Riddle (Jr.), Nelson (Smock)

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Riddle (Jr.), Nelson (Smock)

Riddle (Jr.), Nelson (Smock) , preeminent American arranger, conductor, and composer; b. Oradell, N.J., June 1, 1921; d. Los Angeles, Calif., Oct. 6, 1985. Riddle was the most successful musical arranger of the 1950s, primarily due to his work with Frank Sinatra. He updated the big-band sound of the Swing Era to support the most significant vocalists of the Sing Era, providing sympathetic orchestrations and conducting the backup orchestras for such performers as Nat “King” Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, and others. He also made his own recordings of instrumentais, notably the hit “Lisbon Antigua,” and worked extensively as a composer of scores and conductor for motion pictures and television.

Riddle was the son of Nelson Smock Riddle, a commercial artist who played the trombone, and Marie Albertin Rieber Riddle. He began to study the piano at eight and switched to the trombone at 14. After graduating from high school he became a professional trombonist and arranger for the big bands, starting with Jerry Wald’s orchestra in 1940, then moving to Charlie Spivak (1940–43), Alvino Rey (1943), Wald again (1944), and, in May 1944, Tommy Dorsey. In 1945 he entered the army, where he played in a service band. He married Doreen Moran on Oct. 10, 1945; they had six children. Discharged in 1947, he joined Bob Crosby’s band and moved to Los Angeles, where he became a staff arranger at NBC radio while studying arranging with Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco and conducting with Victor Bay. He did his first film work writing, directing, and supervising music for an American version of the 1935 Swedish film Ocean Breakers, released in the U.S. in December 1949 as The Surf.

In 1950, Riddle left NBC to become a freelance arranger. His chart for “Mona Lisa” (music and lyrics by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans), recorded by Nat “King” Cole, brought the singer a million-selling #1 hit in July 1950. This success was repeated with Riddle’s arrangement of “Too Young” (music by Sid Lippman, lyrics by Sylvia Dee), which also hit #1 for Cole in June 1951 and sold a million copies. As a result he was hired by Cole’s label, Capitol Records, as a music director. He arranged and conducted the orchestra for Ella Mae Morse’s recording of “The Blacksmith Blues” (music and lyrics by Jack Holmes), which hit the Top Ten in April 1952 and sold a million copies; he did the same duties on Nat “King” Cole’s “Somewhere along the Way” (music by Kurt Adams, lyrics by Sammy Gallop), which hit the Top Ten in August 1952, and “Pretend” (music and lyrics by Lew Douglas, Cliff Parman, and Frank Lavere), which peaked in the Top Ten in May 1953.

Though Riddle worked with many of the artists on Capitol’s roster, including Judy Garland, Peggy Lee, Dean Martin, and Margaret Whiting, his two most successful clients were Cole and Frank Sinatra, who joined the label in 1953. His first session with Sinatra occurred on April 30, 1953, and started with a version of “I’ve Got the World on a String” (music by Harold Arlen, lyrics by Ted Koehler) that became a chart entry in July. By this time long-playing albums, initially in the ten-inch format, were becoming increasingly important, and Riddle pioneered the development of thematically selected “concept” albums such as Nat “King” Cole’s Two in Love, which reached the charts in January 1954 and became a Top Ten hit, and Sinatra’s Songs for Young Love, a Top w hic h reached the charts in January 1954, and Swing Easy, which entered the charts in September and also reached the Top Ten.

Singles continued to have commercial appeal, however, and Riddle arranged and conducted a series of hits for the two singers: “Young-at-Heart” (music by Johnny Richards, lyrics by Carolyn Leigh) for Sinatra, a Top Ten hit in March that sold a million copies; Cole’s “Answer Me, My Love” (music by Gerhard Winkler and Fred Rauch, English lyrics by Carl Sigman), which reached the Top Ten in April; Sinatra’s “Three Coins in the Fountain” (music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Sammy Cahn), in the Top Ten in July; and Cole’s “Smile” (music by Charles Chaplin, lyrics by John Turner and Geoffrey Parson), which reached the Top Ten in October.

Riddle’s involvement with Sinatra increased in 1955. He arranged and conducted the singer’s first 12-inch LP, In the Wee Small Hours, which hit #1 in May, as well as the Top Ten singles “Learnin’ the Blues” (music and lyrics by Dolores Vicki Silvers), “Love and Marriage” (music by James Van Heusen, lyrics by Sammy Cahn), and “(Love Is) the Tender Trap” (music by James Van Heusen, lyrics by Sammy Cahn), He did the arrangements for the songs Sinatra sang in the film musical Guys and Dolls, released in November. At the same time he branched out on his own, composing the score for the film Flame of the Islands, released before the end of the year, and recording the single “Lisbon Antigua” (music by Raul Portela, English lyrics by Harry Dupree), which hit #1 in February 1956 and sold a million copies. He followed it up with a recording of Lionel Newman’s “Theme from The Proud Ones,” taken from a current motion picture, which reached the Top 40 in August.

In addition to his own recordings in 1956, Riddle continued to arrange and conduct for Frank Sinatra, handling his album Songs for Swingin’ Lovers!, which reached the Top Ten in March and went gold, and the single “Hey! Jealous Lover” (music and lyrics by Sammy Cahn, Kay Twomey, and Bee Walker), which reached the Top Ten in November. In between he did arrangements for Sinatra’s appearance in the film High Society, released in August, and composed and conducted the music for the first film Sinatra produced as well as starred in, Johnny Concho, also released in August, including “Johnny Concho Theme (Wait for Me)” (lyrics by Dick Stanford), which Sinatra recorded for a chart entry. A third film release in August was Lisbon, for which Riddle wrote the score. In the fall he took on two television assignments, conducting the orchestras on both The Nat “King” Cole Show on network TV and The Rosemary Clooney Show in syndication; both programs ran into 1957.

Riddle worked on Sinatra’s recordings in the first half of 1957 and his films in the second half. He arranged and conducted the small ensemble that accompanied the singer on the album Close to You, which hit the Top Ten in February, as well as the larger group heard on A Swingin’ Affair!, a Top Ten hit in May. Simultaneous with the release of the latter came Riddle’s own album, Hey…Let Yourself Go!, which made the charts. Riddle handled the musical arrangements for the Sinatra film The Joker Is Wild, released in September; it featured “All the Way” (music by James Van Heusen, lyrics by Sammy Cahn), recorded by Sinatra with an orchestra conducted by Riddle for a Top Ten hit. In October came the film Pal Joey, also starring Sinatra, for which Riddle did arrangements; the soundtrack album was a Top Ten hit. The same month marked the premiere of The Frank Sinatra Show on network television, for which Riddle served as orchestra leader. The show ran through June 1958. Before the end of 1957, Riddle’s next scoring assignment, the film The Girl Most Likely, was in theaters.

Riddle opened 1958 by arranging and conducting Frank Sinatra’s single “Witchcraft” (music by Cy Cole-man, lyrics by Carolyn Leigh), which hit the Top Ten in February and earned him a Grammy nomination for Best Arrangement. That month his own album, C’mon…Get Happy! reached the charts. In March came the opening of the film Merry Andrew, starring Danny Kaye, with a Riddle score. He worked with Nat “King” Cole on the film St. Louis Blues, released in April, and arranged and conducted the album Frank Sinatra Sings for Only the Lonely, which hit #1 in October and went gold. And he moonlighted away from Capitol on two projects: his own work, Cross Country Suite, for Dot Records, which won the 1958 Grammy for Best Composition, Over 5 Minutes’ Duration; and, for Verve Records, arranging and conducting Ella Fitzgerald’s acclaimed George and Ira Gershwin Song Book, a project that extended into 1959 and ran to five LPs.

Riddle didn’t do an album with Frank Sinatra for release in 1959, but he did write the score for the Sinatra film A Hole in the Head, released in July. He also composed the theme for the television series The Untouchables, which premiered in October, and he contributed music to the film version of the Broadway musical Li’I Abner, which opened in December and earned him an Academy Award nomination for best score for his trouble. Taking a leaf from Mitch Miller, his next chart album, in January 1960, was called Sing Along with Riddle. In March he arranged and conducted Cole Porter’s music and wrote the score for the film Can-Can, starring Sinatra, and earned another Oscar nomination. The soundtrack album was a Top Ten hit. He composed the score for Sinatra’s next film, Ocean’s 11, which opened in August. He also arranged and conducted Sinatra’s next album, Nice ‘n’ Easy. It hit #1 in October and went gold, and the title track earned a Grammy nomination for Best Arrangement. His album Untouchables reached the charts in September; the following month marked the premiere of his TV theme for the series Route 66. In December, Nat “King” Cole’s album Wild Is Love, which he had arranged and conducted, hit the Top Ten.

The year 1961 was transitional for Riddle. Sinatra’s Swingin’ Session!!!, which he had arranged and conducted during recording sessions in August and September 1960, was released in January and reached the Top Ten in February. Sinatra, however, was leaving Capitol Records and launching his own Reprise label, which for a time prevented him from recording with Riddle. Riddle would eventually join Reprise, but in the meantime, preparatory to leaving Capitol, he began doing sessions with artists on other labels. He arranged and conducted Johnny Mathis’s Columbia album I’ll Buy You a Star, which reached the charts in April, and in November cut sessions with Ella Fitzgerald that would result in two Verve releases, Ella Swings Brightly with Nelson and Ella Swings Gently with Nelson.

In the spring of 1962, when the series had been on the air for two seasons, Capitol released Riddle’s “Route 66 Theme” as a single; it reached the Top 40 in August, and an album, Route 66 Theme and Other Great TV Themes, charted in September. The single earned Grammy nominations for Best Instrumental Theme and Best Instrumental Arrangement. Meanwhile, Riddle had co-composed the score for the film Lolita, released in June, with Bob Harris. Their theme, “Lolita Ya-Ya,” was recorded by The Ventures for a singles chart entry in August, and the soundtrack album reached the charts in September.

In 1963, Riddle went to work at Reprise, where he arranged and conducted albums for label artists such as Rosemary Clooney and Bing Crosby. In January he did a second Song Book album with Ella Fitzgerald at Verve, this one devoted to the songs of Jerome Kern. He also returned to work with Sinatra, notably composing and conducting the scores for the June film release Come Blow Your Horn and 4 for Texas, released in December, and arranging and conducting the Top Ten albums The Concert Sinatra and the gold-selling Sinatra’s Sinatra. The latter featured a recording of “Call Me Irresponsible” (music by James Van Heusen, lyrics by Sammy Cahn) that earned a Grammy nomination for Best Background Arrangement.

Riddle arranged and conducted Sinatra’s album Days of Wine and Roses, Moon River, and Other Academy Award Winners, which reached the charts in April 1964 and made the Top Ten. He scored the film What a Way to Go!, released in May, and Robin and the 7 Hoods, released in August. The latter produced a charting soundtrack album and earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Score. In October, Riddle cut a third Song Book album with Ella Fitzgerald for Verve, this one containing songs by Johnny Mercer. Also at Verve he recorded an album with Oscar Peterson, and the LP, simply called Oscar PetersonNelson Riddle, earned a Grammy nomination for Best Instrumental Jazz Performance, Large Group or Soloist with Large Group.

In 1965, while continuing to arrange and conduct albums for singers, notably Antonio Carlos Jobim (The Wonderful World of Antonio Carlos Jobim) and Jack Jones (There’s Love & There’s Love & There’s Love), Riddle devoted much of his time to composing film scores, finishing three, Harlow, Marriage on the Rocks, and A Rage to Live, all released during the year. In 1966 his music was used in the television series Batman that premiered in January, and a soundtrack album reached the charts in April. He arranged and conducted most of the tracks on Frank Sinatra’s Strangers in the Night LP, which hit #1 in July and sold a million copies.

Riddle returned to a performing role on television with the Feb. 5, 1967, premiere of the variety series The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, leading the orchestra on the show each week through June 1969. During this period he continued to compose and conduct for motion pictures, scoring El Dorado (1967), The Karate Killers (1967), and The Great Bank Robbery (1969) and leading the orchestra on How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying (1967). Upon his departure from the Smothers Brothers show he immediately returned to television in September 1969 with The Leslie Uggams Show, which ran only through December, meanwhile scoring the film Paint Your Wagon, released in October, which brought him his fourth Academy Award nomination. The soundtrack album was a gold record.

Riddle continued to work primarily as a television conductor in the early 1970s, including stints on The Tim Conway Comedy Hour (1970), CBS Newcomers (1971), The Julie Andrews Hour (1972–73), and The Helen Reddy Show (1973). He also took on occasional film assignments, notably arranging and conducting the music for the film On a Clear Day You Can See Forever (1970) and scoring The Great Gatsby (1974), which produced a soundtrack album that spent several months in the charts and for which he finally won the Academy Award. He also wrote music for television. From 1973 he was semiretired due to poor health, although he took on occasional conducting and scoring assignments for film and telecasion.

In 1983, Riddle arranged and conducted the first of three albums of standards for Linda Ronstadt, What’s New. The album reached the Top Ten and sold three million copies, and the title track, a Top 40 single, won Riddle a Grammy for Best Instrumental Arrangement Accompanying Vocal(s). The second Ronstadt album, Lush Life, released in November 1984, sold a million copies, and the title track won Riddle another Grammy for Best Instrumental Arrangement Accompanying Vocals). Riddle completed a third album, For Sentimental Reasons, with Ronstadt, and an album with opera singer Kiri Te Kanawa, Blue Skies, before his death at 64 from cardiac and kidney failure in 1985. For Sentimental Reasons was released in September 1986 and went gold.


(only works for which Riddle was a primary, credited composer are listed): FILMS : The Surf (1949); Flame of the Islands (1955); Johnny Concho (1956); Lisbon (1956); The Girl Most Likely (1957); Merry Andrew (1958); A Hole in the Head (1959); Li’l Abner (1959); Can-Can (1960); Ocean’s 11 (1960); Lolita (1962); Come Blow Your Horn (1963); 4 for Texas (1963); What a Way to Go! (1964); Robin and the 7 Hoods (1964); Harlow (1965); Marriage on the Rocks (1965); A Rage to Live (1965); El Dorado (1967); The Karate Killers (1967); The Great Bank Robbery (1969); Paint Your Wagon (1969); Hell’s Bloody Devils (1970); The Great Gatsby (1974); Harper Valley P.T.A. (1978); Rough Cut (1980). TELEVISION : The Untouchables (1959); Route 66 (1960); Sam Benedict (1962); The Rogues (1964); Batman (1966); The Most Deadly Game (1970); Emergency! (1972).

—William Ruhlmann