An important behind-the-scenes figure in popular music for 40 years, composer/songwriter/producer/arranger/studio musician Jack Nitzsche served a crucial function in 1960s rock & roll, bringing a trained musician's know-how to bear on the work of more instinctive rockers in a way that complemented and deepened their work. The Rolling Stones and Neil Young in particular benefited from his talents. Nitzsche was also a capable writer who penned a couple of major hits and developed a career as a film composer that included nearly three dozen movie scores.
Nitzsche grew up in Howard City, MI, which he left at 18 in 1955 to attend Westlake College of Music in Hollywood, CA; he remained based in the Los Angeles area for the rest of his career. After college in 1957 he found work as a music copyist. He was hired at Specialty Records by Sonny Bono, with whom he would work extensively over the next several years. He also worked at Capitol Records and Original Sound Records. At Original Sound, he wrote "Bongo Bongo Bongo," an instrumental that was recorded by Preston Epps as a follow-up to his hit "Bongo Rock." It made the national charts during the summer of 1960.
Nitzsche began getting arranging jobs, and when writer/producer Phil Spector relocated to the West Coast, he went to work with Spector, arranging many of Spector's hits, among them "He's a Rebel" by the Crystals and "Be My Baby" by the Ronettes. He also scored his own recording contract with Reprise Records, which released his instrumental "The Lonely Surfer" in the summer of 1963. It became a Top 40 hit, and Nitzsche followed it with an album of the same title, but he did not go on to a successful recording career, though he did release a few more albums. His next chart entry came with a song he composed but did not perform. He and Sonny Bono had written "Needles and Pins," initially recorded by Jackie DeShannon. It was covered by British Invasion group the Searchers, who took it into the Top 20 in the spring of 1964. (The song was revived for a chart entry by Smokie in 1977 and became a Top 40 hit for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers with Stevie Nicks in 1986.)
Nitzsche's work with Spector stood him in good stead with another British Invasion group. In the fall of 1964, he played on sessions for The Rolling Stones album The Rolling Stones, Now!, beginning a long association with the group that would find him contributing to such Stones recordings as "Play with Fire," "Paint It, Black," and "You Can't Always Get What You Want" (choral arrangement).
Nitzsche got his first film credit serving as musical director for The T.A.M.I. Show, a legendary concert movie filmed in November 1964 and released in January 1965. Also in 1965, he wrote his first film score, for the low-budget Village of the Giants, though it would be another five years before he really began to work in films consistently. In the meantime, he continued to produce, arrange, and record with a wide variety of musicians including Tim Buckley, Bobby Darin, Doris Day, Marianne Faithfull, Frankie Laine, and the Monkees. He began a long association with Neil Young when he wrote a string arrangement for Young's song "Expecting to Fly," which appeared on the Buffalo Springfield album Buffalo Springfield Again in 1967. When the Springfield broke up in 1968 and Young went solo, Nitzsche continued to work with him, co-producing and writing arrangements for his first solo album, Neil Young, in 1969. He also worked on Young's early '70s albums After the Gold Rush, Harvest, Time Fades Away, and Tonight's the Night, and returned for Life (1987) and Harvest Moon (1992).
Nitzsche got his chance to return to movie work in 1970 with Performance, starring Mick Jagger. It really launched his career as a composer of film scores. By 1973, he was working on major studio films like The Exorcist, and in 1975 he earned an Academy Award nomination for his music to One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. But in the late '70s, he accepted a few production jobs involving new wave rock performers, producing the first three albums by Mink DeVille and Graham Parker and the Rumor's celebrated Squeezing out Sparks. By the 1980s, however, he was working full-time on film scores, averaging two a year during the decade. He got another Academy Award nomination for An Officer and a Gentleman in 1982, and, with Will Jennings and Buffy Sainte-Marie (at the time, Nitzsche's wife), he won the Oscar for best song for "Up Where We Belong," which had already become a number one hit for Joe Cocker and Jennifer Warnes.
Nitzsche's film work slowed after the early '90s, his last film score coming with The Crossing Guard in 1995. He died at 63 of cardiac arrest brought on by a bronchial infection.
The Jack Nitzsche Story - Hearing Is Believing Vol.1
Jack Nitzsche was one of the true wildmen of American popular music. His reputation was made as arranger on Phil Spector's classic recordings and a pillar of his Wrecking Crew, but his reach is so much wider and deeper than that that's it's a wonder that Hearing Is Believing isn't a multi-disc box set instead of a 26-track, single-CD compilation. Indeed, his long association with figures like the Rolling Stones and Neil Young, his film scores (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest among them), his work as a conductor and producer with the likes of not only the legendary Judy Henske and Link Wray but also Mink Deville, as well as a recording artist in his own right -- his Lonely Surfer album from 1963 is widely regarded as a classic of the genre -- classify him as a true journeyman. And if all that weren't enough, he co-wrote Jackie DeShannon's monster smash "Needles and Pins" in 1963 with another Spector associate, Sonny Bono! Hearing Is Believing contains 26 cuts, nearly all of them prime. What is here is amazing: the aforementioned DeShannon single, Stevie Wonder's "Castles in the Sand," Lesley Gore's "No Matter What You Do," Link Wray's "Rumble," Graham Parker & the Rumour's "You Can't Be Too Strong," Henske's edgy "Road to Nowhere," Gene McDaniels' "Walk With a Winner," Bobby Darin's "Not for Me," the Righteous Brothers' "Hung on You," Lou Christie's "Wild Life's in Season," Tim Buckley's "It Happens Every Time," and Doris Day's "Move Over Darling!" How's that for diversity? The thread that runs trough it all: Nitzsche's genius as an arranger -- his ability to color a song just the shade it should be and give it exactly what it needed -- made him an artist in the studio, someone who could create masterpieces from chord changes and simple melodies. While the producer looked for a sound, Nitzsche made that sound live. It's true that licensing caused some problems in the contents table (perhaps that there's no box set?) but it's a small complaint overall. the Rolling Stones are not here in name, but Marianne Faithfull and "Sister Morphine" are, with the band playing behind her. Young isn't here in name, but Buffy Sainte-Marie's "Helpless" is a stellar addition anyway because Young's band, Crazy Horse, is backing her. The set is bookended and riddled with Nitzsche's own work -- the title track "The Lonely Surfer," his own version of "Rumble," and the theme song "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest."." The CD package comes with a booklet chock-full of notes by Mick Patrick, and reminiscences by many of the artists and producers who worked with him. There are also some fine rare photographs. The music found here inspires, awes, and delights. Nitzsche deserves more than this of course, but it's a welcome first step thanks to Ace. Highly recommended.
The Jack Nitzsche Story - Hard Workin' Man Vol.2
Ace Records' follow-up to their superb 2005 collection The Jack Nitzsche Story: Hearing Is Believing 1962-1979 doesn't quite live up to that disc's high standards, but this sampling of 26 tracks in which Nitzsche had a hand -- as producer, arranger, conductor or songwriter -- is still a powerful testament to the singular talents of one of rock's most remarkable behind-the-scenes figures. On Hard Workin Man: The Jack Nitzsche Story, Vol. 2, Tony Rounce and Mick Patrick have attempted to give some picture of how broad the man's musical palate could be, and what's most surprising is that as these songs sway from the hard-edged blues of "Hard Workin' Man" (with Captain Beefheart wailing over a band anchored by Ry Cooder), the snarling garage punk of the Gas Company's "Blow Your Mind," the lush neo-psych grandeur of "Porpoise Song" by the Monkees, and the beautifully crafted studio pop of Bobby Vee's "Like Someone in Love." A common thread manifests itself throughout -- Nitzsche had the ability to bring something unexpected whenever he took an act into the studio, and each time he came up with something that fit the song (and the artist) like a charm. He also had a real vision of how to cast the players for a session -- most folks would never have dreamed of putting John Lee Hooker, Miles Davis and Taj Mahal on the same number, but Nitzsche's score for the Dennis Hopper picture featured all three, and Hooker's gutbucket boogie proves to be an ideal foil for Davis' spare but soulful trumpet figures on " "Bank Robbery," featured here. And while, as on the first disc, a number of Nitzsche's best known projects are missing (most notably his work with the Rolling Stones and Neil Young), the ace obscurities show just how consistently strong the man's vision could be -- the Everly Brothers' cover of "Mr. Soul," Tammy Grimes' take on a rare Randy Newman number "Nobody Needs Your Love More Than I Do," and Merry Clayton's remake of "It's in His Kiss" may not have been hits, but they leave an indelible impression once you've heard them. Nitzsche released only a small handful of records under his own name, but Hard Workin Man: The Jack Nitzsche Story, Vol. 2 confirms he was as vital and creative an artist as anyone he worked with, and this is remarkable listening.