Nelson Riddle, Composer and Arranger for Top Stars, Dies

Times Staff Writer

Nelson Riddle, the composer-conductor famed for his lush arrangements of songs for singers such as Judy Garland, Nat (King) Cole and Frank Sinatra, and for his “Theme From Route 66,” died Sunday. He was 64.

Riddle, who most recently had been the arranger-conductor of Linda Ronstadt’s “What’s New” and “Lush Life” albums of richly orchestrated old standards, died at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center of cardiac and kidney failure, according to a hospital spokesman.

In 1975, Riddle won an Oscar for music adaptation for the score of the film “The Great Gatsby,” based on the F. Scott Fitzgerald novel. He also won two Grammys, the first in 1958 for “Cross-Country Suite,” and the second for Ronstadt’s “What’s New” album.

Made Pop Charts

His 1962 composition, “Theme From Route 66,” made it to 30th on Billboard’s pop charts that year, and was one of the first television show themes to be recorded and commercially released.

Riddle had suffered liver problems for years, and “he had been getting weaker in the last six months,” his son, Christopher Riddle, said Sunday.


He had been taken to the hospital from his Bel-Air home Sept. 30, and his six children and second wife, Naomi, spent most of Sunday with him, Christopher added.

“We were with him all day long,” he said. “He slipped into a coma at 7:30 this morning.”

Born June 1, 1921, in Hackensack, N.J., Riddle started playing the piano, but took up the trombone at the age of 14. He played with many noted dance bands, including Jerry Wald, Charlie Spivak and Tommy Dorsey.

Although he became a staff arranger for NBC in Hollywood in the late 1940s and music director of Capitol Records during the 1950s, he first became prominent during the 1950s from his free-lance arranging-conducting on record sessions, especially for Frank Sinatra and Nat (King) Cole.

Among the most famous works he arranged was Cole’s ballad single, “Mona Lisa,” and Sinatra’s 1958 album, “Only the Lonely.”

Television Themes

He also undertook the musical background for successful television series such as “The Untouchables” and “Route 66.”

He composed the scores for movies such as “St. Louis Blues” (1958); “Come Blow Your Horn” (1962); “Paint Your Wagon” (1969) and “The Great Gatsby” (1974).

In recent years, before his comeback with Ronstadt, he had done little album work, other than a 1981 assignment for Ella Fitzgerald. He started an album with Sinatra in 1978 but the project was shelved unfinished.

In a 1983 interview, he said he had been eager to accept the assignment as arranger-conductor on Ronstadt’s “What’s New” album, but only on his terms.

Went for the Idea

“They wanted me to do one song, ‘Guess I’ll Hang My Tears Out to Dry,’ ” he said, “but I said I just do whole albums. She went for the idea.”

The recording sessions went smoothly, he recalled, but not quite fast enough for him. They had begun on June 30, 1982, and finished March 3, 1983.

“They don’t do things like we used to,” he said. “In the old days, Sinatra could record an album of 12 songs in three nights.”

Besides his wife Naomi and son Christopher, survivors include the eldest son, Nelson Riddle III; daughters Rosemary Ann Acerra; Bettina Marie Bellini; Cecily Jean Finnegan and Maureen Alicia Riddle. All the children were by his first wife, Doreen Moran Riddle, who died in 1980.