The following is a guest post from Destiny Meadows, a Pruett Fellow at the Library of Congress Music Division for Summer 2022. Destiny is a second-year Ph.D. student in musicology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her work centers on the intersection of sound and physical fitness in 1980s popular culture.
While helping to process the Sammy Nestico Papers this summer, I sometimes found my progress briefly halted by the sight of sheet music written for some of the composer’s renowned collaborators. During Nestico’s eight-decade career, he produced a large number of arrangements for jazz and big band ensembles. Many of these arrangements were written for groups like the Count Basie Orchestra (CBO), with whom Nestico had a long working relationship from the late 1960s until Basie’s death in 1984. The CBO would also provide Nestico with additional far-reaching connections and continuing arranging opportunities throughout his career. For example, one of Nestico’s best-known partnerships was with star Hollywood producer/composer and former CBO alumnus, Quincy Jones.
Jones and Nestico had both worked as arrangers for Count Basie: Jones in the 1950s–60s and Nestico in the 1960s–1980s. Jones and Nestico began a more formal working relationship with each other, however, around the year 1969. Nestico’s arrangement of Jones’s theme from the film Cactus Flower (1969) began a series of collaborations between the two musicians that notably included composing and arranging for Steven Spielberg’s 1985 hit film The Color Purple. The two worked together again on Jones’s album Q’s Jook Joint (1995), garnering a Grammy nomination for their arrangement of Duke Ellington’s “Do Nothin’ Til You Hear from Me,” sung by Phil Collins. Further, in 2000, Jones and Nestico recorded a tribute to their former friend and employer, Count Basie, in the form of a studio album titled Basie & Beyond, lauded by many reviewers as Jones’s return to his jazz roots.
Other collaborations stemmed from Nestico’s work as a freelance composer. In the 1970s, Nestico was writing for several television shows including The Captain & Tennille, a short-lived variety show hosted by pop stars Daryl Dragon and Toni Tennille. As a result of this show, Nestico and Tennille formed a friendship and became frequent collaborators, with Nestico receiving arranging credits for her albums More Than You Know (1984), Do It Again (1988), and Tennille Sings Big Band (1996), and conducting credits for two of the recordings. Later in his career, he dedicated his piece “Toni” from his 2002 album This Is the Moment to Tennille, even re-orchestrating the tune and re-recording it with the U.S. Army Field Band’s Jazz Ambassadors in 2016.
In his autobiography, The Gift of Music, Nestico writes that the greatest voice he ever worked with was Barbra Streisand’s, commenting, “I’ve never known anyone who can sing better than this lady. Among the established celebrities, she stands by herself at the top of her profession, and everyone else slugs it out for number two.”[i] Nestico’s collaboration with Streisand came as a result of his association with conductor Marvin Hamlisch; Nestico had previously worked with Hamlisch on an arrangement for Liza Minnelli. This relationship led to Nestico contributing two arrangements for Streisand’s Live in Concert 2006 album, including Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer’s “Come Rain or Come Shine.”
One of Nestico’s most endearing and successful collaborative stories comes from his work with famed jazz musician Sarah Vaughan. Vaughan and Nestico first worked together on Vaughan’s 1981 album Send in the Clowns. After the album’s release, Nestico continued to write occasional arrangements for Vaughan, and the two musicians eventually built a strong professional and personal relationship. Vaughan and Nestico even wrote a piano-vocal-backed jazz tune titled “Sarah’s Song.” While there does not appear to be a recorded version of this featuring Vaughan’s vocals, “Sarah’s Song” was recorded by Nestico numerous times after Vaughan’s death in 1990. In 2009, it appeared under a new title, “A Song for Sarah,” on the arranger’s Fun Time album—notably without vocals and rearranged for big band. Nestico later revisited the tune for his Fun Time & More live album, released in 2011. Though he changed some doublings from his first re-orchestration, he retained the solely instrumental aspect of the piece for his album recordings.
The Sammy Nestico Papers offer researchers a unique opportunity to explore the life of a prolific composer, arranger, and conductor whose legendary collaborations rivaled his own independent output. This collection, which consists primarily of printed music, tells an intricate story of musical collaboration, authorial partnership, and—perhaps most importantly—friendship.
[i] Sammy Nestico, The Gift of Music, (Carlsbad, CA: 2009), 105.