, Riddle’s most successful tune was “Lisbon Antigua,” which was released in November 1955 and reached and remained at the #1 position for 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 Song Book. 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 Song Book) and Johnny Mercer (Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Johnny Mercer Song Book). 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 television producer William Dozier to create the music for the Batman television series starring Adam West. While Neal Hefti had written the Batman theme song as it is known today (originally hired for the series but became unavailable), it was Riddle who did the first two seasons of Batman (sans two scored by Warren Barker). Billy May did the third season’s music. Re-recordings of Riddle’s music from Batman was issued on one soundtrack LP and one 45 RPM.
During the 1970s, the majority of Riddle’s 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. He wrote the theme song for the 1972 television series Emergency!, and scored the 1977 miniseries Seventh Avenue. 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. In the 1960s and 1970s, Riddle was the band leader on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. 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.
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. 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 that 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.
When Riddle 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 explained to Ronstadt that he had once turned down Paul McCartney, who had sought him out to write an arrangement for one of McCartney’s albums. They agreed, and three three albums together sold over seven million copies. This brought Riddle 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 solo dance routine by Mikhail Baryshnikov). On October 6, 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, with which he had been diagnosed five years earlier. His third and final Grammy was awarded posthumously—and accepted on his behalf by Linda Ronstadt—in early 1986. Ronstadt subsequently presented the evening’s first on-air award, at which time she narrated a tribute to the departed maestro.
The following works by Nelson Riddle are contained in my collection:
Brother John (traditional).
Profiles in Courage: The John F. Kennedy March.