September in the Rain: The Life of Nelson Riddleby Peter J. Levinson
Known for single-handedly saving Frank Sinatra's career in the mid-1950s with his stunning orchestral arrangements, Riddle's "intelligent, seductive style" also attracted such singers as Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, Judy Garland, Johnny Mathis, and Linda Ronstadt. Peter Levinson, a friend of Riddle's, presents the musical side of Riddle as well as the private,
Known for single-handedly saving Frank Sinatra's career in the mid-1950s with his stunning orchestral arrangements, Riddle's "intelligent, seductive style" also attracted such singers as Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, Judy Garland, Johnny Mathis, and Linda Ronstadt. Peter Levinson, a friend of Riddle's, presents the musical side of Riddle as well as the private, including details of his marriage-ending affair with Rosemary Clooney.
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The Jersey Years
"Ya know, all those years I never saw Nelson smile or laugh," remarked Emil Richards, a vibraharpist and percussionist who recorded frequently under Nelson's leadership for two decades. "He just seemed to be an unhappy kind of guy." Richards was not alone in feeling this way; his sentiment is shared by many others who recall the gloom and unhappiness that characterized Nelson Riddle's life.
Nelson's somber outlook flew in the face of the fact that he had established an impeccable reputation for the consistency of the sophisticated and impressionistic musical arrangements he wrote for the foremost pop and jazz singers of the twentieth centuryFrank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, and Nat "King" Coleduring his almost fifty-year career. He maintained his negative attitude despite the fact that he had written brilliant arrangements for over two dozen other important vocalists, including Judy Garland, Peggy Lee, Johnny Mathis, Rosemary Clooney, Steve Lawrence, rock star Linda Ronstadt, and opera star Kiri Te Kanawa. (With his help, Ronstadt and Te Kanawa successfully crossed over into classic popular music.) This was even stranger given the Oscar he received in 1975 for The Great Gatsby (a gold album), his four other Academy Award nominations (for Li'l Abner, Can-Can, Robin and the Seven Hoods, and Paint Your Wagonalso a gold album), and the total of forty films he scored overall. Among Nelson's other achievements were two hit instrumental records of his own, "Lisbon Antigua" (#1 on the Billboard pop chart anda gold record) and "Route 66," the theme of one of several television series he scored, beginning with Naked City, including The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour and The Julie Andrews Hour, and ending with the third Bob Newhart show. This was in addition to his seven Emmy Award nominations, which included one for his score for the first miniseries, The Blue Knight starring William Holden. And it was notwithstanding the three Grammys that Nelson won (out of eleven nominations) for his composition Cross Country Suite, written for clarinetist Buddy DeFranco in 1958, and his arrangements for What's New (1983) and Lush Life (1985) for Linda Ronstadt. His star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on Hollywood Boulevard symbolizes Nelson Riddle's careerone of both achievement and substance.
* * *
Nelson Smock Riddle, Jr., was born on June 21, 1921, in the small town of Oradell, New Jersey, a bedroom community across the Hudson River and ten miles west of New York City. He was baptized at the Dutch Reform Church in Oradell. Smock was an old Dutch family name.
Nelson's outgoing, fun-loving father, for whom he was named, was of both English-Irish and Dutch parentage. Fundamentally a sign painter, a craftsman, a sometime commercial artist, and an amateur cartoonist who enjoyed creating new characters, unfortunately he seemed to have very little interest in making a profit for his efforts. Nelson, Sr., also had a love of popular music; he played trombone and ragtime piano, the latter an instrument which his son adopted at the age of eight.
Nelson's mother, Marie Albertine Riddle, passed on to her son a deep and abiding appreciation of classical music. He remembered her singing French folk songs to him when he was a little boy, one of which, "Frère Jacques," was later adapted and became the basis for his swinging arrangement of "Brother John." Marie Albertine, better known simply as Albertine, was a small womanfive foot three or fourrather dwarfed by her husband, who was slightly over six feet tall. She was born in 1888 in Mulhouse, France, a town in Alsace-Lorraine, a province near the German border that had been a subject of bitter contention between the two countries on and off for hundreds of years. It was the West Bank of that time. Her father was Spanish and of noble lineage; he claimed that his family had been part of the Spanish monarchy that had once ruled Holland. As a child, Albertine was raised in a convent.
Albertine had been married once previously, and her divorce led her to leave the Catholic church. Because of her alleged upper-class European heritage, she always projected an aristocratic demeanor which gave her an air of superiority. When she married Nelson, Sr., she believed she had married beneath her and never hesitated to make it clear to her second husband that he should, indeed, feel fortunate to have a wife from such a noble background. The fact that her husband was a weak and unambitious man, as well as a poor businessman who constantly struggled to make a living, was the source of ongoing problems between them. Without question, Albertine was the dominant force in the Riddle household.
A few years before Nelson, Jr., was born, Albertine had given birth to a stillborn son. In all, she withstood six miscarriages during her life, and these losses added a further undercurrent of grief to her already troubled marriage. Bob Runyon, Nelson's first cousin, who had firsthand access to the inner workings of the Riddle household, observed, "I believe that the death of the first child was a major step in the evolution of Albertine's self-perception as some kind of a martyr and victim in a life which failed her expectations. I also think it's likely that Albertine's loss occurred at a time when frustrations, and perhaps some regrets, were starting to have a negative impact on her life. This tragedy significantly added to her developing attitude toward Nelson, Sr., and later Nelson, Jr., and what she saw as her life going sour. It's also possible that, in times of conflict and stress, Albertine would reflect back on the death of her infant son and somehow transfer all or most of the blame onto Nelson, Sr., for allowing it to happen, and retroactively justify her negative perceptions as his fault and not hers."
Nelson often referred to the "strait-laced and stodgy" environment in which he grew up. This went along with the obvious coldness and the lack of a nurturing atmosphere in the household. Albertine exerted a fierce control over her only child from the beginning.
Still, she doted over her young son and took pride in the crocheted knit caps she made for him. As he grew up, she could often be very loving toward him. The sentiment expressed in Gil Scott-Heron's piercing song "Home Is Where the Hatred Is" seems to clearly describe the climate in the Riddle household. These factors were central to the aura of sadness that surrounded Nelson later in life.
Albertine was a housewife at a time when most married women were housewives, but it was a role that she felt was not very fulfilling. In the United States of the 1930s, only one mother in ten worked outside the home. As Nelson pointed out, his mother "had many other interests" (which may have been conscious or unconscious efforts to avoid housewifery): "She was very bright, having studied at Columbia. One of her passions was dietetics. She was one of the very early protagonists of healthful eating. [It] got to the point that she would only bake bread and cakes made up of whole wheat flour."
An important aspect of young Nelson's home life was his father's principal hobbymusic. There were weekly rehearsals with his four- or five-piece band in the front room of the house. Nelson, Sr., could play "Maple Leaf Rag" on the piano exclusively on the black keysno mean feat. According to Nelson, during these rehearsals there was usually a trombonean instrument his father also playedplaced on top of the piano.
Nelson began taking piano lessons at the age of eight and studied with three different teachers, hoping to emulate his father's talent on the instrument. Although he never became adept as a piano soloist, learning to play the piano helped instill in him the rudiments of harmony. The piano later became the instrument he played while composing and writing arrangements.
Beginning in the seventh grade, Dick Leonard was Nelson's closest friend at Benjamin Franklin Junior High School in Ridgewood, New Jersey. At that point, Nelson was playing piano and Leonard was struggling to learn the violin. "He used to walk by our house on the way to school. He lived out quite a ways, but he walked every day, usually leaving about the same time as I did. We were in the same history class. I thought he was an impressive guyhe had a deep voice. We had a good teacher, Mary Egan, who used to like to dramatize the news. You might remember the 'Time Marches On' short subjects on radio and in movie theaters. She needed somebody with a deep voice to say, 'Time marches on,' so she picked Nelson. She would say, 'Okay, Nelson, speak deeper!' And Nelson would say, 'I'm speaking as deep as I can, and stop bellowing at me.' ... I remember that so well. That distinguished Nelson as someone who would tell the teacher to stop bellowingnot everybody would do that."
Ridgewood is another of the upper-middle-class bedroom communities of New York. The west side of the tracks, up on the hill, was where the money was. You could see the Empire State Building from there. Nelson and Leonard lived on the east side of town. They both became interested in journalism, and Nelson began seriously thinking of making a career of it. Dick Leonard eventually became the editor-in-chief of the Milwaukee Journal. During the period when Leonard ran the newspaper, from 1967 until 1985, it was considered one of the foremost dailies in the country.
Nelson brought attention to Leonard with an article entitled "Assembly Review" that he wrote for The Key, the Benjamin Franklin Junior High School paper: "It has been my duty during the past year to report on assembly programs.... A few of those which to my mind were outstanding were: Room 317's presentation, written and directed by Dick Leonard. Though the play itself was worthy of favorable comment, Dick's pinch-hitting [sic] when the play was found to be too short was the incident that 'immortalized' the show."
He continued, "I believe that the assembly schedule could be improved by having more lectures and less plays, but, of course, this would mean considerable extra expenditure and would cut down the amount of student talent utilized." This pronouncement would seem to be still another example of Nelson's serious demeanor, even at this age.
Leonard's friendship with Nelson continued at Ridgewood High School. Nelson was the piano player in the Willow Club, a dance band composed of about a dozen student musicians from the high school orchestra that would play for concerts in the town and occasional dance jobs.
Nelson began taking trombone lessons in Paterson, New Jersey, at age fourteen. After only eight visits, however, the lessons came to an abrupt end; the music teacher told Nelson not to return because he had not been paid his fee of one dollar per lesson. Looking back on this incident years later, Nelson said, "Anybody worth his salt would have gone out and sold some papers. I don't know why that didn't occur to me. I guess I was a spoiled brat." For the next several years Nelson learned to play the instrument through the combination of studious practicing and rehearsing with various bands.
The non-payment of the miniscule cost of Nelson's music lessons was indicative of the nature of the Riddles' blue-collar existence in 1935the middle of the Great Depression. Nelson remembered, "We didn't feel the Depression at all. My father made his own Depression. It was all the same to us because we were already in a depressed state by the time the Depression got there." Despite Nelson's assertion, the hovering bleakness of this period obviously made an indelible impression on him.
Dick Leonard remembered one particular Christmas when the Riddle family was broke. Nelson was unhappy because there wasn't any Christmas for him. Leonard recalled, "The next time I saw him he was all smiles, and I asked, 'What happened?' He said, 'I went out and bought myself two suits for Christmas.' That raised his morale. They weren't expensive suits, but they were a change and that brightened his picture."
Things were so desperate that the family moved to wherever his father's company, Ridgewood Signs, could find work. Despite Nelson, Sr.'s talents as an artist, sign painters were in little demand at a time when most businesses were struggling merely to keep themselves solvent.
For a while, Albertine departed from her role as a housewife to take care of her husband's business. Dick Leonard remembered, "They had a studio upstairs on one of the main streets of Ridgewood. She wore a smock, and she was up there doing art work and that type of stuff. They were partners in the studio. They would do signs or billboard-type things or illustrations.
"His mother was terse and business-like. I would describe her as sarcastic and not too affectionate. She would be smiling at times, or even laughing, but it was not a warm laugh! More like 'I'm [smiling] because it's the thing to do.' His father, on the other hand, was a warm, easygoing, and friendly guy."
Leonard remembered the time that he and Nelson were in a writing contest and were the two finalists. Leonard ended up winning the contest. The prize was a book, and Albertine was given the assignment of illustrating the dedication by hand on the front page. "She embellished it quite a bit," said Leonard. "Nelson was a little bit disturbed about thathis mother having to do the book which I had 'taken away' from him. It wasn't jealousy. He was kind of amused by itthe irony of it got to him."
One night, Leonard and Nelson were sitting on the front steps of the Leonard home. Leonard informed his friend that he had been accepted at the University of Wisconsin, which prompted Nelson to express concern about what was going to happen to him because he didn't have enough money to go to college.
In these terrible times, Nelson, Sr., would often work for barter. For instance, in Metuchen, New Jersey, where the Riddles lived for a time, he worked for a Mr. Meyers at his tavern. In exchange, the tavern owner would invite the Riddles and their young son over for a meal.
The Riddle family learned that renting a new place often meant that the first month's rent was free. If Nelson, Sr., couldn't find a way to make the second month's rent, they would simply move.
* * *
Bob Runyon recalls Nelson, Sr., as being "a kookand I use that in a nice way ... he was a character, but very affable, a lot more happy-go-lucky than Nelson, Jr." He remembered the two Riddle men playing trombone duets on tunes like "Harbor Lights" and "Red Sails in the Sunset," which led to sing-alongs during the four or five times the two families got together each year.
Bob and Nelson were related on his mother's side; he was one of Nelson's five cousins who also lived in Metuchen. "Nelson had a good rapport with his father," Runyon added, "but I thought Albertine was terribly spoiled.... At family gatherings all the women helped prepare the mealsexcept Albertine. [By her actions] she gave the impression 'I'm above thisthey are my servants.' She would sit in a chair and hold court. She was always well dressed, very neata French kind of chic. She had thick gray hair and was always well coifed, wore glasses, and had a very determined stride as she walked. When she spoke, she had an accent and was snippy, with no sense of humor and very little warmth. She expected both Nelsonsand everybody else, too, for that matterto cater to her. Uncle Nel was doing the 'Yes, dear' bit. If they had a little tiff going, he would fade away. He'd retreat.
"As I recall, they did not get along very well.... They'd live apart for a period of time, then they'd get back together. As a boy, Nelson watched his father get swatted like a fly. It was a hopeless situation."
Dick Leonard vividly recalled one night when he and Nelson were double-dating. Since neither of them could drive yet, one of their parents had to drive them around. "On this night, Nelson said to his father, 'How are you feeling, Pop?' Nelson's father said, 'Like I've been goosed with a pineapple!' which was his way of describing life with Albertine."
It's the contention of "Skip" Riddleactually Nelson Smock Riddle III, the oldest of Nelson, Jr.'s six children and the older of his two sonsthat "[Nelson's] relationship with his mother was horrible, and he got no support from his father. His father was a lovely man, but he was not available either. He didn't make a connection with my dad. They had this triangle situation going on and everybody was competing with everyone else. Everyone became quite manipulative in order to get what they wanted in order to keep the peace."
* * *
Leonard remarked, "My mental picture of Nelson is he's walking past the house with his trombone ... with a slouch, looking a bit out of this world. It wasn't so much dour. It was more dreamy."
He feels that Donald Cook, the director of the Ridgewood High School Orchestra and the school's music teacher, was important in Nelson's musical education: "Whenever somebody screwed up, like in the violin section, he'd stop the music and come over and have a conference about what you did wrong. But you could always hear Nelson the minute this happened. He was at the piano, and you could always hear the piano start tinkling. He had his own little world over there. He didn't need anybody else.
"I used to sit near him in both history and mechanical drawing. We were supposed to be sketching things, like you do in mechanical drawing, but he'd be drawing something far away thinking about a musical arrangement or something."
At Ridgewood High School, Nelson couldn't get along with another student named Stewart Moore. Moore used to ridicule Nelson for playing music; he thought it wasn't a worthy occupation. Dick Leonard recalled that they even threw a couple of punches on one occasion. "One of the things that Nelson would bring up [years later], and he did it more than once, 'God, he's sneering at me for becoming a musician, and what did he do later on? He became the head of a playing card company!'"
Nelson and Donald Quimby, a classmate of his at Ridgewood High and a member of the high school band in which Nelson played first trombone, got a chance to hear Ravel's famous Boléro at a Carnegie Hall concert with Serge Koussevitzky conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Nelson said, "I've never forgotten it. It's almost as if the orchestra leaped from the stage and smacked you in the face.... The only thing wrong with the 'Boléro' was that it was overplayed. [Even so] it's the most absolutely tantalizing slow addition of instruments to this long, long crescendo, which is really the message of the 'Boléro.' ...'"
Quimby also recalled attending a performance of the Brahms Second Symphony with Nelson and two other schoolmates at Newark's Mosque Theater. On a third occasion, they attended a performance of one of the three segments of Wagner's Ring cycle at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Nelson realized that listening to classical music on records and on the radio was simply not the same as witnessing live performances of such important works. These performances made an indelible impression on him.
By his teenage years, Nelson had grown to almost his full height. He was six foot two and slim, with dark, curly hair he combed straight back; all of this gave him an imposing and handsome presence. He was a good student with a reported IQ of 138, but due to his family's financial situation, there was never any thought of his attending college when he graduated from high school in June 1939.
He was dead set on becoming a professional musician. In those years, most young musicians joined dance bands rather than going to college to pursue their careers. As Nelson recalled, "I wanted to be a jazz trombone player, but I didn't have the coordination. I only had the ideas."
In 1938, his last year in high school, Nelson persuaded his parents to allow him to move to Rumson, then a small village on the North Jersey shore of the Shrewsbury River, but today a prosperous small town that is home to many Wall Street executives. The Riddle family had previously rented rooms there during the summer.
The purpose of his yearlong stay in Rumson was to allow Nelson to work with various "kid bands" composed of fellow high school students. These bands had plenty of opportunities to play for dances throughout the area, thus allowing Nelson to expand his experience as a working musician and also enabling him to help out his family financially. Albertine rented rooms for herself and her son in a tiny old house that had gas but no electricity in neighboring Fair Haven. Nelson, Sr., came down from his studio in Ridgewood on weekends.
Nelson wanted Dick Leonard to come down and spend the summer of 1938 with him. He had plans for the two of them to build a sailboat togetherpursuing his thoughts of becoming a marine architectbut Leonard had no interest in boats. With his new friend from Rumson, Sven Rolfsen, Nelson wound up building a fourteen-foot sailboat that could cut through the ice for use in the winter. He often went kayaking during the summer.
Bob Runyon recalled that one afternoon, when he and Nelson were sailing in Nelson's boat on the Shrewsbury, they were caught in the wake of a speeding motorboat, which threatened to engulf them. In an attempt to alleviate their panic, Nelson asked his cousin, "What are the important bands up in North Jersey?"
It was during that summer that trumpeter Charlie Briggs, who led a quintet at a roadhouse called the Log Cabin in neighboring Highlands, met the fledgling trombonist. Briggs's band was called the Briggadiers. "We had only ten tunes that we could play. They were stock arrangements," he recalled.
"I still remember it as though it happened yesterday. One day there was a knock on the door. Whoever it was kept knocking. It was an incessant knock. I stopped the band, and said, 'Okay, fellas, take a couple of minutes, and I'll answer the door....' This young man with a trombone in his hand comes in. I shook his hand, and he says, 'My name is Nelson Riddle, and I want to play in your band.' That's exactly how it happened. I said, 'Well, we don't need anybody now, and I don't think we've got any second trombone parts.' And so he walked in the house, and he said, 'Well, I'll transpose one of the sax parts.' I said, 'That can't be done.' He said, 'Well, let's give it a chance.' I said, 'Okay, but we've got to get on with the rehearsal....'
"On that particular day we were playing 'September in the Rain.' [The arranger] Bill Finegan had put this together, little parts of it, and Nelson said 'Can I take it?' I said, 'Go ahead. Let's try it with the band,' fairly certain that we were not going to do anything."
The "September in the Rain" chart had originally been written by Finegan for Glenn Miller, who was then struggling with his first band and soon would be opening at the Paradise Restaurant in New York. Briggs said to Finegan, "How did you think of something so beautiful?" The accomplished arranger replied, "Well, it was raining. I stayed up 'til four o'clock in the morning. I cranked out most of it that night."
Just before the band started playing Finegan's arrangement, Charlie Briggs introduced Nelson by saying, "Nelson would like to play some trombone for us." "Everybody was kind of frown-faced," Briggs recalled, "'cause in those days four bucks was what they paid a man in the band and, for high school kids, that was big dollars, and they didn't want to have to share it."
Discussing when the Briggadiers tried out the chart with the transposed part written by their new second trombonist, Charlie Briggs recalled, "I don't know to this day what he really transposed or played, but we went from a 60-percent band to a 100-percent band with just his insertion into the brass section. I think Nelson came in as a fairly fundamentally trained young trombone player because to do something like that indicated he knew more than a lot of guys did. We knew we sounded better so we wanted to take him into the band. After that Nelson started writing some things.
"We didn't have enough money. Everybody pitched in and said, 'Look, we'll take half a buck off every one of us.' Nelson's first gig with the Briggadiers was at the Garfield Grant Hotel in Long Branch. Then we got to playing more local dance dates and proms."
As a result of the Briggadiers' sudden gain in popularity, more money was available, and Charlie was soon able to pay Nelson his four bucks.
Excerpted from September in the Rain by Peter J. Levinson. Copyright © 2001 by Peter J. Levinson. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Meet the Author
Peter J. Levinson began his involvement with American popular music in the late 1950s as a freelance writer in New York City. He then began work as a publicist for record companies in New York and Los Angeles. He lives in Malibu, California.
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