1. Archive

The passing of a legend

Jack Nitzsche orchestrated some of the finest music of his time but never courted the spotlight.

When they buried Jack Nitzsche on Aug. 30 in Los Angeles, three generations of Hollywood and rock royalty came to say goodbye: Sean Penn and Nancy Sinatra; Lux Interior and Ivy Rorschach of the punk group the Cramps; '60s hitmaker Jackie DeShannon; Sonny Bono's daughter Chastity; composer Jon Hassell; director John Byrum and New Orleans percussion master Earl Palmer. Neil Young sent hundreds of red roses, and the reclusive Phil Spector emerged from his mansion to deliver a eulogy that credited Nitzsche with helping change the musical culture of the 20th century.

Yet, when Bernard Alfred "Jack" Nitzsche died of cardiac arrest Aug. 25 at the age of 63, he was largely unknown by the public that consumed the movies and music he helped shape over a 40-year career: the Ronettes' Be My Baby, the Rolling Stones' You Can't Always Get What You Want, the 1963 instrumental hit The Lonely Surfer, the soundtracks for One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, The Exorcist and An Officer and a Gentleman, classic albums by Graham Parker and the Germs, and Ike and Tina Turner's River Deep, Mountain High. He launched the solo careers of Neil Young, Ry Cooder and Mink DeVille, and helped put a pre-Cher Sonny Bono on the charts for the first time by co-writing Needles and Pins with him, later a hit for the Searchers.

If Spector was the "the First Tycoon of Teen," as Tom Wolfe declared in a 1965 essay, Nitzsche, who was Spector's right-hand man, was the Zelig of pop, appearing at key moments to orchestrate some of its finest music, only to fade into the Hollywood haze while others got the glory.

It's telling that in the acclaimed Spector box set, Back to Mono (1958-1969), a four-CD chronicle of the producer's Wall of Sound hits, there is a picture of Spector being hoisted on the shoulders of his musicians and cronies, cockily chomping a cigar and smiling from behind shades at the camera. Off to the right, his glasses barely visible above the head of the great drummer Hal Blaine, stands Nitzsche, obscured as usual.

"He didn't get the credit he deserved," says Blaine. But his role was crucial in determining how those songs sounded, because he lined up the musicians, wrote out their parts and refined their performances.

"He wrote, he performed, and he was a first-class arranger," says Jerry Leiber, who with Mike Stoller wrote and produced some of rock's greatest early singles. "Jack probably should have been credited as the co-producer on many of the tracks he worked on."

Blaine explains that Nitzsche "provided a map for the musicians. The recording sessions were a collaboration between the arranger, the producer and the musicians, and if someone had a good idea, the attitude was, "Yeah, let's try that.' "

Nitzsche would cover everything from the basic structure of the song _ he first presented He's a Rebel, a huge hit for the Crystals, as a piano-and-voice demo with Gene Pitney singing the falsetto vocal _ to its subtlest details, such as the finger cymbals on Da Doo Ron Ron, notated on the original sheet music for the future top-5 hit.

Nitzsche was also a fine songwriter in his own right, as demonstrated by his sumptuous 1963 instrumental hit, The Lonely Surfer.

"It was one of the first rock or surf records that was symphonic," says Blaine, who played on the session. "It was not just a four-chord rock 'n' roll song, but a beautiful composition in the Nelson Riddle or Henry Mancini mode."

The Chicago-born and Michigan-bred Nitzsche was among this new breed of music men who arrived in Los Angeles in the late '50s and early '60s. "There were two guys who were head and shoulders above the rest in terms of their ability to arrange music," Leiber says, "and they were Randy Newman and Jack Nitzsche."

Spector made use of an echo chamber at Gold Star studio in Los Angeles to create a cavernous "wall of sound," in which instruments were meticulously layered to propel pop songs.

"The Wall of Sound was Spector's idea," says Denny Bruce, a Los Angeles producer and manager who was once Nitzsche's roommate, "but Jack was the architect."

"Phil had a feel for what kids wanted, and Jack understood him," says drummer Earl Palmer. "There was mutual respect there, and when it came to talking to the musicians, most of it was Jack. When it came to working River Deep, Mountain High, which was probably the most elaborate arrangement we ever did, it dawned on me how much control Jack had over the music."

That session was described by one witness, Los Angeles deejay Rodney Bingenheimer, to Harvey Kubernik in a 1988 issue of Goldmine magazine: Spector and Nitzsche, he said, "were like co-pilots of the Concorde on a flight from France."

Nitzsche was paid only $50 a session, but, as he told Goldmine, "I don't feel any bitterness about the money or payment whatsoever. The credits helped secure employment for years."

Nitzsche spent most of the '70s and '80s working on movie soundtracks, including the acclaimed scores for One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and The Exorcist, and the Oscar-winning song Up Where We Belong from An Officer and a Gentleman. In the '90s, he worked with Miles Davis and John Lee Hooker on Dennis Hopper's The Hot Spot and scored films for Sean Penn.

Self-destructive behavior sabotaged whatever chance he had for wider recognition. In 1979, Nitzsche was sentenced to probation in connection with an assault on his former girlfriend, actor Carrie Snodgrass, and he was a heroin addict the last 25 years of his life.

Yet even after Nitzsche had faded off the Hollywood radar screen, his work has continued to fascinate and inspire.

"Jack Nitzsche's music would keep me going," says Jim O'Rourke, a Chicago-based avant-garde guitarist and producer. "If a song I was working on would be dragging me down, I'd listen to some of his arrangements, like the soundtrack to One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, because they're so amazing. He's a genius."