His Career and Musical Evolution
by Alan Wright
Nelson Riddle was born in Oradell, New Jersey on June 1, 1921. He died in Los Angeles on October 6, 1985. His musical achievements in the 64 intervening years was immense. His contribution towards the evolution of popular music, particularly in the 50's and 60's was significant as anyone in that delightful period.
Nelson's father encouraged his son very early on to take an interest in music. At the age of eight he started piano lessons before moving on to the trombone six years later. Unfortunately , after only eight lessons, Nelson found himself without a tutor due to the inabilitly of his father to pay the required fees. Nelson himself said that he should have shown some personal initiative and started a paper round to pay for further lessons. Nevertheless he still joined the Ridgewood High School Band and Orchestra. At the age of eighteen Nelson became third trombonist in the New Jersey State Orchestra, based in Atlantic City, the conductor being Eric De Lamarter. In his last year at high school Nelson spent some time in Rumson, New Jersey so that he could play trombone in local bands, strong in that city. Among other young musicians in the area was Bill Finegan, soon to become one of the finest arrangers of the big band era. Nelson learned much form the young, but already established, Finegan.
In 1940, Nelson obtained his first job with the Jerry Wald band. Six months later in December of that year he became a trombonist and arranger for the famous Charley Spivak band. Two enjoyable years before Uncle Sam caught up with Nelson and the Merchant Marine claimed his services. Fortunately, not only did the military outfit have an orchestra but they also had a string section. Thus did Nelson first learn to arrange for violins, violas and celli. In 1944, Nelson found himself in the strange situation of being declared fit for full military service but with no set date to do so. Therefore in May of that year he joined the great Tommy Dorsey Orchestra. His stay with Dorsey only lasted six months but the experience was priceless. Not only did he gain more experience working with strings, he learned from immortal arrangers such as Sy Oliver, Eddie Sauter and Bill Finegan, ( again) and was on the recording sessions that produced the SUNNY SIDE OF THE STREET and OPUS ONE,which included a short Nelson trombone solo. The army then beckoned again and Nelson was called up but luckily not to fight, instead to the Company band. He was discharged in June 1946 and spent the rest of that year arranging for bands in New York, including Les and Larry Elgart.
Nelson was recruited by Bob Crosby, which meant moving to Los Angeles.He had hardly arrived in sunny California only to be told that due to cost cutting his services were not to be required. After a few difficult unemployed months, Nelson eventually joined NBC radio, where he was to work for three happy years. He wrote arrangements for drama programmes, at the same time still continuing his musical education under Mario Casteinuovo- Tedesco, the distinguished Italian composer. Nelson also was commisisioned to provide arrangements for Decca records, including more than 20 sides with Bing Crosby, one of which was the top twenty hit, THAT'S HOW MUCH I LOVE YOU. He was also fortunate to work alongside Victor Young, one of the all time great composers / arrangers. It was in March 1950 that Les Baxter asked Nelson to score Nat King Coles's MONA LISA for Capitol. Nelson received a small fee and Baxter received the credit for one of the classic arrangements of the 1950's. Eleven months later history repeated itself with Baxter obtaining the accolades for Nelson's work on TOO YOUNG. By now Capitol had come to realise that they had real talent in Nelson Ridldle and he was commissioned , in his own name to provide Nat with UNFORGETTABLE and two other tracks in August 1951. This commenced a nine year happy liaison between Nat and Nelson, resulting in some of the most romant;ic and sensual recordings of all time. However it was to be in April 1953 that the music world was really to get to know Nelson Riddle.
There are several different versions of the story of how Nelson and Frank Sinatra came to work together. Whatever, it was on April 30, 1953 they first recorded as a team, I'VE GOT THE WORLD ON A STRING, DON'T WORRY ABOUT ME, I LOVE YOU and SOUTH OF THE BORDER. Billy May was supposed to have had the session but was unavailable touring with his newly formed band, slurring saxophones and all. The last two tracks were in the May style and it was indeed Billy May who received the label credit. Shades of Les Baxter once again! It didn't matter because it was actually I'VE GOT THE WORLD ON A STRING which took the charts by storm to revive the lagging career of Frank Sinatra. Many say it was Sinatra who really launched Nelson Riddle's career. Some say it was the new sound created by Nelson which made Sinatra into the greatest performer of the twentieth century. Either way, they were perfect for each other.
By the mid 1950's Nelson was established as the outstanding arranger of popular music. Capitol records had the best assembly of vocalists in the business. As well as Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole there were Judy Garland, Dean Martin, Peggy Lee, Dinah Shore and Keely Smith - Nelson made albums and singles with all those great performers. In this period, he recorded 18 albums in his own name including the classics HEY LET YOURSELF GO and C'MON GET HAPPY. He also found time to record many singles, including LISBON ANTIGUA, which provided him with a gold disc - one of the top selling instrumentals of all time.
Nelson was either committed or contracted to Capitol for 12 years from 1950 to 1962 . He did "escape " occasionally to work on other labels. The most significant being the 53 tracks that he cut with Ella Fitzgerald in 1959 to comprise the five Verve albums ELLA SINGS THE GEORGE AND IRA GERSWIN SONG BOOK. Arguably Nelson's greatest work, at the peak of these creative talents.
His outstanding recording achievements in the 1950's, inevitably led Nelson into movies and TV. Scoring for movies was probably his greatest joy. His first was JOHNNY CONCHO in 1956. In all he received five Oscar nominations, LI'L ABNER (1959), CAN- CAN (1960), ROBIN AND THE SEVEN HOODS (1964), PAINT YOUR WAGON (1969) and THE GREAT GATSBY(1974). Finally being a winner with GATSBY. His TV activity included series with Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, Rosemary Clooney and Julie Andrews. TV spectaculars with the afore mentioned plus Judy Garland , Dean Martin, Bing Crosby and Gene Kelly. Nelson was the musical director for the presidential inauguration of John F Kennedy in 1961 and Ronald Reagan in 1985. There were numerous personal appearances on concert tours and special events.
When Frank Sinatra established his own record label in 1960, Reprise , it was inevitable that he would want Nelson to join him, which happened two years later. At Reprise Nelson worked with, as well as Sinatra, Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney. However by the late 1960's the great partnership of Frank Sinatra and Nelson Riddle was to end, somewhat acrimoneously. Sinatra continued to make some very good albums but never again anything outstanding. Nelson's recording activities dipped alarmingly. He tried "new" sounds in a vain attempt to keep up with the dramatic changes in popular music throughout the late 1960's and early 1970's but with no great success, either commercially or artisticlly.
It was in 1983 that Nelson came out of the wilderness to make an album with Linda Ronstadt, WHAT'S NEW. Not only was the album a great success but it provided him with his second grammy, 25 years after his first winner, the composition of the CROSS COUNTRY SUITE, recorded with Buddy De Franco in 1958. Two further albums followed with Linda Ronstadt plus another Grammy for LUSH LIFE. In 1985 he made a delightful album with Kiri Te Kanawa. Nelson was back. There was talk of a reunion with Frank Sinatra . Inevitably contemporary performers looking to revive the standard , such as Carly Simon and Harry Connick Junior would have wanted Nelson to provide arrangements.
It was not to be . Nelson had not been a well man for several years. He eventually succumbed in late 1985. He would have achieved much more. But just look at the wonderful legacy that he did leave behind in a musical career spanning 45 years. He was prolific - 2500 tracks, 140 albums, hundreds of singles, over 50 movie and TV scores, a dozen radio and TV series, numerable TV spectaculars, over 300 concert tours. He was acknowledged by his peers with an Oscar and three Grammys. He received a gold disc for LISBON ANTIGUA and helped Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole and, oh yes, Lee Marvin to achieve the same status. Above all though he will be remembered for his artistry and creativity - the ability to blend 40 or more musicians into producing some of the outstanding and joyous sounds of the 20th Century. Happily still available, thanks to modern technology with the advent of Compact Disc and videos.
Nelson Riddle's music will live on well into another millennium.