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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. He worked with many of the major pop vocalists of his day, but it was his immortal work with Frank Sinatra, particularly on the singer's justly revered Capitol concept albums, that cemented Riddle's enduring legacy. 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.
Nelson Smock Riddle was born June 1, 1921, in Oradell, NJ. His father was an amateur musician who performed in a local band, and Riddle learned classical piano as a child, later switching to trombone at age 14. Debussy and Ravel were favorites early on, though he also listened to pop music and big-band swing. In 1940, he joined Jerry Wald's dance orchestra as trombonist and arranger; the following year, he moved on to Charlie Spivak's band, leaving to join the merchant marine in 1943. Exiting the service, he spent 1944-1945 as a trombonist with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra, also writing a couple of arrangements ("Laura," "I Should Care"). In 1946, he returned to the New York area, where he arranged for big bands like the Elgart Brothers and Elliot Lawrence. By year's end, however, he had decided to relocate to Los Angeles, where he landed a job as an arranger for Bob Crosby. From there he moved on to become a staff arranger at NBC Radio in 1947, also composing background music for dramatic programs, and continued to study arranging and conducting with Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco and Victor Young.
Riddle caught his first big break when Les Baxter recruited him to ghostwrite a few arrangements for Nat King Cole. One of Riddle's efforts, "Mona Lisa," became Cole's biggest hit ever in 1950 (though it was credited to Baxter). "Too Young" was another huge success in 1951, and Cole hired Riddle as his primary arranger; that relationship would endure for over a decade and produce classics like "Unforgettable." In 1952, Riddle wrote an arrangement of "The Blacksmith Blues" for Ella Mae Morse that turned even more heads at Capitol; soon, the label hired him on as an in-house arranger.
When Frank Sinatra signed with Capitol in 1953, the label encouraged him to work with the up-and-coming Riddle; Sinatra was reluctant, initially wanting to remain loyal to his chief Columbia arranger, Axel Stordahl. He soon recognized the freshness of Riddle's approach, however, and eventually came to regard Riddle as his most sympathetic collaborator. The first song they cut together was "I've Got the World on a String," and as Sinatra moved into the LP format, Riddle became a hugely important collaborator. Sinatra wanted to record conceptually unified albums that created consistent moods, and Riddle's arrangements had to draw out the emotional subtext of the material Sinatra chose. Riddle's work was alternately romantic (the 10" LPs Songs for Young Lovers and Swing Easy), desolate and intimate (In the Wee Small Hours, Only the Lonely), or confident and hard-swinging (Songs for Swingin' Lovers!, A Swingin' Affair!). The results were some of the finest and most celebrated albums in the history of popular music.
Capitol signed Riddle as an artist in his own right during the early '50s; leading his own orchestra, he recorded a series of albums (upward of ten) geared for the easy listening audience. In 1956, he scored a breakout hit single with "Lisbon Antigua," an instrumental of European origin that climbed all the way to number one on the pop charts. The follow-up "Port au Prince" made the Top 20, as did two albums, 1957's Hey...Let Yourself Go! and 1958's C'mon...Get Happy!. Plus, 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 Come 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 biopic St. Louis Blues (1958) and Stanley Kubrick's Lolita, 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.
In addition to Riddle's 1950s associations with Sinatra and Cole, he wrote arrangements for — among others — Betty Hutton, Jimmy Wakely, Peggy Lee, Dinah Shore, and Judy Garland, the latter of whom turned in two of her finest interpretive albums in 1956's Judy and 1958's Judy in Love under Riddle's guidance. At the end of the decade, he began a fruitful relationship with Ella Fitzgerald, cutting two sessions with his orchestra backing her up (Ella Swings Brightly With Nelson and Ella Swings Gently With Nelson) and contributing extensively to her mammoth Songbooks series, particularly the Gershwin, Kern, and Mercer volumes. Over the course of the '60s, Riddle went on to work with the likes of Rosemary Clooney (1960's Rosie Solves the Swingin' Riddle), Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr., Al Martino, Johnny Mathis (1961's I'll Buy You a Star), Shirley Bassey (1962's Let's Face the Music), Billy Eckstine, Jack Jones, Eddie Fisher, Keely Smith, and many, many others. His last full album with Sinatra was 1966's Strangers in the Night, on which Riddle's feel for contemporary pop in the post-rock & roll age helped Sinatra regain his commercial standing.
Meanwhile, Riddle continued his soundtrack work, crafting some of his most notable material for television. He wrote the distinctive theme for The Untouchables in 1959, and his theme song to the series Route 66 was hugely popular, even making the pop charts when it was released as a single in 1962. Although Riddle didn't write the legendary theme song to the Batman TV series, he scored many of the individual episodes. He also worked on shows like The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Tarzan, Emergency!, and Barnaby Jones, among others. In 1967, he signed on as musical director of the popular Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, and went on to serve in a similar capacity on early-'70s variety shows hosted by Julie Andrews and Helen Reddy. He earned another Oscar nomination for his work adapting the score of Paint Your Wagon (1969), and notched his first Oscar win for the score of 1974's The Great Gatsby. Meanwhile, Riddle continued to work with Sinatra on special projects, including the singer's 1971 farewell concert at the Ahmanson Theater in Los Angeles, and a 1974 comeback show at Madison Square Garden. As his music grew increasingly jazzy and driving, he also continued his own recording career on Sinatra's Reprise label for a time, later switching to Liberty/United Artists and a succession of smaller imprints.
By the mid-'70s, Riddle was largely retired, a combination of changing musical tastes and health problems that necessarily curtailed his activities. He emerged in the early '80s to work with Linda Ronstadt on a succession of traditional pop albums: 1983's What's New, 1984's Lush Life, and 1986's For Sentimental Reasons. The former two both earned him Grammys for Best Arrangement Accompanying Vocals. Riddle's final completed project was Blue Skies, a 1985 collaboration with opera singer Kiri Te Kanawa. He passed away in Los Angeles on October 6, 1985.