Nelson Riddle: The American Music Artist Behind The Scenes



Arrangers are some of the most overlooked people in the music business. Few lay people could name one. If listed, arranger credits are often in small print. Almost invisible, they rarely appear on stage or in films or videos. Even books on jazz and popular American song often overlook the arrangers. Crafting is a little-known craft that, at its best, becomes art.

For several decades Nelson Riddle, born 100 years ago this week, reigned as one of popular music‘s foremost arranger-conductors. His score work for singers cemented his place in the history of music. Ella Fitzgerald applauded him as a “singer’s arranger”; none did a more splendid job than Riddle.

What does an arranger do, anyway?

Usually an arranger starts with certain specifications: the name of the song; the key; and maybe the size and instrumentation of the whole. But within these limits, the arranger can have great latitude in deciding the tempo (a ballad? An average bounce? A “killer”?); the degree of reference or deviation from the original song; wit and “feel” (sweet or lively? funny or solemn? nostalgic or hip?); overall architecture (include the verse or just the chorus? insert a transition passage?); the number of instruments playing at any given time (should trumpets fall here?); the volume (softer here?); which instruments state the melody (saxophones? strings?) and which ones take solos at what times; changes in the harmony, melody and rhythm of the original piece; and specific instrumental voicings and sound colors.

In the same way that every painter contemplating an assemblage of household objects would appropriate a still life, every arranger who approaches, say, Gershwin’s “Summertime” perceives his artistic possibilities in an individual way.

Born to music-loving parents, Riddle took piano and trombone lessons, which have become his instrument of choice. Like fellow New Jersey native Frank Sinatra, Riddle grew up in the big bands, popular in the 1930s and 1940s. He worked with Nat King Cole on the 1950 hit “Mona Lisa” and the following year, Capitol Records, known as the Singers Label, hired him as an arranger and teamed him up with Cole full time. The two would create classics like “Unforgettable”, “Pretend” and “Smile”.

In 1953, Capitol paired Riddle with Sinatra – they recorded “I’ve Got the World on a String” and several others. Riddle quickly became Sinatra’s primary collaborator over the course of over 200 songs. The singer would pick the songs, work out the keys with pianist Bill Miller, and give Riddle ideas. Then Riddle would retreat to his home writing studio.

Their LPs “In the Wee Small Hours” (1955) and “Songs for Swingin ‘Lovers!” (1956) have become classics of American music. Of the latter, “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” by Cole Porter is one of the most famous and delicious fruits of their collaboration; Sinatra himself called it “Nelson Riddle’s Shining Hour”. We hear his hallmarks: a distinctive introduction, unusual colors (for example, a bass clarinet paired with celestial), instrumental lines that do not disturb the singer and catchy rhythmic punctuations. A layered trombone sequence inspired by Stan Kenton’s “23 Degrees North, 82 Degrees West” precedes a glorious erotic trombone solo by Milt Bernhart. Reaching the level of perfection desired by Sinatra required no less than 22 takes.

Riddle paid special attention to dynamics – the degree of intensity and smoothness. “Frank has heightened my awareness of the dynamic by showing his own sensitivity in this direction,” Riddle wrote in his method book “Arranged by Nelson Riddle”. To judge for yourself of its backdrops, try to listen carefully to the orchestral accompaniment, moving as far away from the singer as possible.

In the 53 tracks “Ella Fitzgerald Sings the George and Ira Gershwin Songbook,” an unrivaled treasure of American culture from 1959, Riddle added inventive contrast and nuanced colors to Fitzgerald’s lines. Lush and romantic here, as in “The Man I Love”; lively and swaying there, like in “I Got Rhythm”. In “Love Is Here to Stay,” Riddle effectively marries a jazz band with a string orchestra, using a repeated nine-note riff to help freshen up the song.

Beyond his vocal “charts”, Riddle has composed Hollywood musicals such as “Carousel”, “High Society” and “Guys and Dolls”. In the 1960s and 1970s he wrote for television shows such as “Route 66”, “The Untouchables” and “Batman” and for a number of films. In the 1980s he got a boost when rock singer Linda Ronstadt hired him to orchestrate three popular standards records. He died in 1985, before the release of their last album, “For Sentimental Reasons”.

The Riddle Cards are so accomplished and influential that they are now being studied in colleges and conservatories. I think it would strengthen his quiet pride in his little-known profession.

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