Book Review

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    The Life of Nelson Riddle

    By Peter J. Levinson/Billboard Books: 288 pp., $21.95

    By Pam Linn/Staff Writer

    More than just a biography of Nelson Riddle, Peter Levinson’s “September in the Rain” is a comprehensive history of American popular music.

    From his apprenticeship as a trombonist and arranger for the big dance bands of the ’30s and ’40s through his hugely successful recordings during the ’50s and ’60s, Riddle’s influence was pervasive. These were the years when everyone’s favorite song was most likely a ballad sung by Frank Sinatra or Nat King Cole or a jazz tune by Ella Fitzgerald. And supporting those wonderful vocals were Riddle’s rich harmonic lines. He always wrote to make the singer sound good.

    During his big band days, Riddle was paid for his arrangements, but many were ghost written, with the bandleader taking the credit. By all accounts an unassuming guy, Riddle never objected, never pushed himself or hired publicists to do it for him. Levinson recounts in his preface that after profiling Riddle for Los Angeles Magazine in 1962, he joined a Hollywood public relations firm and suggested to Riddle that they represent him, but Riddle declined.

    After the Beatles TV debut in 1964, pop music and the recording industry changed forever, and the era of the singer/songwriter began. Although his arrangements were featured on many more recordings with Frank Sinatra, Riddle was left to write for TV and movies.

    From the time he studied composing and orchestration with classical composer Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, he had always said film scoring was his first love. He won his only Academy Award (of five nominations) in 1975 for the score of “The Great Gatsby.”

    After some lean years, Nelson’s recording career made a brilliant comeback in the 1980s with pop star Linda Ronstadt, a collaboration that produced three gold and platinum albums and earned him one of his three Grammy awards.

    Universally respected among musicians, he was also well liked for his even temperament, which made it possible for him to work with volatile personalities like Tommy Dorsey and Sinatra. Unlike Nat Cole, who was easy going, relaxed and kind, Sinatra sometimes belittled and berated Riddle in front of the orchestra. He took the abuse without rancor, often saying, “He doesn’t really mean it.” Even so, the break with Sinatra, when it finally came, was painful.

    The book also gives some insight into Riddle’s troubled first marriage to Doreen, with whom he raised six children (another died in infancy) in Malibu, and her struggle with alcohol addiction. They finally divorced in 1968.

    After working together for about a year with Rosemary Clooney on her TV show, they began a serious affair that lasted six years. It was for both the most intense relationship of their lives, next to their marriages. She would refer to him many times as, “The love of my life.”

    The depth of their feelings for each other was evident in the recordings they made together, the most outstanding of which, Levinson writes, was “Love.” “Clooney selected all the songs for the album, which was recorded at the height of their relationship and, inspired by Nelson’s superb writing, Clooney turned in the most passionate performance of her entire recording career.”

    But the most beautiful album he ever arranged, Levinson writes, was “The Wonderful World of Antonio Carlos Jobim,” recorded in 1965. “The tenderness and sensuality that predominated throughout this recording … revealed how much Nelson and Jobim were soul mates.”

    Rich in anecdotes, the book quotes hundreds of musicians who worked with Riddle during the early big band years and later followed him to Hollywood to work in studio orchestras.

    Composer Herschel Gilbert recalled, “I was enamored of the way he wrote. He wrote right in the parts–I could never do that-most composers can’t do that. In other words, he wrote a trumpet part, wrote a second trumpet part, and wrote a third trumpet part and kept it all in his head. That’s a highly advanced way of scoring.”

    That facility was probably what enabled Riddle to turn out the incredible amount of work he did on tight deadlines for weekly TV shows, movies and recording dates.

    Of the musicians who knew Riddle well, many have praised “September in the Rain” as capturing the essence of his genius.

    Perhaps his friend, pianist George Shearing said it best: “Peter Levinson has put a beautiful frame around a portrait of a beautiful man. It is a long overdue tribute to this lovely, talented man, who lived with so much tragedy in his personal life but still gave us all such love and happiness through his talent as a musician’s musician.”

    Peter Levinson will read and sign copies of “September in the Rain” Saturday, Nov. 24, 2 p.m. at Borders Books 1360 Westwood Blvd. 310.475.9204.