At his peak, Frank Sinatra never seemed to make a bum call. He sang ahead of the beat, on the beat, behind the beat, rendering punctuation and syntax seemingly easy as breath. As for the man who buoyed him to that peak and sat with him awhile—well, Nelson Riddle’s relatively invisible job seems the purview of music heads and fellow arrangers. A book showing who he was, how he was, how he plucked from mid-air these successions of rosebeds from which the Chairman preened and proclaimed, would make for one shining accomplishment.
It’s my sad duty to report that this book is not that book. Peter Levinson’s biography September in the Rain, from 2001, might be that book; it’s certainly better integrated between the man, the music, and the quiet madness. Arranged by Nelson Riddle, from Riddle himself, unlocks his trade secrets, essential for anyone learning orchestral or big-band arrangement. Geoffrey Littlefield, an Englishman with an admirable jones for the Great American Songbook, means well. But pages fly by full of awkward constructions, redundancies, extensive quotes from web sources, limp testimonials from Riddle’s clients (Johnny Mathis takes several smooth sentences to say nothing at all), and oatmeal prose. He clearly has preferences, and even passions, about Riddle. But they lose their way to the page.
Littlefield takes seven chapters of augmented listicles, dryly detailing Riddle’s credits, before diving into the man himself. And he finds, at this long last, a compelling subject: The workaholic who fathered seven children, likened music to sex, and built each chart around a romantic fantasy. The family man who carried on for years with Rosemary Clooney and thought seriously about blending her kids with his, to make a hypothetical family of 12. (He settled for his secretary instead.) The boozer who, like Sinatra, hit the bar and the cigarettes heavy between sessions but, unlike his shining client, never wrung any glamor or credit for the zeitgeist. The midlife re-marrier whose second wife wrested everything tangible, at least everything that mattered, away from the children.
We sit at a remove from such affairs, naturally, no matter how rendered. What we’ve got is (for one example) “I’ve Got You Under My Skin”—hearing it breathe as an entity, bidding hello, building, building, until the break, until the singer sails from the break, soars, and winks goodbye. The man was messy. The music is all you need.