By Richie Unterberger

Of all the musicians that have played important behind-the-scenes role in rock and pop, few had a more eclectic and intriguing resume than Jack Nitzsche. He may be most famed for his contributions to Phil Spector's Wall of Sound, working as an arranger on some of Spector's greatest productions. He played keyboards on numerous mid-1960s sessions by the Rolling Stones, and did choral arrangements for that group's "You Can't Always Get What You Want." He made memorable contributions to Neil Young recordings as producer, arranger, and keyboardist. He co-wrote the classic "Needles and Pins." He arranged and produced for everyone from Tim Buckley, Lou Christie, the Walker Brothers, and Marianne Faithfull to the Monkees, Lesley Gore, the Neville Brothers, and Graham Parker. And he was one of the most respected soundtrack composers of the late twentieth century, working on the scores to Performance, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Blue Collar, An Officer and a Gentleman, and The Crossing Guard.

    Nitzsche was also a recording artist, sporadically issuing albums and singles in the 1960s and early 1970s. Those listeners who never bother to scan the fine print of album sleeve credits are likely to know him only for his sole hit single, "The Lonely Surfer," which peaked at #39 in September 1963. It is ironic that a man who played a crucial role in so many famous records was in one sense a one-hit wonder, his one hit being a rather small one at that.

    When Nitzsche moved to Los Angeles as a teenager in the mid-1950s, he was hoping to be a jazz saxophonist, but ended up being hired by Sonny Bono to work as a copyist at Specialty Records. He built up to his position as one of Spector's essential right-hand men, enduring long hours and relatively low pay on those sessions with the knowledge that the credits would get him work throughout the industry. He also got a contract as a solo artist with the then-young Reprise label in the early 1960s, releasing "The Lonely Surfer" (which he co-wrote with Marty Cooper) in August 1963, right when the wave of the surf music craze was cresting.

    "The Lonely Surfer" was not surf music in the classic sense: no Chuck Berry-styled electric guitars, honking saxes, or crisp drum rolls were in sight. Instead, it was something like an appropriate soundtrack theme to a surf documentary, the low, reverberating bass lines setting the mood for shots of building and ebbing waves, enhanced by soaring strings and Latin-influenced horns with an epic sweep. Its success paved the way for an album of the same name, complete with liner notes by Phil Spector.

    Utilizing top-level sessionaires such as Hal Blaine on drums, Tommy Tedesco and Ray Pohlman on guitars, Leon Russell on piano, and "Dave" Gates (i.e. David Gates, later of Bread) on bass, Nitzsche crafted an all-instrumental LP of quality easy listening pop. It was influenced by rock, perhaps, and to an even slighter degree, maybe, by surf music (most audibly on the cover of Lee Hazlewood's "Baja"). However, it was really a mix of sumptuous strings and horns, plangent bass, and some Latin American elements that on occasion made the ensemble sound like a marriage of mariachi and Spector.

    The eclecticism and evocative moods certainly foreshadowed Nitzsche's later career as an eminent soundtrack composer. He gave imaginative, mildly eccentric treatments to a variety of standards, including "Stranger on the Shore" (which had been a #1 hit the previous year for Mr. Acker Bilk); "Ebb Tide"; Elmer Bernstein's "The Magnificent Seven"; and "Mondo Cane (More)," which had just made the Top Ten for Kai Winding. There was also a nod to Phil Spector with an odd, almost slow-motion interpretation of "Da Doo Ron Ron." And there were a few originals, such as "Puerto Vallarta," written, as "The Lonely Surfer" was, with Marty Cooper. Dig how the opening notes almost exactly mimic the classic riff from "Needles and Pins," which Nitzsche had co-written (with Sonny Bono) and arranged for Jackie DeShannon earlier in 1963.

    Nitzsche made a few other albums and singles for Reprise, culminating in the orchestral St. Giles Cripplegate in 1972, recorded with the London Symphony Orchestra. The Lonely Surfer was a more innocuous signpost to a string of memorable achievements colored by his mastery of lush arrangements, from Buffalo Springfield's "Expecting to Fly" and Bob Lind's "Elusive Butterfly" to Neil Young's "A Man Needs a Maid." It was a talent that died only when he did, at the age of 63, on August 25, 2000. -- Richie Unterberger

contents copyright Richie Unterberger, 2000-2010
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