When pulling together the talent for The Julie Andrews Hour, each member of the creative team was chosen with great care. All were people who understood how to bring the best to a production. Thus, it is not surprising that Nelson Riddle was chosen as orchestra leader/musical director for The Julie Andrews Hour.
For nearly twenty years, Nelson Riddle had been considered one of the greatest talents in pop music. He worked with all the top singers, including Sinatra and Peggy Lee, and the albums he arranged for them were tremendous hits. Nine years earlier, Nelson Riddle was musical director for The Judy Garland Show, which though it only lasted one season, is still highly regarded today. So in hiring Nelson Riddle, the producers knew they were getting the best of the best.
Nelson Riddle’s story began in Oradell, New Jersey on June 1, 1921. He grew up in Ridgewood, New Jersey and as a result of his father’s interest in music, began taking piano lessons at the age of eight. By high school, he was studying trombone. This fact is interesting in relation to a musical arrangement of “Getting Sentimental Over You,” which Julie Andrews performed on the 23rd episode. For that song, Riddle wrote an arrangement solely for trombones. With Julie standing center stage, she sang with four trombone layers surrounding her. The number is quite lovely.
During Nelson Riddle’s late teens and early 20s, he played trombone in various dance bands. He also wrote arrangements for these bands, finally being hired by the Charlie Spivak Orchestra. Meanwhile, Riddle joined the Merchant Marines. Serving in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, he was able to continue working with the Charlie Spivak Orchestra and study orchestration. After completing two years in the Merchant Marines, he joined the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra, only to be drafted into the U.S. Army. He only served a few months before World War II ended and was released the following year.
After being released from the Army, Nelson Riddle went out to Hollywood where he soon found a job at Capital Records. Working under composer Les Baxter, Riddle was asked to arrange a new song which was going to be recorded by singer Nat King Cole. The song was “Mona Lisa.” When Nat King Cole learned that Nelson, not Les Baxter, had been the one to arrange “Mona Lisa,” he asked him to write more arrangements for him. By 1953, he was working with Frank Sinatra. As a result, Sinatra’s career, which was in a slump, went on to a new high.
During the following years, Nelson Riddle worked with many other great singers, including Ella Fitzgerald, Dean Martin, Peggy Lee, Johnny Mathis, Rosemary Clooney and Keeley Smith. He also wrote and arranged television theme songs, such as the theme for Batman. A year after The Julie Andrews Hour ended, Riddle won an Academy Award for his score for the film, The Great Gatsby.
Persons on The Julie Andrews Hour found Nelson Riddle easy to work with. As stated in the interview with Ian Fraser, Riddle had his own system of working. Every Monday he’d have lunch with the arrangers, discuss the week and farm out the work.
“He looked like a shoe salesman,” said choral director Dick Williams, about Nelson’s easy going manner and informal way. Everyone involved with the music felt lucky to be working with him.
About The Julie Andrews Hour, Nelson Riddle did not have great praise for the show, saying “I’m not saying it was the best show, but they spent a lot of time, a lot of money. I think it’s laudable.”
Meanwhile, Riddle was used to working with pop and jazz singers. Although Julie Andrews had many big hits during the 1960s, including songs from The Sound of Music, Mary Poppins, Thoroughly Modern Millie and Star!, she could hardly be considered a pop singer. In the documentary made by Blake Edwards, “Julie,” it appears that Nelson Riddle asked Julie to sing her greatest hit, “The Sound of Music,” in a lower key. Perhaps this was true generally, and it was done with the hope that a lower key would make her appear less operatic or classical. While Julie could sing pretty much in any key asked for, part of her uniqueness was the brilliance of her upper tones and her ability therein, but she herself said that she hoped to try many different things with this show, and she did. Much of Nelson Riddle’s work with Julie is quite stunning and should be released as a musical recording.
In the years following The Julie Andrews Hour, Nelson Riddle’s fame and success lessened to a certain degree. Music was changing and he did not like rock and roll. Then in 1982, he was approached by Linda Ronstandt via her manager. Although he didn’t know much about her, his daughter convinced him to go ahead and work on an album with her. Ronstadt wanted to perform jazz standards. As a result of their work-- three albums total-- the albums the created together sold over seven million copies and earned Nelson Riddle two Grammy Awards.
Sadly, Nelson Riddle passed away on October 6, 1985, less than twelve years after the last episode of The Julie Andrews Hour.
© Michelle Russell
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