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LOOKING FOR SOMETHING NEW

By the winter of 1983 the disco fad of the 1970s had all but come to a close. Rock legends Mick Jagger and Rod Stewart, among many others, had long-since dipped their toes into the murky pool called the "dance music" genre. (Imagine the guy who sang "Maggie May" performing the pulsating, synth-laden "Do Ya Think I'm Sexy?" A slave to what's trendy? Greedy? Both?

Meanwhile, The Great American Songbook (the "Standards," if you will, rooted in American popular music from the 1920s to the post-war era), seemed to be fading away as fast as the composers who wrote them. Sure, there were jazz musicians playing and recording Standards in tiny clubs and on minor labels. WNEW radio in New York City still played "the music of your life." The Corner Pub on Greenwich Avenue in New York City featured the famous jukebox containing nothing but songs performed by Frank Sinatra.

Uptown, a night club called The Red Parrot had fought a battle for the attention of well-heeled club-goers with venerable night-spot Studio 54 and won. Beside being a much larger venue, part of the Parrot's appeal was that a live 18-piece orchestra would play half-hour sets of Standards throughout the evening, in-between one-hour sets of the up-to-the-minute dance hits of the day. Hip, stylish couples would dance real dance steps to the big-band. Peculiar as it was, people of all ages would actually walk out on the dance floor and hold each other as they danced; where only moments ago their arms were flailing wildly to the latest from Culture Club or Donna Summer.

On a certain wintry night the buzz around the club was that the disc-jockey (I forgot who) had brought with him an amazing record. He was going to play Linda Ronstadt in the club. Linda Ronstadt? The thought of country-pop priestess Ronstadt getting play in a New York City nightclub was almost as ridiculous as the thought of an American President receiving fellatio in the Oval Office.

A MEMORABLE MOMENT

The big band had just finished their midnight set. The club was packed; it was a Friday night. The two dozen or so couples that had twirled and turned gracefully to the live music were slowly walking off the parquet. Instead of the usual ear-shattering "thump-thump-thump" as the disco resumed; the club's sound system issued forth a most wonderful sound; strings. Lots of 'em. A full orchestra playing chords that were chosen with exquisite craftsmanship. A pause in the arrangement sent a shiver down my spine for a split-second; waiting for what would follow. It was the Burke/Haggart song "What's New?" being sung by none other than Linda Ronstadt in a confident, clear-as-a-bell voice. As the music continued, I realized that she had embraced everything a torch singer should be.

Just when I thought I'd heard everything, it was time for Ms. Ronstadt to yield to a soloist. On this recording, 'twas not just one soloist, but a whole host of 'em; the horn section, backed up by the strings, soaring and playing their own counter-melody over the very assertive, stylized horns. As the song finished, I looked around. The dance floor was empty; the crowd was wide-eyed, busy asking one another "what was that?"

That was a taste of what is arguably the finest work of versatile composer and arranger Nelson Riddle.

Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong and Nelson Riddle stand, in my judgement, at the spine of American popular music. Nelson's voice, like the others, changed our thinking, pushed us forward, addressed us with startling originality. The scope of his talent dwarfs all other arrangers. His obvious pleasure in delegating authority-to the oboe, flute, bass trombone, muted trumpet, organ, bassoon, vibraphone-while still remaining in full control of his administration; his overseeing without overstating the strings; his own private melodies that whisper respectfully under the Gershwin or Kern or Rodgers on the table; his out and out passion that informs every bar of every arrangement. All these things are actively combined in the immense body of work that stands as one of the great achievements in American arts. To find that Nelson, personally, is a droll, tender, reclusive and richly intelligent fellow, adds a special kind of luster to my fondness for him, devotion to him. The book you are holding is about music. There is no more qualified an author available. Anywhere.

— Jonathan Schwartz WNEW radio personality
Rear cover notes for "Arranged by Nelson Riddle," textbook by Riddle,
Warner Bros. Publications, Hollywood, CA: 1985

Nelson Smock Riddle was born in New Jersey on June 1, 1921. His father was an amateur musician, and encouraged him to pursue classical piano. At age 14, popular music "bit" Riddle and he switched instruments to the trombone. But for a short stint in the merchant marine in 1943-44, he spent the 1940s working as a trombonist and arranger for the Jerry Wald, Charlie Spivak, and Tommy Dorsey bands. One of his arrangements for the Dorsey Band, "I Should Care," was a harbinger of his later long-time collaboration with Nat "King" Cole, who also had a hit with the tune years later. By 1947, he'd relocated to the West Coast, where he became a staff arranger at NBC Radio. He was also tapped by NBC to compose background music for dramatic programs. Despite his success, he continued to study conducting and arranging with Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco and Victor Young.

Band leader Les Baxter asked Riddle to write a few arrangements for Nat "King" Cole in 1950. "Mona Lisa," Cole's biggest hit ever, was credited to Baxter. 1951's "Too Young," another Cole hit, was finally credited to Riddle. Cole hired Riddle as his arranger and for ten years the pair turned out myriad hits including "Unforgettable." By now, he was hired on by Capitol Records as an in-house arranger.

Now, over at Mercury Records, producer Mitch Miller had turned down a popular singer named Frank Sinatra, who at that time was unhappy at his current label, Columbia. Miller later realized that he'd "shot himself in the foot." Capitol records signed Sinatra in 1953. At first, Sinatra wanted only to work with his long-time pal arranger Axel Stordahl, who'd turned out hit after hit with Sinatra at Columbia. After some encouragement, Sinatra realized that Riddle had enormous talent and versatility, and the "new sound" that Sinatra needed to keep his career afloat.

NELSON RIDDLE AND FRANK SINATRA

The Sinatra/Riddle pairing turned out some of the most memorable and acclaimed singles and albums in the history of popular music. Sinatra strove to create "mood" albums - unified in concept and style - and Riddle rose expertly to the task. Whatever Sinatra wanted, Nelson Riddle gave him tenfold. Romance; "Songs for Young Lovers" and "Swing Easy." Blue and intimate; "In the Wee Small Hours" and "Only the Lonely." Hard-swinging and assertive; "Songs for Swingin' Lovers! and "A Swingin' Affair!" Nelson Riddle had made a name for himself as the arranger of choice for top vocal talent.

Capitol signed Riddle as an artist in his own right during the early '50s; leading his own orchestra, he recorded a series of albums geared for the easy listening audience. In 1956, he scored a hit single with "Lisbon Antigua," an instrumental that climbed all the way to number one on the pop charts. His 1958 composition "Cross Country Suite" won him his first Grammy. As the '50s wore on, Riddle got increasingly involved in the motion picture industry, thanks in part to Sinatra; he worked on the scores for the Sinatra films Johnny Concho (1956), Pal Joey (1957), A Hole in the Head (1959), and Come Blow Your Horn (1963), plus the Rat Pack vehicles Ocean's Eleven (1960) and Robin and the Seven Hoods (1964). Branching out into other film projects, he worked on the W.C. Handy biography St. Louis Blues (1958) and Stanley Kubrick's Lolita (1962), and earning Oscar nominations for his scores for Li'l Abner (1959) and the Cole Porter musical Can-Can (1960). He also served as the musical director on variety shows starring Sinatra, Nat King Cole, and Rosemary Clooney.

As if this wasn't enough, the ever-busy Riddle was tapped by Ella Fitzgerald for two albums with his orchestra and arrangement work on her "Songbooks" series. Judy Garland used Riddle on two of her finest albums of work ("Judy" in 1956 and "Judy in Love" in 1958). Into the 1960s, Riddle went to work with Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr., Al Martino, Rosemary Clooney, Johnny Mathis, Shirley Bassey, and Billy Eckstine, among quite a few others. For the second time, Riddle helped revive Frank Sinatra's career with 1966's "Strangers In The Night." It was Riddle — not Sinatra — who had the savvy to address the contemporary pop audience in the post-rock and roll age.

Nelson Riddle was quite possibly the greatest arranger in the history of American popular music. Over the course of his long and distinguished career, he was also a popular soundtrack composer, a conductor, a trombonist, and an occasional hitmaker in his own right...

...Riddle was a master of mood and subtlety, and an expert at drawing out a song's emotional subtext. He was highly versatile in terms of style, mood, and tempo, and packed his charts full of rhythmic and melodic variations and rich tonal colors that blended seamlessly behind the lead vocal line. He often wrote specifically for individual vocalists, keeping their strengths and limitations in mind and pushing them to deliver emotionally resonant performances. As such, Riddle was perfectly suited to the task of framing vocal interpreters, as opposed to just singers; he was most in sync with the more nuanced and artistically ambitious vocalists, like Sinatra. Riddle knew how to lay back and bring certain lyrics or vocal subtleties to the forefront, and how to add countermelodies that emphasized other lyrics, or made important transitions. He could draw the listener in with catchy embellishments, challenge them with adventurous harmonies, and build to climaxes that faded into surprisingly restrained endings. In short, Riddle was everything a top-notch singer could ask for.

— Steve Huey, All Music Guide

Television sang its siren song and Riddle was drawn in. His theme music for The Untouchables in 1959 and his theme song for the series Route 66 was distinctive and popular, "Route 66" hitting the pop charts upon its release as a single in 1962. He became musical director of the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour and scored music for shows as diverse as The Man From U.N.C.L.E. to Buddy Ebsen's Barnaby Jones. Although Neal Hefti wrote the timelessly recognizable theme song to the TV Series Batman, Riddle scored most of the individual episodes.

Back at the movies he earned an Oscar nomination in 1969 for his adaptation of the score to the Broadway hit Paint Your Wagon and finally won an Academy Award for The Great Gatsby in 1974.

In 1971, Riddle scored Frank Sinatra's "Farewell Concert" in Los Angeles. But by 1974, Sinatra came knocking again for the score for his "Main Event;" a comeback show at Madison Square Garden in New York.

DID RIDDLE "OUT-MANCINI" HENRY MANCINI?

There was always a rumor about competition between Nelson Riddle and Henry Mancini (of "The Theme from The Pink Panther" fame). Both achieved great successes in a number of media, with vocalists and with instrumentals. Some of Mancini's work has been held in higher regard critically. Mancini was also a far more public person than the humble and downright shy Riddle. But by the numbers (sales) Riddle's star shines brighter to this day than that of Henry Mancini - no disrespect intended.

Riddle and his own orchestra continued recording on the Reprise label for a while, then showcasing jazzier and more aggressive tunes on Liberty/U.A. and a few independent labels. By the late 1970s, Riddle had more or less retired. Whether it was his chronic health problems or the changing tastes of the public, nobody knows. By 1982, the sun seemed to be setting on Nelson Riddle. It was then that a representative of Ronstadt asked if he would take over the work on Ronstadt's new album of singles, performed with a full orchestra. The photographs taken of Riddle at that time reflect a happiness and satisfaction that only years before had been captured on film.

Strangely, "What's New" did not earn critical acclaim by any means. Perhaps it was the fact that rock reviewers just didn't know what to do with it; and reviewers familiar with the Great American Songbook pooh-poohed Ms. Ronstadt's efforts at handling tunes that up until that time had only been handled by Divas such as Garland, Fitzgerald, Vaughan, and Billie Holiday.

Riddle, too, had been poo-poohed by critics and purists alike for "selling out" with some of his cheesier works (for television in particular). But his oeuvre has stood the test of time, much of it having been re-released on CD over the years. And few composers' works have been sampled more often by contemporary artists than Riddle's.

Not only did "What's New" garner a Grammy, videos from the album aired on a young MTV network. The record peaked at 3 on the Billboard Album Charts and sold nearly four million copies on vinyl LP alone. The second recording in the series, "Lush Life" (1984) also won a Grammy and went platinum on vinyl. In 1985, he completed a project with opera singer Kiri Te Kanawa called "Blue Skies."

Nelson Riddle died in Los Angeles, California on October 6, 1985. "For Sentimental Reasons," his final collaboration with Ronstadt, was completed using another conductor but Riddle's own arrangements, posthumously, in 1986.

In 2000, conductor Erich Kunzel and the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra issued an album on Telarc Records "Route 66 — That Nelson Riddle Sound." Sure, it's not everybody's cup of tea, but it's a fine tribute to a very, very fine musician.

WHO'S GOT THE LAST LAUGH NOW?

THE FIRST KARAOKE ALBUM?

Earlier I mentioned Mitch Miller, record producer and also creator of the immensely popular "Sing Along With Mitch" series. You'd play the record and sing along with Mitch (and the "gang") following the lyrics sheet included with the album. Well, in 1959, in the midst of the "Sing Along With Mitch" craze, Capitol released "Sing A Song With Riddle" — the background music by Riddle and his Orchestra alone, so that one could sing not along with, but in the midst of, a really great orchestra. The record sold well enough to get Miller's attention.

So about six months ago I got ahold of a copy of one of Rod Stewart's new album of Great American Standards. This in the long shadow of Harry Connick, Jr.'s efforts at re-popularizing the Great American Songbook and Swing music in general. The lack of excitement and similarity of all of the arrangements on Stewart's first effort sent me on a side-trip to the porcelain microphone. I didn't even review it. You see, Stewart was resting on his laurels as a musician. Stewart, apparently, is pandering to the audience who once threw their panties at him during live performances. Now, I'd hazard a guess that the items thrown at his live performances are Depends. Okay, it's an old joke but I still love it. When Linda Ronstadt took the leap from contemporary pop to post-war pop, she risked losing some, if not all, of her fans. She did, indeed lose fans. But she earned the right to be called a musician who's ahead of the curve and who's willing to take risks with her career in order to retain her artistic integrity.

Bette Midler and Barry Manilow got on the Swing track recently, too (with Manilow veering abruptly toward the '50s the moment the first bad review of his Swing effort hit the papers).  Take my advice; don't buy Stewart, Connick, Midler, nor Manilow. But do go out and buy at least "What's New" — or buy the multi-disc package "'Round Midnight" which contains all three works by Linda Ronstadt and the Nelson Riddle Orchestra.

Play "What's New" really loud; and pay attention to every chord, every sub-melody, and you'll get the idea where Nelson Riddle was coming from.

SOURCES:

Pages on the World Wide Web:

The Nelson Riddle Collection at the University of Arizona School of Music: http://web.cfa.arizona.edu/riddle/about/index.html

Riddle Family Official Website: http://www.nelsonriddlemusic.com/nr_bio.htm

All Music Guide, biography by Steve Huey:   http://www.allmusic.com/cg/amg.dll?p=amg&sql=11:sq6atrplklox~T1

IMDB (Various Pages): http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0725765/

The Roger Richman Agency, Inc.: http://www.hollywoodlegends.com/nelson-riddle.html

"Space Age Pop": http://www.spaceagepop.com/riddle.htm

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