Born in Bayfield, Wisconsin, he played with big bands, including Doc Fenton and his Sooners and Al Katz and his Kittens. He moved to New York City where he led his own band (the Van Cleave Orchestra) in the early 1930s, then played trumpet and arranged music for Charlie Barnet's orchestra.
He invented new record needles with improved sound, and founded the Duotone company, which manufactured needles.
In 1945, Van Cleave moved to Los Angeles to pursue his musical career. His film credits, as composer and orchestrator, include Cinerama Holiday, The Colossus of New York, Easter Parade, Funny Face, Robinson Crusoe on Mars, and White Christmas. He composed the VistaVision Fanfare to accompany the opening of theatre curtains to the wide screen format. In addition, he worked on many TV episodes of Gunsmoke and The Twilight Zone, where he pioneered the use of the theremin in television scores.
In the Gunsmoke episode "The Quest for Asa Janin," the last episode of season 8, from June 1963, with music by Van Cleave, the five-note main theme used throughout 1964's Robinson Crusoe on Mars can be heard several times.
- Patricia Kelley. "Sound Businessman". Modern Mechanix, August 1945, pp. 78-82, 148-151.
- Barnet, Charlie. Those Swinging Years: The Autobiography of Charlie Barnet. Da Capo Press, 1992, pp. 46-51.
- Rayno, Don. Paul Whiteman: Pioneer in American Music, 1930-1967. Rowman & Littlefield, 2012, p. 189.
- Rayno, Don. Paul Whiteman: Pioneer in American Music, 1930-1967. Rowman & Littlefield, 2012, p. 492.
- Van Cleave at IMDb
- Nathan Van Cleave at Soundtrack, the Cinemascore & Soundtrack Archives. Retrieved 19 September 2014.
- "VistaVision Fanfare" Score at the University of Wyoming. American Heritage Center. Nathan Van Cleave papers.