Nelson Riddle and the Kid……..

During all my years performing magic, only once did I think about giving it up and doing something different. It happened back in the  ‘70’s in California when I got to work with a musical hero of mine. A call from the Magic Castle put me in touch with a producer from Pacific Palisades. Getting a referral call from the Castle was like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates, you never knew what you were getting!  The only thing you did know was that Jean had quoted a fee. Jean Cantor was the dynamo at the center of the Castle who kept things hopping. She always quoted a two hundred dollar fee. It didn’t matter whether it was for performing a full illusion show for a thousand people in a ballroom or doing card tricks in a restaurant! The fee was always the same two hundred dollars.

Billionaire Ross Perot was throwing a huge banquet for returned prisoners of war from the war in Vietnam. Hosted by Ronald Reagan, the evening featured an after-dinner show starring Carol Burnett, Edgar Bergen, Sammy Davis Jr. and Tony Bennet. The musical director was Nelson Riddle with his forty-two-piece orchestra. Someone had decided an unknown English magician would be the perfect item to complete this extravaganza. Maybe it was the $200 fee! The most intimidating part for me was doing a band rehearsal with the great Nelson Riddle. I was a huge fan of Mr. Riddle’s awesome orchestral arrangements. For me, Irish singer Van Morrison expressed it best when he sang,  “When Frank Sinatra sings, against Nelson riddle strings and then takes a vacation.” There is just something in the Morrison sings it that says it all.

On the afternoon of the show when the time came for my band call I walked onstage trying to look like this was an everyday occurrence. Mr. Riddle was seated on a piano stool in front of what seemed like an endless orchestra. In my hand were my band parts.  I had always been very proud of the jazzy arrangement of “Rule Britannia” that had been written for my by the bandleader from a cruise ship.  There were band parts for twelve instruments some of which I had never even heard. Looking at the gigantic orchestra they suddenly seemed very inadequate.

“Mr. Riddle….” I began.

“Call me Nelson.” He replied.  I appreciated his gesture but in honesty it had taken all my nerve just to call him Mr. Riddle.  Nelson looked at my meager stack of music, smiled and said:  “Nick, unless it is very important to you, if it’s just intro and bows music maybe you can leave it to me.” He said with a friendly grin. “I am sure I can come up with something for the band.”  I agreed gladly and that was the end of my band call.

That night prior to showtime while standing in the wings I wondered for the first time about what my intro music. This was the summer of “Star Wars” in Los Angeles the movie was everywhere; the characters, actors, images and particularly that wonderful soundtrack by John Williams.  That is what I heard following my introduction. Nelson Riddle and his entire ensemble broke into the fanfare from Star Wars. “DA DA DADA DA  DAAAAH DA….”  Every single one of those forty-two musicians playing their hearts out, strings were soaring, timpani booming, horns blaring and best of all there was ‘Nelson’ on the keyboard keeping it all together. For a moment it ran through my mind that I should just not bother walking out onstage, quit right there on top of the mountain.  Then I took a deep breath and walked out on to the stage.

~ by Nick Lewin on December 21, 2009.

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