In journalism, the phrase “burying the lead” refers to putting the crux of a story deep into the text and beginning the piece with less pertinent facts. Peter J. Levinson, with five decades of work invested in the music business, does a bit of that in his biography of the arranger Nelson Riddle “September in the Rain,” spilling out mundane biographical details for more than 100 pages before readers get to the heart of why anyone even knows Riddle’s name: his association with Frank Sinatra.
The delay wouldn’t matter much were this only a straightforward bio. But Levinson, a writer and publicist, knew the two men during their heyday, interacting with them in professional settings and seeing first-hand how the two related to each other. Extensive research only strengthens Levinson’s conviction that the Riddle-Sinatra relationship was unlike any other in their own lives. Add to that the fact that these are the most fascinating chapters of Riddle’s life and one could dispense with many of the mundane details.
The man was well-liked and his specialty was the very unsexy task of arranging (though he later became known for composing). Beyond some very distinct demons that seemed to stem from his emotionally troubled childhood, this was a guy who, one speaker notes, had the personality of a stale cigarette.
“September in the Rain” unfolds like a life, making a few odd turns in time to expose the roots of each chronologically told story. Levinson gives a complete overview of how Riddle appeared to the world around him. His detailed research lets us know where he was and when, but misses the boat on what could have been a fascinating psychological study of a troubled genius.
The Riddle story plays like a Greek tragedy — the ascending hero who eventually finds himself lost in a world he no longer understands until an unlikely act revives him — though Levinson doesn’t force this structure upon the reader.
He came from a home of a meek father and domineering mother; he was a curmudgeonly trombonist skilled at arranging. Those skills enabled him to rise to the top of the class by working at Capitol Records with Nat King Cole on hits such as “Mona Lisa” and Sinatra on “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.” He managed to stand up to everyone except Frank, whose dark and rude ways were tolerated by Riddle to the chagrin of so many around him.
Riddle was the sort whose life intersected with certain individuals over and over and Levinson uses his various collaborations as starting points to move the reader from one decade to another. The arranger and composer enjoyed wildly different but consistently successful musical decades — the 1950s, in which he helped define the sounds of Tommy Dorsey and Cole; the ’60s, when he was defining the Sinatra sound; the ’70s, when he scored TV shows and films and won an Oscar for “The Great Gatsby”; and the ’80s, working with Linda Ronstadt.
He was married with a family of five and yet he womanized, falling deeply in love with Rosemary Clooney, who did not comment for this book. Riddle’s fortunes faltered as arranging became a bygone art form in the rock era. Eventually, he turned to television work while moving out of the Malibu home dominated by his alcoholic wife. As he sinks, Levinson mentions his dislike for TV work, but never spells out its cause.