by Christopher Riddle
On June 1, 1949, the day of his 19th birthday, my father left home to travel in the dual capacity of trombonist and arranger with dance band leader Jerry Wald. In 1941, he joined The Charlie Spivak Orchestra and remained there until he entered the merchant marine in 1943. The, the years 1944-45 were spent most profitably, experience-wise, with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra. Dorsey employed as his arrangers such talents as Eddie Sauter, Hugo Winterhalter and Freddie Norman.
In 1946, he returned to New York and worked for several months as an arranger for such band greats as the Elgart Brothers and Elliot Lawrence. But the West coast intrigued him and, with the help of his good friend guitarist Bob Bain, he secured a job arranging for Bob Crosby. He arrived in Los Angeles on December 5, 1946, and it was home from then on.
The early years in Los Angeles were spent learning his craft with the great Mario Castellanuevo-Tedesco and Victor Young. Whilst he was largely writing arrangements for NBC Radio, he began to occasionally work for Nat King Cole, but as a ghost-arranger. However, the successes of his arrangements for "Mona Lisa" in 1950 and "Too Young" in 1951 set him on his way to doing most of Nat King Cole's music at Capitol Records. By this time my father had become conductor of the orchestra and had his name printed on the record label. He was no longer an anonymous arranger!
My father worked with Frank Sinatra for the first time in 1953. Sinatra's career was in a professional limbo at that time. Lee Gillette at Capitol Records thought it would be a good idea for Sinatra to work with the young arranger, but Frank was skeptical and wanted to work in New York with more familiar people and surroundings. Fortunately, Gillette stuck to his guns and the genesis of this most remarkable coupling was "I've Got the World on a String". Notable future recordings with Sinatra would include the albums "Songs for Young Lovers,' "In the Wee Small Hours", "A Swingin' Affair", and "Nice n' Easy" to name but a few!
By the mid-1950's, my father was staff arranger at Capitol Records and worked with such immortals as Ella Fitzgerald, Peggy Lee, Judy Garland, Rosemary Clooney, Keely Smith, Dinah Shore, The Hi Lo's, Ella Mae Morse, Al Martino, Dakota Staton, Dean Martin and Bing Crosby.
Interspersed with the vocal recordings, my father wrote many successful instrumental pieces, with "Lisbon Antigua" becoming a number one hit, netting him his first gold record for sales over one million.
His motion picture and television credits include "The Young at Heart", "High Society", "Pal Joey", "Paint Your Wagon", "The Tender Trap", "Can-Can", "Li'l Abner", "A Hole in the Head", "The Great Gatsby" (for which he received an Academy Award for musical adaptation), "The Untouchables", "Naked City" and Route 66", the first TV theme to become a chart-topper.
His recording career tapered off in the 1970's and early 1980's with the continuing onslaught of rock n' roll and electronic instruments that sadly, for my father, became the vogue. However, in 1983 he received a phone call from Linda Ronstadt asking him to write an arrangement for the old standard, "I Guess I'll Hang My Tears Out To Dry". His reply was that he would not consider writing a single arrangement, but rather a complete album. That was the birth of "What's New?" which begat "Lush Life" which was followed by "For Sentimental Reasons" - Sadly the last collaboration of this genre with Ms. Ronstadt. The result of my father's final collaboration was the album " Blue Skies", with Dame Kiri te Kanawa. Nelson Riddle died on October 6, 1985.