Nelson Riddle (1921–85)
During the 1950s Riddle was a staff arranger for Capitol Records and arranged songs for top singers of the day, including Dean Martin, Judy Garland, Rosemary Clooney and Peggy Lee. He made recordings with Ella Fitzgerald during the late 1950s and early 1960s. “Ella Fitzgerald Sings the George and Ira Gershwin Songbook” (1959), with arrangements by Riddle, is often cited as the best of her ‘songbook’ albums.
Riddle collaborated with Frank Sinatra over more than 25 years. They released classic albums of swing songs and ballads that were regarded as benchmark achievements for both men.
Riddle’s up-tempo arrangements were characterized by his ‘heartbeat rhythm’, which he explained as “the tempo that strikes people the easiest because, without their knowing it, they move to that pace all their waking hours”. His ballad arrangements were noted for their contrapuntal melodies, complex harmonies, and recurring musical motifs.
Riddle had a few instrumental hits of his own, including “Lisbon Antigua” (1956) and the theme from the television series Route 66 (1960). He also wrote the theme to TV’s The Untouchables (1959) and did the scoring and conducting for such series as Naked City (1958–64), Batman (1966–68), and The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour (1967–70).
In the late 1970s Riddle arranged three best-selling albums of standards for singer Linda Ronstadt, which were regarded as a catalyst for the revival of classic American popular music. Riddle also arranged and conducted the orchestras for the inaugural balls of Presidents John F Kennedy and Ronald Reagan.
Biography by David Goodridge
The Les Tomkins Interview
Interviewed in 1967 by Les Tomkins, Nelson Riddle talks about this time as a trombonist, mainly with Tommy Dorsey’s band, and how military service ended his time as a musician and led to his career as an arranger.
You can also read the original 1967 Crescendo article.
|1st January 1967
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For all the work I do in Hollywood, it's important that I keep a nucleus of the same musicians. It's like my piano at home, which was the first piece of furniture that my wife and I purchased after we were married. We bought that in 1949—and I've had it ever since. An orchestra can become as familiar and reliable an instrument as a well-known, well-worn piano. You know what to expect from it—which is very reassuring. You're able to write strictly for that.
Actually, some of the boys in my band date from around 20 years ago, when I was a staff arranger at NBC. And from earlier. We do the Smothers Brothers' weekly one-hour TV show now, and four of the string section played in the Tommy Dorsey band with me in 1944. So that makes a 23-year association.
My key men on trumpet are Shorty Sherock, the Candoli brothers. And Cappy Lewis, who has taken Harry Eddison's place. He does those obligati, and sort of copies Harry. It's just that Harry isn't around enough. I've tried to reach him a few times, and he's always away in New York or somewhere. On trombone it's Dick Nash and Tommy Pederson, who was an alumnus of the Dorsey band. George Roberts is on bass trombone whenever he's available, but he travels quite a bit now.
In the saxophones, Harry Klee is on alto. He's a musician I've known for 27 years. I met him when he played first alto for Charlie Spivak, whose band I joined in December, 1940. Recently we added Don Raphael—a tenor saxophonist who plays very good jazz—and he was with the Spivak orchestra in 1940.
On piano right now I have Arnold Ross, who played the little filigree on "Lisbon Antigua" all those years ago. Joe Comfort quite often plays bass—though Ray Brown is on our TV dates currently. Then there's Irv Cottler on drums—who is possibly the best show drummer in town since he completed eleven years on the Chewy programmes with Dinah Shore. He's just marvellous. And on guitar—sometimes my old friend Bob Bain, from the Dorsey days; sometimes Vernon Polk, who is an ex-member of a vocal group called The Town Criers, which dates back a few years.
As a trombonist, my dance band career spanned some five years. I started in 1940, at the age of 19, and by 1945 I was very much in the United States army. The first sizeable band I was with was Charlie Spivak—the only one that people would remember still.
I joined the Dorsey band on May 11, 1944. This was later than the Sinatra period—Frank had been away from the band at least three years by then. It was an interesting band—and a good, clean one, even though it was war-time. A great many of the old stars had either left or were in the Service—nevertheless, we had good people in the band.
We didn't record for the first six months that I was with the band, because there was a record ban going on. But in November '44 they lifted the ban, and we caught up on a lot of the material in the books that Tommy had wanted to record. I was on such hit singles as "Sunny Side Of The Street" and "Opus No. I".
The trumpets were Salvator Laperche, George Seberg, Dale Pearce and Mickey Mangano, who was my room-mate at the time. The trombones were Walter Benson, Tex Satterwhite and myself. The saxophones included Sid Schwartz, Gale Curtis and Al Klink—he came from the Glenn Miller band. Later on Buddy De Franco was in the saxes on second alto and clarinet. Dodo Marmarosa was on piano. We had several male singers—Bob Allen, Stuart Foster, Freddie Stewart. The girl singer was Bonnie Lou Williams.
When I first joined, Gene Krupa was the drummer. Then Buddy Rich was discharged from the Marines, and he came back on the band. I'd say his drumming improved the band's sound. But whatever you hear about his personal instability in those days —it's probably true. I remember one occasion—they flew us from California to a big airfield in Phoenix, Arizona, and we then had to take a bus to where we were going to give the concert. As we went along on this bus, he kept seeing these telephone poles with placards on them, saying "Tommy Dorsey and his Orchestra featuring Gene Krupa". Krupa had just left the band, you see. And Buddy was getting madder and madder.
We got on the field, started the rehearsal, and half-way through it Buddy slammed down the sticks—"I'm walking off. I'm not going to sit here and play notes for another drummer". Tommy just turned and looked at him, and said: "You better stick around. Because, if you don't, you're not going to get off this field alive!" He meant it.
Buddy's mellowed now—most people get that way if they live long enough. A couple of heart attacks give you a little pause.
Tommy could have a vicious temper, when he was roused. But if you did your job and kept your nose clean, there was no problem. I played all his solos when he wasn't there, and he was always very nice to me. He was nice to all budding talent—and I was just beginning to develop by that time. I don't think I ever would have been any great flash as a trombone player. I got a good sound—but I recall him saying that I held my jaw too rigidly, whatever that means. As an arranger he thought quite a bit of me. However, he finally had a talk with me one night and told me that I shouldn't write so much for strings. The strings were only a tax dodge—and he wanted arrangements he could play when the strings weren't there!
I've got one of Tommy's old horns at home. The band-boy was an ex–cab driver named Frank Shaw and, though primarily he was Tommy's employee, he favoured us young fellows in the band. One time when Tommy's horn went back to the factory for refurbishing, I suggested to Frank that he switched it with my horn—which he did. Because mine was the same model—a King 2B, marvellous old stand-bys in those days. They were the Ford car of the music industry. Reasonably inexpensive—they used to sell for about 125 dollars—but very reliable. They had a small bell and a slightly smaller bore—you had to push a little. If there was any drawback, that was the only one: they were excellent.
He had a huge gold instrument that he played continually, but he had a second horn which he would use when the big one was at the factory. That's the one I have. The value to me is entirely sentimental. It's exactly like any other 2B—it's just that it happened to be one of Tommy Dorsey's trombones.
Looking back, I feel that I was lucky to have my time as a dance band player. Even in those five years, I had to do 17 months of Merchant Marine duty. I was not America's most patriotic young man, because I had just gotten my feet wet in what I thought would be a very rewarding and interesting career. And in typical childish fashion, I put that first, rather than the call to arms. So I have to say that, after being drafted, I was in uniform about 32 months, which was a short-time record for that period of our history. Most healthy youngsters spent three or four years in there, but I didn't even make three.
The call of the armed services created a situation of chaos in that you never knew how long you'd be free. Your draft board could call you up at any moment, and they finally did, but in the meantime the usual uncertainty prevailed. We have that in the United States now with our young fellows—they really don't know which day may be their last as civilians. I think that contributes largely to their seeming lack of drive and purpose—not knowing what's coming up.
At the time that I went in the army the call was for riflemen and functioning soldiers more than it was for musicians. It wasn't until the atom bomb landed that I eventually got into a service band. Miraculously, 24 hours after the bomb, the tension eased up enough for the granting of somebody's request for me to join the post band. Before that, I was headed for the invasion of the Japanese islands—which would have taken place, they tell me, around October 1945 had the war continued. My whole unit went over there as occupation troops.
Due to a combination of factors, after my military service ended, so did my professional playing. One reason was the fact that the army hadn’t recognised me as a trombone player for quite a while, causing a long lay–off. Another was the fact that around that time I got married and it seemed that trombone playing equalled my being on the road a great deal. Which isn’t always appropriate for a young married couple—sometimes it isn’t even possible. I figured I’d stop playing right away and concentrate on writing, so that I could keep more or less regular hours and be home-based. And it worked out fine.
I've picked the instrument up a few times since then—but with less and less success. As you get away from it, it gets worse and worse, until finally it's ridiculous.
I feel that I've made one contribution to the instrument in recent years. My use of the bass trombone in my arrangements has made it much more popular, and caused other writers to employ it. That particular thing started because George Roberts was my neighbour in Santa Monica, California. He and his wife were living in an apartment right down the street, and George would come over to the house and we'd talk. Slowly I started writing things in for him. And naturally he played them beautifully. He's probably the best bass trombone player in the world.
But he's got me a little disturbed— because he makes these long excursions out of town doing clinics throughout the country, for the good of American youth. In the meantime, he has some American youth at home—his own four little kids. Certainly, he deserves much credit for spreading a great deal of enthusiasm. He's bolstered up many a flagging career by being on the spot and showing these young musicians what can be done with the horn. I just hope it doesn't affect his own personal life adversely. This is what I was saying—once I was married I made an effort to settle down and be somewhere every night. George made the same choice—he was with the Kenton band, but he settled into the regularised life of the studio musician. He has a family now, he's almost 40—all of a sudden he's out on the road again.
Copyright © 1967, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved