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
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
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
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
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.
Pages on the World Wide Web:
The Nelson Riddle Collection at the University of Arizona School of Music:
Riddle Family Official Website:
All Music Guide, biography by Steve Huey:
IMDB (Various Pages):
The Roger Richman Agency, Inc.:
"Space Age Pop":