September in the Rain: The Life of Nelson Riddle

by Peter J. Levinson

Published by Billboard Books

288 pages, 2001


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"Let's put it this way: I couldn't have written either book if I hadn't had the career that I had. 'Cause if you work as a publicist, you're working not only with artists but with managers and agents and so forth. You get an understanding of what careers are all about. A couple of reviews, more than a couple, have said that I add insight into the business. I'm not consciously trying to add insight; but by the very nature of what I'm reporting and how I'm reporting it, I am providing an insight. You could almost say that my years in publicity were a training ground; they gave me the knowledge to be able to write this. And then once the book is out, I have to revert to my knowledge of publicity to get it sold."






In Memoriam...

Peter J. Levinson -- 1934 - 2008

Peter Levinson, passed away on October 21st, 2008, at the age of 74. From Variety:

Veteran music PR exec and jazz music expert Peter J. Levinson died Oct. 21 of head injuries due to a fall at his Malibu home. He was 74.

For nearly two years, he had suffered from ALS, (Lou Gehrig's disease) and was unable to speak. However, with the aid of his talking computer, he was able to carry on business as usual until the day he died.

January Magazine wrote about Levinson at the time of his passing. That piece is here.

As America ages, it more and more disproves F. Scott Fitzgerald's dictum that American lives have no second acts. Case in point: Peter J. Levinson, who in the last few years has transformed himself from one of America's premier jazz publicists into one of America's most enterprising vintage-popular music biographers.

Levinson's 2000 book, Trumpet Blues: The Life of Harry James, was widely praised by mainstream and music reviewers alike. Critic Nat Hentoff wrote of Trumpet Blues: "It is one of the very few biographies of a musician I have read that not only told me much more than I thought I knew but compelled me to listen right away to the music again."

Peter Levinson's engrossing second book, September in the Rain: The Life of Nelson Riddle, should provoke the same effect in prompting readers to listen once more with pleasure to some of the hundreds of classic recordings its subject arranged and conducted for such artists as Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Peggy Lee and Nat "King" Cole.

Born in New Jersey, schooled at the University of Virginia, Peter J. Levinson began his involvement with American popular music in the late 1950s as a freelance writer in New York City. He soon began work as a publicist for record companies and then with his own agency in New York and Los Angeles. Living now in Malibu, Levinson still represents "a few select clients."


Tom Nolan: Was Nelson Riddle an unhappy man?

Peter Levinson: Oh yes.

Why so?

I think it really all began with the mother, Albertine, shall we say setting a bad tone in the household; the father being kicked around, the father being constantly the butt of a harpoon going at him at all times, so to speak.

The father (a sign painter and amateur musician) wasn't a very strong man. He was apparently a good craftsman, but he just didn't have much ambition. But of course, that's where Nelson learned the trombone and the piano: from him.

Your previous subject, Harry James, was also unhappy?

Oh yes, very definitely.

I mean, what you have with genius -- and I think certainly you could say "genius" about Riddle, and attach it also to Harry James -- but, brilliant artists often are very, very unhappy people. And we know hundreds of examples.

Why is it necessary or interesting to learn about people like Nelson Riddle? Why not just listen to their music?

Well, let's go back to 1965, to Frank Sinatra's first special for NBC, at a period when he was really close to the height of his popularity or maybe even past the height a little bit, which was really in the late 50s; but at any rate, the special was titled: A Man and His Music. I mean, that's what it is.

Put it this way: Nelson's life, and the life experiences he had -- there was obviously such a close attachment with Sinatra's. "Only the Lonely," "In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning" -- the settings for those songs couldn't have been written by another arranger as brilliantly as Nelson did them. And they were based on the sadness of his life, and also in Sinatra's life. And he understood. They really had a kind of a wave-length between each other, to understand each other. Remember, both of them were only children, as it were; both came from shall we say problem households. And I think that is why you tell the story: You tell the story of who is the man behind the music.

How did Riddle work so well with singers? What did he do, or not do?

I think he recognized the strengths and boosted the strengths; and he hid the problems. Cushioned the problems, you might say; kept them away from the listener, by writing arrangements to highlight the strengths.

For instance, Eddie Fisher had the worst [sense of musical] time in the world. Nelson even had a hit record with him [Games Lovers Play], at a time in the mid-60s when Eddie Fisher's kind of balladry was long gone. And, of course, [Linda] Ronstadt had her problems at the beginning [of working with Riddle] as well, you know. First of all, she wasn't used to singing that kind of a song. And he worked at her, and he was tough on her, as he could be in the studio; but he worked with her, and she wanted to learn this kind of music. And I think by, let's say the middle part of the second album and certainly by the third, they really accomplished some pretty good artistry.

So it wasn't only that he could accommodate himself and his writing to singers' weaknesses; he brought out their strong suits.

Exactly. And that whole feeling of Sinatra -- the carefree bachelor, the playboy, the man-about-town, the bon vivant, the high-liver -- he could also underline exactly that, so well.

When Nelson Riddle first began writing arrangements for record dates in L.A. around 1949, he had trouble getting credit or being known for his own work?

Oh yeah, through doing ghostwriting. In a recent interview, his son Chris Riddle said Les Baxter should get credit as being tremendously helpful to getting Nelson started, for the reason that he got Nelson to ghostwrite for him. But yet, Les Baxter took the credit for Mona Lisa and Too Young, which were the two records that made Nat "King" Cole a huge star. He had the good sense of being told about Riddle, and he knew how good he was; but essentially, Les Baxter took the credit. And Nelson held that against him for a long time, and I think there was some justification.

It was Nelson's then-wife Doreen who said, "Let's go down and see Nat Cole at this club in town," where they told him Nelson really wrote those charts, that got things changed around such that now he could get the credit, and he could conduct the orchestra. And the rest is history, 'cause he and Nat Cole did 262 records (tracks) together; and they had about 20-some hits with those.

Riddle's first wife was a nice woman?

Yes, whom he probably outgrew, in a sense. And of course, she was what she was: a good 50s housewife, who had a good mind and so forth; and they were going to make it together. And of course the temptation of Hollywood and a lot of women -- and one person in particular, Rosemary Clooney -- spelled the death of that.

The relationship with Clooney was an important one for Riddle?

Oh, very important. I mean, it lasted six-and-a-half years.

And he couldn't have married her?

He could have, but that never would have worked. I mean, he was always struggling to make money, with six children; how was ten (adding her four from a previous marriage) gonna work?

But she had an income, too.

Yes, but still -- You have two artists like that, and a pop singer is more important than an arranger. You got built-in conflicts ... And so then, of course, he went -- as far as his marriage -- from bad to worse. [His second wife] Naomi was, as Duke Ellington used to say, "beyond category."

Not very pleasant?

Not very pleasant, no, to say the least. She ran things. It was a kind of partnership at first, but later it was: "You do what I tell you." And he had had the experience of the same kind of marriage in his own household, with his mother and father, and he didn't want to rock the boat. So he lived with it and suffered because of it. And he wanted to divorce her, but he was afraid of being ruined financially.

That's depressing.

Oh sure it is. There's no question about it. I mean, that's why I called the book September in the Rain. That's a very sad ballad. And, of course, I made the connection to Sinatra, with that being one of the best arrangements Nelson ever wrote for him.

How did Riddle get hooked up with Sinatra?

Alan Livingston takes the credit and I think he's probably right, because, after all, he was head of A&R at Capitol Records in the early 50s. Later on he became president of the company. He learned who Nelson Riddle was, through this association with Nat Cole; and they had the beginning of a lotta hits in 51 and 52.

When Sinatra came along, Alan Livingston wanted him. It's an interesting story in the book, wherein Sam [Weisbord], Sinatra's then-agent at the William Morris Agency, called and said, "Look, we've just signed Frank Sinatra, Alan, would you be interested in him for Capitol?" (Sinatra was at a very low point in his career.) And Livingston said, "Yes I would." And Livingston says Weissbord replied: "You would ?"

So Sinatra said to Livingston, "Well look, I wanna use Axel Stordahl [as my arranger-conductor], I've been with him all these years." Alan said, "Okay, well let's try that." So they did two records and nothin' much happened. And then Alan said, "Look, we got this other guy, I'd like you to consider him."

Originally, Billy May, I think, probably was given the job to do three tunes. And Billy had to go quickly out on the road. And Nelson could ghostwrite, of course; and he wrote "South of the Border," "I Love You," and I think it was "Lean Baby," and wrote 'em in Billy May's fashion. And then he got up there, and Sinatra said, "Who's this guy?" "Oh, he's just conducting Billy May's charts," they said; and they certainly sounded like Billy May charts.

And then he had one of his own arrangements, of "I've Got the World on a String," and Sinatra went crazy over it -- and you know the rest. And that was April, 1953.

What caused their first musical parting?

Oh, back in the 60s? Well, Sinatra just wanted to use other people. Nothing against Nelson, but -- It's like, William Powell and Myrna Loy did a lotta movies together and they were very successful in the Thin Man series; but then Powell started doing other things, and Myrna Loy too.

It was not a slap at Nelson, but Nelson took it as his being unhappy with him, which he wasn't. He wanted to use various other people for other types of music, and he thought the others would work perhaps better. And Nelson thought he was being frozen out.

And, of course, there was also that problem in that he couldn't use Nelson for a couple of years, couldn't use his name on a Reprise record [because Riddle was under contract to Capitol], although Nelson did quite a bit of ghostwriting for him. But those things -- Nelson took them personally, and I don't think he should have.

Why did he?

Because Nelson was a dependent kind of a person. He never knew how good Nelson Riddle was, or how important Nelson Riddle was. So if your main source wants to try other things ... he felt it was the end. And it wasn't the end, because then Sinatra started using him again -- but he still used other people as well. So he would use Nelson and Billy May and Quincy Jones -- and even H.B. Barnum and other people who fit in a rhythm and blues context when he did That's Life, for instance.

Did that hurt Riddle's career?

He thought it did, but it really didn't, because he was already pretty established in his own way. But then, of course, there was another problem, which was the change in the music, which really started in early 64 with the Beatles. But by 67 and the Monterey Pop Festival, that really began the development of the American rock and roll business. From the Monterey Pop Festival in July of 1967 emerged Simon and Garfunkel, Otis Redding, Big Brother and the Holding Company, Jimi Hendrix and others who took over the music. Suddenly, Nelson Riddle's music was on its way out. And that's essentially what happened to him until 1983, when Linda Ronstadt supplied the comeback vehicle, shall we say.

So what did he do during those years?

He did a lotta bad movies. Because he was good at adaptation. He wasn't good at writing pop hits, as Mancini was such a master at doing. Nelson was a far superior arranger to Hank, but Hank could write those melodies which could be important to the selling of movies and selling of records. So he was very much second-fiddle to what Mancini was doing in movies.

But -- For instance The Great Gatsby was his fifth [Academy Award] nomination. And he got an Oscar for that. Then a few years later, he got up at a meeting of the organization that's involved with the Academy, the composers branch; and he said, "Why are we giving out two Oscars, one for original score and one for adaptation? There should only be one, for original score." And by doing that, he was shooting himself in the foot. Because within the period after they began only giving one Oscar for film music -- they later went back to giving two Oscars -- he did a Burt Reynolds movie called Rough Cut with an extraordinary score of Duke Ellington songs: adaptation, once again. He would have been nominated! But he couldn't be nominated, because there wasn't any adaptation Oscar in that period.

Partly because of what he'd said?

That's right. That's right. He had a way of doing dumb things. I mean, he was very sophisticated, shall we say, about his music and about art and things like that. But when it came to his own career and his own life, he just made a lot of terrible decisions.

How willing were people to speak with you about Nelson Riddle?

His children were very very helpful to this. They were all very willing and completely open, which makes a job much easier. I would say for the most part, only two or three people wouldn't talk; that's all. Rosemary Clooney didn't agree to talk, although I'd been her publicist and I'm still very friendly with her; but she felt that what she said in her book was what she wanted to say. I found out a lot more than she revealed in her book.

Did it help you to have known Nelson Riddle personally a bit?

I think it does add something; I think it adds an understanding.

How did you meet him?

I had been sent by Los Angeles magazine to do a profile on him. I went and met him at Nickodell's [restaurant] in, I think, March of 1962. I'm interviewing him, and he's answered the questions and everything -- Of course he didn't give me much about his home life, which was very unhappy at the time; but in the music area, all of a sudden -- We talked about Sinatra, and I knew Sinatra, and we were talkin' about that, and then he just blurted out: "But my career is over, I can't work with him, there's no future." I said, "Well waddya mean?" He said, "Well I can't write for Sinatra 'cause of the contractual problem between Capitol and Reprise, and I'm in the middle." I said, "But you've just invited me to see Ella Fitzgerald, she's your number one thing." "Yeah, but she's not Sinatra." This unhappiness, always coming out.

I met this man and within an hour of my talking to him, here he is telling me all his troubles: that his career is over. That gave me some sense of what he was about, right there.

So in the book, I'm telling how unhappy he is from his history and from what I've gathered in interviews; but I'm also giving the reader an idea of all that from personal experience. And, of course, I tried to convince him back then that he oughta go with me into a publicity office. Frankly at the time I wasn't much of a publicist; I knew very little about it. But I think publicity could have been of great importance to him.

How long have you been a publicist?

Well, I started my career 43 years ago, in November of 1958, at Columbia Records, where I was assistant to the head of popular music publicity; but I really didn't become a publicist till the fall of 1962 or 63, with Jack Jones.

You began as a freelance writer. Why did you move into publicity?

I guess because at the beginning, as a freelance writer, I saw how hard that is and I saw publicity as maybe a way to make more money. Jack Jones' then-manager, Nick Savano, asked me to work for Jack for a few months, in 1962; and it kept going and kept going and it lasted over a year.

Who are some other clients you've worked with over the decades?

Oh, it's a vast list. In no order of importance: Stan Getz, Weather Report, Dave Brubeck, Artie Shaw, Woody Herman, Lalo Shifrin, Peggy Lee, Antonio Carlos Jobim, the actor Robert Ryan. Chuck Mangione, Bill Evans, Maynard Ferguson, Pete Fountain, Art Garfunkel, Dexter Gordon. I even worked on a piano album with Jack Lemmon. Ramsay Lewis, Phyllis Diller, the Modern Jazz Quartet, Bud Shank. I worked with Billy Taylor for 25 years. George Shearing, Mel Torme, Jim Hall, Chick Corea, Benny Carter, Rosemary Clooney, Charlie Byrd, Louis Bellson, Dee Dee Bridgewater -- you got the picture.

You worked with Bill Evans?

I worked for both Bill Evans the saxophone player and more importantly Bill Evans the piano player.

Bill Evans [the piano player] was terrific; I had a lotta cooperation from him and it was in the period when he got off heroin. And then of course he wound up shooting cocaine and then dying shortly thereafter.

Is being a publicist a happy kind of life?

Well, it is and it isn't. Your career has ebbs and flows, shall we say. Sometimes business is good and sometimes it isn't and you've got to ride out the bad periods.

I came here to Los Angeles to get back into doing publicity on motion pictures and television. I had done a lot of that in the 60s and into the 70s; then I got to be kind of typecast with jazz and I didn't get that business. I'd handled the Time cover story on Dallas and that whole excitement that came out of Dallas I was responsible for most of. I thought I'd come out here and get back into that -- and it just simply didn't happen. And then of course by the mid-90s, the jazz business went through the basement and it's never recovered from it.

What are the satisfactions of being a publicist for jazz artists?

When you get appreciation from a person like Woody Herman, who said to me three times in the company of others: "I've been hiring publicists since 1936. This guy's better than any guy I've ever had" -- that gives you satisfaction. And he was always cordial and he appreciated it. And when you get a veteran star who really appreciates it, and you're accomplishing things for him and helping his career, that gives you a lot of satisfaction.

How did you become a biographer?

I can't say that I set a path for myself to do this. It just occurred to me. The idea of doing the Harry James book came to me one night, probably about 1990. And it took three or four years to get a deal.

With Riddle, it happened the time Sinatra died: I was looking around for a second subject and then when Sinatra died, Nelson came to mind.

How are you able to use your experience as a publicist to promote your own books?

Let's put it this way: I couldn't have written either book if I hadn't had the career that I had. 'Cause if you work as a publicist, you're working not only with artists but with managers and agents and so forth. You get an understanding of what careers are all about. A couple of reviews, more than a couple, have said that I add insight into the business. I'm not consciously trying to add insight; but by the very nature of what I'm reporting and how I'm reporting it, I am providing an insight. You could almost say that my years in publicity were a training ground; they gave me the knowledge to be able to write this. And then once the book is out, I have to revert to my knowledge of publicity to get it sold.

What were some of things you as a publicist were able to do for Trumpet Blues?

Well first of all: the cover. That cover was brilliant -- not brilliant on my part, but on the photographer's part. I knew the picture, I knew how good Harry looked: the bright red jacket, and there's a gold trumpet right in front of him. The whole sense of identification comes right out of that photograph. That picture never would have been used by any major publisher, or even a small publisher; it's too expensive to get a photograph like that. But I got it from Capitol Records, from Michael Cuscuna, who works for [Capitol parent company] Blue Note and has Mosaic Records; he got it for me and gave it to Oxford [University Press]. And that wouldn't have happened otherwise; they would have used a dull black-and-white photograph.

As far as publicity, there were many media outlets that I could get to. The jazz magazines and columns -- it was very well-reviewed by a lotta people. I got reviewed in People magazine. The company that was supposed to get me interviews with disc jockeys -- they said they would do it, and they never did, so I set up 23 disc jockey interviews, because of the tie-in, which I also arranged, with the [Capitol] record with the same cover and the same name: Trumpet Blues. And that's all out of what I had learned to do.

Now I'm adapting it again to this book. CBS Sunday Morning is going to do a story on the book and Nelson Riddle. That's a funny story, because they'd assigned a story on Nelson Riddle when he was alive, and it was all shot except for the final interview, which Nelson asked be postponed for a couple of weeks; and then he died. So I went back to 'em 18 years later and said, "Hey look, you've got this footage, but you never did anything with it. Here I'm putting this book together," and so forth and so on.

And you're working on another book now?

On Tommy Dorsey, yes -- which came right out of this book. I found out how important Dorsey was to Riddle; I think the year he spent with the Dorsey band was the most important year in Nelson's apprenticeship. He learned the discipline of a great orchestra and how to work with a disciplinarian; and his craft increased in value, shall we say, through that association. And that led me right into this book. And I've found Tommy Dorsey to be the most colorful subject I've ever encountered. | November 2001


Tom Nolan's Macavity Award-winning Ross Macdonald: A Biography is available in trade paperback from Poisoned Pen Press.