Nelson Riddle: Music with a Heartbeat Review – How Classic Songs Become Standard

Books

Nelson Riddle is a patron saint of comic book entertainment. He wrote the theme to Batman, the original 1960s camp classic TV series which paved the way for all things geek. That theme caught the excitement children of all ages felt from the moment of the twirling introductory horns through the POWs and ZOKs of the opening battle. Full-set drum rolls propel a swing-blues rhythm section through an ever-building cascade of wonder. Insistent scat singing clashes with atonal chordal squawks until it sounds like it will all come crumbling down, unless someone fires up the Bat-Signal.

You won’t find that in Nelson Riddle: Music With a Heartbeat. Nelson was one of the chief architects of the “Great American Songbook,” working with Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Judy Garland, Dean Martin, Peggy Lee, and Nat King Cole. He helped Linda Ronstadt take the standards out of the elevator. Riddle scored hundreds of films, many of them classics because of his soundtracks. He arranged, produced, conducted and composed timeless sides, ushered in the popularity of concept albums, and transformed overlooked melodies into instantly recognizable song staples. The theme to Batman only gets a paragraph.

Nelson Riddle: Music With a Heartbeat is an informal affair. Author Geoffrey Littlefield is obviously a passionate and studied music fan, but he doesn’t bring a strong melody to the words. He repeats himself a lot, but not because he is creating refrains or reprising themes. The book reads like a long article, and the expositions resemble extended Wikipedia pages. The best parts come with the interviews, and the most extensive and revelatory come from Nelson’s son Christopher.

Christopher Nelson played with Buddy Rich, Henry Mancini, and Don Costa orchestras, and is a veteran session player in Hollywood recording studios. He is probably his dad’s biggest fan, but more importantly, his most ardent student. Christopher was a bass trombonist in his father’s orchestra, and took it over when he died. He keeps the Nelson Riddle Orchestra on the road, and his father’s friends in his circle. Sinatra called him by his first name. He awoke to sexual consciousness while watching a jazz singer bend her notes around music his father arranged. Christopher learned other lessons about love by watching his father, and the book does not shy away from Nelson’s many affairs or messy divorce.

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Nelson Riddle was a lover. He brought sexuality into his strings. He and Sinatra made love swing. Nelson, we learn, composed musical charts around inner romantic fantasies. You could run the Batman theme over the most edgy motion picture sex scenes and it would be just as cinematically satisfying. After a strict chronological artistic reading, the book reveals Riddle was as prolific romantically as he was musically. He fathered seven children, and when he was having an affair with Rosemary Clooney, he proposed merging all their kids into one big happy family of twelve.

For much of Riddle’s career, he was virtually invisible, occasionally popping his head up with a wand in his hand conducting star attractions. 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 of the book is that Sinatra didn’t want his crowd 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 pulled star power glamor.

The story is weighted in Nelson’s classic period, and would benefit from some lighter, poppier moments. Littlefield casually mentions how Nelson turned down an offer from Paul McCartney to collaborate on a song, without going into much-wanted details. The book also mentions how Riddle did the arrangement for Sinatra’s rendition of George Harrison’s song “Something,” without any insight on bridging the generations’ top talents.

Nelson Riddle: Music With a Heartbeat doesn’t also unlock trade secrets. We get a satisfying sense of how Riddle’s horn playing developed, and how it translated into fine-tuning his arrangements, but offers no insight into composing for a big-band or an orchestra. Though it does recount one fun story where Riddle and Andre Previn expose a well-trenched musical arranger as a fraud musician. They do it by composing dueling scores.

Nelson Riddle: Music with a Heartbeat traces Riddle’s life from Oradell, New Jersey, through his extensive career. We get a sense of his musical education, his influences, and his influence. We get an enthusiastic, but rote, run-through of his credits, from club, concert, and theater work to his stint as musical director for The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour on CBS. The book teases, but doesn’t dip deep enough into the madness of genius, and how all work can be all play, even at its most serious. Riddle’s arrangements continue to play with the imagination of the ear. They allowed Sinatra to sing on the beat, before the beat, or after the beat, and still hit his musical mark. Littlefield keeps time.

Nelson Riddle: Music With a Heartbeat is available now.

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