Friday, March 17, 8919
Nat King Cole (1919-1965) - Fly Right
Nat King Cole (1919-1965)
Straighten Up and Fly Right (1943)
Nathaniel Adams Coles (March 17, 1919 - February 15, 1965), known professionally as Nat King Cole, was born in Montgomery, Alabama. His birth date, according to the World Almanac, was on Saint Patrick's Day in 1919; other sources have erroneously listed his birthdate as 1917. His father was a preacher in the Baptist church. His family moved to Chicago, Illinois, while he was still a child. There, his father became a minister; Nat's mother, Perlina, was the church organist. Nat learned to play the organ from his mother until the age of 12, when he began formal lessons. His first performance, at age four, was of Yes, We Have No Bananas. He learned not only jazz and gospel music, but European classical music as well, performing, as he said, "from Johann Sebastian Bach to Sergei Rachmaninoff." So much for 20th-century music...
The family lived in the Bronzeville neighborhood of Chicago. Nat would sneak out of the house and hang outside the clubs, listening to artists such as Louis Armstrong, Earl "Fatha" Hines, and Jimmie Noone. He participated in Walter Dyett's renowned music program at DuSable High School.
Inspired by the playing of Earl Hines, Cole began his performing career in the mid 1930's while he was still a teenager, and adopted the name "Nat Cole." His older brother, Eddie Coles, a bassist, soon joined Nat's band and they first recorded in 1936 under Eddie's name. They were also regular performers at clubs. In fact, Nat got his nickname "King" performing at one jazz club, a nickname presumably reinforced by the otherwise-unrelated nursery rhyme about Old King Cole. He was also a pianist in a national touring revival of ragtime and Broadway theatre legend, Eubie Blake's revue, "Shuffle Along." When it suddenly failed in Long Beach, California, Cole decided to remain there.
Nat Cole and three other musicians formed the "King Cole Swingers" in Long Beach and played in a number of local bars before getting a gig on the Long Beach Pike for US$90 per week.
Nat married a dancer Megan Robinson, who was also with Shuffle Along, and moved to Los Angeles where he formed the Nat King Cole Trio. The trio consisted of Nat on piano, Oscar Moore on guitar, and Wesley Prince on double bass. The trio played in Los Angeles throughout the late 1930s and recorded many radio transcriptions. Nat's role was that of piano player and leader of the combo.
It is a common misconception that Nat Cole's singing career did not start until a drunken barroom patron demanded that he sing "Sweet Lorraine." In fact, Nat Cole has gone on record as saying that the fabricated story "sounded good, so I just let it ride." In fact Nat Cole frequently sang in between instrumental numbers. Noticing that people started to request more vocal numbers, he obliged. Yet, the story of the insistent customer is not without merit.
There was such a customer who did request a certain song one night, but a song that Nat did not know. Instead he sang "Sweet Lorraine." The trio was tipped 15 cents for the performance, a nickel apiece (Nat King Cole: An Intimate Biography, Maria Cole with Louie Robinson, 1971).
During World War II, Wesley Prince left the group and Cole replaced him with Johnny Miller.
Miller would later be replaced by Charlie Harris in the 1950's. The King Cole Trio signed with the fledgling Capitol Records in 1943 and Cole stayed with the recording company for the rest of his career. Revenues from Cole's record sales fueled much of Capitol Records' success during this period, and are believed to have played a significant role in financing the distinctive Capitol Records building on Hollywood and Vine, in Los Angeles. Completed in 1956, it was the world's first circular office building and became known as "the house that Nat built."
Cole was considered a leading jazz pianist, appearing, for example, in the first Jazz at the Philharmonic concerts (credited on the Mercury Record labels as "Shorty Nadine," apparently derived from the name of his wife at the time). His revolutionary lineup of piano, guitar and bass in the time of the big bands became a popular set up for a jazz trio. It was emulated by many musicians, among them Art Tatum, Erroll Garner, Oscar Peterson, Ahmad Jamal, Tommy Flanagan and blues pianists Charles Brown and Ray Charles. He also performed as a pianist on sessions with Lester Young, Red Callender, and Lionel Hampton. The Page Cavanaugh Trio with the same set up as Cole came out of the chute about the same time, at the end of the war.
Cole's first mainstream vocal hit was his 1943 recording of one of his compositions, "Straighten Up and Fly Right," based on a black folk tale that his father had used as a theme for a sermon.
Johnny Mercer invited him to record it for the fledgling Capitol Records label. It sold over 500,000 copies, and proved that folk-based material could appeal to a wide audience. Although Nat would never be considered a rocker, the song can be seen as anticipating the first rock and roll records. Indeed, Bo Diddley, who performed similar transformations of folk material, counted Cole as an influence.
Beginning in the late 1940's, Cole began recording and performing more pop-oriented material for mainstream audiences, often accompanied by a string orchestra. His stature as a popular icon was cemented during this period by hits such as "The Christmas Song" (Cole recorded the tune four times: June 14, 1946 as a pure Trio recording; August 19, 1946 with an added string section; August 24, 1953; and again in 1961 for the double album, The Nat King Cole Story. This final version, recorded in stereo, is the one most often heard today.), "Nature Boy" (1948), "Mona Lisa" (1950), "Too Young" (the #1 song in 1951), and his signature tune "Unforgettable" (1951). While this shift to pop music led some jazz critics and fans to accuse Cole of selling out, he never totally abandoned his jazz roots; as late as 1956, for instance, he recorded an all-jazz album, After Midnight.
[Harold Arlen - It's Only a Paper Moon]
The change in musical tastes during the late 1950s meant that Cole's ballad singing did not sell well with younger listeners, despite a successful stab at rock n' roll with "Send For Me" (peaked at #6 pop). Along with his contemporaries Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett, Cole found that the pop singles chart had been almost entirely taken over by youth-oriented acts. In 1960, Nat's long-time collaborator Nelson Riddle left Capitol Records for Frank Sinatra's newly formed Reprise Records label. Riddle and Cole recorded one final hit album Wild Is Love, based on lyrics by Ray Rasch and Dotty Wayne. Cole later retooled the concept album into an off-Broadway show, I'm With You.
Cole, a heavy smoker who would smoke as much as three packets of cigarettes a day, died of lung cancer on February 15, 1965, while still at the height of his singing career. The day before he died, he did a radio interview, stating: "I am feeling better than ever. I think I've finally got this cancer licked."
[8919 Courage / 8919 Nat King Cole / 8918 Bernstein]