Richard Nisley

The Great Eight
Pop Culture Released - Aug 19, 2018
Soft-spoken Nelson Riddle played trombone for the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra, studied the impressionist music of Debussy and Ravel, and from 1952 to 1985 was the number-one arranger of popular song in the record capital of the world—Hollywood. He arranged nearly all of the classic Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole and Ella Fitzgerald albums. Not as well known today are the outstanding records he arranged for other recording artists, the best of which are reviewed below. Call them “The Great Eight.”

(1) 1956 - “JUDY” / JUDY GARLAND

Judy Garland’s career was on the skids when she signed with Capitol Records in 1955. They paired her with arranger Harold Mooney and the result was encouraging. The album “Miss Show Business” sold well and was notable for “Over the Rainbow” one of her rare efforts at re-recording the song that made her famous It was also the first song Nelson Riddle arranged for her, though uncredited. Which brings us to her next album, simply entitled “Judy” arranged entirely by Mr. Riddle. It’s a collection of uptempo tunes that Garland delivers with verve and heart. The standout cuts are “Come Rain Or Come Shine,” “Last Night When We Young,” the poignant “Dirty hands, Dirty Face” and the melancholy “Memories of You.”

(2) 1957 - “THE MAN I LOVE” / PEGGY LEE

“The album was totally Frank Sinatra’s idea,” Peggy Lee recalled years later. “He brought a list of great songs from which to choose, and (Sinatra’s longtime pianist) Bill Miller came over to set all the keys with me. Then, Frank hired Nelson Riddle to write all those lovely arrangements, and Frank conducted them.” Why Sinatra’s personal involvement? Because he wanted Lee to record songs he loved but felt didn’t suit his macho style. The album juxtaposes the intimacy of Sinatra’s “In the Wee Small Hours” with the symphonic grandness of “The Concert Sinatra.” “More than Sinatra or Riddle,” writes jazz critic Will Friedwald, “the contributor who is responsible for this remarkable juxtaposition is Lee herself. Who else could sing a song with a slang term like ‘guy’ in the title and even make it sound like it belonged in this concert context?” “Even in a potentially over-the-top context like a symphonic string section, where abundance exists, well, in abundance, Lee knows that the key to interpreting a text like ‘That’s All’ is knowing what to leave out—what not to sing, as it were.” Album cuts include “If I Should Lose You,” “The Man I Love” and “The Folks Who Live On The Hill.”


Keely Smith must have counted her lucky stars when she found herself paired with arranger Nelson Riddle on her very first album. She had some very big shoes to fill, working with an arranger who heretofore had arranged albums for only four other artists: Nat Cole, Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, and Peggy Lee. All of age 26, Smith would be the fifth. Capitol producer Voyle Gilmore played her a number of demos from which to choose songs for her album. Eventually he came to “I Wish You Love.” “It’ll never be a hit but its a pretty song,” he said. “I’ll sing any other 11 songs you choose, but I want to do that song,” she said. As it turned out, it became her theme song and the title track of the album, and won her a Grammy for “Best Female Vocal” in 1958. The rest of the album wasn’t bad either. In fact, it was brilliant: “I Wish You Love” coupled with 10 standards from the Great American Songbook. With her silky-husky voice and wonderful rhythmic sense she sings like the pro she had become over the previous six years performing with bandleader (and husband) Louis Prima. Nothing was beyond her reach, as she easily mastered “When Your Lover Has Gone,” “Fools Rush In,” “As You Desire Me” and, featuring one of Riddle’s all-time great arrangements, “When Day Is Done.”


Dinah Shore brings her optimism and Southern charm to nine songs from the Great American Songbook for this, her first album for Capitol Records, arranged by incomparable Nelson Riddle. Everything here is Star-Spangled Americana, particularly a medley of urbane tunes by Rodgers and Hart, Cole Porter and George Gershwin (the medley consists of: “Where or When,” “Easy to Love,” “Get Out of Town,” and “They Can’t Take That Away From Me”). The heart and soul of the album is “Sentimental Journey” which recalls Ms. Shore’s Southern roots, sung here with warmth and dignity. “The One I Love (Belongs to Somebody Else),” “I’m Old fashioned” and “Our Love is Here to Stay” elicit deeper, more complex emotions which she conveys with equal parts wit and sincerity. “Taking a Chance on Love” and “Falling in Love With Love” play to Ms Shore’s subtle voice intonations. “Yes, Indeed!” is a rousing finger-snapping Gospel that closes the set–with style. Riddle’s arrangements complement the singer with his signature sound of bass trombone, flute and clarinet, muted trumpet, and strings. Which brings us back to Ms. Shore herself. She’s not a jazz singer, nor a torch singer, and not a blues singer, although she handles the blues quite well. To say she’s middle-of-the-road isn’t quite right either. She’s a pop singer, certainly, but that doesn’t explain her unique place among the likes of Sinatra, Lee, Cole and Fitzgerald. What she is, is very good, and I guess we’ll have to leave it at that.


Ah, Dean Martin: uproariously funny, cool, sophisticated, urbane, and . . . corny. Yes, corny. At least to fans of Frank Sinatra’s brand of urbane cool. Imagine Sinatra recording an album entitled “Cha Cha de Amor,” or “Dino Latino,” or “Dean ‘Tex’ Martin: Country Style.” Not in a million years, but that’s the stuff Dean Martin was turning out until Sinatra stepped in to rescue him from mediocrity. “This Time I’m Swingin’” is Sinatra showing the world that crooner Dean Martin can ring-a-ding swing. Nelson Riddle did the charts and conducted the 30-piece orchestra while Sinatra joined the session to trade bon mots with pal Dino between takes and to assure quality control. “I Can’t Believe You’re In Love With Me,” is the super-charged opener, followed by a Cole Porter tune, “True Love,” then “You’re Nobody Till Somebody Loves You” (Martin’s first—and best—account), followed by “Imagination,” “Until The Real Thing Comes Along,” two Lerner and Loewe classics which Dino delivers with winning sincerity (“On The Street Where You Live” and “I’ve Grown Accustomed To Her Face”) and more. Until you hear this set, you don’t know Dino.


From the opening flutes to the last flush of piano and orchestra, this is smooth-swinging jazz par excellence. Pairing Nelson Riddle with the Oscar Peterson Trio was an inspired decision. Peterson and Riddle constituted a mutual admiration society, and so it seemed only a matter of time before they made a record together, which they did in the fall of 1963. At the time, the Oscar Peterson Trio was arguably the foremost jazz group around, and Riddle the best arranger in the business. After seeing the Trio perform at the London House in Chicago (now defunct), Riddle met with Peterson to discuss how Peterson’s pianistics could be presented in a setting similar to the sound of the old Claude Thornhill band, whom both admired. The first half of the album (tracks 1-5) has the Oscar Peterson Trio backed by Riddle’s symphonic setting of ten cellos, five French horses, five flutes, a percussionist, and a harpist. The second half (tracks 6-10) has the Trio backed by a swinging band with string format. Peterson and Riddle worked magically in the studio to produce one of the great jazz albums of all time.


The album reminds me of Sinatra’s “Nice ’N’ Easy”—love songs drawn from the best of Broadway, Hollywood, Tin Pan Alley and, in this case, Lennon-McCartney. The title track was written by a pair of tunesmiths better known for the songs they composed for Sinatra—Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen. As he did with “Nice ’N’ Easy,” Riddle employs strings and reeds and subdued brass in vibrant arrangements that spotlight various solo instruments—tenor sax on “I Can’t Believe That You’re in Love with Me,” piano on “You Made Me Love You,” bluesy trumpet on “A Lovely Way to Spend An Evening,” flute on “While We’re Young” and flute and piano on “Young at Heart.” Classy stuff, and with Jones at the forefront, a classy affair, not to be missed.


The most beautiful album that Nelson Riddle ever arranged? That’s the opinion of Riddle’s biographer, Peter J. Levinson. Some of the songs would show up in revised form on “FRANCIS ALBERT SINATRA AND ANTONIO CARLOS JOBIM (1967) and its successor, “SINATRA-JOBIM II” (1969). But is this the most beautiful album Riddle ever arranged? Levinson explains: “It is really the inner workings of the Jobim/Riddle combination—the tenderness and sensuality that predominated throughout this recording—that revealed how much Nelson and ‘Tom’ Jobim were soulmates. And what beautiful melodies!” Levinson adds: “There is an intrinsic beauty that Jobim brought to his performance (of Dindi) that even Sinatra couldn’t quite match.” This is Bossa Nova performed by the man who invented it, with Nelson Riddle in simpatico.

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