Musically speaking, he had the world on a string Â– working with some of the most popular recording artists in history, and making them better performers because of his influence. He was Nelson Riddle, one of the most admired and versatile arranger/composers of the post-war era, with major radio, television, film, and recording successes to his credit.
Nelson Riddle was born on June 1, 1921, in Oradell, New Jersey, a little town in the northernmost portion of the state. Inspired by his father's amateur band, he learned piano and trombone and joined Charlie Spivak's orchestra after graduating from high school. Over the next few years, he moved on to work with Bob Crosby and Tommy Dorsey's bands, first as a musician and then doubling as an occasional arranger. After serving in the Army during World War II, he hired on with NBC Radio as a staff arranger. As his reputation grew, he became more in demand during the early '50s. Riddle was the arranger and conductor for Judy Garland, Jimmy Wakely, Betty Hutton, Ella Mae Morse among many others.
In 1949, Les Baxter hired him to write some arrangements for a Nat King Cole album. Although Riddle wrote them, Baxter took credit for the highly successful arrangements of Too Young and Mona Lisa -- even Baxter's obituaries attribute them to him. Cole hired Riddle as his lead arranger, and they worked together on over 15 Capitol LPs over the next 10 years. In the early 1950s, Capitol also signed Riddle as an independent artist. Riddle was known as one of the best arranger for singers, and backed many of Capitol's vocalists, including Margaret Whiting, Dean Martin, Peggy Lee, and Frank Sinatra on his swinging albums ("Songs for Swingin' Lovers," "A Swingin' Affair," "Sinatra's Swing' Session") and others. Sinatra said, "Nelson had a fresh approach to orchestration and I made myself fit into what he was doing." Many consider these albums each man's best work. Riddle's own recordings from this period aimed for the same audience as Jackie Gleason, and other "mood music" artists, with titles like "Love Tide," "Sea of Dreams," and "Hey, Let Yourself Go."
His biggest hits, though, were lighter pieces. Riddle had a knack for making his point through understatement that eluded Gleason. The first, Lisbon Antigua, was brought to his attention by the sister of Nat King Cole's manager, and came out at the height of the wave of European covers. His recordings never quite brought Riddle the success he was looking for, though. His earnings as an arranger paled compared to Henry Mancini's royalties from originals like Moon River and The Days of Wine and Roses, and Riddle felt something of a rivalry with Mancini throughout their careers.
Riddle also wrote for a number of television shows, including The Untouchables, and his theme for the series, Route 66, was released as a single and made it into the Top 40 in 1962. He also scored a number of films, including the Rat Pack classics Ocean's Eleven (1960) and Robin and the Seven Hoods (1964), as well as Lolita (1962), Red Line 7000 (1965), A Rage to Live (1965), Batman (1966; although Neal Hefti wrote the hit theme for Batman, Riddle wrote the "zow"-ey arrangements for the actual episodes), El Dorado (1966), and The Maltese Bippy (1969). He served as musical director of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour and, later, The Julie Andrews Show. He retired in the mid-1970s, but came back when asked to arrange some songs for an album of torch songs Linda Ronstadt was recording. Ronstadt's producer hired him for the whole album, a Grammy winner. Riddle's lush arrangements on Ronstadt's What's New, Lush Life, and For Sentimental Reasons gave the recordings a tremendous boost and helped reintroduce the style that Harry Connick, Jr. and others subsequently imitated to great success. Riddle also arranged and conducted for the inauguration balls for John F. Kennedy, in 1961, and Ronald Reagan, in 1985. His last work was an arrangement for opera singer Kiri Te Kanawa in 1985.
Nelson Riddle was a musical genius: his keen understanding of how to use the various instruments helped the singer's lyrics without stepping on them. His instrumental breaks between lyrics became his trademark, with careful and intelligent use of horns and strings and knowing when to highlight an instrument and for just how long. His introductions, instrumental breaks and endings often became records within records, giving his recordings a unique polish. According to Frank Sinatra, Nelson Riddle was the ultimate musical secretary. "Nelson is the greatest arranger in the world, a very clever musician," Sinatra once told Robin Douglas-Home in an interview. "He's like a tranquilizer -- calm, slightly aloof. There's a great depth somehow to the music he creates. And he's got a sort of stenographer's brain. If I say to him at a planning meeting, 'Make the eighth bar sound like Brahms,' he'll make a cryptic little note on the side of some scrappy music sheet and, sure enough, when we come to the session, the eighth bar will be Brahms. If I say, 'Make like Puccini,' Nelson will make exactly the same little note, and that eighth bar will be Puccini all right, and the roof will lift off!"
The entertainment world recognized RiddleÂ’s talents with many awards, and nominations. In 1958, The Nelson Riddle Orchestra received a Grammy Award for Cross Country Suite. In 1975, Riddle won his only Academy Award, for Best Music, Scoring Original Song Score and/or Adaptation, for The Great Gatsby (1974). He was nominated four other times for Oscars, in 1960 for LiÂ’l Abner (1959), in 1961 for Can-Can (1960), in 1965 for Robin and the Seven Hoods (1964), and in 1970 for Paint Your Wagon (1969).
Riddle, for his part, had a love for what he did, and had a keen understanding of his craft: "My original interest in writing arrangements came because of orchestral colors. I became fascinated with the harmonies and the various effects you could achieve with single instruments or groups of instruments of varying colors. Therefore, I'm always fascinated by large groups, and I find that small groups are more demanding in a way because you have less to work with."
He was loved in the industry, and had a reverence for his chosen profession. Nelson Riddle died, on October 6, 1985, in Los Angeles, California. His contributions to the music industry were recognized with a star along HollywoodÂ’s Walk of Fame, at 6724 Hollywood Boulevard. A richly deserved honor for a singular talent: he may have held the world by a string, but the world was a better and more harmonious place for his having been here.