Winnipeg's Jazz Magazine


March/April 2013: Freddy Cole

Nat King Cole (1919-65) – The Best of the Nat King Cole Trio: The Vocal Classics, Vol. 1

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I believe that almost everything Nat King Cole recorded is, in varying degrees, worth listening to. He was the consummate professional musician with impeccable vocal delivery, and as a pianist, he was the perfect accompanist to his own singing. Cole personified musical elegance, and his warm voice inhabits all the nooks and crannies of a song.

From 1947 until his death in 1965, he was a hugely successful pop singer who achieved many of the same artistic successes as Frank Sinatra. They both had hit records, shared arrangers and the same record company, and had shows on both television and radio. But unlike Sinatra, who had grown from being a boy singer in a big band during the swing era, Cole emerged as a jazz pianist fronting his own group and only then started singing.

Born in 1919 in Montgomery, Alabama, Cole’s family moved to Chicago when he was four, and he later sang and played in his father’s church—and often snuck out late at night to listen to jazz being performed in the local clubs. His principal influence at the time was the great stride pianist Earl Hines. Cole started performing jazz piano in Chicago in the 1930s and was thought of as a hot contender. At seventeen, he joined a touring musical, but when a cast member absconded with the proceeds in Long Beach, California, Cole found himself stranded there. Playing as many gigs as he could get, Cole soon raised enough money to settle in Southern California.

The idea for the Nat King Cole Trio grew out of cramped stage conditions in a club. There was no room for a drummer to set up, so when Cole was invited to lead his own band at the club, he settled for a piano, bass, and guitar. His reputation as a pianist grew through concerts organized by Norman Granz and recording sessions with two jazz giants, tenor sax player Dexter Gordon and alto sax player Lester Young.

The story of how Cole became a vocalist has a few versions. The most plausible is that he started singing one night at a club because a drunken patron insisted on hearing a vocal version of “Sweet Lorraine.” The drunk tipped the trio fifteen cents, five cents for each man. When he asked for a second song, and Cole said he didn’t know any others, the drunk reputedly asked for his money back.

As good as Cole was as a pianist and bandleader, he soon realized that his voice provided him with the most potential to become a star. In 1943, he signed with the label that songwriter Johnny Mercer co-founded the previous year, Capitol Records. He stayed with the label until his death in 1965.

The Best of the Nat King Cole Trio: The Vocal Classics [Blue Note #33571] showcases twenty-one jazz songs Cole recorded for Capitol from 1942 to 1946. These songs, such as “Frim Fram Sauce,” “(Get Your Kicks On) Route 66,” “It’s Only a Paper Moon,” and “Sweet Lorraine” were recorded prior to Cole becoming a pop star, and they qualify as some of the most important in his career.

Cole’s first single was inspired by one of his father’s sermons. “Straighten Up and Fly Right” was a novelty tune based on a southern folktale about a monkey that hitched a ride on a buzzard and refused to let go. At the time, 1944, money was tight, and Cole sold the rights to song publisher Irving Miller for fifty dollars. The song received extensive airplay and was a huge hit.

The perennial favourite, “It’s Only a Paper Moon,” begins with beautiful block chords, modulates into a thirty-two-bar vocal refrain in the middle, and then ends with an instrumental chorus—just like a swing era dance band.

Cole agreed to record “Route 66” in 1946 without ever hearing it, based solely on songwriter Bobby Troup’s reputation and the tune’s hip-sounding title. Cole’s timing was perfect; post-war America loved the song’s celebration of travel and of being free of obligations.

 

On these songs, Cole’s innovative, drummerless trio provided the only accompaniment, and the improvisational interplay between Cole on piano, Johnny Miller on bass, and Oscar Moore on guitar is effortless, as though they were reading one another’s minds. Cole’s ability to play great piano lines behind (his own) vocals is the sound and support every singer wants from their accompanist. As a vocalist, his careful phrasing and intimate mood is unparalleled.

Cole fans treasure these recordings. As successful as the later pop hits, such as “Unforgettable,” “L-O-V-E,” “Those Hazy Crazy Days of Summer,” and “Mona Lisa” were, it was this time in Cole’s career that influenced the influencers. These recordings have inspired many artists, including Oscar Peterson and Diana Krall, both of whom used his concept of the trio—piano, bass, and guitar—as the foundation for their groups.


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