Happy birthday, Nelson Riddle


Nelson Riddle, 1958

Admit it: you know this song, right? It’s iconic and will always be associated with Batman.

Neal Hefti wrote the theme, as well as this one:

But Hefti didn’t do the heavy lifting of turning out music for these shows, week after week, episode after episode. An army of people like Allyn FergusonSammie Nestico, and Lionel Newman soldiered on in the trenches.

Nelson Riddle scored 93 episodes of Batman.  Think of it, music for  93 half-hour shows! That’s the least of it, and is why I’ve been a big admirer of Riddle for many years.

First, Riddle created the sound associated with Nat King Cole on Mona Lisa, Unforgettable, and most of his great hits of the 1950s.  (A complete list of Riddle’s work with Cole is here.)  He emphasized lush strings behind Cole, a mood most of us associate with his work, but which was new given Cole’s previous work with a trio.  I’ve always wondered what Natalie Cole could have done had Nelson been around when she started recording her father’s work.  (Riddle died in 1985.)

Second, when you think of Frank Sinatra’s best work, what comes to mind? How about this:

Nelson Riddle wrote the arrangements and conducted them (as he does in the video.) According to Charles L. Granata’s Sessions with Sinatra, “Frank had to be sold on Nelson.” Producer Alan Dell described the scene on April 30, 1953:

“Frank came in, and saw a strange man on the podium, and said, ‘Who’s this?’ I said, “He’s just conducting the band – we’ve got Billy May’s arrangements.’ They went into ‘I’ve Got the World on a String’ and he said, ‘Hey, who wrote that?’ and I said ‘This guy – Nelson Riddle.’ Frank said ‘Beautiful!’ and from that, the partnership started.” (Quote from Granta, p. 86).

From then on, Riddle wrote for everyone.  I admire his work with women, especially: Rosemay Clooney, Ella Fitzgerald, Judy Garland, Peggy Lee, and Keely Smith stand out.

Nelson Riddle symbolizes how too many businesses and economies operate today.  Nat Cole, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, and Judy Garland are all great artists, but their art depended on finding someone like Nelson Riddle who could bring out the best in their work.  And that, of course, depended on legions of musicians, sound technicians, and others who brought the recordings to life from the notes written on pages marked, “Arranged by Nelson Riddle.” Yet Riddle and the others hardly get the credit they deserve for creating these classic works of art.

Today, Bill Gates, Marissa Mayer, Sheryl Sandberg, Mark Zuckerberg, and a host of others grace the covers of Fortune and flit from the Aspen Ideas Festival in the summer to the World Economic Forum in the winter.  But how many people like Nelson Riddle bring their ideas to fruition? We need to celebrate everyone on the team who brings out a great product, makes a company work day in and day out, helps deliver a high-quality education to students.  That means everyone from the people who clean the rooms to the IT professionals to the office staff to the dining service employees.

Riddle was, by all account, deeply unhappy in the 1970s, despite earning an Oscar for scoring The Great GatsbyHenry Mancini’s success, in particular, vexed him.  In Peter Levinson’s excellent biography, September in the Rain: The Life of Nelson RiddleRiddle told Milt Bernhart, “You know, Milt, I would trade all the arrangements I’ve ever written for one of Hank Mancini’s big copyrights.”

Fortunately, Riddle knew happiness near the end of his life. In the early 1980s, Linda Ronstadt contacted him to arrange the music for what became What’s New? That album sparked a revival of the popular artists singing the Great American Songbook, and led Frank Sinatra to reach out after a long estrangement. According to Rosemary Riddle-Acerra, Nelson’s daughter, “The day after Dad died, we went down to his office on Sunset Boulevard to take a look around, and maybe pick up a picture or two… We saw what was in the office, we saw what he was working on. There were charts for the new album they were going to work on, sitting right there on the drafting table. They were marked, ‘Frank Sinatra.'” (Granata, p. 200).

There are people like Nelson Riddle in our midst every day. Be sure to celebrate them and tell them how much they mean to you.