August 25, 2000 – Bernard Alfred ‘Jack’ Nitzsche was born on April 22, 1937 to German immigrant parents and raised on a farm in Newaygo, Michigan.
He moved to Los Angeles, California in 1955 to attend Westlake College of Music in Hollywood, with ambitions of becoming a jazz saxophonist. He found work copying musical scores, where he was hired by Sonny Bono, with whom he wrote the song “Needles and Pins” for Jackie DeShannon, later covered by the Searchers and many others. His own instrumental composition “The Lonely Surfer” entered Cash Box August 3, 1963, became a minor hit, as did a big-band swing arrangement of Link Wray’s “Rumble”.
When Phil Spector moved to the West Coast, Jack eventually became arranger and conductor for him and orchestrated the ambitious Wall of Sound for the song “River Deep, Mountain High” by Ike and Tina Turner, “Be My Baby” for the Ronettes, “He’s a Rebel” by the Crystals and many more. 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.
Besides Spector, he worked closely with West Coast session musicians such as Leon Russell, Roy Caton, Glen Campbell, Carol Kaye, and Hal Blaine in a group informally known as The Wrecking Crew. They created backing music for numerous sixties pop recordings by various artists such as The Beach Boys and The Monkees. Nitzsche also arranged the title song of Doris Day’s Move Over, Darling that was a successful single on the pop charts of the time.
While organizing the music for The T.A.M.I. Show television special in 1964, he met The Rolling Stones, and went on to contribute the keyboard textures to their albums The Rolling Stones, Now! (or The Rolling Stones No. 2 in the UK), Out of Our Heads, Aftermath and Between the Buttons, as well as the hit singles “Paint It, Black”, Play with Fire and “Let’s Spend the Night Together” and the choral arrangements for “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”. In 1968, Nitzsche introduced the band to slide guitarist Ry Cooder, a seminal influence on the Stones’s 1969-1973 style.
Some of Nitzsche’s most enduring rock productions were conducted in collaboration with Neil Young, beginning with his production and arrangement of Buffalo Springfield’s “Expecting to Fly”, considered by many critics to be a touchstone of the psychedelic era. In 1968, he produced Young’s eponymously titled solo debut with David Briggs. Even as the singer’s style veered from the baroque to rootsy hard rock, Young continued to work with Nitzsche on some of his most commercially successful solo recordings, most notably Harvest. Nitzsche played electric piano with Crazy Horse throughout 1970 (a representative performance can be heard on the Live at the Fillmore East album). Nitzsche also played keyboards on the first Crazy Horse album, Crazy Horse (recorded 1970 and released 1971), which he produced, as well as featuring as composer and lead singer of the honky-tonk number Crow Jane Lady.
While prolific and hard working throughout the 1970s, he later began to suffer from depression and problems connected with substance abuse. After he castigated Young in a drunken 1974 interview, the two men became estranged for several years and would collaborate only sporadically thereafter. Later that year, he was dropped from Reprise Records’ roster after recording a scathing song criticizing executive Mo Ostin. This desultory period culminated in his arrest for allegedly breaking into the home of and then raping ex-girlfriend Carrie Snodgress, formerly Young’s companion, with a gun barrel on June 29, 1979. Snodgress was treated at the hospital for a bone fracture, cuts and bruises and had 18 stitches. The charge of rape by instrumentation (which carried a five-year sentence) was eventually dismissed.
In 1979, he produced Graham Parker’s album Squeezing Out Sparks. Nitzsche produced three Willy DeVille albums beginning in the late 1970s: Cabretta (1977), Return to Magenta (1978), and Coup de Grâce (1981). Nitzsche said that DeVille was the best singer he had ever worked with.
During the 1970s he began to concentrate more on film music rather than pop music, and became one of the more prolific film orchestrators in Hollywood in the period, winning an Academy Award for Best Song for co-writing with Will Jennings and Buffy Sainte-Marie “Up Where We Belong” from 1982’s An Officer and a Gentleman. (Nitzsche had already worked with Sainte-Marie on She Used to Wanna Be a Ballerina in the early 1970s.) Nitzsche had also worked on film scores throughout his career, such as his contributions to the Monkees movie Head, the theme music from Village of the Giants (recycling an earlier single, “The Last Race”), and the distinctive soundtracks for Performance, The Exorcist, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Hardcore (1979), The Razor’s Edge (1984), and Starman (also 1984). He was nominated for an Oscar and a Grammy for his contributions to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, his first of many studio projects with multi-instrumentalist and composer, Scott Mathews.
At the start of the next decade, he scored Revenge (1990). On Revenge he worked with Joanna St. Claire, who wrote, recorded and produced the original song “Are You Ready” for the film’s soundtrack.
His intensive output declined somewhat during the rest of the decade. In the mid-1990s, a clearly inebriated Nitzsche was seen in an episode of the reality show COPS, being arrested in Hollywood after brandishing a gun at some youths who had stolen his hat. In attempting to explain himself to the arresting officers he is heard exclaiming that he was an Academy Award winner. His last film score came with The Crossing Guard in 1995.
In 1997, he expressed interest in producing a comeback album for Link Wray, although this never materialized due to their mutually declining health.
Nitzsche suffered a stroke in 1998 that effectively ended his career. He died in Hollywood’s Queen of Angels Hospital on August 25, 2000 of cardiac arrest brought on by a recurring bronchial infection.
Anecdote: Nitzsche was a keyboard player on many mid-1960s albums by The Rolling Stones. On several, he was also credited as the player of the “Nitzsche-phone”. In an obituary on Gadfly Online, former Rolling Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham explained the credit:
I made that up for the credits on those Stones albums—it was just a regular piano (or maybe an organ) mic’d differently. It was all part of this package that was created around the Stones. People believed it existed. The idea was meant to be: “My god, they’ve had to invent new instruments to capture this new sound they hear in their brains.” And they were inventing fresh sounds with old toys—therefore, it deserved to be highlighted—it was the read-up of creation, of imagination—getting credit for a job well done.