Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music


RIDDLE, Nelson

(b 1 June 1921, Oradell NJ; d 6 October 1985, Los Angeles CA) Arranger, conductor, composer. Played trombone and arranged for Charlie Spivak '40, then Jerry Wald, Tommy Dorsey; after WWII Bob Crosby, Dorsey again; staff arranger for NBC radio. From c.1950 with Capitol records, arranged and conducted for Judy Garland, Jimmy Wakely, Betty Hutton, Margaret Whiting, Ella Mae Morse, Dean Martin, Peggy Lee, others; arranged Nat Cole hits 'Mona Lisa', 'Too Young' '50-1, but became the best-known arranger in Hollywood working with Frank Sinatra from April '53.

The studio band included first-class sidemen such as Harry Edison on trumpet; Eddie Miller, Skeets Herfurt, Mahlon Clarke, Babe Russin on reeds; Joe Comfort on bass, Alvin Stoller on drums and the Hollywood String Quartet including Felix Slatkin in the string section. Wit and swing were generated by the use of bass clarinet or bass trombone (usually George Roberts, d 28 September 2014 aged 86) as a springboard for rhythmic phrases, and a knowledge of precisely when to bring in the rhythm section after the intro to a song and when to allow an explosion of brass. The work brought generous tributes from Sinatra: 'Nelson had a fresh approach to orchestration and I made myself fit into what he was doing.' The combination of Sinatra's singing, the songs and the architecture of each arrangement (extremely well played and recorded) added up to a sort of through-composed miniature, as though written from scratch by a Mozart of pop. Perhaps the most famous chart is 'I've Got You Under My Skin', written hurriedly on the way to the session; when it was recorded it got a round of applause from everybody in the studio. (For a rundown of hit singles and albums, see Sinatra's entry.)

Riddle had his own no. 1 hit 'Lisbon Antigua' '55, an instrumental with a wordless chorus (not his own composition), other minor hits; his LPs in '50s included Hey, Let Yourself Go, Joy Of Living, Cross-Country Suite (on Dot, featuring Buddy DeFranco, won a Grammy '58). He worked freelance with Oscar Peterson, Ella Fitzgerald (Swings Brightly With Nelson, George Gershwin Songbook) on Verve; on Sinatra's Reprise label with him, Rosemary Clooney (LP Love); also worked with Johnny Mathis, many others. Film work in various capacities often including soundtrack albums: Pal Joey and PainThe Pajama Game '57, St Louis Blues '58, Li'l Abner '59, Can-Can '60, Harlow '65, Camelot '67, Paint Your Wagon '69, The Great Gatsby '74 (Academy Award); many others including Sinatra movies; TV theme music included The Untouchables and Route 66 (one of the first TV themes to be a pop hit, no. 30 USA '62). He was music director of Julie Andrews' TV show '72-3.

He suffered ill health, but survived five years after cancer surgery; arranger Billy Byers met him in a supermarket and Riddle said, 'Nobody likes my work anymore and I'm getting phased out of the business.' He came back to arrange and conductor Linda Ronstadt albums What's New '83 (another Grammy for Riddle), Lush Life '84, For Sentimental Reasons '86; also arranged Blue Skies '85 for opera singer Kiri Te Kanawa. Riddle was never paid what he was worth; he probably got $50 for arranging Cole's huge hit on 'Mona Lisa', maybe $100 each for the Sinatra tracks he did on Capitol; then the label didn't want to pay for the charts on the Ronstadt albums at all, so he took a percentage. She was not well suited to Sinatra's type of material, but all three albums were hits; he died before the last one came out but his estate probably made more money from them than he ever made from the work with Sinatra. There was a compilation Instrumental Favorites on Time-Life '96.