September in the Rain: The Life of Nelson Riddle
September in the Rain: The Life of Nelson Riddle
Peter J. Levinson
Watson-Guptill Publications, 2001
288 pages
ISBN: 0823076725

by Terence Ripmaster

copyright © 2001 Terence Ripmaster

Levinson's biography of Nelson Smock Riddle (1921-1985) is not only a history of an extraordinary and unique musician, but a sensitive and intelligent account of American popular culture. Levinson personally knew Riddle and interviewed 200 people in his research for the book.

Riddle was born in Oradell, New Jersey. His father played trombone and piano and encouraged his son to take music lessons at an early age. Already a six footer in his teens, he attended Ridgewood High School and was encouraged by his school music teacher to continue his musical studies, which he would ultimately do most of his life. After graduation he played trombone in dance bands and became friends with Charlie Briggs' Briggadiers.

As a young man, he was influenced by classical music, particularly that of Debussy and Ravel. He studied classical harmony and played in the New Jersey State Orchestra in 1938. He went on to play in Charlie Spivak's band and was paid $5.00 for each of his arrangements. While still playing trombone, Riddle's real interest was in composing and arranging music.

During his short stint in the Merchant Marine, he played in the service's orchestra. In his early career, he was deeply influenced by Bill Finegan, later of the Sauter-Finegan band. In what can only be called a daring move, Riddle joined Tommy Dorsey's band.

Dorsey was considered the best big band trombone player and known to be a taskmaster. Dorsey nicknamed Riddle "The Cloud," but complimented him for his "first rate musicianship." Riddle arranged the standards "I Should Care" and "Laura" for Dorsey's band and continued to play in the trombone section. It was also during this period that he met another important arranger, Sy Oliver, from whom he learned more about writing band charts. He went on to arrange for the bands of Larry Elgart and Eliot Lawrence, using strings and French horns in many of his charts.

The popularity of big bands began to fade out after 1946 and Riddle moved on to the studios as did many musicians at the time. Riddle went with NBC, where he was to work with Bing Crosby and Nat "King"Cole.

His first major recognition came with his now legendary arrangements for Cole of "Mona Lisa," "Too Young" and "Unforgettable." Their collaboration would continue on more than 250 recordings, many of which became pop classics and number one hits on the charts of the day.

In the 1950s, he also worked with Johnny Mathis and Billy Eckstine, and became the house arranger for Capitol Recordings. This would launch one of the most important associations of Riddle's life, his collaborations with Frank Sinatra.

Levinson, who has spent over 40 years in the music business, effectively combines his musical history with America's cultural history. He accounts for why romantic songs and singers were so popular with the post-war audience. The Sinatra-Riddle recordings "Songs for Young Lovers,"and "In The Wee Small Hours" became bestselling albums. Sinatra and Riddle were going though difficult times in their personal lives and marriages and their shared feelings were reflected in the 1958 hit recording, "Only The Lonely." Readers will find new insights into the complex relationship between these two men.

In the early 1960s, Sinatra left Capitol and established his own Reprise label, connected to Warner Bros. While still working with Sinatra, Riddle went on to arrange and record with several female singers. With Rosemary Clooney, work flowered into a love affair. He also did the song books with Ella Fitzgerald, and worked with Keely Smith, Judy Garland, Shirley Bassey and pop-rock vocalist Linda Ronstadt.

He won a Grammy for his score for The Untouchables collaborated with Bob Harris on the film score for Stanley Kubrick's Lolita and received an Oscar for The Great Gatsby. In 1985, after years of no contact, Sinatra called Riddle to arrange music for Ronald Reagan's second inauguration. Riddle was already ill and died shortly after on October 6, 1984. He was 64.

If it's possible to say this about a non-fiction book, Levinson has provided a real page-turner. We meet hundreds of the most notable, and some not-so-notable people in the music and entertainment business. To his credit, Levison does not cover up their warts and intrigues.

As to where Riddle fits in musical genres, Levinson avoids debates about pop, swing and jazz. Riddle had an eclectic appreciation and talent for all music. His productivity was enormous. He personally said that because of the Depression, he always felt obligated to work hard. And work hard he did.

In 2001, the Nelson Riddle Archives were established at the University of Arizona. This, the first biography of Riddle, is not likely to be the last. Levinson, author of a previously published biography of Harry James, is presently at work on a biography of Tommy Dorsey, one of the most important influences in Riddle's life.

Terence Ripmaster ( is Professor Emeritus, William Paterson University, author of Bucky Pizzarelli: A Life In Music and Jazz in Paterson, as well as past president of the New Jersey Jazz Society.

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