NELSON RIDDLE was one of the greatest arrangers in the history of American popular music. 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 Dad’s enduring legacy. He 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. This is evidenced certainly in his work with Sinatra in the following quote from Charles Granata’s book “Sessions with Sinatra,”: “It quickly became apparent that Riddle, of all the arrangers the singer had worked with, complemented Sinatra’s talents better than anyone else.”
Born June 1, 1921 in Oradell, NJ, Nelson Smock Riddle studied piano as a child, later switching to trombone at the age of 14. After getting out of the service, he spent 1944-1945 as a trombonist with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra, also writing a couple of arrangements (“Laura”, “I Should Care”). By the end of 1946, with the help of good friend, Bob Bain, he secured a job arranging for Bob Crosby in Los Angeles. He then became a staff arranger at NBC Radio in 1947, and continued to study arranging and conducting with Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco and Victor Young.
Soon he was occasionally writing for Nat King Cole, initially as a ghost-arranger. However, the successes of his arrangements for “Mona Lisa” (1950) and “Too Young” (1951) set him on his way to doing most of Nat’s music at Capitol Records. By this time, Nelson Riddle had become conductor of the orchestra and had his name printed on the record label. He was no longer an anonymous arranger.
When Frank Sinatra signed with Capitol Records in 1953, the label encouraged him to work with the up-and-coming Riddle, who was now Capitol’s in-house arranger. Though he had helped Nat achieve his biggest hit, “Mona Lisa”, Sinatra was still reluctant. He soon recognized the freshness of Dad’s approach, however, and eventually came to regard him as his most sympathetic collaborator. The first song they cut together was “I’ve Got the World on a String.” When Sinatra and Dad began to record conceptually unified albums that created consistent moods, the results were some of the finest and most celebrated albums in the history of popular music. There was a great mutual respect between them. As Dad comments in his 1985 KCRW interview, “He opened some doors which without his intervention would have remained closed to me.”
Dad’s work with Ella Fitzgerald on the Gershwin Songbook in 1959 was considered one of the most elegant and unique interpretations of a most amazing body of work.
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 growth of rock n’ roll and electronic instruments. 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?” followed by “Lush Life” and “For Sentimental Reasons”. These first two albums were such a boost for Dad. He would tell us just how amazing it felt to be “back on the charts” again. In a 1985 “People Magazine” interview he spoke of their collaboration and of her amazing voice: “She’s got a strong, beautiful voice and really unbelievable power. God, when she belts out ‘What’s New,’ you really believe it.”
Our father’s last performance was at South Street Seaport on September 13th, 1985. He died on October 6, 1985, surrounded by us, his six children: Nelson Riddle III, Rosemary Riddle Acerra, Christopher Riddle, Bettina Bellini, Cecily Finnegan, and Maureen Riddle. It is our wish that, in developing this website in his honor, his mark on the music of our world will remain acknowledged.