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.
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By Peter Lindblad

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 eight-song, 10-inch LP, a year after Cole disbanded the King Cole Trio he rose to prominence with, Penthouse Serenade sees Cole making a brief return to piano and jazz. His approach this time around was less carefree than his work with the Trio, as he opted for more somber, introspective expressions.

“Ironically enough, that was actually the very first LP [he] issued of original material, and here it was, a jazz [record] — not jazz strictly in the sense of alluding to the kind of jazz he was doing with the Trio, but a more sophisticated, cocktail-lounge jazz, and I don’t think it was a huge seller (it spent one week at #10 in the album chart),” says Ritz. “It’s a brilliant album, and I think he took a chance. I think he knew he was going to reach a greater audience as a vocalist, and he made that decision to step away from jazz a bit and become a pop icon.”

Three years after its release, Cole went back into the studio to cut four more songs for a 12-inch version of Penthouse Serenade with guitarist John Collins, bassist Charlie Harris and drummer Bunny Shawker. This is the one Collectors' Choice has reissued.

“If you listen to those four songs, he’s really playing the piano like he played it with the Trio — a little more improvisation and a little bit more dexterity with the left hand, that kind of Art Tatum thing,” says Ritz. “I think he had kind of distanced himself enough from the Trio where he said, ‘I can do this now, without showing people that I’ve forgotten.’ They just sound more free and more jazz-oriented, more based in jazz, than the other eight tracks.”

“I was just a kid when he made these instrumental albums, but I recall that he was very excited about recording Penthouse, because he adored playing the keyboard,” remembers Carole. “I imagine this album afforded him what had become a rare opportunity to focus his energy on making those 88 keys sing.”

Likewise, Welcome to the Club brought Cole again back to his jazz roots, even as Cole’s star as a vocal interpreter of pop standards was ascending ever higher. For that LP and Tell Me All About Yourself, Cole joined forces with the Count Basie Big Band and then with Dave Cavanaugh, Capitol’s in-house jazz wizard — a “ ... jack-of-all-trades at Capitol ... “ who was “ ... an engineer, a producer, a writer, a pretty good jazz musician and arranger,” according to Ritz.

Up to that point, Cole had experienced a long string of pop successes with genius arranger Nelson Riddle. Going with Cavanaugh was an abrupt about-face. 

“Dave Cavanaugh was certainly less commercially oriented than say Nelson, or Gordon Jenkins, or Billy May,” says Ritz. “I think that Nat at that point in his career had already done a lot of the romantic ballads that were tremendously successful, and I think this was a challenge for him. I think he knew this was outside his box at this point, and I think he wanted to remind people that he learned his craft in the jazz idiom.”

Always, though, Nat sought to stretch himself as an artist, and sometimes, that didn’t sit well with his longtime fans.

“I think most artists are initially dismayed when their fans criticize their choice to expand their art,” posits Carole. “My father was no exception. But, if you consider the evolution of Nat’s career, it’s not surprising that he moved into the pop arena, because as a music lover, he appreciated all genres of music and never felt inclined to pigeonhole himself.

“From the beginning, he was an innovator, because it was a radical move for the King Cole Trio to emerge on the musical scene during the height of the Big Band era. Who would have thought the King Cole Trio would be capable of making so much noise at that time? Yet, this small group captured the imagination of a new audience.”

Formed in 1937 with guitarist Oscar Moore and bassist Wesley Prince, the King Cole Trio scored a Harlem Hit Parade #1 singles with the Cole penned “Ain’t That Right” in 1943. Prince left to join the war effort and was replaced by Johnny Miller. After the group’s “All for You” hit #1 again on the Harlem Hit Parade, the Trio was signed by Capitol.

Right out of the gate, the Trio, in its first session for Capitol, struck gold with Cole’s own work “Straighten Up and Fly Right.”

Hit tracks, like Cole’s first #1 pop single “(I Love You) For Sentimental Reasons,” followed, along with popular Christmas songs and TV appearances. Gradually, the Trio became a group in name only, and by the spring of 1950, all of Cole’s recordings were credited solely to Nat “King” Cole. That year, he recorded “Mona Lisa,” a twinge of sadness complete with lush, gorgeously constructed string arrangements by Riddle, beginning an association that would produce lasting success.

Included in the pair’s long run was Cole’s most recognizable song, “Unforgettable,’ a song that rose only as high as #12 on the charts. Cole’s daughter, Natalie, would win a Grammy for her duet — her voice blended with her father’s — version of the song in 1991.

Nat King Cole’s status as a hitmaker waned as rock ‘n’ roll began to dominate the charts, but he still tallied Top Ten hits in the ‘60s, like “Ramblin’ Rose” and “Those Lazy-Hazy-Crazy Days of Summer,” which charted in the summer of 1963. Soon, however, he was diagnosed with lung cancer. He died of the disease in 1964 at the age of 48.

With Collectors' Choice reissue series, a whole new generation of music lovers will be exposed to Nat’s impressive catalog, while older fans will be reminded what great a pianist he was.

“Very, very fluid, and one of the other things, he just had an incredible — not only as an instrumentalist, but it crossed over to his vocals — [sense] of time,” says Ritz. “You know, the great vocalists — the Sinatras and the Darins, and Ella Fitzgerald — they have such a great, natural sense of time. They just bring something to a song very few other artists can. I mean, other artists may have had a greater voice than Nat, but it’s just the whole package — the timing, and the interpretation, you hold onto a phrase, you know, you’re behind the beat, you’re before the beat, just as a way of singing. That’s what made him so great, as an instrumentalist and a vocalist.”

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