Jack Nitzsche - Biography

By Scott Feemster

Producer/arranger/composer/songwriter/studio musician Jack Nitzsche was an important figure in the music world, especially in the 1960's and 70's, but is likely someone the general public would be unfamiliar with. Though he worked with a lot of high profile artists like Phil Spector, the Rolling Stones and Neil Young, Nitzsche (seemingly) preferred to stay in the background, and released only a few solo works over the course of his career.


            Jack Nitzsche was born in Chicago, Illinois but was raised on a farm in Newaygo, Michigan, near Howard City. Not much is known of his early upbringing, except that he took up the saxophone sometime during his childhood. By the time he was 18, in 1955, he decided he wanted to go out to the West Coast and study to be a jazz saxophonist. Once in California, Nitzsche enrolled at the Westlake College of Music and studied at the school for the next two years, while also auditioning for studio session work in the music business. Once he was out of school, he applied himself full-time to session work and soon met up with producer and songwriter Sonny Bono. Bono was working as a staff producer and songwriter for Specialty Records and hired the young Nitzsche on as a music copyist. While working with Bono, the two wrote the song “Needles and Pins” for singer Jackie DeShannon, a song that became a hit not only for her, but also for The Searchers, Cher and The Ramones in later years.  During this time he also worked at Capitol Records and Original Sound Records, doing various jobs including playing on sessions, copying charts, and learning the ropes as far as arranging, producing, and songwriting were concerned. During his time at Original Sound, he wrote the instrumental “Bongo Bongo Bongo” for Preston Epps as a follow-up to his hit “Bongo Rock”, and the song charted in 1960. Because of his connections with Bono and throughout the industry, Nitzsche began getting more and more arranging jobs, and when famed producer/writer Phil Spector relocated to the West Coast in the early 60's, Nitzsche became his staff arranger and conductor, and contributed greatly to what was called the Spector “Wall of Sound”, that is stacking arrangements of pop songs with orchestral instruments and achieving a wide spectrum of sounds with judicious amounts of reverb. In later years, an embittered Nitzsche claimed he deserved much more credit for the sound of such records as “He's A Rebel” by the Crystals and “Be My Baby” by the Ronettes, and later, “River Deep, Mountain High” by Ike and Tina Turner, than what he got. Nitzsche claimed that both he and Spector contributed equally to the sound and feel of the records, but Spector's name was on the producer credit, so history remembers him before Nitszche.


            Regardless, Nitzsche was a busy man in the 60's, and in 1963 he was offered his own contract with Reprise Records and scored an early hit with the instrumental hit “The Lonely Surfer”, and released an album of the same name that year featuring the hit song and several other orchestral songs in the surf style that was in vogue at the time. Nitzsche followed up The Lonely Surfer with two other albums for Reprise, Dance To The Hits Of The Beatles in 1964, which, true to it's name, was orchestrally rearranged versions of early Beatles hits, and Chopin '66, which consisted of mod-age updates of some of Chopin's better known pieces. Neither of the latter two records were successes, and are considered some of Nitzsche's more pedestrian works. During the time he was producing his solo albums, he was also working extensively with a group of mostly studio musicians who became known as The Wrecking Crew, and included the likes of guitarist and singer Glen Campbell, keyboardist and multi-instrumentalist Leon Russell, bassist Carol Kaye and drummer Hal Blaine, amongst others. The group would play sometimes credited and uncredited on songs by such 60's stalwarts as The Beach Boys and The Monkees, to name just two.


            In 1964, Nitzsche was asked to organize the music for The T.A.M.I. Show, a large televised musical omnibus show that included both stars from American pop and rhythm and blues as well as bands from the newly-emergent British Invasion. One of the bands performing on the show was the Rolling Stones, and Nitzsche instantly hit it off with members and stayed in touch with them after the show was over. Nitzsche spent the rest of the 60's contributing keyboard and arranging work to various Rolling Stones albums, including The Rolling Stones, Now!, Out Of Our Heads, Aftermath and Between The Buttons (all London), and more specifically, contributed keyboard and arrangement expertise to the hit singles “Let's Spend The Night Together”, “Paint It Black”and the choral arrangements to “You Can't Always Get What You Want”. Later in the 60's, Nitzsche introduced the band to young slide guitarist Ry Cooder, who would go on to be a friend of the band, (in fact, he was asked to be their guitarist after the death of Brian Jones, but declined the offer), and would become a major influence on their sound from 1969 onward. In 1970, Nitzsche was asked by Mick Jagger to write music for a film he was going to star in. The resulting film was Performance, and Nitzsche put together talents such as Ry Cooder, Randy Newman, Merry Clayton and Buffy Sainte-Marie , as well as Jagger, to produce a soundtrack that was mostly written by Nitzsche and has stood the test of time as a document of the era in its own right.  Concurrent with his work with the Rolling Stones, Nitzsche was still producing, arranging and recording other artists, including The Monkees, Doris Day, Bobby Darin, Frankie Laine, Marianne Faithfull and Tim Buckley, and became known as a versatile producer who could come up with innovative production ideas for both “straight” and counter-culture artists alike. In 1967, Nitzsche met up with Buffalo Springfield guitarist Neil Young, who asked Nitzsche's help in writing a string arrangement for a song he was working on, “Expecting To Fly”. The song appeared on the 1967 album Buffalo Springfield Again (Atco), and after the Springfield broke up in 1968, Young asked Nitzsche to co-produce, play on, and help arrange his solo debut, Neil Young (Reprise), in 1969. This friendship continued to bear fruit through the early 70's, as Nitzsche was featured as either a producer, arranger or musician, (or all three), on such classic Young albums as After The Gold Rush, Tonight's The Night, Harvest, and Time Fades Away (all Reprise). Nitzsche was even the keyboard player in Young's famed backup band Crazy Horse through 1970, and went on to produce the band's debut without Young in 1971. (A recording of Nitzsche playing with Young and Crazy Horse was released later on the Live at the Fillmore East (Reprise)(2006) album.)


            Even though Nitzsche was involved in all of these productions and projects, he still found time to produce one more solo album, 1972's St. Giles Cripplegate (Reprise), an ambitious orchestral album that used the talents of the London Symphony Orchestra to flesh out Nitzsche's ideas. Cripplegate, though given good reviews, was not a sales success, but did serve notice that Nitzsche was a serious composer and more than capable of scoring films, which he was given the chance to do in 1975 with the soundtrack to the critically acclaimed Jack Nicholson vehicle One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest.

It would seem, from the outside, that Nitzsche was at the top of his game in the early 70's, but all was not well. Nitzsche had been suffering for years from depression, and fell in to the trap many do of self-medicating himself with alcohol and drugs. By the mid-70's his addictions were affecting his work and relationships. After telling off Young in a drunken 1974 interview, the two were estranged and didn't work together again until Young's 1987 album Life (Geffen) and his later album Harvest Moon (Reprise) in 1992. Later in 1974, Nitzsche wrote a song criticizing Reprise chief Mo Ostin, and was soon dropped from the label. His bad luck streak continued through the late 70's, finally culminating with his arrest for assaulting his longtime girlfriend, (and former girlfriend of Young's), actress Carrie
Snodgress in 1979. Nitzsche gained a reputation as a troubled and unreliable genius, and most of his production work dried up during this period. Notable exceptions include his production work for Graham Parker's 1979 critically acclaimed album Squeezing Out Sparks (Arista) and a series of three albums he produced for Mink DeVille singer Willie DeVille.


            By the 80's and 90's, Nitzsche's output was sporadic, though he did have small bits of success here and there. He and his second wife Buffy Sainte-Marie were awarded an Academy Award for Best Song for the song “Up Where We Belong” from the film An Officer and a Gentleman in 1982. Nitzsche continued scoring films through the 80's and 90's, and some of his credits include work on the films Cannery Row (1982), Breathless (1983), Starman (1984), 91/2 Weeks (1986), Stand By Me (1986), Revenge (1990), The Hot Spot (1990), The Indian Runner (1991) and The Crossing Guard (1995).    It seemed, though, that Nitzsche's demons continued to plague him. In an infamous episode of the reality TV show COPS filmed in the mid-90's, an extremely inebriated Nitzsche was seen being arrested for brandishing a gun at a group of kids who had stolen his hat. It was rumored later that Nitzsche was planning to produce a comeback album for 50's guitar slinger Link Wray, but because of both he and Wray's poor health, the sessions never materialized. Nitzsche's health continued to worsen through the late 90's, and he eventually died in Hollywood of cardiac arrest brought on by a bronchial infection in 2000.

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