A Riddle Named Nelson Gives the Answer to Linda Ronstadt's Oldies LP, What's New

updated 11/07/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/07/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

His lush, pillowy orchestrations once cushioned the singing of Frank Sinatra, Nat "King" Cole, Judy Garland and Peggy Lee. But that was a generation ago, before the advent of rock and a bout with bad health had slowed the tempo of Nelson Riddle's life. Thus it was something of a surprise, says Riddle, now 62, when he was called last year and asked to arrange one song on an album by rock diva Linda Ronstadt, 37. "I didn't know very much about Linda's work," he admits, but "in the back of my mind I started to scheme a bit. I don't like to do single arrangements. I like to do albums."

Riddle's plot-to win a bigger role in the project-succeeded. The result is What's New, an album of nine old-time torchy ballads sung by Ronstadt and backed entirely by Riddle's rich arrangements. The collection of standards, mostly from the '20s, '30s and '40s, has stunned a skeptical record industry by selling a half-million copies within a month of its release and jumping to No. 10 on the Billboard charts. This fall the unlikely partners packed off with the 47-piece Nelson Riddle Orchestra on a two-week tour, and there may be a repeat performance early next year.

According to Ronstadt, the collaboration is due as much to her scheming as Riddle's. Admittedly obsessed with the idea of recording such old standards as Lover Man and Someone to Watch Over Me, she first tried it in 1981 at a four-day recording session in New York but considered the result a failure. "It just wasn't right," she says of those initial arrangements, "but I couldn't get rid of the tunes. They're the most wonderful songs." Ronstadt had heard Riddle's sophisticated orchestrations on Frank Sinatra's classic Only the Lonely album back in 1963, when she was a 17-year-old schoolgirl in Tucson, and later her songwriter pal J.D. Souther reintroduced her to some old Riddle recordings. "I fell in love with the arrangements," she says. "I didn't think there was any other guy who could do the job. Only I didn't know if he wanted to do it."

At a meeting in a West Los Angeles recording studio arranged by Ronstadt's manager, Peter Asher, Riddle agreed to accept the project only if it included the whole album and not just one tune. It was more than Ronstadt had hoped for. "As soon as he said that, I handed him the songs, and we ran into the other room to the piano," recalls Linda. "We got along great." Says Riddle: "She's got a strong, beautiful voice and really unbelievable power. God, when she belts out What's New, you really believe it." Although the final album would include three songs from Sinatra's Only the Lonely record, Riddle insists his arrangements for Ronstadt were strictly custom-made. "I just did it as I felt it now. The same principles guided me that have always guided me, that is, to give the singer room to breathe. When the singer rests, then there's the chance to write a fill that might be heard."

To be sure, Riddle's fills have been heard plenty since 1940 when the then teenage trombonist first joined a band passing near his home in southern New Jersey. As an arranger and conductor he has collected nine Grammy nominations (winning once in 1958) and is a five-time Academy Award nominee who received an Oscar in 1975 for his Great Gatsby score.

Three years ago Riddle's musical life screeched to a halt when he suddenly fell ill. The diagnosis: cirrhosis of the liver. "I liked a glass of vodka, but I never drank so that I was inebriated," he says. "I had a weak liver, and I suppose I was one of those guys who should never have had anything to drink." After several hospitalizations and a three-year fight to regain his health, Riddle is now recovered and a dedicated teetotaler. The experience, he says, has changed his life. "It taught me that just to swing your feet over the side of the bed in the morning is its own reward. Nobody knows how long you're going to be around, so you might as well enjoy it."

For that reason Riddle spends more time nowadays in the modern, hilltop Bel Air home he shares with wife Naomi, 62. His six children by his former wife, Doreen, are all grown. Afternoons he works in a nearby office, often at the baby grand that he has used for 30 years. "There is a little laziness that sets in after a while, but it's pure pleasure," he says happily. Perhaps, but new projects continue to pile up—background music for The Bob New-hart Show, a TV tribute to Sinatra, and a book on arranging to be published early next year. And, if Ronstadt has her way, there may be yet another album. Says Linda: "I'm dying to do another one with him. I've already started to pick out the songs."

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