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Nelson Riddle

Nelson Riddle - arranger (1921 - 1985)

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 his 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 Riddle’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 Riddle 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 Riddle comments in his 1985 KCRW interview, “He opened some doors which without his intervention would have remained closed to me.”

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