Nelson Smock Riddle II was born in Oradell, New Jersey ten miles west of New York City on June 1 1921. His family origins were Dutch, which is where the name ‘Smock’ came from. Nelson grew up in hard times, “we didn’t feel the depression at all. My father made his own depression…..we were already in a depressed state by the time the Depression got here,” is how Nelson remembers it. Indeed Nelson appeared to be in a similar state, mentally, throughout much of his life. Friends and colleagues recalled him, as a man who rarely smiled or laughed, even when he did it was a very small smile.
Nelson’s father was an amateur musician who inspired his son to take up the piano and later the trombone. Nelson learned arranging from Bill Finegan, who had worked with Glenn Miller. Nelson and his mentor were inspired by the work of Shostakovich, particularly his First Symphony, which premiered in 1937. His first band gig was with Charlie Briggs and his Briggadiers before joining Charlie Spivak's orchestra. Nelson joined the Merchant Navy in 1943; motivated by his dislike of serving in the military. Nelson was not your average sailor as he managed to join a Merchant Navy band started by Jack Lawrence, the lyricist on ‘All or Nothing At All.’ After serving for seventeen months Nelson joined the Tommy Dorsey band, first as a trombonist and then as an arranger. This all came to an end when Nelson was called up to join the Army in April 1945. After his demob Nelson began working as an arranger for Bob Crosby amongst others before he became a staff arranger for NBC radio.
In 1949 Nelson was writing for the CBS Carnation Hour that starred Tony Martin and later Dick Haymes, having been given the opportunity by Victor Young the show’s musical director who much admired Nelson’s talents. The pivotal moment that would eventually lead to Nelson working with Frank came in late 1949 when choral arranger Les Baxter got Nelson to arrange ‘Mona Lisa’ for Nat King Cole. Nelson also ‘ghost arranged’ 'Too Young’, even day Baxter often still gets the credit. Nelson began working extensively with Nat Cole and did a great deal to hone his relaxed style of song delivery.
In 1953 Nelson Riddle began his working relationship with Frank Sinatra which has done much to sal his reputation, but he also worked with many of Capitol’s vocalists including Dean Martin and Peggy Lee. His work on Sinatra's Songs For Swingin Lovers and In the Wee Small Hours of The Morning are considered by many to be Frank's two best albums. Capitol also signed Nelson as a solo artist and he had a No.1 with ‘Lisbon Antigua’ in early 1956. He wrote for TV shows including The Untouchables, Batman and Route 66 as well as serving as musical director on The Bob Newhart Show, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, and The Julie Andrews Show. Possibly one of his most challenging jobs was arranging ‘Wandering Star’ and giving voice lessons to Lee Marvin for his appearance in Paint Your Wagon (1969), which Nelson also scored. His other film work included scoring Ocean's Eleven, Robin and the Seven Hoods, Lolita and Pal Joey, before winning an Academy Award in 1974 for his work on The Great Gatsby.
By the late 70s Nelson was hardly working at all. In 1980 he was ‘reduced’; to recording background music for a company that supplied ‘lift music.’ An offer of working with Yehudi Menuhin and Stephanne Grappelli in 1981 must have been a real boost. An album with Ella Fitzgerald the following year turned out to be less than impressive because Ella was in far from fine voice. Shortly afterwards an angel came along in the shape of Linda Ronstadt. After a career as a pop and rock singer she decided to do an album of the music that she grew up with. Her manager, and producer, Peter Asher contacted Nelson about the possibility of him arranging ‘I Guess I’ll Hang My Tears Out To Dry’. When Nelson met Asher his response was “I don’t write arrangements, I write albums.” Nelson urged Linda to listen to Frank’s Capitol albums to see how he dealt with lyrics and it was decided that Nelson should do the whole record. What’s New sold three and a half million copies and was followed by Lush Life and Sentimental Reasons. Nelson never got to see the release of the last album because he died on October 6 1985. Sadly Nelson Riddle never quite received the monetary rewards that his talents deserved. As is all too often the case his particular genius has been more widely acknowledged only after it was too late. Today Nelson Riddle is recognized as one, if not the, most talented post war arranger/composers.
“My family are all very respectful of Linda because she brought our father back from what seemed to be obscurity. ‘What’s New’ was wonderful for its ingénue like quality.”
For more on Nelson Riddle read the excellent ‘September in The Rain’ by Peter J. Levinson