“Who is Linda Ronstadt?”
That was the question Grammy/Oscar/Emmy winning arranger Nelson Riddle asked when he hung up the phone after a conversation with Peter Asher, Ronstadt’s manager.
It was May of 1982 and Riddle was no longer at the top of his game: his best years, those times when he and Frank Sinatra were recording what one critic termed “forever music,” were in the rear view; he was disconnected from the current scene. Riddle was occupied with writing for films and television, but work was starting to become scarce.
Still, it’s difficult to fathom anyone in the record world could be so detached that they were unaware of Linda Ronstadt. She was at the pinnacle of a triumphant rock career: her albums were double platinum, her concerts filled arenas around the world, she was the singer of the moment. With Time magazine and Rolling Stone cover features (in fact, a record six Rolling Stone covers), Ronstadt had gone viral before anyone knew what going viral meant.
And that voice of hers –pure 50,000 watts at a live event. Blue Bayou, It’s So Easy and encore show stoppers like Heat Wave and Desperado were delivered with genuine sensuality.
She even performed the National Anthem at the 1977 Yankees/Dodgers World Series. So why was Peter Asher talking to a world-class arranger, composer, and conductor who was sliding into back-number status?
Ronstadt, an embodiment of 80’s liberation, was never a conventional performer. During her rock years, she would incorporate seemingly discordant country covers of Patsy Cline, Dolly Parton, and Hank Williams into her records and concerts – the mix fit seamlessly.
Now, Ronstadt wanted to record music from the Great American Songbook, material by Irving Berlin, Sammy Cahn, and the Gershwins. Ronstadt’s father played this genre at home when she was growing up: he had, she said, “an infallible ear for great melody.”
Who better than Nelson Riddle? “I would have sold out my best friend to figure out a way to get into the studio with Nelson,” Ronstadt said.
Asher called Riddle and a meeting was arranged. Riddle knew how to write charts for the standards; he knew even more about how record deals were negotiated. Asher proposed that Riddle work on a song or two for Ronstadt, but the arranger rejected that. A few songs might end up lost on an album surrounded by the work of others — Riddle told Asher and Ronstadt that he did not write arrangements, he wrote albums.
With that said, a three-album deal was quickly consummated.
According to Peter J. Levinson, in his definitive biography of Riddle, September in the Rain, the collaboration which produced the nine-song album, “What’s New,” required numerous demanding takes.
“I’ve always sung in a less disciplined style than these songs require,” Ronstadt commented. “Your phrasing has got to be perfect, and I think phrasing has always been my biggest problem.”
The process went on from June 30, 1982 until March 4, 1983; the final product topped 5 million in sales, yielded a Grammy Award for Riddle, and was universally lauded by critics.
Biographer Levinson reported that the two principals, notorious perfectionists in their own ways, could not have been more gratified.
“There was no more blissful musical experience than singing those songs with Nelson’s arrangements,” Ronstadt said. “I just never had as good a time as I did doing that record.”
Riddle concurred: “Her strong, beautiful voice has unbelievable power…she really took a risk doing this album…I don’t think I would have the nerve to leave all those millions of rock and roll dollars lying in someone else’s pockets.”
Two more productions followed — Lush Life and For Sentimental Reasons — both netted millions in sales, positive reviews, tours, and awards. Three songs on Reasons had to be conducted by friend Terry Woodson, as Riddle passed away on October 6, 1985 at the age of 64 before the album was completed.
Nelson Riddle was cremated and then interred in the Hollywood Forever Cemetery.
Linda Ronstadt later said, “He was the guy who absolutely wrote the book on putting jazz into the orchestra…without compromising either the orchestra or jazz. Nelson wrote beautiful charts for me. I was really lucky… Nelson was writing at the top of his talent when he died.”