NAT ‘KING’ COLE / “Sweet Lorraine”

MP3 07 Sweet Lorraine.mp3 (4.26 MB)

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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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