Nelson Riddle - Biography

By J Poet


Nelson Riddle may be the greatest arranger of pop music in American history. An Oscar winning [The Great Gatsby (1974 Paramount) Best Original Song Score or Adaptation] and Grammy winning [Buddy DiFranco Plays Nelson Riddle’s Cross Country Suite (1958 Dot) Best Composition Over Five Minutes] composer and Grammy winning arranger [Best Instrumental Arrangement Accompanying Vocalist for Linda Ronstadt’s What’s New (1983 Asylum) and Lush Life (1985 Asylum), Riddle remains best known for his work arranging a series of classic albums for Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, and Nat “King” Cole. He was also one of he most prolific arrangers, turning out a huge body of work in his lifetime. Although he may be known primarily known by avid reader’s of liner notes, he contributed to much of the best music recorded in the ‘50s and early ‘60s. His albums with Linda Ronstadt in the 80s increased his public profile shortly before his death in 1985.


Riddle studied piano as a child, taking up trombone at 14. After high school he played trombone and did arrangements for swing bands in New Jersey including the Charlie Spivak Orchestra and Jerry Wald’s Dance Band. After a few years in the merchant marine, he joined the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra, playing trombone and contributing arrangements. In 1946 he moved to LA to write arrangements for Bob Crosby’s Bobcats and become a staff arranger at NBC Radio.


Two of his arrangements for Nat King Cole, “Mona Lisa” and “Too Young”, became hits and he was hired as an arranger for Capitol Records. He contributed to six of Cole’s hit Capitol albums: Nat King Cole Sings for Two In Love (1953 Capitol), The Piano Style of Nat King Cole (1955 Capitol), Ballads of the Day (1956 Capitol), St Louis Blues (1958 Capitol), To Whom It May Concern (1959 Capitol), and Wild Is Love (1960 Capitol),


Frank Sinatra signed with Capitol in 1953, and wanted to use his friend Axel Stordahl, who did his arrangements at Columbia. By that time, Riddle was Capitol’s in house arranger, and after the first few Sinatra/ Stordahl discs failed to ignite interest, Sinatra relented and used Riddle. Their first single together “I’ve Got the World on a String” was a hit and they went on to collaborate on many classic Sinatra albums including: Songs For Young Lovers (1953 Capitol), Swing Easy! (1954 Capitol), In the Wee Small Hours (1955 Capitol), This is Sinatra (1956 Capitol), Songs For Swingin' Lovers (1956 Capitol), Close to You and More (1957 Capitol), A Swingin' Affair! (1957 Capitol), Frank Sinatra Sings for Only the Lonely (1958 Capitol), Nice 'n' Easy (1960 Capitol), and Sinatra's Swingin' Session!!! (1961 Capitol). Sinatra often cited Riddle as his most sympathetic collaborator.


Riddle had his own orchestra and also made his own album and singles. “Lisbon Antigua,” a pop tune from Portugal, got a lush Riddle arrangement and went gold; it was his only #1 single. He also released the easy listening albums Lisbon Antigua (1956 Capitol), Hey...Let Yourself Go! (1957 Capitol), C’mon...Get Happy! (1958 Capitol), Joy of Living (1959 Capitol), Sing a Song with Riddle (1959 Capitol), an album of arrangements with no vocal tracks, so would be Sinatras could sing along, and Love Is a Game of Poker (1962 Capitol).


While at Capital, Riddle also worked with Judy Garland on Judy (1956 Capitol) and Judy In Love (1958 Capitol); Peggy Lee on The Man I Love (1957 Capitol) and Jump for Joy (1958 Capitol): Keely Smith on I Wish You Love ( 1958 Capitol) and Swingin' Pretty (1959 Capitol); Dinah Shore’s Dinah, Yes Indeed! (1959 Capitol) and Dean Martin’s This Time I'm Swingin' (1960 Capitol) and Cha Cha De Amor (1962 Capitol).


He also did many freelance projects, most notable for Ella Fitzgerald on her Verve albums Ella Fitzgerald Sings the George and Ira Gershwin Songbook Vol. 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5,  (1959 Verve), Ella Swings Gently with Nelson, (1962 Verve), Ella Swings Brightly with Nelson (1962 Verve), Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Jerome Kern Songbook (1962 Verve), and Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Johnny Mercer Songbook (1964 Verve).


Riddle left Capital in 1962 to join Sinatra at his then new label, Reprise. They continued collaborating on The Concert Sinatra (1963 Reprise). Sinatra's Sinatra (1963 Reprise). Sinatra Sings Days of Wine and Roses, Moon River, and Other Academy Award Winners (1965 Reprise), Moonlight Sinatra (1966 Reprise) and Strangers in the Night (1966 Reprise). He also worked with Keely Smith on Little Girl Blue/Little Girl New (1962 Reprise),

Rosemary Clooney on Love (1962 Reprise), Johnny Mathis on Live it Up (1963 Columbia), Bing Crosby on Return To Paradise Islands (1964 Reprise), Oscar Peterson on Oscar Peterson and Nelson Riddle (1964 Verve), Antonio Carlos Jobim on The Wonderful World of Antonio Carlos Jobim (1965 Warner) and Sinatra, Nancy Sinatra, Frank Sinatra, Jr. and Tina Sinatra on Wish You a Merry Christmas (1968 Reprise).


Riddle made a few LPs for Reprise, Paris When It Sizzles (1963 Reprise), Great Music, Great Films, Great Sounds (1965 Reprise), and The Riddle of Today (1968 Reprise), but he was turning more to film and television work and concert tours with his orchestra. He’d written TV music since 1959 when we wrote the theme song for The Untouchables with Robert Stack. He continued with work on scores for Naked City (theme song for the 1963 season), Route 66 (theme and incidental music) and Batman (incidental music; the theme was composed by Neil Hefti). His film work included The Great Gatsby (1974 Paramount) which won a Best Original Song Score Academy Award, and arrangements for The Tender Trap (1955 Capitol), High Society, (1956 Capitol), Pal Joey (1957 Capitol) Paint Your Wagon (1969 MCA), Can-Can (1960 Capitol), and Li’l Abner (1959 Columbia).

Riddles’ record of “Theme from Route 66” also was a hit single.


Riddle made a few more albums with his orchestra in the 70s, Changing Colors (1971 United Artists) and Communication ( 1971 MPS Germany), but he was basically retired until Linda Ronstadt called him and asked him write arrangements for her albums of standards What's New? (1983 Asylum) and Lush Life (1985 Asylum). Both albums won him Best Instrumental Arrangement Accompanying Vocalist Grammys. He also scored Kiri Te Kanawa’s Blue Skies (1985 Decca) completed just before he died.


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