Nelson Riddle

Nelson Riddle
Nelson Riddle, Jr.
Born Nelson Smock Riddle, Jr.
June 1, 1921(1921-06-01)
Oradell, New Jersey U.S.
Died October 6, 1985(1985-10-06) (aged 64)
Occupation Arranger, orchestrator, band leader, composer

Nelson Smock Riddle, Jr. (June 1, 1921 – October 6, 1985) was an American arranger, composer, bandleader and orchestrator whose career stretched from the late 1940s to the mid 1980s. It was his signature sound and iconic arrangements that defined a generation and his work for Capitol Records kept such vocalists as Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Nat King Cole, Judy Garland, Peggy Lee, Johnny Mathis, Rosemary Clooney and Keely Smith household names. He found commercial and critical success again in the 1980s with a trio of albums with vocalist Linda Ronstadt.


Early years

Riddle was born in Oradell, New Jersey, the only child of Marie Albertine Riddle and Nelson Smock Riddle, Sr., and later moved to nearby Ridgewood.[1] Following his father's interest in music, he began taking piano lessons at age eight and trombone lessons at age fourteen. Riddle and his family had a summer house in Rumson, New Jersey. He enjoyed Rumson so much that he convinced his parents to allow him to attend high school there for his senior year.[2] After his graduation from Rumson High School, Riddle spent his late teens and early 20s playing trombone in and occasionally arranging for various local dance bands, culminating in his association with the Charlie Spivak Orchestra.

In 1943, Riddle joined the Merchant Marine, serving at Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn, New York for roughly two years. During this time he continued working for the Charlie Spivak Orchestra and he studied orchestration under his fellow merchant marine, composer Alan Shulman. After his enlistment term ended, Riddle travelled to Chicago to join the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra in 1944; he remained the orchestra's third trombone for eleven months until drafted by the United States Army in April, 1945.

Just months after Riddle entered the Army, World War II ended and he was discharged (June 1946) after serving fifteen months on active duty. Riddle moved shortly thereafter to Hollywood to pursue his career as an arranger and spent the next several years writing arrangements for multiple radio and record projects.

The Capitol years

In 1950, Riddle was hired by composer Les Baxter to write arrangements for a recording session with Nat King Cole; this was one of Riddle's first associations with Capitol Records. Although one of the songs Riddle had arranged, "Mona Lisa," soon became the biggest selling single of Cole's career, the work was credited to Baxter. However, once Cole learned the identity of the arrangement's creator, he sought out Riddle's work for other sessions, and thus began a fruitful partnership that furthered the careers of both men at Capitol.

During the same year, Riddle also struck up a conversation with Vern Yocum, (born George Vernon Yocum) a big band jazz musician (brother of Pied Piper, Clark Yocum) who had transitioned into music preparation servicing Frank Sinatra and other entertainers at Capitol Records. A collaboration followed with Vern becoming Riddle's "right hand" as copyist and librarian for the next thirty years.

In 1952, Capitol Records executives viewed the up-and-coming Riddle as a prime choice to arrange for the newly-arrived Frank Sinatra. Sinatra was reluctant however, preferring instead to remain with Axel Stordahl, his long-time collaborator from his Columbia Records years. When success of the first few Capitol sides with Stordahl proved disappointing, Sinatra eventually relented and Riddle was called in to arrange his first session for Sinatra, held on April 30, 1953. The first product of the Riddle-Sinatra partnership, "I've Got The World On A String," became a runaway hit and is often credited with relaunching the singer's slumping career. His personal favorite, a Sinatra ballad album, Only the Lonely.

Riddle was to stay at Capitol for another decade, during which time he continued to arrange for Sinatra and Cole, in addition to such Capitol artists as Kate Smith, Judy Garland, Dean Martin, Keely Smith, Sue Raney, and Ed Townsend. He also found time to release his own instrumental albums on the label, most notably Hey...Let Yourself Go (1957) and C'mon...Get Happy (1958), both of which peaked at a respectable number twenty on the Billboard charts.

While at Capitol, Riddle continued his successful film arranging career, most notably with MGM's Conrad Salinger on the first onscreen duet between Bing Crosby and Sinatra in High Society (1956), and the 1957 film version of Pal Joey directed by George Sidney for Columbia Pictures. In 1969, he arranged and conducted the music for the film Paint Your Wagon, which starred a trio of non-singers, Lee Marvin, Clint Eastwood, and Jean Seberg.

Later years

In 1962, Riddle orchestrated two albums for Ella Fitzgerald, Ella Swings Brightly with Nelson, and Ella Swings Gently with Nelson, their first work together since 1959's Ella Fitzgerald Sings the George and Ira Gershwin Songbook. The mid-1960s would also see Fitzgerald and Riddle collaborate on the last of Ella's 'Songbooks', devoted to the songs of Jerome Kern (Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Jerome Kern Songbook) and Johnny Mercer (Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Johnny Mercer Songbook).

In 1963, Riddle joined Sinatra's newly-established label Reprise Records, under the musical direction of Morris Stoloff. Much of his work in the 1960s and 1970s was for film and television, including his hit theme song for Route 66; steady work scoring episodes of Batman and other television series, and composing the scores of several motion pictures including the Rat Pack features Robin and the 7 Hoods and the original Ocean's Eleven.

In the latter half of the 1960s, the partnership between Riddle and Frank Sinatra grew more distant as Sinatra began increasingly to turn to Don Costa, Billy May and an assortment of other arrangers for his album projects. Although Riddle would write various arrangements for Sinatra until the late 1970s, Strangers In The Night, released in 1966, was the last full album project the pair completed together. The collection of Riddle-arranged songs was intended to expand on the success of the title track, which had been a number one hit single for Sinatra arranged by Ernie Freeman.

During the 1970s, the majority of his work was for film and television, including the score for the 1974 version of The Great Gatsby, which earned Riddle his first Academy Award after some five nominations. In 1973, he served as musical director for the Emmy Award winning The Julie Andrews Hour. Nelson Riddle's Orchestra also made numerous concert appearances throughout the 1970s, some of which were led and contracted by his good friend, Tommy Shepard.

On March 14, 1977, Riddle conducted his last three arrangements for Sinatra. The songs, "Linda," "Sweet Lorraine," and "Barbara," were intended for an album of songs with women's names. The album was never completed. "Sweet Lorraine" was released in 1990 and the other two on "The Complete Reprise Studio Recordings" in 1996. [1]

1982 saw Riddle work for the last time with Ella Fitzgerald, on her last orchestral Pablo album, The Best Is Yet to Come.

Career revival

In 1982, Riddle was approached by Linda Ronstadt to write arrangements for an album of jazz standards Ronstadt had been contemplating since her stint in Pirates of Penzance. The agreement between the two resulted in a three-album contract which included what were to be the last arrangements of Riddle's career, with the exception of an album of twelve Great American Songbook standards he arranged and conducted for his old friend, opera singer Kiri Te Kanawa, in April 1985, six months before his death that October. Ronstadt recalls that when sheinitially approached Riddle, she did not know if he was even familiar with her music. He knew her name but basically hated rock 'n' roll. However, his daughter was a big Ronstadt fan and told her father, "Don't worry. Her checks won't bounce."

When Nelson learned of Ronstadt's desire to learn more about traditional pop music and agreed to record with her, he insisted on a whole album or nothing. He was at first skeptical, but once he agreed his career turned upside down immediately.[3] For her to do "elevator music", as she called it, was a great surprise to the young audience. Joe Smith, the president of Elektra, was terrified that the albums would turn off the rock audience. The three albums together sold over seven million copies[4] and brought Nelson back to a young audience during the last three years of his life. Arrangements for Linda Ronstadt's What's New (1983) and Lush Life (1984) won Riddle his second and third Grammy Awards (the last was awarded posthumously in 1986).

Working with Ronstadt, Riddle brought his career back into focus in the last three years of his life.[3] Stephen Holden of the New York Times wrote, What's New "isn't the first album by a rock singer to pay tribute to the golden age of the pop, but is ... the best and most serious attempt to rehabilitate an idea of pop that Beatlemania and the mass marketing of rock LPs for teen-agers undid in the mid-60s ... In the decade prior to Beatlemania, most of the great band singers and crooners of the 40s and 50s codified a half-century of American pop standards on dozens of albums ... many of them now long out-of-print".[5] What's New is the first album by a rock singer to have major commercial success in rehabilitating the Great American Songbook.[5]

Death and legacy

In 1985, Riddle died at age 64 of liver ailments. He is interred at Hollywood Forever Cemetery in Hollywood, California in the Hall of David Mausoleum.

Following Riddle's death, his last three arrangements for Ronstadt's For Sentimental Reasons album were conducted by Terry Woodson; the album was released in 1986.

In February 1986, Riddle's youngest son Christopher, himself an accomplished bass trombonist, assumed the leadership of his father's orchestra.

Following the death of Riddle's second wife Naomi in 1998, proceeds from the sale of the Riddle home in Bel Air were used to establish a Nelson Riddle Endowed Chair and library at the University of Arizona, which officially opened in 2001. The opening showcased a gala concert of Riddle's works, with Ronstadt as a featured guest performer.

In 2000, Erich Kunzel and the Cincinnati Pops released a Nelson Riddle tribute album titled "Route 66: That Nelson Riddle Sound" on Telarc Records. The album showcased expanded orchestral adaptations of the original arrangements provided by the Nelson Riddle Archives, and was presented in a state-of-the-art digital recording that was among the first titles to be released on multi-channel SACD.

While in the Army, Riddle married his first wife Doreen Moran in 1945. The couple had six children. Riddle had an extra-marital affair with singer Rosemary Clooney in the 1960s, which contributed to the breakup of their respective marriages.[6] In 1968, Riddle separated from his wife Doreen; their divorce became official in 1970. A few months later he married Naomi Tenenholtz, then his secretary, with whom he would remain for the rest of his life. Riddle's children are dispersed between the east and west coasts of the United States with Nelson Jr. residing in London, England. Riddle's eldest daughter Rosemary is the trustee of the Nelson Riddle Trust.

Riddle was a member of Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia, the national fraternity for men in music.

In a 1982 radio interview on WNEW with Jonathan Schwartz, Riddle cites Stan Kenton's "23 degrees north 82 degrees west" arranged by Bill Russo as inspiration for his signature trombone interplay crescendos.



  • 1953 It Can't Be Wrong
  • 1953 Love Songs By Rodgers & Hammerstein
  • 1954 Swing Easy
  • 1954 Unforgettable
  • 1954 Songs For Young Lovers
  • 1954 Sings For Two In Love
  • 1955 In The Wee Small Hours
  • 1955 Piano Style of Nat King Cole
  • 1956 Songs For Swingin' Lovers
  • 1956 Ballads of the Day
  • 1956 Judy
  • 1956 Lisbon Antigua
  • 1956 The Tender Touch
  • 1956 This is Sinatra
  • 1956 Close To You
  • 1956 A Swingin' Affair
  • 1956 Phil Silver's Swinging Brass
  • 1957 Hey... Let Yourself Go!
  • 1957 The Man I Love
  • 1957 This is Nat King Cole
  • 1958 C'mon... Get Happy!
  • 1958 I Wish You Love
  • 1958 Sea of Dreams
  • 1958 Cross Country Suite
  • 1958 When Your Lover Has Gone
  • 1958 Jump For Joy
  • 1958 This is Sinatra (Volume 2)
  • 1958 St. Louis Blues
  • 1958 Only The Lonely
  • 1958 Witchcraft!
  • 1958 Judy In Love
  • 1959 New In Town
  • 1959 Swingin' Pretty
  • 1959 The Joy of Living
  • 1959 To Whom It May Concern
  • 1959 Take A Number
  • 1959 Look to Your Heart
  • 1959 Glad To Be Here
  • 1959 When I'm Thinking of You
  • 1959 Dinah, Yes, Indeed
  • 1959 Sing a Song With Riddle
  • 1959 Ella Sings The Gershwin Songbook Volume 1
  • 1959 Ella Sings The Gershwin Songbook Volume 2
  • 1959 Ella Sings The Gershwin Songbook Volume 3
  • 1959 Ella Sings The Gershwin Songbook Volume 4
  • 1959 Ella Sings The Gershwin Songbook Volume 5
  • 1960 Warm & Willing
  • 1960 Wild Is Love
  • 1960 Nice 'N' Easy
  • 1960 Dream With Me
  • 1960 This Time I'm Swingin'
  • 1960 Sinatra Swingin' Session
  • 1961 Love Tide
  • 1961 All the Way
  • 1961 Rosie Solves The Swingin' Riddle
  • 1962 Cha Cha De Amor
  • 1962 Sinatra Sings Of Love & Things
  • 1962 Ella Swings Brightly With Nelson
  • 1962 Ella Swings Gently With Nelson
  • 1962 Love Is a Game of Poker
  • 1962 I'll Buy You A Star
  • 1962 The Best of Nelson Riddle
  • 1962 Let's Face The Music
  • 1962 Swinging For You
  • 1962 Little Girl Blue, Little Girl New
  • 1962 Guard Session Album with Keely Smith
  • 1962 Love
  • 1963 Jerome Kern Songbook
  • 1963 Shirley Bassey Sings the Hit Song from Oliver!
  • 1963 Live It Up
  • 1963 The Concert Sinatra
  • 1963 Sinatra's Sinatra
  • 1963 Country Boy
  • 1964 Return To Paradise Islands
  • 1964 Nat Cole Sings The Great Songs
  • 1964 Days Of Wine & Roses
  • 1964 Oscar Peterson & Nelson Riddle
  • 1964 Ella Fitzgerald Sings The Johnny Mercer Songbook
  • 1964 Hits of *1964
  • 1964 All Time Favorites
  • 1965 There's Love
  • 1965 The Brazilian Mood
  • 1966 Games That Lovers Play
  • 1966 Strangers In The Night
  • 1966 Moonlight Sinatra
  • 1966 Nat: An Orchestral Portrait
  • 1967 Music for Wives and Lovers
  • 1967 The Bright and the Beautiful
  • 1967 Here, There and Everywhere
  • 1968 The Riddle of Today
  • 1968 Wish You A Merry Christmas
  • 1968 The Contemporary Sound of Nelson Riddle
  • 1969 British Columbia Suite
  • 1970 The Look of Love
  • 1970 Nelson Riddle Conducts The 101 Strings
  • 1970 The Sound of Magnificence / With 101 Strings
  • 1971 Spice
  • 1972 His Way
  • 1972 Dream Dancing
  • 1972 Changing Colors
  • 1972 Communication
  • 1972 Portrait of Steve
  • 1973 Vive Legrand!
  • 1975 That's Entertainment
  • 1978 The Rare Sinatra
  • 1981 Top Hat
  • 1982 The Best Is Yet To Come
  • 1983 Romance Fire and Fancy
  • 1983 What's New
  • 1984 Lush Life
  • 1985 Blue Skies
  • 1986 'Round Midnight
  • 1986 For Sentimental Reasons
  • 1987 The Unreleased
  • 19?? Music For Wives And Lovers


  1. ^ Levinson, Peter J. "September in the Rain: The Life of Nelson Riddle", via Google Books, pp. 17-19.
  2. ^ Cotter, Kelly-Jane. "A Daughter's Devotion", Asbury Park Press, June 15, 2008. Accessed July 7, 2008. "Nelson lived with his parents in Ridgewood but the family rented rooms in a house in Rumson during the summer. Riddle enjoyed the teen music scene in Rumson so much that he asked to spend his last year of high school in the borough. He and his mother stayed in the rental, and his father visited on weekends."
  3. ^ a b "Jerry Jazz Musician". The Peter Levinson Interview. Retrieved April 9, 2007. 
  4. ^ "Family Weekly". Ronstadt: The Gamble Pays off Big. January 8, 1984. Archived from the original on October 22, 2006. Retrieved April 9, 2007. 
  5. ^ a b Scott, A. O.. "The New York Times". LINDA RONSTADT CELEBRATES THE GOLDEN AGE OF POP: by Stephen Holden Published: September 4, 1983. Retrieved 2007-05-10. 
  6. ^ "Rosemary Clooney". The Independent (London). July 1, 2002. Retrieved May 20, 2010. 


  • Arranged by Nelson Riddle 1985, Warner Bros. Publications. (A textbook on arranging by Riddle. Includes biography and "Personal and Musical observations")
  • September in the Rain: The Life of Nelson Riddle by Peter J. Levinson, 2001 ISBN 0-8230-7672-5
  • Songs by Sinatra: On This Date, for March 14

External links

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