Nelson Riddle was a lover. He put sexuality on his strings. He and Sinatra made love swing. Nelson, we learn, composed musical charts around romantic inner fantasies. You can run the Batman theme on the most daring sex scenes of the movies and that would be equally cinematically satisfying. After a strict chronological artistic reading, the book reveals that Riddle was as prolific romantically as he was musically. He had seven children and, when he had an affair with Rosemary Clooney, he proposed to merge all of their children into one happy big family of twelve.
For much of Riddle’s career, he was virtually invisible, sometimes lifting his head with a wand in hand to direct star rides. Riddle had a deep friendship with Nat King Cole until the singer’s untimely death. He partied after hours with Sinatra. One of the revelations from the book is that Sinatra didn’t want his mob to be called the Rat Pack. He inherited the name as the last surviving member of Humphrey Bogart’s inner circle and preferred his own brand. But Riddle never drew glamor from the power of the stars.
The story is weighted in the classic Nelson period and would benefit from lighter, more pop moments. Littlefield casually mentions how Nelson turned down an offer from Paul McCartney to collaborate on a song, without going into the much-sought-after detail. The book also mentions how Riddle arranged for Sinatra’s performance of George Harrison’s song “Something”, with no idea how to connect the best talents of the generations.
Nelson Riddle: Music with a heartbeat also does not unlock trade secrets. We have a satisfying idea of how Riddle’s horn playing developed and how this resulted in fine-tuning his arrangements, but offer no insight into the composition for a big- band or orchestra. Although it tells a funny story where Riddle and Andre Previn expose a well-established musical arranger as a fraudulent musician. They do this by composing dueling scores.
Nelson Riddle: Music with a heartbeat traces the life of Riddle from Oradell, New Jersey, through his long career. We have an idea of his musical education, his influences and his influence. We get an enthusiastic, but rote, glimpse into his credits, club, concert, and theater work in his stint as Music Director for Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour on CBS. The book teases, but doesn’t delve deep enough into the madness of genius, and how any job can be a game, even the most serious. Riddle’s arrangements continue to play with the imagination of the ear. They allowed Sinatra to sing along to the beat, before the beat or after the beat, while still achieving her musical mark. Littlefield keeps time.
Nelson Riddle: Music with a heartbeat is available now.