ARCHIVE: A Riddle for the Ages

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The great composer, arranger, conductor and Rumson HS grad Nelson Riddle is honored in style at McLoone’s Supper Club this weekend, with a pair of shows organized in part by his daughter, former Red Bank resident Rosemary A. Acerra.

By TOM CHESEK (First published on Red Bank oRBit November 10, 2009)

He was the man on the bandstand, the master of the studio, for dozens of Sinatra sessions — both smartly swinging and soulfully somber (as in their professed favorite collaboration Frank Sinatra Sings for Only the Lonely). The man whose massive contributions to the evolution of Sinatra’s Rat Pack persona were a career-saver for the 1940s-era crooner — and who earned himself front-cover billing on the Chairman’s record sleeves by the end of the decade.

Dig further into the bins and you’ll encounter him as the maestro who crafted the sublimely smooth signature sound of Nat King Cole (”Unforgettable,” “Mona Lisa”); the man whose many musical partnerships (from Ella FitzgeraldJudy GarlandPeggy Lee and Dean Martin, right on through his three albums with Linda Ronstadt in the 1980s) resulted in some of the biggest records of those artists’ careers.

As a composer/ conductor of soundtracks, he followed Frank into features (Pal Joey,Young at HeartHigh Society), won an Oscar for The Great Gatsby, and was there on the frontlines of a Golden Age of TV, with his hit themes for Route 66 (one of the coolest pieces of music ever devised), The UntouchablesThe Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, and — Riddle Me This, Caped Crusader! —  much of the music for Adam West’s Batman.

Nelson Riddle (1921-1985) was also a man with a local connection — a graduate of Rumson-Fair Haven High School — and his legacy is carried on into a new century by his six children, one of whom (Rosemary Acerra) oversees the estate from her home in Lakewood.

Acerra and the other surviving Riddle kids — Nelson the Third (or “Skip”), Christopher, Bettina, Cecily and Maureen — began their mission in earnest after winning a protracted legal battle for rights to the Riddle royalties in 2005. A couple of years ago, the estate reissued, for the first time on CD, the long out-of-print album Cross Country Suite — arguably the composer’s most ambitious project, with clarinetist Buddy De Franco fronting the studio orchestra in a series of sound-painting portraits of what were then the 48 states of the union.

With brother Chris taking an active role in the musical direction, a new live version of the Nelson Riddle Orchestra has come together for a handful of select showcase concerts, in New York as well as in Dublin, where the Riddle name maintains a fervent following. This Friday and Saturday, Christopher Riddle joins Oceanport’s David O’Rourke and a 25-piece band for a pair of shows at Tim McLoone’s Supper Club, the sophisticated saucer-shaped space that makes an appropriately fabuluxe setting for a catalog that’s often narrowly pegged within the subgenre of Space Age Bachelor Pad Music.

A whirlwind retrospective of the composer/arranger’s best-loved originals and charts for those aforementioned vocal greats, The Nelson Riddle Show will also spotlight the performing talents of O’Rourke’s wife Jennifer, as well as the twentysomething British singer Atila, who’s made the trip across the pond specifically for the occasion. Red Bank oRBit heard from Rosemary Acerra as she and the family (including her husband and “backbone,” Red Bank native Joseph Acerra) prepped for the first in what’s being pitched as a regular touring series of tributes to this quiet giant of postwar pop. Read on.

RED BANK ORBIT: The shows you have coming up look like a lot of fun, and they mean even more because of the whole Red Bank, Monmouth County area connection. How much time did your father spend around here? 

ROSEMARY ACERRA: He was born in Hackensack, and lived up north when he was younger, but the family had a summer place down in Rumson; my father really loved it there and he convinced them to let him do his last year of high school in Rumson. He was in the first graduating class at Rumson High School, in 1939.

You married into a Red Bank family yourself — did your dad come around there to visit often? And do you think he ever met up with Count Basie when he would return to his old stomping grounds? 

He came into town a few times before he died in 1985 — it’s cool to think that he would have crossed paths with Basie, whose sound he loved, but I couldn’t say for sure if that ever happened!

You and your siblings have been really busy in recent years, reviving your dad’s musical legacy and re-releasing albums like CROSS COUNTRY. Why weren’t we seeing concerts and other projects happening prior to that?  

We first had to win a seven-year legal battle, between 1998, when my father’s second wife died, to 2005. There was an attempt to redirect my father’s royalties to her estate, but after that was all over, the six of us Riddles knew that we needed to start planning ways of generating interest in Dad’s music once again.

With Cross Country especially, we wanted to bring that project to people’s attention — i remember those eleven pieces on that album just taking me away when I was young; when I listen to it I can imagine Dad just painting a picture with music, in this Gershwin-esque, Copland-esque sort of way. It won a Grammy for Dad, although it was not a critical or a commercial success at the time — the timing just wasn’t right for it then. The master tapes were just sitting on a shelf after all those years, and we got Doug Schwartz, who’s an audio guy in L.A., to remaster the tracks for the first release on CD.

Now, over at the Count Basie, Joe Muccioli does a Sinatra’s Birthday show each year, in which your dad’s music plays an important part — I’m enough of a fan to know that the whole Riddle legacy extended way beyond the records with Frank, but you have to admit that it’s a great jumping-on point for people who are interested in Nelson Riddle. The Sinatra people find a way to make a new generation of fans every few years.

When Dad and Sinatra came together, there was a spark of electricity — it was a partnership that had such an impact on both of their careers, and on popular music in general. And my father wasn’t even Frank’s first choice to work with, when he first came to Capitol Records. Sinatra wanted Axel Stordahl, with whom he was comfortable working in the past, and for his next project he wanted Billy May. My dad was brought in by Alan Livingston at Capitol, because Billy May was out on the road touring at the time — and Dad had already been very successful with the records he was doing with Nat Cole. But because Frank didn’t know this young music director at the podium, they told him that this Nelson Riddle was simply conducting arrangements that had been done by May.

They did a couple of songs together, “South Of The Border;” “I’ve Got The World On A String” — you could hear right then that there was a new feel to how Sinatra was being presented; a more swinging sort of sound. Frank was very excited about this new sound when he heard it, and his career was re-energized after that; he became the singer that we really remember today from that point.

I should say that this is not just a Sinatra show, however. There are songs that are associated with Judy Garland, Peggy Lee — it highlights all different people, as well as Dad’s work as a composer.

Reading up on your father’s work, I keep getting reminded of all the crazy things he got involved with — the old BATMAN show, the original OCEAN’S 11— these are things that are every bit as much of an identifier as the classiest award-winning records.

He had that Depression-era attitude, where he wouldn’t turn down any projects, so when Bill Dozier came to him to write all the other music to Batman, he took it on. He needed to have the luxury of picking and choosing his projects.

And in the process of obtaining that luxury, he still never turned anything down. 

You could say that it allowed him to do things like Cross Country, where he was able to use some of his more serious musical influences. He was interested in Debussy and Ravel; the sounds they used and the ways in which they layered the strings. It comes through in a lot of his work.What are your personal favorite things from your dad’s body of work? And what do you think he was proudest of?

He loved Only the Lonely with Sinatra — he considered it his best work. I love the album Close to You, which has kind of a chamber-group sound that’s unusual for him — but I think my favorite has to be the Gershwin Songbook, with Ella.

There are pictures of you kids hanging around the studio with some very famous people at work. How well did you guys get to know Ella Fitzgerald and other stars like that? 

In the picture I’m sending you with Bing Crosby, the kids who were there that day were put to work doing background vocals (probably for “Don’t Be a Do-Badder” off the soundtrack to ROBIN AND THE 7 HOODS). Ella was just so sweet, so warm and approachable — you wouldn’t walk up to Sinatra in the way that you could just connect with Ella. And Nat was the same way; we studied music with his daughtersNatalie and Carol, out in Malibu. It worked that way with Dad also — he worked very closely with Frank Sinatra, Jr.; really mentored him as far as writing music and conducting.

Tell me about some of these people who will be performing in Asbury — how did you connect with this young guy from the UK, Atila?

I met Atila through David O’Rourke, who you know lives in Oceanport — he’s a writer, arranger for the Jazz Standard Youth Orchestra, and he did a show called Hey Diddle Riddle at NYU.

David worked with Atila and with Chris at the concerts in Dublin. There’s a huge following for Dad’s music there, and real mix of age groups in the audience, young and old. We’re doing this local show on a shoestring, and I’m picking Atila up at the airport after I talk to you. He’s chomping at the bit for the opportunity to sing these charts.

Somehow we’re managing to fit a 25-piece orchestra into McLoone’s, which is just a wonderful room, but I’m afraid we’re going to be cutting into the dance floor with our bandstand risers. With about 150 person capacity, it can be considered an intimate room, and we’ve generated a lot of interest in these shows. We think of this as our pilot; a demo for a series of shows that we’d like to do.

So would you say, as the person who’s more or less the spokesman for the family, that you’re really just getting started, just beginning to get Nelson Riddle’s music back in front of the audience? 

My dad’s legacy needs to be reinforced, and my role in this, as the trustee of the estate and the one who sort of leads the battles, is that everyone looks to me to move everything forward.

We have this great asset in the family, and the richness of this asset is not something that’s measured in money. It’s the sound of our dad’s work, and that’s what means the most to us; the part that will live on forever.

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