Truly Unforgettable: Legendary Nat King Cole stayed true to himself as an artist and a man

A hail of slings and arrows from critics showered Nat King Cole while he was alive, but he never ducked them.

To jazz’s old guard, which propped him up throughout the ’40s as an ivory tinkler of extraordinary ability, he was the prodigal son who’d abandoned the piano, and the art form itself, for pop music glory as a silky-smooth romantic crooner.

And to Civil Right activists who wanted Cole to exhibit more public outrage with regard to social issues during the racial turbulence of the ‘60s, he wasn’t doing enough to fight injustice.

Through it all, Cole stayed true to himself, as an artist and a man.

“My father was preconditioned to be a gentleman … a gentle man,” explains his daughter, Carole Cole. “He didn’t subscribe to being outwardly angry. He believed in leading by example, and this was the way he chose to tackle racism and all of the other inequities of life.”

As the son of a Baptist preacher, Nat’s faith gave him an unshakeable inner strength, and behind the scenes, he fought racism tooth and nail, suing hotels that refused him service and shrugging off racists he angered by taking up residence in an all-white neighborhood in Los Angeles. And that doesn’t include the time he was attacked onstage in Alabama.

“It wasn’t Nat Cole’s style to call a press conference when he chose to make a substantial contribution to a Civil Rights organization or to challenge racist policies at hotels, restaurants or neighborhoods,” says Carole. “He firmly approached politically charged situations in a singular fashion with the belief that that he could quietly change the way things were, and that justice would prevail.”

In a similar fashion, Nat King Cole fomented a revolution in pop music, mastering a wide diversity of genres — including country with 1962’s unlikely hit “Ramblin’ Rose” — with his understated elegance and graceful subtlety in a career that spanned four decades.

Collectors’ Choice is tracing Cole’s career metamorphosis by releasing his entire Capitol catalog on CD, packaging many together as two-album sets. Some are being released for the first time on CD in the U.S., while others have never appeared on CD anywhere. A total of 18 albums — on nine CDs — was released Nov. 6.

Among them were Ramblin’ Rose/Dear Lonely Hearts, The Touch of Your Lips/I Don’t Want to Be Hurt Anymore, Cole Espanol/More Cole Espanol, Just One of Those Things/Let’s Face the Music, Love is the Thing/Where Did Everyone Go, Nat King Cole Sings for Two in Love/Ballads of the Day, and Songs from St. Louis Blues/Looking Back.

“We all agreed that the reissues should contain the original album cover art and liner notes and (with very few exceptions), we made every effort to keep all aspects of the original tracks and sequencing just as it was,” says Carole.

A second wave of releases is due out in 2008. They will consist of single albums enhanced by non-LP bonus tracks salvaged from the same session or era.

“Some of the albums had been reissued real early on when compact discs first arrived on the scene by Capitol, with some bonus tracks, but they’re long out of print and go for a lot of money on the collector’s market,” says Jim Ritz, the producer for Collectors’ Choice’s Nat King Cole reissue series, who also wrote all the liner notes for each release.

Two of the latest reissues pair 1959’s Welcome to the Club and 1960’s Tell Me All About Yourself, and the instrumental efforts Penthouse Serenade and The Piano Style of Nat King Cole.

Recorded originally in 1952 as an

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