Rock & Roll Renaissance Man Jack Nitzsche Dead at Sixty-three

Arranger/composer/producer Nitzsche dies of cardiac arrest

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Arranger/composer/producer Jack Nitzsche, best known for his work with the Rolling Stones, Neil Young, Phil Spector and Sonny Bono, died Friday of cardiac arrest, brought on by a recurring bronchial infection, at Queen of Angels Hospital in Hollywood, Calif.; he was sixty-three.

Born Bernard Alfred Nitzsche in Chicago in 1937 and raised on a farm outside of Newaygo, Mich., Nitzsche relocated to California in the mid-Fifties, after reading an ad in Downbeat magazine for the Westlake School of Music, in the hopes of studying there to become a jazz saxophonist. After quitting music school, he landed a job as a music copyist at Specialty Records. There he met Sonny Bono, then the chief of A&R at the record label, who encouraged him in his early attempts at songwriting. Nitzsche co-wrote "Needles and Pins" with Bono in 1962, a hit for both Jackie DeShannon and the Searchers; the song's strummed guitar is considered by many to be the archetype of the folk rock sound.

As Nitzsche's reputation grew, he was recommended to Phil Spector, who had moved his recording operations to Los Angeles in 1962. Nitzsche became Spector's first-choice arranger, and by extension, one of the architects behind Spector's Wall of Sound, working on classic releases by the Crystals, Ike and Tina Turner, the Ronettes and the Righteous Brothers.

After befriending the Rolling Stones in 1964, Nitzsche started leaving his touch on their work as well, playing keyboards and percussion on their early recordings. His collaborations with the Stones include "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" and "Paint It Black."

From there, Nitzsche worked with a succession of musicians, including Tim Buckley, Doris Day, Marianne Faithfull, the Byrds, the Monkees and Buffalo Springfield. His work with Buffalo Springfield ("Expecting to Fly") and subsequent friendship with Neil Young led to Young recruiting him as not only a producer but also a touring member of Crazy Horse, for whom he wrote string arrangements and played piano.

As for his own recording career, Nitzsche scored a minor hit with the instrumental "The Lonely Surfer," which went to No. 39 on the charts in 1963. He is also noted for his motion picture work, including the scores and eerie mood pieces of Performance in 1970 and The Exorcist in 1973. He was nominated for an Oscar in 1975 for his glass harp/musical saw score for One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, and won an Oscar in 1982 for "Up Where We Belong," the theme from An Officer and a Gentleman (which he co-wrote with lyricist Will Jennings and ex-wife Buffy Sainte-Marie).

Though Nitzsche had a stellar reputation as an arranger and composer, his private life was a bit more spotty. He was arrested for pistol-whipping then-girlfriend actress Carrie Snodgress and threatening to kill her and Young's son in 1979. He was consequently fined and sentenced to three years probation for assault with a deadly weapon.

Nitzsche is survived by ex-wife Sainte-Marie, first wife Gracia, their forty-year-old son Jack Jr. and his daughter-in-law Christine. A private funeral service will be held in California on Wednesday, Aug. 30, with a larger memorial service to be planned at a later date.