NAT ‘KING’ COLE / “Sweet Lorraine”
Source: The Complete After Midnight Sessions (Capitol – 1987)
Mine is a casual approach to a song; I lean heavily on the lyrics. By that I mean I try to tell a story with the melody as background.
—Nat ‘King’ Cole
What is a classic, especially when it comes to pop music, a category that by nature is ephemeral? A hit today, forgotten tomorrow. For me, ‘classic’ refers to music that both defines and represents a high point of a given genre. Defines in the sense of not only being able to say this is what such-and-such is, or what this style is about, but also in the sense that if one wants to talk about other examples, the classic stands as a measuring rod.
While we can argue about classic popular music for days, there is no denying that Nat ‘King’ Cole set the standard for establishing classics of pre-Sixties, popular American music. It’s hard to fully appreciate this King if one doesn’t pay much attention to popular music, which, I confess, is usually the case with me. I followed Nat because of his bona fide jazz roots. My favorite of all his recordings is After Midnight, an album Nat recorded in 1956, well after his pop hits of the Forties and early Fifties. After Midnight was his last straight jazz recording.
Nat ‘King’ Cole was a masterful jazz pianist whose right hand was as fleet and melodically adventurous as Earl Hines, the leading pianist of early jazz who moved the solo sound of the instrument away from chords toward horn-like fluid runs. It is noteworthy that Nat’s first and only piano teacher was his mother, Pearlina Coles. Nat’s major contribution to jazz was mating the hard swing of big band music (think Count Basie), with the innovations of bebop, filtered through an enticing lyricism.
Although I came to Nat because of jazz, I don’t fool myself about his career. The bulk of his mountain of recordings are pop, some of it saved from the dregs only by dint of the dimpled charm of Cole’s suave vocal work. Plus, he had a parallel career in the Latin market because of his Spanish-language recordings which were tremendous hits. ‘King’ Cole knew where to mine his gold and he did so with aplomb.
All the restrictions and limitations of pop notwithstanding, Nat ‘King’ Cole has set standards that may never be equaled. I’ve chosen seven songs to illustrate the case for my critical appraisal of Nat ‘King’ Cole as the leading creator of classic, pre-Sixties pop.
“Straighten Up And Fly Right” was not only his first big hit, the song was the first recording he made for Capitol Records, with whom he recorded for the rest of his career. The 1943 song was based on a ‘Negro folktale’ that his father employed in a sermon. The catchy hook quickly became part of the street language of its day, as well as a humorous national hit, thus moving it well beyond the novelty and/or race markets.
From the beginning of his recording career as a singer, Cole’s impeccable enunciation stands out. You can not only understand every word, but, beyond clarity, there is the endearing naturalness of his delivery. He doesn’t sound like he’s putting on airs. So rather than ham it up with a vernacular drawl, Nat ‘King’ Cole demonstrates that one can sing folksy material using proper pronuciation and still be hip, very hip—and that’s no easy accomplishment.
Cole’s follow-up hit was the 1946 hit “Route 66,” a car song that celebrated the newly emergent main mode of transportation for post-war America. Route 66 gained a second life when a Sixties television program of the same name featured two young men traveling America in a Corvette.
Here’s an interesting bit of trivia: The highway Route 66 went from Chicago to California, the exact trajectory of Nat ‘King’ Cole’s professional career. One can only wonder if Nat ever drove that route and whether his success with the song was due in part to his experiences traveling the itinerary he sings with such finger-snapping élan. It’s also worth noting that Nat could swing hard without a drummer, this at a time when drummers like Lionel Hampton and Gene Krupa were the rage.
On the West Coast, Nat formed a piano-less trio and was doing great in the minor leagues, then lightening struck. Nat’s friend and fellow musician/vocalist Mel Tormé wrote "The Christmas Song," which eventually became "THE" Christmas song of all time thanks to Nat ‘King’ Cole’s warm delivery. In fact, some people think the opening line ("Chestnuts roasting on an open fire…") is the title of the song—there’s just something welcoming and cuddly about Nat’s trademark reading of the lyric. You hear the opening verse and you sigh and smile. Nat’s incomparable late 1946 treatment has led to the song being not only a perennial choice for television, radio and the movies, but it is has polled as the all-time number-one Christmas song. You don’t get more classic than that.
Here is where the jazz vs. pop, pianist vs. vocalist tug-of-war approaches the crossroads. Nat’s adopted son, Nat Kelly Cole, in writing the liner notes for the Collector’s Series CD says that Nat’s manager wanted to record the song with strings and that Nat agreed but Capitol Records was dead-set against it, partly because they didn’t want to alter the successful sound of the Nat ‘King’ Cole Trio, which was selling well. After the session was over, Nat ‘King’ Cole insisted on adding the strings.
Another interesting side-note is that the second most requested non-religious Christmas song in the Black community is Charles Brown’s “Please Come Home For Christmas.” Who was Charles Brown’s idol: fellow West Coast-based pianist/singer Nat ‘King’ Cole.
Three days before Nat recorded "The Christmas Song," he cut his first orchestral recording, "For Sentimental Reasons," which eventually reached #3 on the Billboard pop charts. That song convinced Nat that he could make it as a pop artist singing ballads. Then ensued a long battle with Capitol’s top brass, who finally relented to Nat’s wishes. "Finally, with their tongues in their cheeks and rocks in their jaws, they let me do a session using Frank Devol and his Orchestra." That session produced "Nature Boy." On April 17, 1948 that song went to #1.
Although we in the 21st century certainly don’t hear it as a message song, that’s precisely what it was at the time. Coming off the heels of World War II, the lyrics literally proposed “love” instead of “war” and who better to deliver the message with an unimpeachable sincerity than Nat ‘King’ Cole. It almost comes off as the advice of a loving parent to a young adult about to strike out on their own. People often use the cliché “could have sung the phone book” to compliment a singer whose delivery is stronger than the words, but very often, when you have lyrics which are so obviously programmatic and prescriptive, it takes a special talent to deliver the song in such a way that the audience accepts and enjoys the message, especially during a time period when a war seemed to have solved the problems of the era.
The next classic is one of the all-time romantic ballads. “Mona Lisa,” released in 1950, was an Oscar Award-winning song that Nat was not initially too particular about. However, on June 10, 1950 it went to #1. Nat’s version is baby-making music par excellence, so much so that there are literally hundreds, if not thousands, of middle-aged Mona Lisa’s among us today. When people start naming their children after a song, well, to redundantly re-quote myself, you don’t get more classic than that.
How was Nat ‘King’ Cole able to do it? It’s not that he was a great songwriter—he wasn’t. He possibly could have been a great instrumentalist, but by the Fifties, he had chosen to make his mark as a balladeer, a stand-up vocalist surrounded by strings and big bands. Yet, regardless of the setting, he projected an intimacy and an earnestness that is usually only shared with one’s loved ones.
For me, it’s what’s underneath that is the strength of Nat ‘King’ Cole. Although he was a consummate professional entertainer, he was more than merely a pop star. On the music side of the ledger he was a master jazz pianist with an unerring sense of rhythm that manifested itself in a signature ability to phrase a lyric with such savior-faire that his singing seemed effortlessly graceful.
What Lester Young, Cole’s instrumental counterpart, delivered with his soft-sounding tenor saxophone, Nat ‘King’ Cole matched with his velvety voice. No shouting. No noise. No sweat. Just a cool, knowing and understated poise, regardless of whether it was a song about life or a song about a painting, whether singing folktales or Tin Pan Alley paeans to romance. Whatever the material, Nat ‘King’ Cole could wrap it up with aural ribbons and deliver the song as one of the most precious gifts any listener could ever want to hear.
I’ll conclude with another signature song, another romantic ballad, another jazzy ode offered up with a toe-tapping beat. The supple swing of “Sweet Lorraine” is so infectious that you may find yourself humming along on the chorus even if you have only heard the song one or twice before. This version is taken from After Midnight and is unique because uncharacteristically this session includes a drummer, Lee Young, the brother of Lester Young. Lee fits in like he was born to play with Nat, propulsive without being aggressive; the gentle swish of brushes and the soothing tingle of simmering cymbal-work are perfect complements to Nat’s subtlety and sensitivity.
I can’t think of even one other pop singer who was a contemporary of Nat ‘King’ Cole and who created as many classic recordings. No other crooner dominated the Forties and Fifties the way Nat ‘King’ Cole did. Frank Sinatra sold more recordings but he did not create as many classics, and certainly none that continue to be revered the way that Cole’s songs are.
On February 15, 1965 Nat ‘King’ Cole, who had been a heavy smoker, died of lung cancer. While his death was truly the end of an era, we can rejoice in the fact that during his lifetime he provided us with enduring classic songs.
—Kalamu ya Salaam
Learning something new
A few weeks ago my iTunes was on ‘random,’ as it usually is, and Marvin’s version of "Calypso Blues" popped up. I’ve always liked both it and Nat ‘King’ Cole’s 1961 version, so I decided to do a writeup on them. I figured that would be that. Didn’t count on Kalamu responding by writing a Nat ‘King’ Cole disseration (in two parts, no less!). It’s strange. I co-author this blog, but sometimes, I’m just an interested visitor like everyone else. I read Kalamu’s posts not because I have to edit them or respond to them, but because I dig music and I’m usually learning something new.
This entry was posted on Sunday, February 19th, 2006 at 12:58 am and is filed under Classic. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.
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