Nelson Riddle Biography

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Nelson Smock Riddle, 1 June 1921, Oradell, New Jersey, USA, d. 6 October 1985, Los Angeles, California, USA. After studying piano, Riddle took up the trombone when in his early teens, and in the late 30s played in a number of big bands, including those led by Jerry Wald, Charlie Spivak, Tommy Dorsey and Bob Crosby. After a stint in the army, he settled in California and studied arranging with Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco and conducting with Victor Bay. In the late 40s Riddle joined NBC, but was lured to Capitol Records and registered immediately with a driving arrangement of ‘Blacksmith Blues’ for Ella Mae Morse. He confirmed his outstanding ability when he began to arrange and conduct for recordings by Nat ‘King’ Cole and Frank Sinatra. Among these were some of Cole’s most engaging and memorable sides, such as ‘Unforgettable’, ‘Somewhere Along The Way’ and ‘Ballerina’, along with a good many of his bestselling albums. Riddle also worked with Sinatra on his important early Capitol albums, such as Songs For Young Lovers, Swing Easy!, Songs For Swingin’ Lovers!, In The Wee Small Hours, and many other later ones. In addition, he served as musical director on most of the singer’s popular television specials.

To a considerable extent, Riddle’s easy swinging charts, with their echoes of the big band music of an earlier era (and the distinctive solos of George Roberts on trombone and Harry ‘Sweets’ Edison on trumpet), were of considerable importance in re-establishing Sinatra as a major star of popular music. Riddle also worked extensively with Ella Fitzgerald on Ella Swings Brightly With Nelson, and the highly acclaimed Songbook series. Other artists to benefit from the distinctive Riddle touch were Judy Garland (Judy), Rosemary Clooney (Rosie Solves The Swinging Riddle), Sammy Davis Jnr. (That’s Entertainment), Eddie Fisher (Games That Lovers Play), Jack Jones (There’s Love), Peggy Lee (Jump For Joy), Dean Martin (This Time I’m Swinging), Johnny Mathis (I’ll Buy You A Star), Antonio Jobim (The Brazilian Mood), Shirley Bassey (Let’s Face The Music), Dinah Shore (Yes Indeed) and many more. In 1954, Riddle had some success with ‘Brother John’, adapted from the French song ‘Frère Jacques’, and in the following year, his instrumental version of ‘Lisbon Antigua’ topped the US chart. He also made some fine, non-vocal albums, which contrasted the lush ballads of The Tender Touch and The Joy Of Living with the up-tempo exuberance of Hey... Let Yourself Go and C’mon... Get Happy.

Although under contract to Capitol at the time, he is usually credited with conducting and arranging another label’s Phil Silvers Swings Bugle Calls For Big Band, which contained Riddle compositions (with US Army/Sgt. Bilko connotations) such as ‘Chow, A Can Of Cow And Thou’ and ‘The Eagle Screams’. Another unusual record item was Sing A Song With Riddle, a set of genuine Riddle arrangements, complete with sheet music, and an invitation to the listener to become the featured vocalist. From the mid-50s Riddle was also active in television and feature films: he wrote the theme for the long-running series Route 66, and received Oscar nominations for his background scores for the movies Li’l Abner, Can-Can, Robin And The 7 Hoods and Paint Your Wagon, and won an Academy Award in 1974 for his music for The Great Gatsby. Among his other film credits were The Pajama Game, St. Louis Blues, Merry Andrew and several Sinatra movies such as The Joker Is Wild and Pal Joey. After attempting retirement, Riddle made an unexpected and hugely successful comeback in the early 80s, when he recorded three albums with Linda Ronstadt: What’s New, Lush Life and For Sentimental Reasons. A gentle, self-effacing man, he was in poor heath for some years before he died. Riddle was probably the finest arranger/leader of modern times, always having the edge and always guaranteeing quality with whoever he worked, especially his magnificent work with Sinatra.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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