Remembering Nelson Riddle
Here's a very nice newly published article:
Riddle's Sweet Sounds Still Play On Heartstrings
Legendary bandleader, arranger, composer got his start in Rumson
by Gloria Stravelli
Atlanticville (Long Branch, NJ), February 13, 2004
It wouldn't be Valentine's Day without the classic love songs that
celebrate romance, and many of those ballads owe their appeal to a
local musical prodigy who got his start playing in a swing band with
high school chums.
"We were rehearsing at the house of a band member on Lafayette Street
in Rumson when there was a knock on the door," recalled Charles
Briggs. "I didn't answer. We just kept playing, but the knocking was
insistent, and finally I said, 'Take a break for a couple of minutes.'
"When I answered the door, a young man I'd never seen before was
standing there with a trombone in hand," said Briggs, then a junior
at Rumson High School.
"He said, 'My name is Nelson Riddle, and I want to play in your
A North Jersey native, Riddle passed several summers in Rumson and
Fair Haven while growing up and moved to the area with his family in
time to spend senior year at Rumson High School.
Briggs invited him in on that day in 1938, and Riddle became a member
of Charlie Briggs and The Brigadiers, an 11-piece swing band
comprised of Briggs' high school classmates.
"It was a seminal moment," Riddle's daughter, Rosemary Riddle Acerra,
said last week. "He started arranging for Charlie, rewriting and
transposing. He had a good basic knowledge of music. The music
teacher at high school had taught him a lot. He was a prodigy."
The Brigadiers' first paying gig was the Rumson Firemen's Fair for
which the band was paid the going rate of $5 per night. Band members
chipped in 50 cents a piece to pay Riddle, recalled Briggs, now
retired and living in Florida.
According to Briggs, Riddle kept his cool when the makeshift risers
the band sat on at the fair gave way during a short solo.
"He had a couple of bars solo, and when he sat down, he slid off the
bench," said Briggs. "He just kept playing."
While the band used stock arrangements, Briggs said Riddle was
already capable of writing his own.
"He knew enough about music to transpose parts and the band sounded
better the minute he got in," said Briggs. "We would always be the
best band anywhere. Nobody else had special arrangements."
The teens formed a friendship that lasted throughout Riddle's
successful career as an arranger and composer for recordings, movies
"He was such a decent, studious guy and a hell of a player," said
Briggs, adding rehearsals were sometimes held at Riddle's Fair Haven
Road home during the period from 1938-42 when the band was active.
In addition to the firemen's fairs in Red Bank, Rumson and Fair
Haven, the band filled in during breaks for well-known bands like the
Glenn Miller Orchestra, which were booked into the casino in Asbury
Park, Briggs said. Band members also picked up gigs with bigger local
bands, with Riddle also doing arranging.
According to Briggs, Riddle's musical gifts were already evident
in "his ability, his sincerity and his intense interest in being a
Riddle's shortcoming may have been in underestimating his own talent,
"He never knew how good he was," Briggs observed.
"Dad was never comfortable being in the spotlight," concurred Acerra,
a Tinton Falls resident. "He never believed in who he really was --
never understood the whole picture. He was so gifted."
By the time Riddle was 19, he was ready to work with the big bands of
the 1940s including the Charlie Spivak and Tommy Dorsey orchestras,
according to a biography by his son, Christopher Riddle. After a
stint in the Merchant Marine during World War II, Nelson Riddle moved
to Los Angeles in 1946 where he worked as an arranger for NBC Radio.
By 1950, Riddle's work on "Mona Lisa" and "Too Young" garnered him
the position of arranger and conductor for Nat King Cole at Capitol
In 1953, according to Christopher Riddle, his father began a
collaboration with Frank Sinatra that resulted in many of the
singer's greatest hits, including "I've Got the World on a String"
and a series of hit Sinatra albums.
By the mid-1950s, Riddle was staff arranger for Capitol Records and
his superlative work as Sinatra's arranger made him one of the top
arrangers for greats including Ella Fitzgerald, Peggy Lee, Judy
Garland, Rosemary Clooney and others.
Along with his work in the recording studio, Riddle composed
instrumental pieces like "Lisbon Antigua," which sold more than 100
million records, earning Riddle his first gold record, and "Cross
Country Suite," which won a Grammy.
His motion picture and TV credits include the scores for "Can-Can,"
Paint Your Wagon" and "Li'l Abner," all nominated for Academy Awards,
and "The Great Gatsby," which won an Oscar, as well as the TV
series "Batman," "Route 66," "The Untouchables" and "Naked City."
After a hiatus imposed by the advent of rock 'n' roll and other forms
of contemporary music, Riddle's career was revived in 1983 when he
and singer Linda Ronstadt collaborated on a series of albums that
were completed before he died in 1985.
"That was like a renaissance for dad," explained Acerra, "because he
felt no one in that town knew who he was. He had done a lot of TV
work. He felt like he needed to prove himself all over again. Working
with Ronstadt meant a new generation would hear his work."
One of six children born to Riddle and Doreen Moran Riddle, Acerra
has been designated by her siblings as administrative liaison for
Riddle's music estate.
She keeps track of royalties and licensing, checking for use of her
father's work in recordings, movies, TV shows, commercials and
performances. Riddle's children are currently involved in a legal
battle over royalties with the executor of their stepmother's estate.
Once litigation is settled, Acerra and her siblings envision several
future projects including a tribute album and she hopes to revive
interest in "Cross Country Suite," which was recorded on vinyl only
and didn't gain notoriety.
"I have the master," she said. "We want to get it out there."
Acerra also is in contact with network television executives in an
attempt to have an unfinished segment on her father updated and
released, and she is trying to revive interest in "September in the
Rain," a Riddle biography written by Peter Levinson.
Acerra grew up in California and sometimes accompanied her father to
the recording studio where she sat and watched while he worked with
"I was 10 years old and Ella [Fitzgerald] and I would sit and talk,"
she recalled. "She was the only one who was approachable. She would
send me letters. She was just very approachable, where you'd never
walk up to Sinatra.
"The synergy of my father and Frank Sinatra was incomparable," she
continued. "Each could understand where the other was coming from.
Sinatra had a natural genius for understanding what a song needed to
sound like, what the phrasing needed to be. Dad understood what
tempos, what colors, what orchestration to use to paint a certain
Riddle, Briggs said, approached music in the same way an artist does
"What he did to music is what artists do to great paintings,"
explained Briggs, who kept in touch with Riddle throughout his
career. "He set the mood, the pattern. Everything he did was
"That was Nelson; he was a genius, inventive, innovative, consistent,
precise. His work will endure as long as there are people who really
love to hear good music."
Photo of Rosemary Riddle Acerra: