NAT ‘KING’ COLE / “Sweet Lorraine”

MP3 07 Sweet Lorraine.mp3 (4.26 MB)


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.
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“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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.

One Response to “NAT ‘KING’ COLE / “Sweet Lorraine””

youngblood Says:
February 23rd, 2006 at 1:39 pm

By pre-Sixties popular American music the presumption is music by white song writers. If this is the case then the term classic should also include, ‘a high point in public perception…’. Just because Nat King Cole began to interpret ‘pop’ songs that, in and of itself, was not necesarily the turning point in a career that was remarable on several points. Nat King Cole did not become popular with the Capitol Records signing. Capitol signed Nat King Cole because he was already popular. This is at a time when the socio-economic conditions as well as Black people’s ability to control or direct public perception concerning the wholeness of who they are as people was severely limited. Popular music can be interpreted literally as music that is well-liked or common to a certain audience. hence what is popular becomes classic based on stated or unstated criteria of the group. However the term ‘popular’ is often used by the record industry to denote a certain demographic. Popular can also be a "buzz word" used to influence sales or public opinion about an entertainer’s sound that has cross-genre appeal or potential. (It’s Black but it don’t sound too Black). It is important to note that while the terms popular and classic are subjective it is all too easy for these, now more socially accepted, terms to become influencial and thus misconcrued under the perversion and pervasiveness of the print and electronic media. It is in this light that Black people can see that while the Nat King Cole television experiment, while successful in presenting the highest level of artistry and humanity to those having access to television, was unsuccessful at effectively influencing change in piblic policy and opinion regarding Black/white relationships in America; especially as it relates to putting a face on popular expression of "everyday people" (read common thought) of the day. This is clearly not the fault of Nat King Cole. Nat King Cole’s show, as well as his recording, were/are extremely popular and sound just as rich, vital and moving today as they were fifty years ago. Nat King Cole held up his end of the deal only to get screwed by racism. While Nat King Cole was brilliant in his ability to interpret what was, at the time, called American pop music the fact still remained that there were some in America who just did not want his face on television. And though this contempt for Blackness may not have been shared by 100 percent of America there was still no "popular" outrage when, despite it’s popularity, The Nat King Cole Show was unceremoniously cancelled. While scarce, Black people were still seen on television and America was/still light-years away from Dick Gregory and Dianne Carroll – though two heavyweight trailblazers – they were woefully inadequate in balancing the scale of dense stereotypical images on television. When speaking to an international audience on pre-Sixties Black music the canyon between what the industry deems popular and what is really popular is the context in which the historical duality of race in America must be placed. Just because everyone was not interpreting "popular American music" does not mean that music by and about Black cullture was not popular. Black people continued to support their artist even after they achieved "mainstream success." Though Black people wer not allowed in the Cotton Club, through flawless execution of his craft and magnetism of personality, Duke Ellington was as ubiquitous as gravity as he held down the spot for two solid years before leaving on a world tour. Duke did this playing songs like Black and Tan Fantasy and Creole Love Song. Today Duke is as popular as ever with over 4000 songs most of which are considered jazz and popular standards and many of these are classics. It is the same with Billy Eckstine, another pre-Sixties singer/instrumentalist who had several songs like Jelly Jelly and Stormy Monday that made top ten charts. Bessie Smith had a song called Gulf Coast Blues that sold 750,000 copies in 1929 and starred in a short film featuring Louis Armstrong called St.Louis Blues. Because of his music Louis Armstrong was the most popular person on the planet (this was according to Time magazine so maybe not the whole planet but perhaps just the entire world; there was a difference back then) While most of these artist had commercial hits they mainly thrived on music by and about Black culture. These artist did not just become popular after being "discovered" by America; they and their music were already popular it just took America longer to recognize. Nat King Cole didn’t become popular after being signed by Capitol. Capitol signed nat king Cole because nat was already popular. This is not an argument counter to what Kalamu is saying about Nat King Cole. Definitely Nat king Cole is everything Kalamu said he is – and more. But the popularity of Nat is determined by his artistry and mastery of a sound that is unique to him. The sound is what everybody first recognizes and that sound remained Black even when interpreting "American popular music". Therefore it is incorrect to imply that the popularity of Nat King Cole was in his ability to interpret American popular music.

          kalamu says       

thanks for your response. two quick things.

1. the show was not cancelled by the network. even though national advertisers could not be found (some advertisers would only put their ads in specific regional markets but not nationally), nbc was willing to continue the broadcast. they were not, however, willing to subsidize the program. nat was paying for the programs out of his pocket, and his pockets were not deep enough to continue. it is easy for us to blanket all whites and all systems as being racist, but often it is not simply racism driving things. we need to consider economics as well.

2. when we talk about "american" popular music in general, and not "black" popular music specifically, the ability to interpret the popular music is precisely the question. there were a truckload of "bronze sinatras," billy eckstine chief among them (but also folk like herb jeffries, johnny hartman, arthur pryscok, etc), yet none of these singers were able to achieve what nat king cole achieved. i have no doubts and agree with your point about nat’s pre-existing popularity within the black community, but the fact was then, and remains the case today, when an artist is "popular" in american music it is because that artist has a majority non-black audience purchasing their product. to give you a non-music example that illustrates the point: i interviewed roy campanella jr., son of the famous baseball player. roy pointed out to me that the reason it took so long to get blacks on network television is because the black community alone was not enough to insure the minimum audience needed to support network television. he said, if every black household watched a particular show that still was not nearly enough to ensure the show a slot.

of course it is a mistake to mix question of quality and worth with questions of popularity and reach. just because something is popular does not make it artistic or important. however, at the same time, if we want to look at what’s popular and why in american music, especially during the twentieth century when segregation was de jure (legal) most of those years, then we have to consider a number of factors that have nothing to do with artistic merit.

i think what is phenomenal is precisely that nat king cole was able to garner an international audience singing primarily white american popular music. i do not listen to the bulk of nat’s recordings after his jazz period, but i do recognize that what he did set new standards. that nat king cole decided to sing american pop is a fact. he was even accused of selling out as a result. that he pioneered a style of singing is also a fact. one does not negate the other. i do not disagree with looking at his popularity as a product of his black approach to music, but once you check out the bulk of his albums at capitol it is clear he was no longer appealing to a black audience, but rather was aware that his appeal was to the larger audience, which in america, meant a white audience.

sure he was popular before signing to capitol, but he was also unknown to 95% of the pop audience that later embraced him. to put it more bluntly, nat king cole crossed over, consciously made a decision to appeal to the larger audience. he never negated nor denied who he was. he remained a fighter and a proud black man until his demise, but he crossed over. and unlike most who tried to cross over, he did not do so by becoming more white than white, by singing in their style, but rather he pioneered a third way, a way that was a synthesis of the two, which is why i talked about his ennuciation and his use of proper pronuciation, etc. nat king cole was exceptional. in many ways, he is the poster child for what integration might have yielded if one were both black and accepted into the mainstream, and then again, when i look at the last decade of his career, it is obvious that the mainstream was melting him down into an acceptable token who ended up singing pap. there is no other way to put it. those are the hard facts. listen to music. you have ears. listen to how far away artistically those last ten years were from the first ten years of his recording career, or even from the first ten years on capitol records. compare "straighten up and fly right" with "ramblin’ rose." they are not even close.






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